Ichishima Shuzo Sake
Long one of the most prominent breweries in the Niigata region, Ichishima Shuzo has been owned and operated by the Ichishima family since its founding in 1790.
The brewery continues to draw on its long history and access to local ingredients to produce some of the highest quality saké in a region known for premium production.
In the 1700’s the Ichishimas were one of the five biggest land-holding families in the country, and it is said that one could walk the 40 miles from the brewery to Niigata city without leaving their property.
Born and raised in Shibata City, Kenji Ichishima grew up around the brewery that had been run by his forefathers for generations. However, when he moved to Tokyo for high school, he acquired a taste for freedom that led him to spend four years abroad. Encouraged by his grandfather, who had also spent time outside of Japan, Kenji came to the United States and spent time in Atlanta, Georgia and Albany, New York. His time in America rekindled Kenji's awareness of his identity and reminded him of the importance of his family business, and after returning to Japan he decided to enter the sake industry. First at another brewery and then as a delivery boy at his family's own, Kenji learned the business of sake from the bottom up. Since becoming President of Ichishima Shuzo, he has achieved success in developing new products, improving quality, reducing inefficiencies, and discontinuing low-profit business components such as beer wholesaling. In addition to managing his brewery, Kenji is also deeply involved in the larger world of sake. As chairperson of the public relations committee of the Niigata Brewer's Association, he has run the Niigata Sake Festival for the past four years. He is also very involved with the younger generation of brewers both in Niigata and throughout Japan as a chairperson of both the Shinseikai and the Japan Brewery Junior Council.
Kenji Ichishima is one of the most remarkable brewers in the sake industry today. Having grown up in a brewery with a rich history that stretches back more than 200 years, he is new blood who respects tradition and culture but is also willing to consider and implement new methods. In part, because of the experience he acquired living overseas, he leads today's sake industry with fresh and innovative ideas.
Takeshi Tanaka began working at Ichishima Shuzo in 1986 at the age of 19, and soon afterwards began his training under the previous toji as a manager of the yeast starter. Since then he has graduated from the Niigata Seishu Gakkou and received his First Class Brew Master Degree. In 2003, he finally became the head toji at Ichishima. Takeshi is extremely dedicated to his job and the brewery; he is even married to a co-worker! Although his sake has won several prestigious gold medals, Takeshi says his goal is merely to "brew sake with umami, and make people smile."
Nestled on the western coast of Japan’s main island, Niigata prefecture is known for both its prowess in industry as well as its pristine landscape. This unique combination allows the region to boast about having the most manufacturers of any prefecture in Japan, as well as the second most extensive land area devoted to National Parks.
Nowhere can this combination of craftsmanship and nature find a more perfect expression than in sake. Brewmasters from the famous Echigo toji guild use the top quality resources at their disposal to create sake of the highest caliber, and their success is undeniable. While Niigata ranks third in total sake produced, it is first in the production of premium ginjo and daiginjo sake. The region is also home to Japan’s only Prefectural Sake Research Institute, an organization that dedicates itself to improving the brewing techniques and products of Niigata brewers.
The source of Niigata’s natural advantage can be summed up in one word: SNOW.
Every winter, damp ocean breezes collide with the cold mountain peaks on the region’s eastern border, resulting in a massive amount of snowfall that can exceed 30 feet annually. When this snow melts in the spring, it creates ideal conditions for rice cultivation, in addition to providing incredibly clean, pure water for the brewing process.
Combine this natural bounty with a storied tradition of brewing craftsmanship and you get something known as the Niigata Taste. The fine water, quality rice, higher than average milling ratio, and the expertise of the toji have led the sakes of Niigata to have a unique taste that can be summed up as “crisp and dry.”
The success and popularity of this style in Japan and throughout the world has caused many brewers in other regions to attempt to duplicate the taste, but none have come close to attaining the quality for which Niigata brewers have been known for centuries.
Despite its history and tradition, however, the brewery is no stranger to innovation. When the fourth president returned from a trip to Germany, he created the Oumon label in the style of European family crests, a label that Ichishima continues to use in Japan to this day.
The brewery is also proud to be one of the first to open its doors to female brewery workers, something that was long resisted by other brewers throughout the country. By managing to maintain tradition as well as an openmindedness, Ichishima Shuzo has been able to produce consistently high quality sake, as evidenced by its perennial status as a gold medal winner at the National New Sake Competition.
Unfortunately, for most of its history the sake industry was considered off-limits to women. It was believed that a female presence in the brewery would anger the gods and disrupt the little-understood fermentation process. The very physical nature of the kurabito’s work was also surely a factor. However, when Kenji’s father died while he was still young, his mother took over control of the brewery, and began making some changes. She hired several female kurabito, and one of them rose through the ranks, becoming the first ever woman to pass the Toji Exam.
The Ichishima family is well known in the industry for their pioneering efforts, and the brewery is even mentioned in the popular sake-centric Natsuko no Sake comic. While the current toji, Takeshi Tanaka, is again male, almost half of the kurabito at Ichishima are women. Some people even say you can even detect a feminine touch in their sakes, especially the light and playful Silk Deluxe.