'Miracle yeast' saves 300-year-old Fukushima sake tradition

February 27, 2012

By TOYOHIRO MISHIMA / Staff Writer

For almost three centuries, the Tomizawa Shuzoten sake brewery has thrived in the quiet seaside town of Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, providing locals and beyond with its specialty, Shirafuji, a sake renowned for its pronounced flavor produced by a special family-grown yeast and the local hard water.

But that all changed on March 11, 2011.

Located just 3.5 kilometers from the damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Futaba fell within the mandatory evacuation zone.

Shuhei Tomizawa is a 17th-generation master sake brewer. His family runs Tomizawa Shuzoten, with his eldest son, Mamoru, 29, and eldest daughter, Mari, 27, having both studied sake brewing at the Tokyo University of Agriculture.

Although the 57-year-old Tomizawa and his family and workers were forced to evacuate, yeast cultivated by Tomizawa Shuzoten for generations miraculously managed to survive. Now, Tomizawa is looking for a brewery in a new location to start making sake again.

After the March 11 quake, the family moved to a relative's home in Iwaki, another city in the prefecture. Their greatest concern was over an essential part of their brewing: the yeast. They say that continuing to brew sake in the same building will allow the "family's yeast fungus" to grow in the brewery and produce its distinctive flavor. Before March 11, Tomizawa had collected some of the yeast, cultivated it and preserved it in test tubes.

Just days before Futaba was declared a no-entry zone in April, Mamoru returned to the brewery to "try and somehow bring back some yeast."

He found the refrigerator door open and its contents scattered about, but the test tubes containing the yeast fungus were intact.

"That's our yeast," the elder Tomizawa said, sniffing the fungi Mamoru had retrieved. It has a fresh aroma like freshly cut apples that re-energized Tomizawa.

Although radiation checks on the yeast found nothing abnormal, mold had grown in most of the test tubes and turned them black. Tomizawa took the test tubes to the Fukushima Technology Center's brewing and food section, where they were dipped in alcohol to remove the mold and then cultivated for about two months.

"At first we were at our wit's end," said Kenji Suzuki, the head of the section. "But we did a good job of resuscitating it."

Last fall, Tomizawa brewed some sake with his rescued yeast, using some equipment at an acquaintance's brewing company in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. On Dec. 1, he produced his first batch since the earthquake.

Tomizawa smelled a familiar aroma when the new, clear-blue sake entered his mouth. He has named the brand Shirafuji Katsu. The word "katsu" represents the brewery's hopes for the area's "recovery" (fukkatsu in Japanese) and for living (ikiteiru, a word that uses the same kanji). Although Tomizawa Shuzoten's new production is only around 5 percent of its pre-quake output, they still produced around 3,500 0.72-liter bottles. News of the "miracle yeast" has spread by word of mouth and online, leading to orders for the sake coming in from all across Japan.

The Tomizawa family is now considering making sake again on land where there is water of similar quality to that in Futaba.

"Even if we move to a different brewery, we still have the same yeast," Tomizawa said emphatically. "We want to make a new Shirafuji."

By TOYOHIRO MISHIMA / Staff Writer
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Shuhei Tomizawa, right, and his family pack shipping boxes with their new Shirafuji Katsu sake in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. (Satoru Sekiguchi)

Shuhei Tomizawa, right, and his family pack shipping boxes with their new Shirafuji Katsu sake in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. (Satoru Sekiguchi)

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  • Shuhei Tomizawa, right, and his family pack shipping boxes with their new Shirafuji Katsu sake in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. (Satoru Sekiguchi)

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