Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association | JSS
Sake has been brewed in Japan for centuries. It dates back more than 2500 years, after the technique to cultivate and ferment rice came over from ancient China. As to be expected, thousands of brewers in Japan have made a lot of changes since then. However, the sake brewing industry has strived to preserve tradition. Old brewing techniques, along with some of the businesses that have shaped and preserved them, are still around today.
This begs the question, what is the oldest sake brewery in Japan? When we imagine a sake brewery, we generally picture a family-owned business or a factory. However, commercial sake breweries as we know them did not appear until much later down the timeline. Not until around the 13th century. Therefore, it is first important to discuss the history of sake to determine the oldest sake brewery.
So, let’s dive into the past and find out how sake brewing started and discover the oldest active sake brewery.
Sake has an extensive history. In fact, scholars believe that the first records of fermenting rice into an alcoholic beverage date back to China 7000 years ago. The practice then came to Japan around the 2nd century BC. However, the first record of sake consumption did not surface until the 3rd century. Historical Chinese documents mention sake drinking in Japan as part of the mourning process. Japanese documents do not mention sake until the 8th century.
At this point, koji, the mold used in sake making, appears in records for the first time. Around the same time, only the upper class had access to sake, such as the imperial court, religious leaders, and other aristocrats. Sake was produced exclusively at the imperial court, and regular citizens could only dream of sipping it.
After the 12th century, this changed. Just as Japan’s governing body moved from imperial court to shogunate, sake production moved too. Court-exclusive sake brewing relocated to shrines and temples. This is what many call the birth of the sake producers. In fact, many of the brewing techniques developed by the monks at that time still resemble brewing methods today. However, monks were technically not brewers and their temples were not classified as breweries.
Nevertheless, these new brewing developments increased the amount of sake produced. While still limited to the higher classes, sake was now available outside of ceremonies and events. However, sake brewing had not yet become a commercial trade. Another 100 years had to pass before breweries as we know them appeared on the Japanese landscape.
Starting in the 13th century, we find the first records of brewers making sake under their own brands. Today’s oldest sake brewery dates to that exact point in history.
Fast-forwarding to today, there are roughly 1500 licensed sake breweries in Japan. Although the sake industry has experienced increases in areas such as export amount and volume, the number of active sake breweries has declined by 51% from 1975 to 2019. This decreasing phenomenon affects breweries all through the ranks, with well-established sake makers shutting their doors as easily as new businesses. How does this relate to the question of the oldest sake brewery in Japan? It means that the oldest sake brewery today could easily change in the wake of a difficult business season.
However, many breweries have been around for a long time and will hopefully continue to do so. One brewery has withstood the challenges of time for the longest: Sudo Honke. Located in the beautiful Ibaraki Prefecture, it is presently the oldest active sake brewery in all of Japan.
Sudo Honke was established in 1141. It is not just the oldest sake brewery but also one of the oldest businesses in Japan. It is located in a small, idyllic town called Obara in Ibaraki prefecture, roughly two hours north of Tokyo.
Nestled on a quiet street, the brewery looks like a temple or shrine at first glance. The weight of history radiates from its walls and front gate. Once inside, visitors will find a forest-like patio with a traditional wooden building at its center. It perfectly captures the image of a traditional Japanese house, with its curved roof, kawara tiles, and beautiful zelkova trees. As a result, locals often poetically refer to it as “the brewery of the forest”.
Unsurprisingly, the company’s history mirrors a long family history. Mr. Sudo, the current president, is the 55th generation head of the company. Furthermore, and unique to Sudo Honten, the Sudo family did not start out as brewers. Instead, they have a rich samurai heritage. Many believe that the decision to make sake was an effort to revitalize their community and economy at the time. Family history also indicates how they were able to enter the brewery business. As part of the upper class, samurai had access to sake and sake brewing techniques.
Ever since the Sudo family has upheld their philosophy of working with nature to create a natural and clean sake. The brewery employs an entirely holistic approach to sake. Knowing the influence of the natural environment on sake, they protect the local resources, like water, a key ingredient for great sake.
Here is a list of the current oldest breweries in Japan with Sudo Honke in first place.
・Sudo Honke (Ibaraki), 1141.
・Hiraizumi Honpo (Akita), 1487.
・Kenbishi Shuzo (Hyogo), 1505.
・Yamaji Shuzo (Shiga), 1532.
・‘Shichihonyari’ Tomita Shuzo (Shiga), 1534.
・Shusenkurano (Nagano), 1540.
・Yoshinogawa (Niigata), 1548.
・‘Shirayuki’ Konishi Shuzo (Hyogo), 1550.
・Ueda Shuzo (Nara), 1558.
・Haneda Shuzo (Yamagata), 1592.
・Koya Shuzo (Yamagata), 1593.
・‘Kinkon’ Toshimaya Honten (Tokyo), 1596.
・‘Toukou’ Kojima Sohonten (Yamagata), 1597.
・Kikuhime (Ishikawa), 1570-1600.
In many ways, the oldest sake brewery in Japan is exactly what one would expect. Run by a single family with a rich, long tradition and nestled in nature, Sudo Honke captures the image of historical sake production.
In addition to Sudo Honke, there are currently more than 100 other breweries with a production history that exceeds 300 years. It is businesses like these that carry on Japan’s traditions and rich cultural heritage. This, in turn, has a huge impact on the economy, the community, and the sake world.