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Bloomberg News photos
Workers prepare rice for brewing sake at the Asahishuzo brewery manufacturing Dassai-branded sake in Iwakuni, Japan.

Sake boom revives vintage rice strains

Exports of sake from Japan have grown, causing rice farmer to grow vintage grains.

– Farmers on Japan’s west coast will sow Nihonbare rice this year for the first time in a decade as growers around the country return to older varieties to meet demand for record sake exports.

Overseas shipments of the traditional rice-based alcohol reached an all-time high of 8.5 billion yen ($80 million) in the 10 months through October as they headed for a fourth annual gain, the latest data from the Agriculture Ministry show. Farmers from Echizen in the west will produce 1,080 metric tons in 2014, the JA-Echizen Takefu agricultural cooperative said.

Suppliers to brewers are increasing acreage as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets a fivefold increase in exports of sake, rice crackers and other products made from the grain to 60 billion yen by 2020. That’s a boon for brewers including Takara Holdings Inc. and an opportunity for some farmers to switch from food rice as consumption falls in Japan amid more varied diets.

“Sake producers have become ever more aware of the importance of rice quality,” said Shunsuke Kohiyama, an export adviser at the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association. “They approach this like wineries in France getting the best grapes.”

Nihonbare was the most popular rice for eating in Japan until the 1970s, when it was overtaken by the sweeter and stickier Koshihikari grain. Brewers still favor the strain for its low protein count to produce dry-tasting sake.

“It’s high-yielding and will help boost incomes,” said Sadahiko Yasui, assistant director at the cooperative. “Nihonbare also shows resistance to high temperatures and typhoons, and is relatively easy to cultivate.”

In Abe’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi, Asahishuzo Co. is increasing production of top-grade daiginjo sake using Yamadanishiki rice, another vintage strain, said Kazuhiro Sakurai, the brewer’s executive vice president.

Asahishuzo prizes Yamadanishiki for its large grain and condensed starch core and used 2,400 tons last year to brew “aromatic and clean” sake, according to Sakurai.

Abe offered the closely held company’s Dassai-labelled sake to French President Francois Hollande when he visited Tokyo in June and to Russia’s Vladimir Putin on his 61st birthday.

Output of Yamadanishiki in Hyogo prefecture, where the variety was developed 90 years ago, increased to 15,796 tons in 2012 from 15,227 tons in 2011, according to the local government.

Sake exports to the U.S. reached 3.2 billion yen, or 38 percent of the total shipments of the alcohol, in the 10 months through October, data from the Agriculture Ministry show. Sales to the American market for all of 2012 were 3.25 billion yen.

“Sales overseas are increasing with the popularity of Japanese food,” said Tomoko Sakaguchi, a spokeswoman for the sake unit of Takara Holdings.

Takara is the biggest seller of sake in overseas markets, where it shipped about 7.3 million liters (1.9 million gallons) from its breweries at home and abroad in 2012, Sakaguchi said.