Niigata Prefecture currently holds 90 sake breweries, the highest among all the 47 prefectures in Japan. These sake breweries are interspersed across the prefecture in Sado Island, cities and towns near the prefectural borders between Gumma, Fukushima, Yamagata, Toyama and Nagano; also in the capital city of Niigata and in the second largest city of Nagaoka, a former castle town. Every brewery brews distinctive local sake on a large or small scale, reflecting on its natural environment and historical background. Local sake, loved by people in the area, is produced by Echigo Touji brewers who put their soul into sake making.
A narrow strip of wood unearthed from the remains of Otate with the letters ‘ninety sake cups’ etched on it has revealed that sake making was in practice in the middle of the ninth century. However, sake making as an industry came to be developed much later into the Edo Era. At that time, Niigata Prefecture grew as Japan’s number one rice producing region because of the unimaginable efforts of our ancestors to develop new rice paddies, and sake making came to thrive, using rice as its ingredient. After the arrival of Meiji Era, business privileges to make sake given in the Edo Era were lifted and landowners with rich capital entered the sake brewing business. Being a ‘sake brewer’ would place one among the capitalists in those days.
In 1879 (Meiji 12), the number of breweries and the quantity of sake production were at its peak, with over 1,100 breweries in Niigata Prefecture. In 1888 (Meiji 21) and 1893 (Meiji 26), Niigata boasted of the largest population in the country. Abundant rice production and presence of the ‘Kitamaebune’ sea route between Hokkaido and Osaka made it possible to carry large amounts of rice along with a huge volume of sake to Hokkaido, where it was too cold to grow rice in those days. In the latter period of the Meiji Era, a record shows that sake was carried there as one of the necessities for salmon and trout fishermen in the northern part of Japan.
In the latter period of the Edo Era, decomposition and spoilage sometimes occurred in the process of sake making, so there was an urgent necessity to take measures for improving the quality. In 1901 (Meiji 34), the national brewery laboratory, run by the Ministry of Finance, was established. Niigata Prefecture also started to hold study groups in each region. After that, as high quality sake making spread throughout the nation and the amount of sake production increased, the competition among sake producing areas became intense. There was a strong need for a prefectural brewery laboratory to be established, in order to increase the quantity and improve the quality of sake in Niigata. In 1930 (Showa 5), the Niigata Sake Brewery Laboratory was founded, aiming for developing a unique method of sake brewing, growing special rice for sake making in the prefecture and for training people. Today it is the only laboratory established by a prefecture in Japan specializized in the research of sake brewing. Since then, despite adversities such as industrial readjustment and the lack of goods during the Pacific War, a number of high quality sake varieties have been produced in various places in the prefecture. The efforts that went in making this possible include improving and developing quality of sake rice, brewing sake with a ‘Tanrei Karakuchi’ or an elegant and dry taste, and establishing the Niigata Seishu School in 1984 (Showa 59).