One of the brand values of Pizza 4P’s is “Authenticity”. It is a spirit not to imitate and view things superficially, but to ask ourselves “what is being authentic?”, think deeply and continue to gain detailed insights to execute a project. Attitude of Authenticity is a series of articles introducing our valued partners who have such an authentic spirit. In this issue, we interviewed Mr. Yasuhiko Niida of Niida-honke, a sake brewery that produces the sake that Pizza 4P’s is importing to Vietnam. Niida-honke is known for its natural sake brewing using only organic rice and traditional methods. They do not use any chemical substances, and make sake from nature as it is, which makes the taste of the sake very gentle and delicious that makes body and mind feel joy.
(On the left is Mr. Yasuhiko Niida, brew master called as Toji, and on the right is Ms. Maki Niida, landlady of the brewery called as Okami)
First of all, please tell us about the Niida-honke.
Niida: Niida-honke is a sake brewery that has been operating for 310 years since 1711 in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. I am the 18th generation of the brewery. Our sake is made from organic rice without any pesticides or chemical fertilizers, using the natural yeast and water that live in the brewery, and using traditional methods to make natural sake.
We also grow our own rice as part of our mission to become a sake brewery that preserves rice farming in Japan. We use a native variety of rice called Kamenoo, which has been used for the longest time in Fukushima Prefecture. In sake brewing, the taste depends on the potential of the rice itself. After all, pure rice produces delicious sake.
We believe that Japan is a country that depends on its rice farming, and we consider the rice paddies to be very sacred. The use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers may temporarily increase production, but in the long run, the rice paddies become more and more degraded and lose their original energy. In order to weave a better natural cycle, we need to protect the rice paddies, and I believe that this also means protecting our lives.
(Their own rice fields where they grow rice naturally. The surrounding area is a traditional Japanese rural landscape)
So you grow your own rice. It must be tough, isn’t it?
Niida: Of course it takes a lot of time and money, and I think it’s rare to find a sake brewery that grows all of its own rice. However, since the rice determines the taste of the sake, we strongly want to put our effort into growing rice by ourselves, even if it means spending a lot of time and money. That’s why we rather enjoy doing it actually.
Another benefit of growing rice naturally is that it attracts a lot of living things and preserves biodiversity. Insects come to the rice paddies, and birds come to eat the insects. The drainage from the rice paddies is also free of chemical substances, so the rivers are clean and the number of fish increases. Large animals also come to eat them. I believe that such a natural environment will become an asset to the community and to us. Leaving a rich natural environment for the next generation is also an important mission for those of us living in this generation.
(The entrance and interior of the sake brewery. A traditional sake brewery using wood coated with persimmon tannin, which has antiseptic and insecticidal benefits.)
What do you focus on when making sake?
Niida: The traditional way to make sake is to steam the rice, put it in water, and wait for the bacteria that promote good fermentation to come down. Our role is to prepare the environment of the brewery, such as using naturally grown rice and well water instead of tap water, so that the good bacteria can come. The bacteria themselves understand the good of these things the best. If the environment is not right, they will not ferment well. If we do not create an environment where the bacteria can choose, we will not be able to make good sake.
Niida Honke also takes other unique approaches to please the bacteria, such as daily prayers to the Shinto altar in the brewery and the Okami playing jazz on the piano. The humble and nice personality of the brewers is also an important factor of this.
(There is a piano on the upper floor of the brewery, and the Okami plays jazz music for the bacteria.)
Is good humanity important in order to be chosen by the good bacteria?
Niida: Yes. Sake made by good people will be good sake. Fermentation is also affected by the flora of the indigenous bacteria on human skin, so the taste of sake will change depending on the brewer. For this reason, the employees of the Niida Honke brewery work hard to make sake while keeping in mind that they should be able to do basic things such as greet people properly, say “Itadakimasu” before meals (this is the way Japanese people do before having meal), and pick up trash when it is left lying around.
At the same time, we believe that it is presumptuous for humans to try to control everything. The important thing is how much we humans can do to create a good environment for microorganisms to make sake. I believe that the fundamental principle of sake brewing is to do everything possible and let god do the rest. When people say to me, “Your sake is delicious,” I always tell them that it is because of the microorganisms and ingredients.
(Our Sustainability manager at Pizza 4P’s Yuma Nagata still visited a sake brewery in Japan so he could talk to them in person).
Since it’s so natural, is it good for your health?
Niida: The rice in our sake is naturally grown and very pure, and the water is a natural blend of well water and spring water, so there are no artificial ingredients. So there is no stress on the body. Our customers often tell us, “It soaks into the body very well” or “I don’t get a hangover even after drinking a lot”. In Japan, there is a saying, “Sake is the best of all medicines,” and I believe that sake made in a truly natural way is good for your health, relaxing your body and mind.
Pizza 4P’s: In what other countries is Niida-honke’s sake sold outside of Japan?
Niida: The United States, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. This is the first time we have expanded to Vietnam. Vietnam is a warm country throughout the year, so of course it is delicious to drink it chilled, but you may also dare to drink it warm. Shizenshu Kan Atsurae, which we will be exporting to Vietnam this time, has a very soft sweetness and a pleasant sharpness, so it is a sake that goes well with drinking it warm. Of course, it goes well with pizza, pasta, seafood, meat dishes, etc. Pizza 4P’s is famous for its homemade cheese, and I think it goes great with cheese. It will go especially well with unique cheeses like blue cheese.
(Niida Honke’s sake is characterized by its incredibly soft sweetness and pleasant sharpness. The sake to be sold at Pizza 4P’s this time is one that has been aged for one year, giving it a mellow taste.)
What is your dream in the future?
Niida: We have a dream of becoming a self-sufficient brewery. We will grow rice naturally and make sake using only the natural bacteria living in the brewery. We use only natural water from wells and springs, and our brewery uses as much wood as possible from our own mountains, such as cedar, pine, and chestnut. The rooms where the Toji (brew master) and the brewery workers are housed are also made of pine trees from our own mountains. We are currently purchasing renewable energy generated by solar power, but eventually we would like to produce the renewable energy by ourselves in the future.
In recent years, we have also started making large wooden barrels for making sake. There are hardly any craftsmen in Japan who can make wooden barrels anymore, so we are learning the techniques from the few who can, and we are making them using cedar trees from our own mountain that my grandfather had planted. It is as if my grandfather had foreseen this when he grew the cedar trees, which makes me confident to do this. It is said that a wooden barrel can last for 100 years, and if it degrades and returns to nature after 100 years, another tree will grow from it to make a wooden barrel.
We are currently in the process of replacing two of the fifteen enamel barrels to wooden barrels, but we will change all of them to wooden barrels over the next fifteen years. This will allow us to make sake in a more traditional and natural way. Of course, the taste is more stable in enamel than in a wooden barrel. But I think it’s okay even if the taste is different every year. It would be unnatural to make the exact same thing every year. If you are making a product that is close to nature, you should leave the taste to nature. This is also what makes it unique. Our customer would say “This year is a little different from last year, but this flavor is fine for me”. We hope to continue to build a good relationship with such customers who enjoy the personality of nature.
(A large handmade wooden barrel. The wooden barrel is one of a traditional Japanese tool used to make fermented foods, an essential part of Japanese food culture)
Pizza 4P’s: “Becoming a self-sufficient brewery” is a wonderful dream that takes us back to our original values and builds a better future.
Niida: I think it’s very important for our work to be handed over to the future. I don’t want to do anything in my generation that should not be carried on to the future. I am always thinking about what I can add to what my father, grandfather, and ancestors have created for us. What do we want to leave for the next generation, and what should we do to achieve that? With these thoughts in mind, we will continue to work hard to keep brewing the traditional natural sake of the Niida-honke.