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Release | Kentaro Kimura

Kobayashi Sake Brewery: the pioneer to brew Hokkaido’s local sake - their development continues to the next stage - Hokkaido sake brewery series (5)

Drive 45 kilometers towards east from Sapporo. You will find spectacular red-brick buildings in Kuriyama-Cho, Yubari District with a population of approximately 11,800 people (as of 1 February 2019). That is Kobayashi Sake Brewery, who brews the famous sake “Kita No Nishiki.” 

The name “Kita No Nishiki” came from their wish to decorate the north with “Nishiki” - which is a Japanese proverb meaning to return to one’s hometown in glory. The sake label has become famous in Hokkaido. The brewery developed with the coal industry in Sorachi Region, the area, undertook the role of energy policies in Japan and kept bringing innovations to sake brewing in Hokkaido with their revolutionary approaches. I visited the brewery who is tackling a challenge with the local communities. 
 
 
▲They are now brewing sake in this red-brick building. 
 
 

Table of Contents

- The buildings are Important Cultural Properties and record all the histories of the brewery
- Turning from sake for the coal industry to sake for Hokkaido
- They brew “sake for farmers” which sits together with daily tables by being particular about local agriculture


 

The buildings are Important Cultural Properties and record all the histories of the brewery

The brewery is approximately 10 mins walk from JR Kuriyama Station. The spectacular red-brick buildings, which seems too big for a brewery in a small town, are the symbol of the town. There are a total of 18 buildings; the Japanese-Western style of red-brick buildings which are an icon of buildings from Meiji and Taisho era after Kaitakushi, storage and offices built with Sapporo Soft Stone, and wooden houses. Among them, 9 building are designated as Important Cultural Properties. It is worth visiting the brewery just to see these historical buildings.  
 
 
▲They place machines such as old filter press in the huge red-brick building. Sake brewery workers work there.  
 
 
Red-brick buildings in this size are quite rare to see in Japan. They have six storages including ones they don’t use currently. They renovated buildings gradually from the 1990s, except those to store sake and brew, and turned them into a restaurant, soba restaurant, a concert hall, a shop, a museum, etc., and those became one of the most important tourist destinations to tourism in Kuriyama-Cho. 
 
 
▲“Kita No Nishiki Museum” was used as an office before. The first floor is the shop which visitors can purchase sake, etc., and the second floor is the museum. 
 
 
Why was such a huge brewery born in such a small town? The reason is deeply related to the unique history of Sorachi Region.  
 
 
▲Storages such as bottling factory in the front and the current office are in the back. 
 
 
The Kobayashi Family, the founder of Kobayashi Sake Brewery, immigrated to Sapporo and the first generation Yonesaburo Kobayashi started the sake brewing business in 1879. However, they had a crucial problem: rice did not melt in the cold weather of Hokkaido because they worked in a wooden building at that time.
 
And regarding the water for sake making, he discovered that Kuriyama-Cho was perfect for brewing sake because the quality of spring water from the mountains in the neighborhood was fantastic. Therefore, he moved to the current location from Sapporo in 1901. 

Of course, the reason was not just water. He repeated negotiations again and again with Hokkaido Colliery & Steamship Co., LTD., who opened coal mines in places near Kuriyama-Cho such as Yubari and settled a contract to sell Kobayashi Sake Brewery’s alcohol exclusively. The brewery will grow with the coal industry because of Yonesaburo’s fantastic foresight.  
 
As coal mines and railways developed, workers moved to Sorachi Region, and population grew. Kobayashi Sake Brewery, too, extended red-brick factories from Meiji era to Taisho era, to fill a large amount of demand from Yubari coal mine, etc. The brewery made a mass amount of sake by warming the whole brewery with a massive amount of coals. They became the first brewery to use coal for brewing sake. 
 
 
▲The red-brick building is now turned into Sake Tools Museum. I feel the retro-modern taste which is very Hokkaido-like. 
 
 
The era of coals continued from the Meiji period to around 1950 to 1960. Kobayashi Sake Brewery produced a large amount at its peak after the war, which was about 130 million 1,800 ml bottles. Almost 100% of their production was low-quality sake called “Sanzou-Shu” which add a large amount of brewers alcohol and sugars to sake. Sanzou-Shu was the standard of sake everywhere in Japan at that time, which is different now where people are more interested in high-quality sake.
 
It was sake for tired coal mine workers to let go off fatigues from the day. They also had to brew sake that did not freeze in the cold weather of Hokkaido. The quality was not the priority. I guess many older generations think sake makes them sick afterward came from Sanzou-Shu.
 
 
▲There is 9 large filter press called “Sase-Shiki.” The machines were manufactured in 1955-1965, and they don’t use it now. I heard that they could not fulfill the demands even they use three machines at the same time for 24 hours at their peak periods.
 
 
They also brewed Shochu before the war. Surprisingly, they were experimenting to create fuels for fighters from shochu distillery by-products, etc. We can call it as the pioneer of biomass fuel! They lent the buildings to GHQ after the war, and it was used as a summary court.
 
 
▲The room used by GHQ for the meeting about coal industry labor dispute measures. (The room is on the second floor of Kita No Nishiki Museum)
 
 

Turning from sake for the coal industry to sake for Hokkaido

Energy sources in Japan turned to oil from coal after 1965-1975. The coal industry declined, and all coal mines in Sorachi Region closed by 1995. Because of that, the decrease in the population did not stop, and depopulation became a severe problem in the region. Of course, the consumption of sake in the local community gradually declined, too. 
 
So Kobayashi Brewery declared to become the first brewery to brew only specially designated sake in 2008 when they celebrated their 130th anniversary. They switched to a premium sake brewer from a mass-production brewery to adjust the change in demands of consumers. After two years, they completely turned their production to use only rice made in Hokkaido.
 
 
▲The sake brewery workers are putting steamed rice cooked with a traditional steamer on the cooling machine. 
 
 
▲Steamed rice is carried with a hose and put into fermentation mash tanks. 
 

Of course, they were the first brewery in Hokkaido to brew only with rice made in Hokkaido. They became the real pioneer to produce Hokkaido’s local sake, using just Hokkaido’s water, rice, and people. The pioneer spirit is built in the culture of the brewery and passed down through the generations. 
 
 
▲Seishi Kobayashi, Senior Managing Director, leads the brewery (on the left) and Shuji Minami who works for the brewery over 30 years, is the chief brewer for 10 years. 
 
 
The production amount decreased to approximately one-tenth compared to their peak period. They increased the amount of production to continue the brewery once, but now they reduce the amount of production to survive. Japanese sake fans loved their bold and revolutionary pivoting, which made the name of “Kita No Nishiki” known everywhere in Hokkaido. 
 
The Senior Managing Director Seishi Kobayashi inherits the pioneer spirit of the Kobayashi family and decides directions of the brewery and creates the concept of flavors. “There is no point for a small brewery like us to brew something sells well in Tokyo. I think we should brew something local people would love.” Kobayashi told. They challenged to create with ingredients in Hokkaido before others did. 
 
The current “Kita No Nishiki” has a fruity flavor which is one of the characteristics of sake brewed in Kobayashi Sake Brewery. It’s not too fancy, and rather mild texture as sake in Hokkaido is impressive. The sake is perfect for various situations to have with meals. 
 
Kobayashi recommended “Fuyuhanabi Junmai-Daiginjo” and “Hokuto Zuisou Junmai-Ginjo.”
 
 
▲“Fuyuhanabi” and “Hokuto Zuisou” are the most recommended labels from the brewery. 
 
 
“Hokuto Zuisou is kind of an entry sake to taste the flavor of our brewery. Fuyuhanabi’s concept is a Junmai-Daiginjo which tastes great in all temperatures. Please try them if you find.” 
 
Hokuto Zuisou is a commemorative label because it was the first one to show the change in their direction from quantity to quality. You can fully taste the fruity characteristics of their sake. Fuyuhanabi uses wild yeast lives in the brewery instead of cultivated yeast for sake. It has a unique sourness. Although it’s a Daiginjo, the sake can be used in every temperature. This is an excellent sake which breaks the prejudice of Daiginjo to drink in an icy cold temperature.  
 
 
▲Hokuto Zuiso’s fermentation mash. It uses 45% polished Ginpu rice, which is very luxurious. It’s bubbling well. 
 
 
▲You can sample some brewery limited sake at the museum shop. 
 
 
▲Above is a brewery limited sake. The left one “Kuriyama Hideki” is a commemoration sake for the baseball manager of Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. He has a house and a baseball field in Kuriyama-Cho. 
 
 
If you want to try some sake from Kobayashi Sake Brewery, “Maruta Nanabangura,” a directly owned restaurant in Sapporo, where they were first established, is recommended! “You can try most of the kinds we offer now, and they also have some secret sake that is not on the menu,” Kobayashi said. Why don’t you spend a great night with “Kita No Nishiki” and delicacies that match perfectly with sake in Sapporo, too? 
 
 

They brew “sake for farmers” which sits together with daily tables by being particular about local agriculture

Kobayashi Sake Brewery has established a solid position as “Hokkaido’s local sake.” Kobayashi is trying to brew sake that further connects to the local community. “I think people in cities are tired from too much capitalism. I am hoping to create sake that is natural to appear in a farmer’s table; something like farmers in Kuriyama-Cho cooks, and miso, rice, and pickles they have every day.” Kobayashi told me. 
 
 
▲The sake brewery workers are washing equipment. The steam creates strong impressions about Kanzukuri -  sake making in winter. 
 
 
There are eight farmers among 11 sake brewery workers. Among two of them grow rice for sake, and those rice are used for sake brewing in Kobayashi Sake Brewery. The brewery truly has a strong relationship with agriculture. 

Hokkaido’s central business, which is primal industries such as agriculture and dairy farming, is facing a severe reality from lack of successors and TPP. 

Japanese sake is alcohol strongly connected with agriculture as it is made with rice, water, and microbes. The sake industry has to tackle the problem, too. 
 
“I am trying to brew sake that makes people imagine a farm village. I am hoping to brew a country sake that suits to farmer’s tables.” 

He hosts pickles and miso-making workshops for females from local farmer families with Kuriyama-Cho. He also visits Sapporo once in a month to hold such events. If he could create a sake that relates to agriculture, it might be able to relieve the stresses of urban people, too. 


▲Most of the sake brewery workers here involve in farming during summer when they don’t make sake. Their ideas from farmers’ lives would be a huge plus for “Kita No Nishiki,” I imagine. 
 

The brewery is evolving and deepening the concept from Hokkaido’s sake to Kuriyama’s sake and farmer’s sake. I felt that is the next theme of “Kita No Nishiki” when they enter the new era after the Heisei Period ended.
 
Kobayashi first thought of changing the concept when he got stomach cancer himself. He had to cut out half of his stomach, he lost 18 kilograms, and could not have foods with plenty of additives anymore, although he had every day before. However, he could have additive-free pickles and miso soup that farmers have in their everyday tables. “I thought the body is honest.” 


▲“Ginsuian” is a soba restaurant which provides handmade soba made with water for sake making and Hokkaido produced soba powders. The building was built in 1926 and was used as an employee’s house. This one is also a Tangible Cultural Property.


He came up with the concept of “sake that suits for daily meals in a farmer’s family” as a sake brewery in a farming village. They wish to be a brewery to revitalize local agriculture with sake and keep the image of the farming village which he thinks is the origin of Japan. 

“If I don’t do this now, I think countrysides cannot maintain Hokkaido’s food and agriculture.” Kobayashi also feels a sense of danger. 
 
 
▲They are turning important buildings not only for exhibitions but also are planning to develop an experiential museum that visitors can feel like a sake brewer. 
 
 
Kobayashi Sake Brewery seeks for new challenges all the time, not making themselves satisfied from the current situation. They may produce a new “Kita No Nishiki” that makes people around surprise in the near future. 
  • Kobayashi Sake Brewery: the pioneer to brew Hokkaido’s local sake - their development continues to the next stage - Hokkaido sake brewery series (5)
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