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Brewing Japanese sake from nature's gifts
from "Toward a sustainable Japan - Corporations at work"
Kazunori Kobayashi

The Kikusui Brewing Co., established in 1881 in Shibata City of Niigata Prefecture, is a popular "sake" (rice wine) brewer in Japan that sells under its own brand name. Blessed with a clean river source (providing high quality soft water) and fertile soil in an environment best-suited to making sake, with 139 employees, Kikusui Brewing produces and sells several kinds of refined sake, amounting to about 7,400 tons annually. The key to Japanese sake brewing is all about harnessing the gifts of nature to make good sake from rice and water. Based on this philosophy, Kikusui has actively worked to be an environmentally friendly business, coexisting with nature by promoting glass bottle reuse and regularly donating part of its sales to the conservation group World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Brewing Sake with Organic Rice

Kikusui is currently putting emphasis on sake brewing using organic rice. Organic cultivation means growing plants without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, optimizing the natural productive power of soil, water and air. Organic farmers should take all possible measures to prevent their crops from being contaminated by chemical substances that do not exist in nature. Brewing "organic" sake from organically grown farm products means that factories that brew sake should make the same effort as farmers. This means brewers should establish and manage procedures to avoid contaminating their products with chemical substances such as agricultural chemicals, cleaners or disinfectants, in all phases of production, processing and distribution.

In Japan, a testing and certification system for organic agricultural produce and processed foods (referred to as the organic JAS system) within the JAS (Japan Agricultural Standard) stipulates quality and labeling standards for agricultural produce. JAS defines quality and labeling standards concerning agricultural products. A Kikusui plant was certified as a JAS accredited plant when it qualified to process organic produce in November 2002, making it the third for Japanese sake brewery with this certification, and the first in Niigata Prefecture. In June 2003, the plant produced "quality sake brewed from the finest organic rice" under the Article 7 of Liquor Tax Law, and started sales of the new product.

Aiming to Create an "Organic Space" for Production

Kikusui, whose basic philosophy is to provide its customers with true safety and trust in the product, did not stop here. It uses organic ingredients and methods to produce sake, but what about the "space" where the sake brewing is done? Recently, a growing number of cases of chemical sensitivity are reported in people, caused by chemical substances such as adhesives or preservatives contained in building materials used in homes, schools and hospitals, etc. Reducing chemical contamination to nearly zero when building new factories is a significant challenge not only for protecting food safety but also for building design.

Believing that traditional sake brewing know-how is a culture that should be handed down to future generations and shared abroad, the company came up with an idea to establish the "Kikusui Institute of Sake Culture," which will serve as a plant, a school, and a laboratory. The concept was to create the world's first "organic space" within a newly built plant by designing and constructing a plant within the Institute, applying the same ideas used in certifying organic. A construction company certified by the Association for Sustainable Agricultural Certification (ASAC) will certify the new plant. The ASAC, a certification body for organic agricultural products.

Advanced Construction Traceability

The institute has an underground level and ground-level floor, with a total area of approximately 1,400 square meters. About one third of the area in the center of the facility is classified as Sake Brewery Area where organic sake is to be produced. In order to maintain "organic space," the buffering area including research/hospitality and resting areas between the room and the surrounding environment are classified as "quasi organic space."

At present, creating an "organic space" means to make sure that construction materials, wallpaper, equipment machines, and adhesives are used in ways so that they do not become sources of pollution. The company requested suppliers to submit information on each material used, such as in the form of a standard Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which help to verify the safety of chemical substances used, and a manufacturing process chart to determine the adequacy of use by referring to the standards. If any were found to be inadequate, alternative products or construction methods were discussed.

As in the case of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos, some materials turn out to be harmful years after being introduced, when a stricter standard is applied, although they were considered to be safe initially. With this in mind, with the construction of the research institute, the company established a "traceability" system for materials used, so that future generations will be able to take action if necessary.

The first major issue was setting a standard. The qualification standard of the clean environment had to be defined through a trial-and-error process. If any of the construction materials were found to be unacceptable, the standard had to be re-examined reflecting the new design concepts. The selection of materials changed as the standards changed, and sometimes, the standards was revised between the morning and evening of the same day. The construction contractors say that they found this process difficult as it made their selection of materials more time-consuming.

In addition, acquiring material certificates was also a big issue. Few suppliers of construction materials and equipment had ever been requested to submit an MSDS, which is more commonly used in the chemical industry. It could have been the first time for the construction and architectural industry to work on this issue systematically throughout the project.

Equipment assemblers faced further difficulties, because Kikusui required proof of safety for each of the components, rather than just for the entire product. For instance, a plywood product that requires adhesive bonding was proposed for the floor material of elevators for its low cost and high strength. But company chose solid wood fastened by screws because of the possible vapors from adhesives used to make plywood. For other equipment, based on components charts, components were traced back to the primary manufacturers, which were able to issue MSDS and material certificates.

The time-consuming tracking sometimes caused delays in selecting equipment and materials. Such work completely contradicted the VE (value engineering) method of managing costs and functions to improve the value of product and services, and Kikusui says that it cannot be too thankful to the manufacturers that showed an understanding of Kikusui' s aims and cooperated.

The architecture as a whole, including the method of construction, needed new approaches. For instance, underground rooms are high in humidity and prone to attract mold. Fungicides would contaminate the organic space through long-term release into the air, so the ventilation of the building and the handling procedures were improved to prevent such contamination. The certificates and documentation collected by Kikusui amounted to a stack of papers about a meter thick, but unexpectedly, the final material costs were only 20 to 30 percent more than what would have been the usual procurement cost.

Japanese Sake that Makes the Most of the Gifts of Nature

This building was completed in July 2004. Certification by an accredited builder is expected soon for the building, and approval is expected for the factory system. Mr. Daisuke Takasawa, president of the company states that "we will begin preliminary production from November 2004 in the new factory, and will gradually begin producing organic sake. Taking into account the progress of the production, we would like to release this as a new sake brand by 2005." Kikusui will also disclose information to the extent possible about its methodology in creating an organic space, to help spread this type of certification.

Besides the domestic market, Kikusui also intends to ship its organic sake overseas in response to demand. In addition to the production facilities and the Kikusui Institute of Sake Culture, there are also facilities for training and accommodation, so that people in Japan and around the world can learn about safe sake production. Through such training, the culture of Japanese sake will be handed down to the future--a culture that encompasses not only good taste but also safety, trust in the product, and harmony with nature. Soon Kikusui sake, made with such concepts, can be enjoyed by people around the world who share the same values.

This article was featured in the July 2004 edition of the Japan for Sustainability Newsletter (

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