On March 11, 2011, the day of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan, Sugawara Hiroki was home in the port city of Kesennuma, on spring break from his university in Hokkaido. He and his father, Sugawara Akihiko, president and fourth-generation sake brewer at Otokoyama Honten Sake Brewery, were taking refuge, watching the tsunami waves washing in within ten meters of the brewery facilities.
During the first quakes, the employees at Otokoyama Honten Sake Brewery, who were working at the time, had fled to higher ground at the brewery. Miraculously, all of them were safe and the brewery itself was unharmed, but Sugawara Akihiko explains that the disaster had touched all of their lives.
“Some staff had family who died. And some of their houses were destroyed. But all our staff were safe; all of them were here.”
Located on a slope, Otokoyama Honten's brewing facilities were fine, but the building that housed their headquarters was on lower ground and had its first and second floors crushed by the impact of the tsunami; the third floor collapsing intact upon the rubble of the first two. Fortunately, nobody was in the building at the time.
Resuming Brewery Operations, the Day After the 3/11 Earthquake and Tsunami
Astoundingly, on March 12th, 2011, the day after the disaster, they resumed brewing.
President Sugawara tells us, “The Japanese moromi [mash] was still there. None of the tanks fell over. None of the sake bottles broke, either. We were very lucky. Of the standing tanks that didn’t fall over, there were two tanks of fermenting moromi.”
Hiroki adds, “We had to finish the moromi but there was no electricity, no water.”
They were able to borrow a power generator from another part of Kesennuma; helped by people who had lost everything, themselves.
From March 22nd to 24th, they started pressing the moromi and extracting the sake. Around that time, newspaper journalists and television news crews came to cover the aftermath of the disaster and visited Otokoyama Honten after hearing of their story.
Then, from March 31st to April 1st, Otokoyama Honten received electricity and gas, but were confronted by another obstacle: they had no bottles.
Akihiko says, “The bottles were all swept away because they were closer to the sea. In that warehouse, bottles, labels, and things were all stored; so the sake was ready but we didn’t have sake bottles.”
How did they manage to continue? “We were sent bottles by people who saw us on TV.”
With both local and countrywide support, Otokoyama Honten started shipping their sake at the beginning of April.
As for the Otokoyama Honten headquarters, they decided to break down the surviving third floor, move the pieces, and restore the building on higher ground. The project began in 2016 and was completed last April, with the building opening as a retail space.
Hiroki tells us that many revered, historical buildings were lost in the disaster, and out of all the buildings that were destroyed, only five were restored.
“We are a very rare case,” says the older Sugawara.
Building a New Community Around Craft Beer in Kesennuma
As the chairman of the Kesennuma Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Sugawara Akihiko has taken on the task of creating a new city. Top of his responsibilities is the economic development and revitalization of Kesennuma.
How exactly? Mainly through researching how to provide the necessary support to individual stores, and helping to build community resources.
“Other than that,” Akihiko says, “Craft beer. Black Tide Brewing.”
Black Tide Brewing is Sugawara’s most ambitious recent project to revitalize and modernize Kesennuma. A little over a year ago, James Watney, a craft beer brewer from Portland, Oregon, arrived in Kesennuma to start a new business after being personally invited by President Sugawara. They’ve been brewing beer for nearly a year now, having started in April or May of 2020, Sugawara tells us.
“[They’re brewing] a lot of different kinds: IPA, hazy IPA, saison, lager… strong lager.”
And their catchphrase? “Brewed with pride in Kesennuma,” says President Sugawara in English; a motto that is shared by Otokoyama Honten.
He explains his motivation for starting such a collaboration: “Well, there was nothing like it in the area. We wanted to create a new industry that didn’t exist in Kesennuma, that could be cheered on and beloved by everyone. [...] We wanted to create a new community with craft beer at its center.”
And how did he find James Watney? “How… the internet!”
While the trendy craft beer and traditional Japanese sake might seem at odds, there is a spirit of collaboration between Otokoyama Honten Sake Brewery and Black Tide Brewing.
“We give them ingredients, rice, rice koji, yeast, and they use them to make beer,” says Hiroki.
“Azure Wind is good,” Akihiko says with conviction.
“Azure Wind is categorized as a sake ale,” Hiroki says with a laugh. “So they use rice, rice koji, and also they mix sake yeast and beer yeast. It’s quite a new way to make beer. It cannot be categorized as a usual term—like IPA, hazy IPA, saison.”
On the success of Black Tide Brewing, President Sugawara says, “I didn’t think it would be so popular. [...] Everyone in Kesennuma also buys and drinks it. They have a taproom near the factory where we can bring a growler and purchase beer. [...] We didn’t think we could create that kind of culture [in Kesennuma].”
He jokes, “It's a little regrettable though because I’m a sake brewer and they’re a beer brewery; the customers will be drawn to the beer. They’re both communities, though Japanese sake is more traditional and established. But a new community—this craft beer community—is very fun. People come from outside Kesennuma to drink it; people from other countries, too.”
Sugawara hopes that people will come to Kesennuma for the delicious food, local sake, and craft beer; and hear about their story. He’s striving to create activities to attract visitors and keep them engaged so they enjoy longer stays in the port city.
Impact of Covid-19 on Otokoyama Honten Sake Brewery
No business has gone untouched by Covid-19, including Sugawara’s. “Maybe the biggest thing is about restaurants,” says the younger Sugawara in English. “Because we were selling our sake to many restaurants [before]. Maybe even now, restaurants are still suffering.”
Also, due to Otokoyama Honten’s fixed contracts with rice farmers, they had to purchase more rice than they needed. “Next year we will have to slightly reduce the amount we purchase,” says the older Sugawara. Their brewing period has also been slightly staggered due to Covid-19. This year, they will start brewing in April 2021, whereas they normally begin in September.
Sake in the Sea: Maturing Sake Underwater Since 2006
The innovative concepts that are turning Kesennuma into a destination, spearheaded by Akihiko Sugawara, long precede Black Tide Brewing.
Starting in 2006, Otokoyama Honten Sake Brewery began experimenting with maturing sake underwater. After extensive testing at different water depths and improving their water-tight packaging, the project gained traction, luring curious visitors from across Japan.
The Sake in the Sea: Immersive Sake Storage Voyage in Kesennuma allows participants to tour the brewery, pack up their own sake bottles, and sail out to a local oyster farm to deposit the bottles underwater. Six months to a year later, they can return to collect their bottles. This has created something of a community, with yearly reunions where guests reconnect over glasses of Otokoyama Honten’s underwater-aged sake.
When asked why he decided to start this project, President Sugawara replies in English, almost dreamily: “Fantasy.”
Sugawara’s imagination dares to dream for a new reality in Kesennuma which, ten years after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, is on its way to fruition. He has encouraged both a literal and figurative cultural exchange between his sake brewery and the craft beer brewery, in the form of beer yeast and rice koji, creating an optimistic vision for Kesennuma.
With the support of both local and international communities, and leaders like Sugawara spearheading the movement for regional revitalization, the possibilities for Kesennuma are boundless.
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by Melinda Joe in Japanese and English on March 10, 2021. The Japanese has been translated into English as accurately as possible and may have been slightly adapted for clarity.