YAME, Fukuoka — A traditional sake maker with a history of more than 300 years has overcome challenges as a pioneer in making Japanese alcoholic beverages that meet world-class safety standards.
Takahashi Shouten, whose brewing facility is located in Yame City, Fukuoka Prefecture, has turned to overseas markets to weather declining sake consumption as people refrain from visiting the bars and restaurants amid the coronavirus pandemic. Since simply exporting Japanese sake will not distinguish them from other companies’ products, the southwestern Japanese sake maker has been working to obtain food safety certification that meets global standards.
When this reporter visited Yame Brewery, employees went inside after washing their hands, dusting their work clothes with a lint roller and putting on indoor shoes. Such measures are taken to prevent bacteria that cause food poisoning.
“Koji mold is used to make Japanese sake, so we have to strictly manage the facility and equipment to make sure other fungi don’t get in,” said security manager Kei Suzuki, 44. food at Takahashi Shouten.
The sake maker, founded in 1717 during the Edo period, is known for its “Shigemasu” brand – a dry sake handcrafted using traditional methods using underground water from a local river and high-grade Yamada Nishiki rice. quality produced in Fukuoka prefecture.
While the products are mostly sold at local sake shops, demand at izakaya bars has plummeted due to COVID-19. Suzuki said that in the worst-case scenario, annual revenues fell 70% from before the pandemic.
Takahashi Shouten president Takuya Nakagawa, 47, who saw the popularity of sake overseas as a business opportunity, offered to obtain JFS standard certification, managed by the Tokyo-based Japan Food Safety Management Association. The certification conforms to global standards and is divided into three levels “A”, “B” and “C”.
The sake maker launched a food safety team in 2017 and achieved Level B certification in 2019. Following this success, the company has been working to obtain Level C certification, which requires manufacturers to meet the strictest criteria and which is recognized worldwide.
The sake maker’s first effort was to control the sanitary conditions of the manufacturing process, from transporting the ingredients to brewing and shipping the products. The company has banned the custom of temporarily placing materials on the floor and has ensured that items are organized, such as sorting various product labels into boxes. The instructions, formerly given verbally, are recorded in manuals and internal audits verify their compliance.
“These efforts have led to reforms in employee awareness, as well as stability in the quality of our products,” said Chairman Nakagawa.
The C-standard certification recognizes senior management’s responsibility for food safety and the slogan “Provide products without food incidents”, accompanied by the name of the president, is hung on the wall of the factory. In February 2022, Takahashi Shouten became Japan’s first sake maker to achieve C-standard certification.
The demand for sake is currently increasing overseas. According to trade statistics from the Ministry of Finance, the total export value of Japanese sake in fiscal 2021 was about 40.1 billion yen (about $315 million), while the export volume totaled some 32,000 kilolitres, two records. Nakagawa said, “I want to aim for exports to be around 30% of our sales in the future.”
Hitoshi Utsunomiya, board member of the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, pointed out, “Sake exports to the United States and Europe, whose economies have recovered from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as to China, have experienced a sudden increase. restaurants have increased overseas, as have sake orders.”
He said: “If the global shortage of shipping containers is resolved, further growth can be expected. Large overseas supermarkets sometimes check whether products meet food safety management standards, so it is important to make efforts to obtain certification.
(Japanese original by Junko Adachi, Kurume Bureau)