Sustainable Sake: How Asahi-Shuzo Is Brewing For the Future

For close to 200 years, Asahi-Shuzo has been using the rich soil and pristine spring water in its surroundings to brew sake. But after a firefly was spotted near the brewery about 40 years ago, it decided to step up efforts to make its sake brewing process more sustainable and create an appealing habitat for wildlife. We visited Asahi-Shuzo to learn more about its eco-friendly initiatives, and to see how large-scale contemporary brewing can coexist with nature and traditional local culture.

*This article is sponsored by Asahi-Shuzo.

About Asahi-Shuzo

Asahi-Shuzo is one of the largest sake breweries in Nagaoka City, Niigata Prefecture. Founded as a small-scale brewery in 1830 in the tiny settlement of Asahi, it has expanded over the decades to supply a broad range of sake to both Japanese and overseas drinkers, all while staying true to its long-trusted ingredients and brewing methodologies.

One of Asahi-Shuzo’s most well-known brands of sake is “Kubota,” which embodies the crisp, clean, and dry “tanrei karakuchi” taste of Niigata-style sake, and is an excellent pairing for food of all kinds. For those traveling to Japan, the best place to try Asahi-Shuzo sake is at Kubota Sake Bar in Tokyo or at their Nagaoka City brewery, which is open for tours and tastings. Asahi-Shuzo also hosts regular events aimed at introducing sake to international drinkersーthe details of which can be found on their official global Instagram page or on Peatix.

Maple Trees and Fireflies: Nature in the Asahi and Koshiji Region

Our visit to Asahi-Shuzo fell on a brisk spring morning in early April, just in time to see the landscape buzzing back to life after shedding its winter snow. The sprawling concrete brewery formed a dynamic contrast to the placid greenery of its namesake settlement of Asahi, which lies on the outskirts of Nagaoka City, just a short walk from the sleepy Raikoji Station.

Traditionally, Asahi and surrounding localities were collectively named “Koshiji,” and have long been hubs of rice farming and sake brewing. They are also prime examples of Japan’s “satoyama” style of village, where farms and houses are built on the arable flat land tucked between forested mountain foothills.

It was no coincidence that Asahi-Shuzo set up shop in Asahiーthe fertile soil, abundant spring water, and long-established brewing culture made it well-suited for producing sake. However, as the industries of Asahi continued to grow, the brewery realized that it would need to make its practices more sustainable if it were to continue using the land for brewing.

Roughly 40 years ago, a single firefly decided to grace Asahi-Shuzo with its presence, treating brewers to its luminous dance amidst the blackened night sky. Being notoriously sensitive, fireflies tend to stay away from industrial centers, making this encounter a near-miracle that gave Asahi-Shuzo brewers the determination to make Asahi a more desirable home for fireflies.

But for Asahi-Shuzo and Asahi locals, cleaning up and preserving the land was more than just about creating pretty scenery. Like fireflies, the spring water used for brewing, soil for farming, and popular natural attractions like the Koshiji Momiji Garden were also delicate and susceptible to damage, and if they became no longer fit for use, the lifeblood of the local economy would be in jeopardy.

To prevent this, Asahi-Shuzo set up a number of organizations to survey and safeguard the local environment in the hope that they could brew sustainably. Two of these organizations were the Koshiji Nature Foundation and Asahi Noken (Farming Research Association), who both continue to study the land even today to improve the brewery’s operations while fostering a deeper understanding of the local environment.

Koshiji Nature Foundation: Conserving the Beauty of the Land

Stepping into the wilderness of Asahi, the profuse plant life and cheerful birdsong granted us a soothing breather from the fascinating yet frantic brewery next door, which we had just toured. Even with these monolithic buildings just a stone’s throw away, this vibrant oasis remained unscathed, like a time capsule preserving Japan’s pre-urban scenery.

Guiding us was Shintaro Hirasawa, who is at the helm of Asahi-Shuzo’s environmental efforts and social initiatives, including the Koshiji Nature Foundation.

Established by Asahi-Shuzo in 2001, the Koshiji Nature Foundation’s objectives include raising funds for environmental organizations across Niigata, monitoring both local and regional environments, running classes and workshops on environmental conservation, and protecting satoyama landscapes like the one in front of the brewery.

“Sake brewing is only possible thanks to the blessings of nature,” explained Hirasawa, “so we felt we had to do something to make our business more sustainable and guarantee that we can continue to grow rice and use the local water in the future.”

One of Hirasawa’s main focuses is on the Asahi Castle Forest, which is about a 15-minute walk from the brewery. It was once the site of an ancient castle, and was declared one of 1,000 “Monitoring Sites” by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment in 2003.

Along with being a sanctuary for greenery and wildlife, these monitoring sites serve as a snapshot of environmental trends in the region and across Japan. The Koshiji Nature Foundation’s reports allow the Japanese government to spot any degradation before it becomes severe, making it a vital piece of a puzzle covering all the different landscapes of Japan, from the Okinawan tropics to the tundras of Hokkaido.

A Community United Behind Firefly-Friendly Habitats

Hirasawa and other members of the foundation knew that garnering community support was critical to preserving the local environment. “After we set our sights on encouraging fireflies to live in Asahi, we immediately started working towards making the land more inviting. Many locals were also worried about the land, so they quickly joined us, making it a community effort right from the get-go,” he explained.

Their work included cleaning up and monitoring the local environment, as well as studying fireflies and their larvae in Asahi-Shuzo’s own firefly research lab. To promote their endeavors, Asahi-Shuzo also set up the Firefly Village Project, which educates local children about the importance of fireflies, laying the groundwork for future generations to take up the cause.

Through these undertakings, aided by a reduction in the use of agricultural chemicals by local farmers, Asahi-Shuzo and the community were rewarded by the steady increase of summertime fireflies visiting their neighborhoods.

“Thankfully, the number of fireflies increased, and these days you can see a decent number around the hills and rice fields,” said Hirasawa excitedly. To celebrate, the Koshiji Firefly Festival is held around the peak firefly season of June in the nearby Tsukanoyama, where visitors can view their hypnotizing dances void of any street lights together with locals.

For those coming to Asahi-Shuzo, fireflies may also be spotted behind Sara no Sato Asahiyama, which is the brewery’s shop and restaurant facility (make sure to confirm brewery tour and restaurant/shop times too).

Exploring the Koshiji Momiji Garden - Asahi’s Crowning Gem

While our visit was unfortunately too early in the year for fireflies, we were instead able to appreciate another of the successes of Asahi-Shuzo and locals at the Koshiji Momiji Garden, a maple tree grove that straddles the hill next to the brewery.

Come autumn, the fiery foliage of the garden’s maples lures in numerous visitors, placing Asahi firmly on the map. Across the spacious 4,000 m² grounds are hundreds of maples from several species, many of which are between 150-200 years old. Fresh green foliage can be enjoyed across the warmer months, while their dazzling fall colors peak from early to mid-November, coinciding with after-dark light-ups at the annual Koshiji Maple Festival.

Although the early springtime weather was too cold for the maples to bare their foliage for us, the garden nevertheless looked stunning, and the leafless trees granted us superb views of the sprawling rice fields and brewery below.

Before it became a public park, the maple garden was originally the villa of a wealthy landowner built in the late 1800s, and many of the oldest maples are thought to have been brought in from Kyoto for the family’s private garden. After sitting abandoned for many years, the land was eventually donated to the town, and it was restored and reopened with the support of Asahi-Shuzo in 1989 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the brewery’s establishment as a company.

Hirasawa also shared with us how each year, new middle school students are given a maple sapling cultivated from a seed taken from the garden to bring home and grow. This program was spearheaded by Asahi-Shuzo, and has resulted in around 4,000 maples being distributed across Koshiji as of 2023.

The Koshiji Momiji Garden alone draws up to 80,000 visitors each autumn, and hosts functions like tea ceremonies and weddings over the year, making it an indispensable part of the local economy passionately safeguarded by Asahi-Shuzo and the community.

Asahi Noken: Rice Farming For the Future

Another core component of Asahi-Shuzo’s move to make its sake brewing more sustainable is Asahi Noken. Founded in 1990, it acts as Asahi-Shuzo's dedicated agricultural corporation, and is currently managed by fourth generation director Yoshihiko Anzawa. Its purpose is to grow consistently high-quality “sakamai” sake rice specifically suited for Asahi-Shuzo’s brews, all while researching and enacting sustainable farming practices to help guarantee a future supply of ingredients.

To do this, Anzawa and his predecessors strove to free themselves from the unwieldy supply chains of typical modern businesses by honing in on their locality. As Anzawa explains: “We have a total of roughly 50 hectares of sake rice fields next to the brewery. Around 25% of them are directly owned by us, while the others are owned by locals, who lend them to us to grow rice.”

Asahi-Shuzo only uses rice grown in Niigata's borders, not just from Asahi Noken but also by other farmers within the prefecture. The farming water is likewise gathered from the nearby Shinano River, while the natural underground spring water of Asahi is used for brewing, giving them full control over their resources and how they’re managed.

“Originally, we did have rice trucked in from Hyogo Prefecture, as they had a rice that was much better suited for brewing ‘daiginjo’ sake, which couldn’t be grown well in the climate of Niigata. However, through research and experimentation by local organizations, a new variety of rice for daiginjo sake suitable for Niigata called “koshitanrei” was successfully developed, which can only be used within Niigata Prefecture. This, plus the use of other local rices and local water, has allowed us to limit our supply chain for all our sake to only the borders of Niigata.” explained Anzawa.

Meanwhile, in its experimental fields, Asahi Noken farmers try out new ways of growing rice by testing combinations of different types and amounts of fertilizers and more used by Asahi-Shuzo with the goal of improving efficiency. Rather than keeping this knowledge secret, its findings are passed onto the wider community, who in turn share their own knowledge with the brewery, creating a synergy that helps with next year’s farming and increases the overall quality of local rice.

Protecting Fireflies From Agricultural Chemicals

Enjoying the Bounties of Asahi

The endeavors of Asahi Noken also played a big part in the increasing firefly population.

“We’ve long been reducing the use of agricultural chemicals on our farms. These chemicals are very bad for fireflies, killing their larvae and such. But with the help of locals, we’ve been doing things like cutting grass and maintaining fields by hand, making sure that the soil and local spring water stays pure and uncontaminated,” said Anzawa.

Anzawa and his team’s rice farming practices have steadily grown more efficient and eco-friendly, and are an excellent blueprint for a more sustainable form of brewing. Combined with the work of the Koshiji Nature Foundation and the greater community, Asahi-Shuzo is hopeful that future generations will still be able to enjoy local sake without sacrificing natural wonders like fireflies and maple trees.

During our walk around the forests of Asahi, we were guided to a bamboo pipe gushing out its famous local soft spring water. This water has flowed continuously since Asahi-Shuzo’s founding almost 200 years ago, and is a crucial factor behind its success as a brewery.

Soft water is believed to encourage gentle fermentation, which helps produce the dry taste of sake. Niigata Prefecture is known for its abundance of soft water, and the spring water of Asahi is some of the softest in the region, giving Kubota and other Asahi-Shuzo brews their signature crispness.

Taking a sip from the tap, the spring water felt cool and pure, driving home just how blessed Asahi truly is. This tap can be found near the entrance to Asahi Shrine, just in front of the brewery, so make sure to stop by for a drink while exploring!

The Nagaoka Fireworks Festival: Promoting Local Culture

Alongside measures to preserve the environment, Asahi-Shuzo is also heavily involved in promoting local culture across the wider Nagaoka City area. We were able to witness the crux of this at the 2023 Nagaoka Fireworks Festival, which was held on August 2 and 3 along the Shinano River, Japan's longest river. The Nagaoka Fireworks Festival is considered one of Japan’s three biggest fireworks festivals and, alongside sake, fireflies, and maple trees, has long held a special place in the hearts of Nagaoka residents.

The Nagaoka Fireworks Festival is also a symbol of resilience. It originally began as a way to honor victims and revitalize the city after the devastating Bombing of Nagaoka on August 1, 1945. Decades later, the Phoenix fireworks, one of its main spectacles, were launched to bring cheer in the wake of the catastrophic 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake. Plus, being the festival’s first full-scale iteration without restrictions since COVID-19, its significance again reached new heights in 2023, and the air was filled with palpable anticipation and excitement.

Each year, Asahi-Shuzo sponsors the “Niagara” firework (pictured above), a golden waterfall stretching across the Chosei Bridge crowned by colorful bursts of light. It is a unique spectacle that serves as a refreshing intermission between the barrage of circular fireworks around it, and audiences were visibly wowed by its scale and radiance.

The Phoenix was as magnificent as ever, filling a whopping two kilometer space with a blinding torrent of golden light that rocketed up into the sky. The powerful “Kokyo wa Hitotsu” (Only One Home) and the colorful “Cho-ogata Super Vesuvius” (Extremely Grand Super Vesuvius) were some other personal highlights (both pictured above). Despite the sweltering midsummer weather, the festive vibe kept everyone in good spirits, and the two hours of non-stop fireworks were a feast for the eyes that never ceased to amaze.

Tickets for the Nagaoka Fireworks Festival can be purchased on the official website (Japanese), so if you’re visiting Asahi in early August, be sure to stay the night and immerse yourself even deeper in the local culture!

Recommended Sake Pairing Recipes From Asahi-Shuzo

Asahi-Shuzo are also enthusiastically promoting their sake through pairing recipes, branching out to the global market to spread the natural goodness of Asahi internationally. They have curated a number of sake pairing recipes from across 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!

Sauteed Chicken Slices in a Sake Sauce With a Lemon Fragrance

This is a great dish for those who want to both drink and use their newly purchased Asahi-Shuzo sake for cooking. After sauteing chicken breast in olive oil, butter, and lemon zest, add a touch of sake to the searing meat to unlock delicious new flavors. For this, Asahi-Shuzo recommends Soujo Kubota Seppou, a limited edition sake available in April. It has a refreshing bouquet that balances sweetness and tartness, and is perfect for lighter meats like chicken. After using a bit of the sake on the chicken, save the rest to enjoy while tucking into your meal.

See the full recipe and pairing here:

Easy Oven Baked Tomato Treats

For something that looks fancy and tastes great, but can be whipped up in next to no time, try this oven-baked tomato recipe. Stuffed with a filling of breadcrumbs and parsley, it yields a sweet and savory mouthful that pairs well with the fresh but mellow flavor of Kubota Suijyu. This unpasteurized daiginjo sake is sold between April to September, and is best served well chilled for the biggest impact. Make sure to save the unneeded tomato pulp for use in a salad or soup, too!

See the full recipe and pairing here:

Dorayaki Pancakes

Dorayaki is a Japanese dessert made of azuki bean paste sandwiched between two small pancakes. It has a mild, refined sweetness often found agreeable to those unused to Japanese confections. This version zests it up with a helping of “yuzu” jam, which is a type of Japanese citrus fruit. Pair it with a glass of Kubota Senjyu, whose smooth, dry character will even out the dorayaki’s sweetness, and you’ll have a gratifying dessert that won’t leave your stomach feeling heavy afterwards!

See the full recipe and pairing here:

*By the way, Asahi-Shuzo is hosting the interactive sake event “Ask AI Your Preference of Sake” on October 22, 2023 in Shibuya Parco, Tokyo. Using AI, you’ll do a blind tasting of 10 different kinds of sake to find the brew of your preference. For fans of sake, this is not one to be missed!

You can book tickets to the event here:

And for those unable to attend this time around, the event will also be held again in November, so follow the official Kubota Sake Instagram for the latest information!

Experience the Natural Bliss and Culture of Asahi For Yourself!

Asahi-Shuzo and the surrounding rice fields and satoyama of Asahi are easy to reach for those traveling around Japan. Along with touring one of Japan’s leading sake breweries, you’ll be able to enjoy the invigorating greenery lovingly preserved by Asahi-Shuzo and Asahi locals. Whether you line up your visit with the fireflies in June, fireworks festival in August, autumn foliage in November, or even the deep snowfall of midwinter or April cherry blossoms, the lush scenery and unique culture of Asahi and the Koshiji region is sure to double your appreciation for Asahi-Shuzo’s sake!

Chubu Feature

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

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About the author

Steve Csorgo
Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Steve currently lives in Niigata City. His passions include discovering local sake, reading, and traveling to as much of Japan as possible. Hot springs, historical sites, and untouched nature are some of his favorite things about Japan. He enjoys writing about traditional crafts, offbeat yet charming towns, and interesting local stories.
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