An artisanal sake brewer survives—and thrives

February 1, 2012

After a cold, snowy, early morning visit to the Kesennuma fish market yesterday—and a quick breakfast including onsen egg and natto—I visited an artisanal sake brewery. After fish, sake is the next biggest business in town. But like fishing here, sake-making is more than business, it's family.

To get to the tiny Kakuboshi brewery, you take the two-lane main road by the water—which I learned seems perpetually at high tide because the land here actually dropped over two feet. The snow's covered everything, so it looks like a picturesque port town, with mountains in back, but turn up the hill to the brewery, and you see buildings that don't seem to make sense: narrow, free-standing, random. The others were washed away by the tsunami, or the debris cleared away by one of the many cranes in action.

Kaichiro Saito, who's family has been making sake for 109 years, greets me and gives me a mini sake-making lesson in his modest office, with framed awards lining the walls, hung up high.

We change into slippers, then walk in back where the fragrance first hints of sake in progress, starting with huge vats of steaming rice.

The earthquake didn't cause much damage, Saito said, though half the brewery is housed in a 105 year-old, wooden, beamed building. They're on solid ground, but one vat did spill. The tsunami almost reached them, but stopped about six feet away.

The problem was they had one vat ready to be filtered but no power to run the vintage filtering machine. They finally found a generator about two weeks later, but weren't sure about the quality of the sake, given the delay. They went ahead anyway.

The result? A very dry sake, unlike they'd ever made before—which sold out.

In fact, all of the sake in town that survived the earthquake and tsunami became a symbol of hope for locals and Japanese throughout the country.

But while the Kakuboshi brewery suffered little loss, the shop was destroyed, as were other local breweries.

We walked up a ramp to see the fermenting mash vats. I should say I shuffled. Even as an experienced slipper-wearer, the ramp—which looked just like a dog agility ramp—was a little slippery, bouncy, and steep. At the top, we then walked on even narrower planks between the open vats. I could not believe almost none of these spilled in the 9.0 quake.

Mr. Saito asked if I'd like a taste. Um, yes, please.

He carefully dipped into the very vat of what became their survivor sake. With a long-handled ladle, he filled a small cup, then handed it to me. Fizzy, tart, sweet, floral, and alive.

They didn't keep any bottles of the original survivor sake—except in their bellies, Mr. Saito said. But now, this century-old sake making brewery, literally steeped in tradition, is making bottles of the accidental dry style. Crisp, clean, with notes of Asian pear, it's absolutely lovely.