Asahi-Shuzo: Sake Tradition Meets Innovation in the Heart of Rural Niigata

These days, sake brewing in Japan is characterized by a harmonious blend of the past, present, and future. Traditional techniques and ancestral know-how are augmented by cutting-edge technology and experimentation, churning out unique, high-quality sake at more efficient and reliable speeds. Asahi-Shuzo, located in the nature-rich, idyllic town of Asahi in Niigata Prefecture, embodies this contemporary approach. Beside its state-of-the-art breweries lies a proud heritage, seen through the time-honored mastery of the “toji” chief brewers and the beautifully preserved home of the brewery founder. We visited Asahi-Shuzo to find out more about the shape of sake in modern Japan, and how they reach a balance between conserving tradition and bolstering innovation.

*This article was written in collaboration with Asahi-Shuzo.

Asahi-Shuzo: A Hub of Sake Culture in Rural Niigata

On a crisp, clear spring morning, we made the train journey through the snow-capped Echigo Mountains to Asahi-Shuzo. This mega-brewery sits at the center of the small pastoral settlement of Asahi, just a 15-minute walk from Raikoji Station, on the outskirts of Nagaoka City in central Niigata Prefecture. Niigata Prefecture is one of Japan’s largest and most reputable producers of rice and sake, and the city of Nagaoka is revered by sake fans as the home of several renowned producers.

Asahi-Shuzo is behind a bunch of Japan’s most popular sake brews, including its flagship Kubota and namesake Asahiyama. It was founded as a small brewery in 1830 under the name “Kubota-ya,” before being established as Asahi-Shuzo in 1920. They have expanded considerably over the decades, adding new facilities, products, equipment, and more, including the opening of in-house breweries Asahi Brewery in 1995 and Shorai Brewery in 2011.

Wandering the bucolic streets of Asahi, the connection that Asahi-Shuzo shares with its hometown is unmistakable. Its products are all nurtured by the land, from the surrounding rice paddies growing “sakamai” sake rice tended to by local farmers, to the pristine local spring brewing water born from Nagaoka’s heavy snowfall - the softness of which is behind the characteristic dry, crisp sake flavor of Niigata sake.

Inside the breweries, ancient wisdom is refined by groundbreaking technology, topped off by fervent trial-and-error to unmask the future face of sake. This has allowed Asahi-Shuzo to keep up with the times while staying true to their loyal customer base, developing a diverse product lineup catering to all generations.

To learn more about how such a delicate balance between past, present, and future was achieved, we met up with the “toji” chief brewers of Asahi Brewery and Shorai Brewery on a tour through the Asahi-Shuzo premises.

Masters of the Brewery: What Are Toji?

In the words of Asahi Brewery’s toji Motoyoshi Yamaga, toji can be simply defined as “the person in charge of a sake brewery.” Day-to-day brewing is made up of many different operations, like yeast cultivation, koji-making, sake-pressing, filtering, and pasteurization, and a toji will oversee the work of each brewer underneath them to ensure the delivery of high-quality sake.

Toji are classified by regional guilds, each with a unique history and brewing methodology. Of these, the Echigo Toji of Niigata stand proud as some of the most prominent and reputable in all of Japan. Echigo Toji are further broken down into four subgroups, and those employed by Asahi-Shuzo are called “Koshiji Toji” as they hail from Koshiji, the former name of the town around Asahi.

Koshiji has long been afflicted by severe winters, forcing locals to leave town for seasonal work in sake breweries when farming wasn’t viable. Owing to this, a large number of talented brewers emerged from Koshiji, whose expertise was demanded in nearby prefectures like Gunma, Nagano, Toyama, and Gifu, making the name Koshiji Toji synonymous with hard work and impeccable quality. While sake breweries no longer operate on such a seasonal schedule, the reputation of the Koshiji Toji still holds great weight in the industry, and their ideas, practices, and legacy remain alive at Asahi-Shuzo.

Asahi Brewery: A Smaller-Scale Brewery With Artisan Flair

Meeting up in the grand entrance hall, we started off our tour at Asahi Brewery, which is Asahi-Shuzo's smaller-scale, flagship brewery that specializes in premium sake, particularly “junmai daiginjo” like the highly esteemed Kubota Manjyu. It is run by Motoyoshi Yamaga, a local who joined as a seasonal wintertime worker in 1985, honing his knowledge for many years before becoming toji in 2012.

Yamaga is also a rice farmer, and like many farmers in Niigata, he originally worked as a brewer when his fields couldn’t produce. Through this seasonal work, Yamaga developed a passion for sake, drawn in by its vast range and buoyant flavors, prompting him to pursue a full-time career in the industry.

While continuing his farming on the side, he took on several roles in the brewery, slowly mastering each process over a period of 20 years before earning his promotion to toji. Yamaga focuses on making sake rooted in the local climate, incorporating the water, air, and ingredients gifted by the land. He likes his sake warm and tends towards brands like Kubota Senjyu; the pioneering Kubota brew embodying the classic dry taste of Niigata.

While upgrades have allowed Asahi Brewery to produce through much of the year (outside a period of maintenance in midsummer), Yamaga still largely follows the traditional seasonal routine of brewing over the colder seasons for his top-grade junmai daiginjo sake.

When asked how he feels during the peak brewing periods, Yamaga responded: “Sake-making is a long, complex process. Rather than looking at the end goal right away, I instead enjoy the day-to-day procedures and build up of hard work that goes into reaching the final product. Paying attention to each step and getting everything right is where the satisfaction of brewing comes from.”

Yamaga also revels in the unpredictability of sake. “Despite the automation, we’re dealing with microbes here, and our main job is to simply help them in their natural role. As such, things don’t always go as planned, and we have to be ready to adapt at any time. I find this environment fun and engaging, and it reminds me of the work of our forefathers.”

While fitted with the latest technology, Asahi Brewery still retains a humble, homespun flair. Its “kojimuro” room, where “koji,” a fungus used to saccharify rice, is made, has a warm, wooden interior designed to help control humidity. The walls of the fermentation room, where the yeast mash, water, koji, and steamed rice are mixed together in batches to ferment, are lined with retro wooden panels repurposed from old brewery floorboards.

The brewing process is just as intimate, with koji spores being carefully applied to the steamed rice by hand, while the fermenting sake is expertly controlled to reach the desired temperature. All of this shows how, even in the modern era, the expertise of Koshiji Toji is still at the core of the Asahi-Shuzo process.

At the same time, Yamaga has seen considerable change over the 30 years he has been involved in sake brewing. He joined during the “tanrei-karakuchi” boom, which is a crisp, clean, and dry style of sake pioneered by Asahi Shuzo that swept the nation and took over from the classic rich and full-bodied sake. “During this time, Japan was rapidly changing from a labor-based workforce, who tended toward a filling, rich sake, into a white collar society, who demanded a smooth, neat style,” explained Yamaga.

Nowadays, he’s seeing a lean from dry sake towards sweet and aromatic sake, particularly with younger drinkers. “I think that younger generations are starting to prefer sweeter drinks over bitter, alcoholic flavors, perhaps out of childhood nostalgia. We’re seeing a demand for sake that has an enjoyable taste right from the first sip, with a big emphasis on aroma.”

In response, Asahi-Shuzo has been putting out new products like Kubota Junmai Daiginjo, which combines the classic sharpness of Kubota with a potent umami-rich aroma, along with the refreshing muscat bouquet of Kubota Sparkling, and more.

When asked how sake can continue to remain popular in the modern age, Yamaga responded, “We need to keep studying the market and get as many diverse opinions as we can. But, at the end of the day, all we can really do is keep brewing good sake in line with our own ideas. Many things will continue to change, like methods, technology, and tastes, but our basic job of cultivating yeast and fermenting sake will remain the same, and it will always be there as a reminder of our traditional culture.”

Shorai Brewery: State-of-the-Art Sake Brewing With a Hands-On Approach

After touring the charming Asahi Brewery, we hopped next door to Shorai Brewery, Asahi-Shuzo’s main center of production. Shorai Brewery is a hyper-efficient, no-frills brewery around double the size of Asahi Brewery, producing roughly twice the amount of sake. Initially conceived to mass-brew Asahi-Shuzo’s more everyday sake varieties, it is now over a decade old, and has evolved to make a diverse assortment of Asahi-Shuzo brews, including top-tier daiginjo sake and other premium brands, with greater efficiency.

Shorai Brewery is characterized by pristine, glossy factory floors loaded with automated brewing equipment designed to keep up with the hefty demand for Asahi Shuzo’s brews. There are machines that automatically sort, wash, and soak the rice, plant koji spores, pasteurize the finished sake, and more, all moving in tandem to produce around 5,300 kilolitres per year, and putting out many Asahi-Shuzo staples like Kubota Senjyu and Asahiyama.

Despite its high mechanization, at the core of each operation is the leadership of toji Ryosaku Ohashi. Born and raised in Nagaoka, Ohashi joined Asahi-Shuzo in 1989, working in the brewing department until becoming toji in 2016.

Growing up in a town dominated by sake brewing, Ohashi always felt its influence nearby. “I saw sacred sake at shrine festivals, and it was always in my home and a part of life. When looking back on my best memories, sake was often there, and it has become a precious reminder of the good times,” explained Ohashi.

Ohashi’s primary job at Shorai Brewery is to make the amount of sake deemed necessary by Asahi-Shuzo, quickly adapting to their requests while managing strict hygiene and protocol.

Ohashi finds a lot of joy in this work, spending much of his time designing plans and methodologies to further push sake into the realm of an exact science. Through this, he can help preserve the art of sake making, protecting the inherited traditions and skills of his predecessors while making their achievements more reproducible. He loves it when a brew turns out exactly as expected, but also enjoys the occasional pleasant surprise when a flavor or fragrance ends up even better, reminding him of the unpredictable nature of fermentation.

When asked if such efficiency comes at the expense of tradition, Ohashi said, “All sake brewing done here today is based on the knowledge and achievements of our forefathers. I use my own trained senses to ensure quality, like touching the rice to feel its hardness, and smelling the sake to check the aroma. Those who want to brew here in the future must also master these skills.”

“I combine this with systems to mathematically guarantee that the tastes of Asahi-Shuzo can be easily reproduced, so that if I can no longer be here, anyone can fill my shoes and keep brewing good sake. There are issues in Japan with finding successors for toji, and this is one way we can overcome this to keep the industry thriving in the future.”

Ohashi also explained that Asahi Brewery and Shorai Brewery’s teamwork is a crucial part of Asahi-Shuzo’s success. Asahi Brewery focuses on small-scale brewing, creating blueprints for Shorai Brewery to then steadily produce, which is why Asahi-Shuzo can put out large quantities of high-quality yet delicate, fiddly sake like Kubota Junmai Daiginjo.

When queried about the future of Shorai Brewery, Ohashi responded, “I feel I have a responsibility not to change much, and my mission is to instead guarantee stability and reproducibility.”

“Reliability is needed for success, as we don’t ever want customers to be thinking, ‘This sake was less or more delicious than last month.’ Of course, we do make slight rearrangements to meet the needs of the market, but I think if we continue trusting in our traditional local ingredients, like rice and water, and make our sake honestly and earnestly, we will always have a loyal customer base.”

Sake Research Center: Keeping Sake Fit For the Modern Age

We were also lucky enough to peek into Asahi-Shuzo’s secretive Sake Research Center, which is usually off-limits to visitors. Here Shorai Brewery’s ethos of efficiency is taken to the next level, engaging in sake brewing on a purely scientific basis to shine light into the enigmatic world of fermentation, while also developing unique products to bolster the Asahi-Shuzo lineup.

Established in 2005, the Sake Research Center can brew sake from scratch on a scaled-down level, complete with miniature fermentation tanks, pressing machines, and more. Through this, these scientist-cum-brewers can experiment with different variables, like rice cultivar and yeast strain, and contribute to a deeper understanding of their influence on sake.

Eri Ichikawa, a member of the Sake Research Center team, said that “Our work lets us combine our love of sake and science, letting us play a part in the future of Asahi-Shuzo in a different way. We have a lot of freedom to create and try out new ideas, and once we’ve come up with something we think will sell, we work with the breweries and other departments to make it into a fully-fledged product.”

The real-world achievements of the Sake Research Center are seen in the current Asahi-Shuzo lineup, like the Kubota Manjyu Original Yeast YX Edition, which is brewed with yeast cultivated in-house, as well as other tantalizing drinks like Kubota Sparkling and Kubota Yuzu Liqueur, keeping Asahi-Shuzo’s offerings fresh and interesting.

Shoraikaku: Flaunting the Heritage of Asahi-Shuzo

A visit to Asahi-Shuzo is not complete without exploring Shoraikaku, the original home of Asahi-Shuzo’s founder Yonosuke Hirasawa. It was built in the early Showa period (1926–1989), and has been painstakingly preserved by Asahi-Shuzo, earning recognition as an Important Cultural Property of Japan in 2018.

The name Shoraikaku means the “sound of wind blowing through pine trees,” materialized by the elegantly manicured pine trees dotting the surrounding garden, complemented by maples, stone lanterns, and boulders brought over from Niigata’s Sado Island.

The dynamic facade and intricate interior are an architectural wonder. Inside, each room is embellished by delightful flourishes rewarding those with keen eyes - like stylish, modern latticework, gorgeous full-sized sliding door paintings, meticulously carved transoms, exotic stained glass windows, elegant mother-of-pearl inlays, and alcove posts made from a variety of different wood types.

Highlights include the “kozashiki” small tatami room (left), where Asahi-Shuzo president, Toru Hirasawa, and factory manager Teiji Shima came up with the idea for Kubota sake to revolutionize the taste of Asahi-Shuzo, along with the sophisticated Western-style drawing room (right), whose fairytale-esque exterior forms a striking contrast to the traditional main building.

After touring the fast-paced breweries, finishing our day at the serene Shoraikaku was a welcome respite. It gave us profound insight into the legacy that weighs on the shoulders of Yamaga, Ohashi, and all the others who make up the face of modern-day Asahi-Shuzo, standing as a stark reminder of their roots. Shoraikaku is free to enter, so definitely make sure to save time to enjoy it!

Asahi-Shuzo Brewery Tours

Asahi-Shuzo welcomes visitors to join their brewery tours. They offer two different versions: a comprehensive 60-minute tour held during the main brewing season between December and April, and a shorter 20-minute tour that runs all year (check exact dates below).

On the 60-minute tour, you’ll enter the brewery and be guided through several of the processes introduced in this article. Afterwards, you’ll get to taste unrefined “genshu” sake straight from the brewery. For those without much time, the 20-minute tour will let you see Asahi-Shuzo’s magnificent entrance hall, and enjoy regular sake tastings in the nearby shop.

The 20-minute tour does not require reservations, and the 60-minute tour can be booked by sending a DM to the official Kubota Sake Instagram page. Tours are conducted in Japanese.

Also on the grounds is the shop Sara no Sato Asahiyama, which sells a wide range of Asahi-Shuzo sake, including limited-edition brews unavailable anywhere else, plus local crafts, food, confections, and more. Next door is the Asahiyama Hotaruan restaurant, which serves Niigata speciality dishes made with local ingredients, perfect for lunch.

A brief stroll up the nearby hill is the tranquil “Momijien” maple tree garden, which bursts into stunning autumn colors from early to mid-November. The garden is maintained as part of efforts to look after local maple trees, an endeavor supported by Asahi-Shuzo. Be sure to stop by before or after the tour if you happen to come in the fall!

Recommended Sake Pairing Recipes From Asahi-Shuzo

Asahi-Shuzo are also enthusiastically promoting their sake through pairing recipes, reaching out to the global market in order to keep up with the times and spread the love of sake internationally. In the words of toji Ohashi, “Enjoying sake with food will make the experience even more fun and rewarding, and finding foods that complement sake is a great way to broaden your palate.”

Asahi-Shuzo have curated a number of international sake pairing recipes from a wide assortment of cuisines, both simple and complex, for customers to prepare themselves on their global website. Here are three that caught our eye!

Grilled Chicken With Soy Sauce Rice Malt (Koji) and Roasted Walnut

A simple yet scrumptious chicken dish that utilizes the flavor of koji and Kubota Senjyu sake, combined with walnuts for a kick of umami. It naturally pairs with the same bottle of Kubota Senjyu used in the recipe, which is a versatile, food-friendly sake great to have on hand for entertaining. If you can’t find salted koji at home, be sure to add it to your Japan travel wishlist!

See the full recipe and pairing here:

Three-Step Salsa With Boiled Shrimp

A refreshing, healthy side dish made with just shrimp, tomato, celery, and onion flavored with lemon juice and salt. In just a few simple steps, you’ll have a great accompaniment to Kubota Hekijyu, a Yamahai-style sake with a robust, bold flavor and smooth, stimulating finish.

See the full recipe and pairing here:

Sake Parfait With Moist Sponge Cake

Parfaits are one of the most popular desserts in Japan, and can be easily made with whatever ingredients are in season or at hand. Pair it with the fresh and fruity Kubota Suijyu, a limited-edition brew available from April to September. It is an unpasteurized daiginjo sake boasting an elegant aroma best served chilled.

See the full recipe and pairing here:

Asahi-Shuzo’s Global Website and Instagram

If you’re looking for more information on Kubota and other Asahi-Shuzo sake, then head to the official Asahi-Shuzo global website. Here you’ll find detailed descriptions of each sake type, as well as loads of mouthwatering pairing recipes like those above, and plenty more.

Asahi-Shuzo global website:

The Kubota Sake official Instagram account also releases the latest sake event details, pairing recipes, and other useful info in English before anywhere else. If you wish to join one of Asahi-Shuzo’s events, then definitely give it a follow!

Kubota Sake Official Instagram:

Asahi-Shuzo Events: Pinchos, Tapas, and Sake Experience

Asahi-Shuzo is collaborating with renowned Spanish restaurant L'estudi in the Ginza/Hibiya area of Tokyo to host a sake tasting night with pinchos and tapas on June 16, 2023. This bold blend of culinary cultures is sure to be a treat, so come along and broaden your appreciation of Japanese sake through gourmet Western food.

Book event tickets here:

A Dynamic Blend of the Past, Present, and Future

From our tour of Asahi-Shuzo, it’s clear that sake brewing in Japan is anything but stagnant. Its classic Asahi Brewery and contemporary Shorai Brewery work together to steadily produce their product range, driven by the wisdom of toji aided by modern machinery. Meanwhile, the Sake Research Center keeps the brand cutting-edge, while heritages like Shoraikaku stand as a symbol of their origins. To experience this dynamic blend of the past, present, and future, jump on the bullet train to Nagaoka, and stroll around the settlement of Asahi before joining one of Asahi-Shuzo’s captivating tours!

If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram!

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Steve Csorgo
From Melbourne, Australia, Steve currently lives in Niigata City. His passions include discovering local sake and traveling as much of Japan as possible.
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