The history of UCHIGASAKI: an establishment founded in a post station
The history of UCHIGASAKI is intertwined with Tomiya, as the town was established by the first generation of the Uchigasaki family by order of Date Masamune. Tomiya started operating as a post station in 1620, and the second generation of the Uchigasaki family founded a brewery there in 1661. This brewery still stands today on Shinmachi Street, and the surrounding area retains its appearance as a post station. This town has recently focused efforts toward attracting tourists. In May 2021, the tourism exchange center Tomiyado opened its doors at the former site of a soy sauce store operated by a cadet branch of the Uchigasaki family. This center is garnering attention as a new tourist attraction.
Kei Uchigasaki is the 16th president of the brewery, and he now carries the baton for these historic premises. Kei was determined to take the helm of the brewery when he was in junior high school. After graduating from college, he trained for two years at the Dewazakura Sake Brewery in Yamagata Prefecture. As the current president of UCHIGASAKI, he now engages in both management and brewing work.
“We are able to continue making sake today thanks to the affection that the people of Tomiya have shown us. I am sure that my predecessors overcame many difficulties to protect the brewery. I feel some apprehension, but I want to work to preserve the essence of HOYO despite the changes that may occur in the world of sake.” His firm, confident gaze shows his strong sense of pride in the local area and his brewery.
Traditional brewing methods involving effort and care
Kei guides us through the brewery. Sake brewing work takes place in October to March, so the interview for this article was held outside of these periods. The tidy interior gave a pure, refreshing impression.
Kei noted, “we carry out a particularly large number of parts by hand, so it takes effort and care to make good sake.” To steam the rice, they use metal pots heated by burners—an arrangement that is hard to find within the prefecture. The room for preparing koji (the fungus used for fermentation) was created in the Taisho period (1912-1926), and traditional wooden vessels are used in the pressing stage of the production process. The facility and its equipment have themselves witnessed many years of history.
The brewing process is a collaborative effort between skilled workers and microorganisms. Steamed rice, koji, and water are mixed together and fermented to create a paste called moromi, and this paste is pressed to make sake. Two fermentation processes occur at the same time inside the moromi tanks: The koji fungus breaks up the starch in the rice and changes it to sugar, and yeast breaks up the sugar to make alcohol. Skilled workers control the balance between these two fermentation processes to brew high-quality sake. Kei compares this work to raising children, as workers need to take care of microorganisms to brew sake.
“We wrap the tanks with mats if the weather looks cold, and we cool them when it is hot. It is harder to predict temperature changes in recent years, so we always need to keep an eye on the tanks. These constant changes on a daily basis are part of what makes sake brewing fun.”
The brewery aims to use rice grown in Miyagi Prefecture whenever possible. It instills the local atmosphere into the sake by using varieties of brewer’s rice that are unique to Miyagi Prefecture, such as Kura no Hana, the new Gin no Iroha brand created in 2019. Ultra-soft water is another essential ingredient for producing the mellow flavor of HOYO. The Junmai Daiginjo sake made with Kura no Hana holds a particularly special place in Kei’s heart. With a mild sweetness and umami flavor as well as a smooth texture, it seems to mirror Kei’s sincere and gentle demeanor.
“I want to make sake that causes you to relax the moment it enters your mouth. We live in changing times, but the traditional method of sake brewing is the one thing that I have the power to preserve. I still have a way to go in terms of technique. I want to avoid pursuing novelty for the sake of it; I will pour all my efforts into brewing in the way I was taught.”
Bringing the beloved HOYO brand with 360 years of history to the world
About 80% of UCHIGASAKI’s signature brand HOYO is consumed within Miyagi Prefecture. This just goes to show how much the brand is loved by local residents. The other 20% is shipped overseas. Sake consumption in Japan is falling every year due to a shrinking and aging population, as well as lifestyle changes. However, overseas exports have steadily grown for 11 years running up to fiscal year 2020. Japanese breweries cannot ignore the overseas market if they want to survive.
UCHIGASAKI started getting involved in exports around the year 2000. It currently offers HOYO to multiple countries across the globe: the US, the UK, Germany, Israel, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mexico. This brand garnered high praise abroad for its flavor, and has received awards at Kura Master in France and many other sake competitions around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to engage in sales activities recently, but the brewery uses new methods to educate people about the appeal of sake. It actively engages in online events and it offers an online video tour of the premises for sake fans around the world.
Sake serves as ambassadors that tell people far and wide about the appeal of their hometown, as they are brewed with local ingredients and infused with the local culture. By carefully preserving HOYO as a Tomiya specialty and encouraging a wide range of people to drink it, Kei aims to spark interest in Miyagi Prefecture and Tomiya going forward.
“I am happy that many people abroad now drink sake. I want to work to grow the popularity of HOYO within Japan so that people in Tokyo and other prefectures will drink it too. Every year, I feel like I am a first-year student in sake brewing. I hope to work in the brewery all my life, even after I reach 70.”
What kind of sake will the 16th president go on to brew, and what sorts of ripples will he make in history? We eagerly await future developments and send our encouragement.