Niigata-ken is the prefecture with the largest number of sake breweries and home of the Echigo touji (brew masters) guild. Support for the brewing industry is well organized.
Starting at the top, the Sakeology Center of Niigata University, followed by the Niigata Sake Research Institute (managed by the Niigata Sake Brewers Association) and the Niigata Sake School (“Seishi Gakkou”). The initiative for establishment of this school came from a number of sake brewers looking to improve the technical skills of young touji.
An impressive support structure but at the bottom of this pyramid was one more layer that sadly no longer exists.
No location in Niigata has produced more touji than Yoshikawa ward in Joetsu. Many of the Echigo Touji came from the Yoshikawa area and the Yoshikawa High School was the breeding ground for aspiring touji. Sake brewing was part of the school’s curriculum and it was the only high school in Japan offering such courses. In 2004 the school was forced to close down its sake course due to financial difficulties. Until that time it produced annually about 3,000 bottles of sake. The school had its own rice milling equipment, koji-making facility, fermentation tanks and pressing equipment. Guided by an experienced touji the students produced sake with the brand name of “Wakaizumi”, but being under age were not allowed to drink nor sell it.
The actual sake brewing process took place during the months January and February. Every year the students produced four tanks of slightly different Junmai-shu, all based on Sake Association Nr.10 yeast. The school had no pasteurization or bottling equipment and the sake was bottled and sold therefore by a local wholesaler, Kato Shuzo.
During the rest of the year, the students learned – in addition to classes all high school students take – about fermentation and the theoretical aspects of sake brewing.
Exposure to one of Japan’s most traditional arts provided the students with a solid grounding in the technical side of brewing. It taught them the value of history and tradition, and of course instilled a strong sense of discipline. Discipline is an important aspect of successful brewing.
The brew masters of 20 to 25 Niigata breweries are graduates of Yoshikawa High School. You will also find many of the school’s graduates in commercial functions in sake breweries as well as in Japan’s major beverages companies.