The Story of Two Men Who Revived a Sake Brewery in the Big City
When people think of a sake brewery, they often envision a place out in the countryside, surrounded by natural scenery. However, even Tokyo is home to its own breweries. I headed to nine different facilities including sake breweries, wholesaler shops and others in search of local Tokyo brews. Let's take a look at TOKYO PORT BREWERY, the brewery that makes the sake "Edo Kaijo."
Just ahead, Tokyo Tower rises high in the sky. There’s a little road that leads away from the national highway and its bustling, roaring traffic. Follow it a short way and you’ll arrive at a small, charming building with a sign outside that reads: Tokyo Port Brewery.
Once long ago there were many sake breweries in Tokyo. There are records indicating that back in 1910, the city’s 23 wards were home to 64 breweries. However, the impact of urbanization and a decline in the demand for sake cased many of them to discontinue business. Sake production all but disappeared from the 23 wards.
Wakamatsu-ya, the forerunner to Tokyo Port Brewery operator Wakamatsu Co., Ltd., was one such brewery. Since 1812, it has been producing sake in Shiba, in the center of Tokyo, or “Edo” as the city was then called. At that time, Wakamatsu-ya was a purveyor to the government of the Satsuma domain, as the residence of the daimyo (feudal load) was nearby. In the final days of the Tokugawa shogunate era, important figures such as Saigo Takamori, Katsu Kaishu, Yamaoka Tesshu visited the residence to speak in confidence. The brand Edo Kaijo carries reverence and respect for those feudal retainers who lived in that tumultuous time, during the upheaval of the bloodless surrender of Edo and Japan’s Westernization movement.
At the start of the Meiji era (1868-1912), however, the brewery faced issues with succession and changes to the liquor tax, and business became challenging. In 1910, this sake brand that had been produced for 100 continuous years was no more. Wakamatsu-ya would operate under the same name, as a restaurant and a general store. Yet another 100 years would pass before the seventh generation and current President Shunichi Saito decided, “It was time to bring back sake brewing.” The decision was inspired by his visits around the region as the director of a local shopping street.
“Everywhere you looked on the shopping street, you saw shuttered stores. But people from the area all gathered at the sake brewery. I thought that if we could make sake in Tokyo, it would attract people and lead to the revitalization of the area. However, it’s difficult to brew sake without high quality water and the right environment. I felt that it might be hard to make it work in the center of Tokyo.”
Not Giving Up Even When Obtaining a License Seemed Impossible
There was an incident that cleared away the hesitation. It was a meeting with Yoshimi Terasawa, who at that time was making sake as the chief brewer of a major sake company at a brewing establishment in Odaiba, Tokyo. For 10 years, Mr. Terasawa worked on the skill to brew sake in a small space within a building designed for entertainment, increasing his know-how. He even earned awards for excellence with sakes that he brewed using his methods, which impressed Mr. Saito. “I felt confident that if I could brew sake together with Terasawa, it would work.”
While Mr. Saito strongly expressed his hope for a Tokyo sake revival, Mr. Terasawa was unsure, saying several times, “It might be better to forget it.” It was unlikely to be profitable, and obtaining a new brewery license seemed nearly impossible. Even still, Mr. Saito visited repeatedly, making his case to Mr. Terasawa. Unexpectedly in 2009, the sake brewery in Odaiba closed, and Mr. Terasawa had a change of heart. That’s when the company president and the chief brewer teamed up for what would be a long journey on the road to reviving sake.
First, obtaining a license to produce unrefined sake and liquor took two years. Investigating various measures, it took five years to finally obtain a license to produce refined sake. “I was constantly visiting the tax office. I think they finally gave us the license just so I would stop,” laughs Mr. Saito. It was the moment when the enthusiasm of the two men was, at last, triumphant. They wanted to start the name with “Tokyo,” so they chose “Tokyo Port Brewery.”
Because it took a long time to acquire the license, Mr. Terasawa had completed the preparations to make a small brewery in a small building. There is a steaming vat and a room to produce koji (malted rice) on the fourth floor. There, yeast starter and fermenting mash are prepared, pressed, and the sake is bottled. In accordance with the sake-making process, it is brought downstairs. It’s a compact, effective operation.
The small size of the brewery does not allow for a storage tank. The brewery produces year-round in all four seasons, and tanks are loaded one at a time, and are bottled and shipped from where the sake is pressed. The central Tokyo location does provide an advantage, which is that the sake delivered by the brewery was pressed that morning. This makes it possible for customers to enjoy freshly pressed sake at night in shops located within the busy Tokyo metropolitan areas of Akasaka, Ginza, and Shinbashi.
Tokyo Sake Born in the City—to Taste and Enjoy
The brewery makes only two types of sake: junmai-ginjo (made only with highly milled rice, without distilled alcohol added) and junmai-daiginjo (made only with even more highly milled rice, also without distilled alcohol added). Both are genshu, meaning undiluted refined sake to which no water was added. The yeasting and fermentation processes for the revived Edo Kaijo brand of junmai-ginjo genshu are performed by tank. This leads to variations in the percentage of alcohol in each batch, so customers can enjoy the subtle differences. It represents the constantly changing nature of the sake’s birthplace, Tokyo. The line up includes Yamada-nishiki, Omachi, and Miyama-nishiki, all of which are genshu. While they have pronounced flavors, they also feature subtle aromas and a bitterness that blooms upon drinking, providing a warm, comforting experience. Also popular is the “Tokyo” series, which takes inspiration for flavors and aromas from well-known neighborhoods of the city, such as exciting Roppongi and refined Ginza.
Surprisingly, tap water is used for sake production. “The tap water in Tokyo is medium-soft water which is fitting for brewing sake, and is the same as the water used in leading sake districts such as Kyoto’s Fushimi and Hiroshima’s Saijyo. In addition, the water filtration technology is extremely advanced, so the water is perfectly safe,” notes Mr. Terasawa. Where once Mr. Saito had concerns about the lack of high quality water and the proper environment to brew sake in the center of the city, Mr. Terasawa has proven that it is indeed possible.
Having revived sake making in Tokyo, Mr. Saito says, “I have no big plans about making the brewery famous or increasing the amount we produce. I’d rather make a local sake with the feel of Tokyo, something that people can taste and enjoy because of that reason.” Mr. Saito and Mr. Terasawa have their sights set on bringing sake brewing in Tokyo into the next 100 years and beyond.
(Author: Asako Nakatsumi)
A 7-minute walk from JR Tamachi Station
4-7-10 Shiba, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0014
No brewery tours
Closed on Sundays and holidays