Sake Volunteer Project 2011: Niizawa Brewery

I recently returned from a two week volunteer project to the Tohoku region of Japan. The Sake Volunteer Project was organized by the UK groups the Japan Affairs Forum and Action for Japan UK. The aim of the project was to visit and support breweries that sustained damage or destruction in the March 11th, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. In all 5 Breweries were visited and volunteers did a range of activities to support the breweries.

Niizawa Brewery

The majority of the volunteers were around 20 years old and came from all parts of the world: England, Japan, China, Singapore, Italy and the U.S. – with most studying at University in the United Kingdom. Only two volunteers, myself included, were from the United States.

It was inspiring for me, the oldest in the group, to see so many young people interested in giving up a portion of their holiday to help the sake industry recover from disaster.

The Sake Volunteers

Our first stop was for five days at the 148 year old Niizawa Brewery in Osaki Miyagi. They are the makers of two famous brands, Hakurakusei and Atagonomatsu. The Brewery President, Mr. Niizawa explained to us that, while still standing, the foundations of his family’s brewery building were permanently damaged beyond repair.

They were still brewing small amounts of sake there, but the plan was to move to a new facility about an hour away up in the mountains by November. The 18 volunteers were split into groups and each pitched in with hands-on work in a certain stage of the sake brewing process. From rice steaming, to stirring the main mash, to making koji, to pressing, to bottling, to labeling – everyone got a chance to experience what goes into making sake. On the last day of our visit, Mr. Niizawa took us to see his new facility in the mountains and out for a wonderful Izakaya dinner in Furukawa.

Sincere thanks to Mr. Niizawa for welcoming us so warmly!

I knew deep down that with our inexperience and occasional language issues, we probably slowed down the work at the brewery more than increased efficiency, but I could feel that Mr. Niizawa understood our intent in wanting to be there and help in any way we could. His generosity of time and resources, especially during such a challenging period of recovery for his company, has left a lasting impression on me and has made me more resolved than ever to help the brewers of Tohoku in any way I can.

Below is a gallery of our time at Niizawa Brewery. My Sincere thanks go out to Mr. Niizawa and all the staff at Niizawa Brewery who welcomed us all so fully.