Brewer launches ultra-expensive sake made from hand-grown rice
A regional sake brewer has launched a product for an impressive price of 330,000 yen ($2,400) – a set of two 720 milliliter sake bottles made from Japan’s famous hand-grown, chemical-free Koshihikari rice. agricultural products and synthetic fertilizers.
The unusually high price reflects the commitment of three people from disparate industries who were determined to create over time and effort something of lasting value, especially in an age of mass production and mass consumption.
Rice planting had just been completed when this reporter visited rice terraces deep in the Tokamachi Mountains of Niigata Prefecture in June.
Photo taken in June 2022 shows Hideharu Tobe using a machine to pull weeds in his rice field in Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture. (Kyodo)
There were no weeds growing between the rice plants, although 70-year-old Hideharu Tobe does not use herbicides in the paddy field, totaling 0.66 hectares in area – or 6,600 square meters.
He regularly removes weeds using a wheeled vehicle. According to Tobe, the 0.66 hectare area is the largest manageable size for growing rice by manual labor alone, yielding a harvest less than 60 percent of that which can be obtained from a conventional rice paddy of the same size.
The previous year’s rice, mixed into the soil to provide nutrients to the newly planted crop, is used as an alternative fertilizer. “I only want to use natural things,” Tobe said, adding that he doesn’t drain the water from the rice fields so as not to kill microorganisms.
Tobe began a life dedicated to self-sufficiency in a rural village after retiring from a car manufacturer. In 2002, he moved to his current home in Tokamachi City and started cultivating rice without chemicals. Production was poor the first year due to blight.
Photo taken in June 2022 showing Hideharu Tobe’s rice field in Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture. (Kyodo)
But Tobe continued with the cultivation of rice without chemicals or fertilizers with only human power. Five years later, the owner of a rice shop took note of Tobe’s rice and asked him to ship it to the store’s outlet at a department store in Tokyo. To Tobe’s surprise, his rice fetched as much as 3,000 yen per kilogram.
Akane Shiba, a 39-year-old freelance writer in Minowa, Nagano Prefecture, heard rumors about Tobe’s premium rice and was intrigued. She had been determined for some time to introduce through her editorial work in magazines and mail order catalogs a product that was “really high quality and exceptional, not something average that you can find anywhere” , she said.
Shiba thought of using Tobe’s rice to produce quality sake, believing that its appeal could be maximized if combined with Japan’s prized spring water, and proposed the idea to Tobe.
The photo provided shows a set of two bottles of Japanese sake priced at 330,000 yen. (Kyodo)
But the Koshihikari rice brand is not normally used for sake production. So Yoshimasa Ono, 65, owner of Ono Brewery Co., also in Nagano, was initially skeptical when approached by Shiba.
However, inspired by Tobe’s example, Ono decided to carefully produce sake at natural temperatures, using a method that does not rely on machinery such as air conditioning. The resulting product tastes quite different from conventional rice-based sake suitable for drinking.
“It offers the taste of Koshihikari, with a smooth body and elegant sweetness,” Ono said.
Ono also began to receive inquiries about sake from overseas. He, Tobe and Shiba say they aim to deliver the rare product to sake lovers around the world.
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