Gakkogura: A Traditional Sake Brewery’s Attempt To Revive The Industry

Food & Drink

Gakkogura operates at a 127-year old former elementary school site.The Obata Sake Brewery

Thanks to the prosperity of Japanese restaurants abroad, Japanese sake has been increasing its popularity. On the other hand, back in Japan the sake industry is facing serious challenges. The number of sake breweries is rapidly declining. In 1983, 2,552 breweries existed, according to the Development Bank of Japan. Now only around 1,200 are operating. There are multiple reasons for the steep downturn: a decrease in alcohol consumption among aging sake drinkers and younger generations, competition with other alcoholic beverages and a shortage of labor.

Some breweries are actively making efforts to come up with new ideas for survival, and the Obata Sake Brewery is one of them. The 127-year old brewery is located on Sado island in Niigata Prefecture, which is 2.5 hours away by ferry from the mainland. Over the last 70 years, Sado’s population declined by half to 5,600. “If we do nothing, our community will disappear. So in 2014, we started a project to revive the island”, says Rumiko Obata, the fifth generation of the family-owned brewery and producer of the Manotsuru brand.

The project is “Gakkogura” (“school brewery”) where you can learn the basics of sake making techniques and the underlining philosophy as well as culture of Sado in one week. Obata says, “We brew sake at Gakkogura in summer, just after our main brewery’s production is complete. The program is open to the public, including foreigners, and all ingredients are local and sustainable. The program can contribute to promote Sado to a wider audience, increase consumption of local rice, create a broader fan base of Japanese sake and the Obata brands, and nurture future sake brewers.”

The classes are kept small and hands-on. In 2018, there are 4 groups, with 3 people or less per group in the program. Participants are all ages and have diverse backgrounds from local high school students to medical doctors.

One of the graduates is Antoni Campins Chaler who is the owner of Seda Líquida, a sake brewery in Catalonia region of Spain founded in 2015. “I signed up for the program to refine my brewing method. I learned a lot in many different parts of the process, in particular how to manage the delicate fermentation process. I think Gakkogura is very important and effective for foreign brewers who want to improve their brewing skills as well as Japanese people who want to deepen their knowledge of the precious sake culture.“

Another graduate is Harald deRopp who has spent 25 years in Japan and currently works at EY Advisory in Tokyo as an associate partner. He is a sake enthusiast and even certified as sake professional by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). “You can learn all about sake by studying books, but it’s not until you make it yourself that you really learn about it”, says deRopp. “Gakkogura is not only one of the few places in all of Japan where Japanese and non-Japanese people can experience learning how to brew sake, but the purpose of the program is also to give people an opportunity to experience Sado Island and learn about all that it has to offer. The participants effectively become unofficial ambassadors for the island to help promote it to the world.”

Harald deRopp at Gakkogura. “When we lay the steamed rice out on the table and sprinkled the koji spores over the rice, it is a very sacred moment.”Harald deRopp

Inspired By A Closing Elementary School

It was Ken Hirashima, Obata’s husband and president of the Obata brewery, who initiated the Gakkogura project. The former popular magazine editor from Tokyo moved to Sado in 1995 to marry Obata and joined her family business. In 2004, as a member of the public school committee, he visited all the schools on the island. One of them was a wood-constructed elementary school built in 1955, which was known for stunning views of sunsets. It was closing due to a shortage of students. After multiple visits to the school, Hirashima was convinced that he had to preserve the building. As a brewery owner, he came up with the idea of using the site for sake brewing, which eventually became Gakkogura.

The fifth generation of the Obata Sake Brewery Rumiko Obata and her husband and president Ken HirashimaThe Obata Sake Brewery

Obata initially objected to the idea of a small brewery like hers running an additional brewery. “The sake market was becoming smaller and smaller. How can we sustain our core business with additional burdens of creating a new brewery? But when I saw a sunset from the school, I realized that supporting the community of Sado was equally important as running the family business for our future.”

Hirashima says, “It is not easy to manage Gakkogura on top of my regular job at the Obata brewery. But we need to keep the spirit of this island lively and hopeful. My daughter once told me, ‘everybody is leaving this island.’ I had a strong feeling from what she said. I want to make Sado a special place where young generations wish to come back from big cities”

The 2019 Gakkogura program is to be held in June.

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