April 2006

Space Sake -- Sake From Another World

Posted by Beau Timken in 2006, April, Newsletter


KOCHI--If you had a multibillion-dollar space program, what would you use it for? Blasting yeast into space to make sake, you say? It so happens you're not alone. An association of Japanese firms based in Kochi Prefecture has started brewing sake from yeast they persuaded the Russians to send into space for 10 days in October on board the spacecraft Soyuz. The result? Well, nobody knows yet--the sake goes on sale April 1, though tastings will start as early as mid-January. "Terrestrial magnetism may have had an effect on the yeast while it was in orbit," said Sho Arimitsu, 48-year-old president of the Aki city- based Arimitsu Shuzojo Co., the first company in the association to begin making the new space sake. "I am excited about what it will taste like."


The Kochi-ken Shuzo Kumiai (Sake brewers' association of Kochi Prefecture) consists of 19 companies. They hope their flamboyant project will help increase sake consumption, which has been dropping for the past 30 years.


The project started when Saburo Hiwasaki, 54, president of a cement company in Kochi, made a unique proposal to Akihiko Takemura, 43, of sake brewer Tsukasa Botan Shuzo Co. in Sakawa. The proposal? Launch something--either yeast or lactic acid bacteria--into space. Takemura was intrigued.


Together, they set up the Tenkuro No Kai, which literally means "group of braggarts," with about a dozen others. The group decided that the best plan would be to focus their efforts on yeast alone, in order to represent Kochi Prefecture, well-known across the country for its sake.


Kochi Prefecture ranked third in per-capita liquor consumption, after Tokyo and Osaka, a fiscal 2003 survey by the National Tax Agency showed. But because of the boom in shochu and low-malt beer sales, the national consumption of sake has been low in recent decades. In 1975, the prefecture's shipment of sake was 16,000 kiloliters. In 2004, that figure had been cut in half, to only 8,000 kl. Sensing crisis, the group and the brewers' association put together the Tosa Uchushu Iinkai (Tosa space sake committee) in April 2005. Tosa is the old name for Kochi.


Of the space sake committee's 12-million-yen budget, about 7 million yen was covered by prefectural subsidies and the Kochi-ken Shuzo Kumiai itself, with the remaining 5 million yen shouldered by the participating firms.


Negotiating with Russia was not easy. Committee chairman Sadayuki Matsuo, 52, said the Russians first tried to decrease the amount of yeast they would take on board. Then, in the days preceding the launch, they replaced the Japanese-made yeast containers with Russian- made ones. Nevertheless, on Oct. 1, 2005, the Soyuz was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. On board were eight kinds of dry yeast and four kinds of wet yeast, each test tube containing 2 grams of yeast.


All 12 varieties returned safely to Earth on Oct. 11, and were brought to Kochi on Oct. 14. The effects of space travel on yeast, and the subsequent sake fermentation process, are unknown. Rather, "the association would like consumers to feel the romance of space travel by drinking it," it said.


(By HIDEAKI ISHIYAMA The Asahi Shimbun IHT/Asahi: January 10,2006)


Now the good news is that I am a friend of the owner of Tsukasabotan brewery, and the bad news is that I had no idea that this was going on or I would have been on this long ago! But back to the good news, as we have a relationship with this Kura -- True Sake sells three of their sakes already - we have a great shot at getting these space sakes to the store. I will keep you posted, and until then keep your feat on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.


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