**Reposted from Rice, Water Earth: Notes on Sake**

One of the most exciting aspects of being a sake fan today is watching more and more craft sake breweries open around the world. One that I’m looking forward to visiting is Honolulu’s Islander Sake Brewery, which has brought sake making back to the islands after a gap of more than 30 years.

 When the brewery opened its doors on March 16, 2020, it was the culmination of master brewer and president Chiaki Takahashi’s love for Hawai’i, Japan and the microbes that she, as a fermentation scientist, knows and loves.

The brewery is tiny, about 1,100 square feet with a maximum production capacity of about 12,000 bottles annually. “People call us and want to participate in a brewery tour. They assume it will take forty-five minutes or an hour, but I tell them it takes five minutes,” says vice president Tama Hirose.

Still, in the 15 months since it opened, the brewery has produced 10 different sakes, most of them nama genshu (unpasteurized and undiluted), using Okayama Omachi rice, Kitashizuku from Hokkaido, and Sacramento Yamada Nishiki. They brew with yeast numbers 7 and 9.

It wasn’t easy connecting with the brewery’s co-owners to learn more about them—they were busy trying to keep the business afloat during the pandemic—but I finally managed to do so.

Takahashi’s love for the islands grew over the course of more than 100 visits to Hawai’i, both for pleasure and business. Through her stays first as a single woman, then with her husband and children, she came to think of the islands as a second home. She loved Hawai’i so much she announced to her family that when she reached the age of 50, she would retire there and begin her second career as the maker of pineapple wine.

 But during the intervening years, Hawai’i changed. High land and labor costs drove the big pineapple producers like Dole and Del Monte elsewhere. Meanwhile, Takahashi’s own work as a research scientist had pushed her interests in a slightly different direction. Mid-career, she transitioned from studying the effects of stress on brain chemistry at Nippon Medical School to working for Japan’s National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB). Her topic was still the same, studying the effects of stress, both harmful and beneficial, only now it was in relation to sake fermentation. She also learned how to make wine at the Institute of Enology and Viticulture at the University of Yamanashi.

Takahashi learned that just as for human beings, there is an optimal level of stress that one should put on the microbes involved in sake fermentation. Her post-retirement dream shifted from making pineapple wine to making sake—still in the Hawai’i she loved.

 Honolulu Sake Brewery

 When Takahashi and her business partner Hirose opened the brewery in 2020, few old-timers remained who remembered the last sake brewery to operate on the islands. Honolulu Sake Brewery was established in 1908 by Tajiro Sumida to cater to the large number of Japanese immigrants laboring on sugar cane plantations. After a long, hard day at work, they needed that taste of home to soothe their homesick souls and tired muscles. Honolulu Sake Brewery helped shaped Hawai’i’s economy, and became a leader in sake brewing innovation.

 It survived Prohibition thanks to its groundbreaking advances in refrigeration technology, which had allowed it to become the only company in the world to brew sake year round. When liquor production was outlawed, the company turned to ice making as its primary business, with Tajiro’s younger brother Daizo leading the company. It survived World War II as well, despite the imprisonment of the younger Sumida in a U.S. Government prison camp.

 Paying Tribute to a Legendary Brewing Scientist

 In the 1950s, as new technical challenges emerged, Honolulu Sake Brewery was saved by a brilliant brewing scientist, Takao Nihei, who had been dispatched from NRIB to help it work through its brewing issues. He eventually moved to Hawai’i with his wife, raising a family and living there until his death in 1994, just five years after the shuttering of the brewery that owed its survival to him.

 At NRIB, Takahashi had gotten to know Nihei’s widow, Misayo Nihei. She came to understand the important role Nihei and the brewery had played in the history of sake development. She began to imagine reviving his legacy of sake-making excellence. A year later, in 2017, Takahashi was invited to be a judge at the U.S. National Sake Appraisal, attending the Joy of Sake event that followed. She was impressed by the 1,600 or so enthusiastic sake fans that thronged the event, and decided it was time to make her move, as well as pay tribute to Nihei’s legacy.

 She launched a crowdfunding campaign and partnered with Hirose, a Kochi Prefecture native with a business degree from the University of Hawai’i. In addition to having worked for the biggest Japanese-language newspaper and radio broadcaster in Hawai’i, he had a background in retail. In Kochi City he had operated a store in which sake was just one of many items he sold.

 The 3/11 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster had changed his life and deepened his appreciation of the drink. The disaster put a halt to all domestic tourism to Northern Japan. Suddenly, vacationers were arriving in Kochi (located on the southern side of the picturesque island of Shikoku) in droves. “The hardest customers to deal with were from Hiroshima, Fukushima and Niigata,” Hirose recalls, which are known for producing very good sake. They were knowledgeable and demanding when it came to sake.

Hirose began asking these customers which sakes were their favorites, and tracking down those sakes to learn more. He attended sake conventions and meetings around the country. He also discovered what he considers the amazing health benefits of sake.

 As it had for many Japanese, the 3/11 disaster heightened his fears of both earthquake and nuclear disaster. Since the northern coast of Shikoku is home to the Ikata Nuclear Power plant, fears began to circulate on the island that it could be the next earthquake-related nuclear disaster to hit Japan. Hirose’s stress level shot up, he developed heart problems, and his doctor advised him that without surgery, his life expectancy was only about seven or eight years.

Instead of resorting to surgery, Hirose says, he turned to a more pleasurable source of healing. He began frequenting one of the best sake bars in Kochi City to learn more about sake, but also to relax his mind and body. Though they didn’t realized it at the time, he and Takahashi were traveling on parallel tracks; studying sake, the effects of stress, and how they interacted with each other. For her, it was a scientific pursuit. For him, it was a way to save his health. After meeting at a sake convention, they found that they had the same tastes in liquor ,and more specifically, in sake.

 Once they decided to collaborate on Islander brewery, they began the long process of securing visas, a liquor license and various permits. The liquor license alone took almost a year to obtain, so in the meantime, in December of 2019, they began selling non-alcoholic amazake at the farmer’s market. In February, liquor license finally in hand, they were ready to open. Then two days after they opened their doors in Honolulu in March of 2020, with the Covid-19 virus raging around the world, the city shut down all food and beverage establishments.

 Government grants have helped keep them afloat, as well as retails sales, curbside pickup, and take-out menus from their micro-café,  Kura Kitchen. The restaurant offers five-course tasting menus, each paired with a different sake.

 Nihei’s widow, Misayo Nihei, had been looking forward to visiting Islander once it opened. But sadly, the long delays made that impossible. “I was traveling on a bus in Okayama City, heading for Akaiwa (where prime Omachi rice fields are located) when I got a phone call from Hawai’i—Mrs. Nihei had just passed away,” recalls Hirose. “I had hoped she would join our opening ceremony.”

 Although the Niheis were unable to witness the opening of Islander, I hope that after reading this post you’ll appreciate the technical and economic foundation that Islander Sake Brewery is built upon: the years of sake brewing innovation that Nihei spearheaded, and the struggles of the Japanese immigrant laborers who helped build modern Hawai’i.