Sake shipments surge in 3 disaster-hit prefectures after promotional efforts

Sake is shown at Okunomatsu Sake Brewery in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. Local brewers have seen a recent rise in shipments thanks to promotional events following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Mainichi)

Sake is shown at Okunomatsu Sake Brewery in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. Local brewers have seen a recent rise in shipments thanks to promotional events following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Mainichi)

Shipments of refined sake from the three disaster-hit prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate boomed in May, apparently as a result of promotional events to help the areas recover from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Brewers in the prefectures, who saw shipments rise between 20 and 60 percent in May from a year earlier, say the sudden popularity is unprecedented. At the same time, some fear that concerns about the effects of radiation from the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant on rice and other materials used in the brewing process may hurt sales of sake produced from this autumn onwards.

In Fukushima Prefecture, three brewing facilities were destroyed in the March 11 disaster, along with eight in Miyagi Prefecture and three in Iwate Prefecture. One other brewery in Fukushima had to be evacuated because it was located within 20 kilometers of the nuclear plant crippled by the March 11 tsunami. Distribution channels were also hurt, and according to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, year-on-year shipments for March fell to 78 percent in Fukushima Prefecture, 55.1 percent in Miyagi Prefecture, and 61.3 percent in Iwate Prefecture.

In April, however, events were held at commercial facilities and restaurants to help the prefectures recover from the disaster by actively promoting local products — including sake. A sake brewers association in Fukushima received many requests to take part in events, and it continued to promote local sake in Tokyo, Kyoto and other areas until the end of July. Orders from wholesale stores also increased, and shipments in April reached 106.6 percent compared with the same month the previous year in Fukushima Prefecture. The figure reached 132.7 percent in Miyagi Prefecture and 121.3 percent in Iwate Prefecture. Year-on-year increases were also seen in May, with shipments rising to 122.2 percent in Fukushima Prefecture, 164.7 percent in Miyagi Prefecture, and 138.6 percent in Iwate Prefecture. Shipments were also looking up in June.

Nationwide shipments of refined sake have been declining in Japan after peaking at about 1.7 million kiloliters in 1975. In 2009 the figure dropped to about 620,000 kiloliters. The recent boom has accordingly caught brewers off guard.

“We’ve never experienced sales like this — it’s almost scary,” commented Atsushi Nakui of the Iwate prefectural brewer’s association.

Chihiro Mori of the Miyagi prefectural brewers association worried whether brewers would be able to handle the popularity in the winter, when demand for refined sake increases. Some brewers are said to be out of stock of some products.

However, some industry officials worry about the future of sake produced using rice harvested this autumn — after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. The sake being shipped out now uses rice harvested before the disaster, and was mainly produced between October last year and February this year.

The Fukushima prefectural sake brewers association has from this summer onwards decided to have water and rice used by all breweries tested for radiation.

“We received a painful reminder that sake is produced using the abundance of nature, and we want to quickly produce sake without worrying,” explained Atsushi Abe, an executive director of the association.

Okunomatsu Sake Brewery in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, which had been particular about using local rice in its products, is considering switching to rice produced in other prefectures starting this autumn.

“Even if the radiation level of the sake we produce is below the standard, that won’t be enough to persuade customers to choose our products. We will make a thorough effort to ensure safety and peace of mind,” said company official Yasuo Usuki.

(Mainichi Japan) August 3, 2011

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