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Niigata tanrei

Introduction to Niigata

Niigata boasts a high level of industry and supports the largest number of manufacturers of any prefecture in Japan. Niigata's respected artisans produce crisp and dry Japanese sake, rice crackers, woodcrafts, and textiles such as knitwear and silk fabric. The prefecture is also well-known for its agriculture, as represented by its famous rice "Niigata Koshihikari."

Niigata is blessed with a rich natural environment that has nurtured its fertile land. It has a long and varied coastline as well as many mountains and rivers, some of which are included in national parks. In fact, Niigata Prefecture boasts the second largest area of natural parks in Japan. In addition, Sado Island, off its coast, enjoys a long history and unique culture.

The people of Niigata are often described as diligent and persistent, and one look at the items that its master artisans carefully craft by hand will prove that this reputation is well-earned.


Niigata Sake

Niigata Sake's unique taste can be summed up as "crisp and dry." It is less sweet and has a lighter taste than the national average. It contains less extract and amino acid, and is generally light in color.

The delicate flavor and aroma of this sake, nurtured by ninety-seven brewers in the prefecture as well as by the Niigata Prefectural Sake Research Institute, contrasts with the full-bodied sweet sake that once dominated mainstream Japan.

Niigata Sake now boasts the third-highest total sake production in Japan after Hyogo and Kyoto Prefectures, and is greatly appreciated for its high quality, enjoying popularity among consumers.

While the total annual alcohol consumption per Japanese adult averages 93.97 liters, with consumption of Japanese sake at 11.55 liters, Niigata residents drink an average of 24.72 liters of Japanese sake per person, which is ranked the highest consumption in Japan.

Niigata Sake: Finest in the World

The reason Niigata Prefecture produces the best sake in the world can be summed up in just one word--snow! Yes, it is truly about the snow!

Some mountainous areas of Niigata regularly receive over 30 feet of snowfall every year. This wintry climate creates the fine quality of Niigata's sake in three distinct ways:

1. Snow melt and run-off have led to some of the finest, most pristine rice paddies in the world, perfect for cultivating the premium-grade "sake rice" needed to brew such fine sake.

2. Water is the second main ingredient in sake. Pure melted snow leads to a pure brew, bringing out subtle aromas and flavors that less pristine waters could mask.

3. Finally, the regular snowfall that so dominates Niigata's winter acts as a natural air purifier. Thus, the age-old brewing process takes place in an atmosphere free of pollutants, germs and other micro-organisms which can negatively impact the sake. This is very important, as sake brewing is a complex process employing not only yeast, but also a beneficial and delicate mold called koji. Impurities in the air can interfere with the fermentation process and lead to off-flavors and aromas.

Certainly Niigata's pristine, snowy climate is one of the principal factors in its generations-old tradition of making premium sake. The dedication and zeal of its brewers and sake researchers has also played a vital role in Niigata Sake's prominence.

Finest in the World

Pursuit of Skills for Quality's Sake

Niigata's sake houses are known for producing handcrafted sake of world-class stature, leaving mass market production to other prefectures. In fact, Niigata produces less than 8% of all of the sake made in Japan. This frees Niigata to put its energy, resources, and genuine expertise into producing only the finest sake.

Echigo Toji: Expert Brewers

Sake brewers and brewery workers are called "kurabito," with the head brewer, or sake master, known as "toji." Niigata Prefecture is home to the biggest group of these skilled workers in Japan: the reknowned "Echigo Toji" ("Echigo" being an old name for Niigata which is still often used).
With mechanization and the introduction of computers, the methods for controlling the brewing of sake have changed. Sake brewers' experience and intuition, however, continue to play an important role in sake making. "Echigo Toji," whose highly-regarded skills contribute greatly to the art of sake making, are sought after by breweries not only in Niigata but all over Japan.

"Koji Mold"

It is the use of the koji mold that distinguishes sake from beer and other water-based, fermented beverages. The sake brewing process begins when koji mold is cultivated onto steamed rice. This starts a process called "saccharification," in which the rice starches are broken down into sugars. Simultaneously, sake yeast is added and the fermentation process begins. Saccharification and fermentation take place in the same vat, at the same time, a procedure is called "multiple parallel fermentation." This is what accounts for the complexity of flavors and aromas present in truly great sake. For centuries, Niigata's Sake houses have been renowned for their artistry in the use of koji, helping to give Niigata Sake its delicious and highly recognizable taste.

Niigata Prefectural Sake Research Institute
Finest in the World

Historically, the Sake Industry topped the Niigata Prefecture's list of industrial output, until the textile and oil industries took over the lead after the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95).

To support the future development of the sake industry, Niigata Prefectural Sake Research Institute was established in 1930. It is a professional organization whose only mission is to continually seek to enhance the quality and variety of Niigata's sake, and it remains the only research-based organization of its kind in Japan. It has achieved some significant results, among them the development of a new strain of sake rice called "Ipponjime." It was also an innovative microbiologist from the Niigata Sake Institute who developed a red strain of koji mold that produces a brilliant, shimmering red sake with a fresh, berry-like aroma.

Niigata Prefecture, through the Niigata Sake Institute, leads the world in sake production innovations that improve quality while keep traditions alive. Whether it be fresh ways of inoculating koji rice, the development of new varieties of sake yeasts, or the use of temperature control in the fermentation process, the Niigata Sake Institute is always at the forefront of research.

"Echigo Toji" (Niigata's master sake brewers) are not afraid to apply these kinds of scientific innovations to improve their product. They clearly understand the importance of keeping sake-making techniques vibrant and dynamic. This is how it has been for centuries. On the other hand, the brewers also adhere to the phrase "keiken to kan"- experience and intuition which is used to describe the artistry necessary for making handcrafted sake. The "toji" and his "kurabito" (sake-making team) are accomplished artists who rely as much on their sense of feel as they do on modern scientific instrumentation. Handcrafted sake in Niigata is the perfect combination of art and science, requiring great dedication by its brewers to being the best.

Establishment of the Niigata Taste

In the 1950's, when Japan was still recovering from the war and did not have an abundance of food, sweet and full-bodied sake was preferred because it could be enjoyed on its own, without being accompanied by food. Thus in the 1950's and 60's, breweries in Niigata aimed to make such sake, just like those produced in Hyogo or Kyoto.

Around 1965, the Japanese diet began to change and Niigata Prefectural Sake Research Institute noticed an unexpected finding in its research. Niigata Sake, which is crisp and light, was praised more than sweet and robust sake.

As the Japanese started to enjoy a rich and varied diet, with more Western foods on their dining table, they came to appreciate a more subtle sake which complements the flavor of food.

Niigata Sake Institute called for the breweries in Niigata to keep a high polishing ratio unique to Niigata Sake to make crisp, light and refreshing sake. The breweries devoted themselves to the pursuit of their skills wholeheartedly.

Niigata Sake directly benefits from this dedication to quality. The polishing ratio is 62% (meaning 62 % of the grain is milled away, leaving a grain 38% of its original size) while the national average for daiginjo, the highest grade of sake, is just 50%. Niigata Sake's unusually high polishing ratio means that more of the substances that can cause unpleasant flavors and aromas are removed, leaving high quality starch that brings a light and refreshing flavor to the sake.

Employment of Biotechnology

Niigata Prefectural Sake Research Institute has actively worked on a new brewing method, which largely depends on the experience and feel of the "toji," or head brewer. The Institute has incorporated scientific analysis into its research and development.

With the introduction of special equipment to analyze the genetic structures of yeast, the Institute has improved the quality of Niigata Sake by providing a better understanding of the function of the yeasts and koji molds which can create distinctive aromas and flavors.

Fostering of Skills

As the need for new technology in sake-making became more and more apparent, demand grew as well for an institution that would educate young brewers with professional skills. In 1984, "Seishu Gakkou" or Niigata Sake School, was founded by a group of sake brewers in Niigata to foster young artisans.

Here, "toji," or head brewers, team up with researchers from Niigata Sake Research Institute to instruct young people in the art of sake-making. Students in the program must take a total of one hundred classes over the course of three years in order to graduate. Over 350 young people have graduated from this school as bearers of future Japanese Sake.

Currently, 24 graduates of this school are working as head brewers in Niigata, which is about a quarter of the toji in Niigata Prefecture. There is no other place in the world where this kind of sake school exists.

Cf. There used to be a high school, called "Yoshikawa High School," that had a sake brewing department. The department was closed in March of 2004 due to financial difficulties of the local government.

Establishment of the Niigata Taste


The primary ingredient of sake, aside from water, is rice. Premium sake is brewed from a special rice, called "sake rice," in which the starches are concentrated at the center of the grain, with proteins, fats, and other unwanted components located toward the outside. This rice is completely different from normal table rice.

Niigata Prefecture produces an excellent sake rice called "Gohyakumangoku."This type of rice yields a crisp sake with a refreshing aftertaste, and as such has played an important role in the successful development of Niigata Sake. "Gohyakumangoku" was developed in Niigata Prefecture, which continues to be its largest production center, although this brand-name rice is now cultivated in other prefectures as well, such as Toyama and Ishikawa.

Another premium sake rice, grown in Hyogo Prefecture and other parts of western Japan, is called "Yamada Nishiki" This type of rice is known for giving a fragrant, rich and full-bodied sake. These two types of rice account for over 60 percent of sake rice planted in Japan, and are ranked as "Yokozuna," or grand champions.

"Gohyakumangoku," however, does have a disadvantage in that it is easily cracked when highly polished. To produce sake, the outside of the grain is milled away, or "polished," to remove the outer layers of proteins, fats, and amino acids that can lead to off-flavors in the brewing process. The more the rice is polished, the higher the grade of sake produced. "Daiginjo" or ultra premium sake, is polished to 40% of its original size, leaving the shinpaku or "white heart" of starch at the center. This makes the rice polishing process extremely difficult.

To solve this problem and at the same time provide customers with a new type of Niigata Sake one combining depth and complexity with a light and refreshing aftertaste Niigata sake producers strove to create a new sake unique to Niigata.

Development of "Koshi-Tanrei"

Niigata Prefectural Sake Research Institute and Niigata Agricultural Research Institute have joined forces with sake breweries in Niigata to give birth to "Koshi-Tanrei." Developed by cross-breeding "Gohyakumangoku"and "Yamada Nishiki," this new sake rice conveys a feeling of well-bred dignity. Koshi-Tanrei makes excellent quality sake and can also be easily polished.

Characteristics of "Koshi-Tanrei"

The sake produced with Koshi-Tanrei has added to the variety of Niigata Sake, combining the smooth, clean, and dry taste of Gohyakumangoku with the fragrant, well-blended, soft flavor of Yamada Nishiki.

Koshi-Tanrei also combines the technical advantages of its parent rices. Like Gohyakumangoku, it is easily made into "koji rice," a steamed rice with koji mold spores cultivated onto it. It also is easier to polish than even Yamada Nishiki. In addition, it has another beneficial characteristic: it can aged to produce sake that is released in autumn. This new rice has already shown great promise, and expectations are high for its success.

At present, almost all sake rice is produced in Niigata. However, "daiginjo" (ultra-premium sake) and some other types of sake do use rice from other prefectures. With the advent of Koshi-Tanrei, the dream of "All Niigata," where everything to do with sake brewing is completed inside Niigata from the growing of ingredients to the brewing itself is coming true. Niigata Sake Brewing Industry plans to take advantage of the characteristics of Koshi-Tanrei and is determined to bring out and develop the full potential of this new rice.

Establishment of a Standard

In 1997, Niigata Brewers Association introduced a set of standards for sake-making, referred to as "Appellations d'Origine Controlees".

The controls are intended to guarantee the quality of sake by setting a standard for ingredients and brewing methods. Sake which doesn't meet these standards may not use the brand name "Niigata Sake."

Finest in the World

This label designates authentic Niigata Sake.

To be officially designated as "Niigata Sake," the sake must:

1. Use rice produced only in Niigata Prefecture.
2. Be brewed in Niigata.
3. Use a water source in Niigata.
4. Be a Special Designation Sake with a polishing ratio of less than 60%.
5. Receive approval by the Quality Control Committee.

Since Niigata Sake is so popular, there have been increasing numbers of cases in which breweries of other prefectures sell their sake or sake blended with Korean sake under the label "Niigata Sake" or "XXX of Niigata." The association has been striving vigorously to protect the "Niigata Brand" through " Appellations d'Origine Controlees."