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Sirabee reports on a Sado Island brewery that uprooted and moved in search of the perfect water source. 

Sake is made from rice and water, and 80% of it is water. So although you may think of it as a neutral ingredient, suitable water is essential for brewing sake. Like the Koyama brewery in yesterday’s story, breweries are built beside good water sources – but like any natural phenomenon, it doesn’t always give you what you want.

Kato Shuzoten was set up in the Sawane area of Sado Island in 1915, but moved its brewery in 1993 because of the water. Ken Kato, fourth generation owner and company president, thinks back over the process. “We aim for a sake with a light, velvety mouthfeel that is easy to keep on drinking. But no matter what we did at the old brewery, the sake would turn out heavy because of the brewing water. We realised we couldn’t make what we wanted here, so we searched the water sources on the island and finally came across Kanai.” There had been another brewery at Kanai, which had since closed, but it underscored how breweries are found near good sources of water.

Moving and rebuilding a brewery is no easy task, but for Kato it was all worth it for the water. Not everyone agreed. “When we first moved, people complained that they preferred the sake the way it was, and it wasn’t like it wasn’t selling at all so there was no reason to move. But if I wasn’t happy, there’s no way I could have confidence in the sake I was producing and hang the Kato Shuzoten noren above our door. So I moved.”

That was 24 years ago. The water in Kanai produces a a gentle, refreshing sake that you never get tired of drinking.

Niigata is famous for rice, with Sado Island ranking alongside other renowned areas in the prefecture like Uonuma and Iwafune. Kanai was under the direct control of the shogunate during the Edo period, and every bit of land from the coast to the mountains was irrigated and turned into fields to ensure enough food production. “We’ve been using 100% Sado Island rice for the last few years,” said future fifth generation owner Kato Ichiro. He returned to the brewery last year and this will be his second season brewing. 

The Katos didn’t see any need to import rice onto an island that produces its own, and since deciding to use only rice from Sado they also started to be more particular about how it’s grown. The older Kato explains that “Sado Island is a breeding ground for the Japanese crested ibis. I wanted to increase the number of fields containing the small animals they hunt for food, which means more labour-intensive farming with reduced levels of fertiliser, no pesticides, or no fertiliser at all. Farming in this way makes the most of Sado’s natural environment and creates an area where the crested ibis can flourish. We grow rice in fields full of life, and use that rice to make our sake. Having the rice they grew turned into sake is motivating for the farmers as well.”

“‘All-Sado Production – ‘made with Sado’ is our catchphrase,” says the older Kato. The sake brewed with pride and joy here contains not just ingredients from Sado, but also its climate, geography, people, and hopes. It’s a direct result of the island’s natural beauty, and no matter where it is drunk it brings the flavour of Sado Island with it.

“We’ve been making sake on Sado Island for over 100 years, so we want to repay the farmers here. Everyone at the brewery thinks so, not just me. If we use only rice from Sado Island, then we’re helping to keep those fields here… The number of farmers is falling and more and more fields are falling into disuse, it’s hard to keep things as they used to be. But if there’s anything at all we can do to preserve this scenery with its panorama of fields, and keep it for future generations, that’s our mission as a brewery on this island.”