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Kondō Brewery

Kondō Brewery, the only sake brewer in Niihama, is the epitome of local production for local consumption.

Kondō Brewery

Kondō Shuzō Brewery is a small brewery located near the Kokuryō River in Niihama, in a mixed residential and farming area. Their sake is sold under the Hanahime Sakura brand. The brewery experienced a hiatus between Kondō Yoshirō of the current generation and his father. Yoshirō experienced many struggles in reviving sake production at the brewery, but today, Hanahime Sakura is a frequent prize winner.

Shikoku Sake visited the brewery in November before the start of the brewing season. Yoshirō showed us around the brewery, and then we sat down for an interview in the brewery shop, that sometimes doubles as a sake bar and local meeting place. Yoshirō is an enthusiastic talker, and his stories of the history of the brewery are fascinating and moving.

Interview

When was the brewery established?
“The brewery dates from 1878 in the Meiji Period. The company was established in 1954.”

How many people are on the brewing team?
“There are three of us. Mrs. Kondō is the current tōji. I and one other person round out the team. When we’re really busy, we can get help from workers at the rice wholesaler.”

What rice do you use?
“We use three types of rice from Ehime – Matsuyama Mii, Shizuku Hime, and Himeiku No. 71. We replaced Nikomaru with the newer Himeiku. We use Yamadanishiki grown in Shikoku and Hyōgo, Ginpū produced in Hokkaidō, and Gohyakumangoku from Fukui. The reason we use so many varieties from across Japan is due to a plague of planthoppers that blew over from the Asian mainland in 2012, wrecking the sake rice crop. That year, we’d contracted for a lot of Omachi rice from Okayama, and we experienced difficulties when the crop largely failed.”

What is your water source?
“We use groundwater pumped up from 110 m below ground. This water is our strength. The quality of the water is thanks to the thousands of trees planted by Sumitomo Ringyō. It’s soft water, which allows for slow fermentation since it contains few nutrients in the form of minerals. This is good for long, low-temperature fermentation, which allows the characteristic flavours of the rice to remain.”

What yeast do you use?
“Mrs. Kondō the tōji aims to make strong kōji mould that delivers a more potent flavour. So our sake has a stronger, more distinctive taste than other breweries.”

What is the defining character of your sake?
“We want to bring out the sweetness and richness of rice. A few years ago, the word “terroir” from the wine world became trendy, and we wanted to try making sake using local water and rice.”

What was it like growing up in a sake brewery?
“My parents were too engrossed in making sake and looking after their own parents to pay much attention to me, so my playground was the brewery. In those days, one of the main tasks of brewery workers was repairing equipment. They went to the mountain to cut bamboo and made the tools from scratch. Since the brewers had left their own children at home, they were happy to indulge any child around them. So they enjoyed making me toys out of bamboo. Also when they steamed the rice for sake, the tōji would press it in his hands to test the quality, and the resulting cake of rice – hinerimochi  –  would be put on the god shelf as an offering. But the workers would make an extra one to feed me.”

What was it like reviving the sake brewery?
“I studied at Tōkyo University of Agriculture, then did a 4-year stint at Kirin, including marketing. I also studied at the National Research Institute of Brewing in Hiroshima for a year. When I asked my father when he’d start brewing again, he always changed the subject. So I decided to go it alone. I bought some rice with my own money, and when my father saw it, he was very angry. But eventually he resigned himself to the fact that I was determined to restart brewing. At that time, the company was operating as a liquor wholesaler. When I told the other workers I planned to brew again, they were not at all encouraging. “Don’t think we’ll be driving your lorry for you when you’re shirking off with your little hobby!”. So I started making sake on my own after I’d finished the day’s work. But I got some valuable help and advice from other brewers who were managing small breweries, and eventually, things got on track.”

Brewery visit

Kondō-san explains the flashy name of his brand, Hanahime Sakura.
“I like fun and flamboyance, so I took the kanji ‘hana’ meaning ‘gorgeous’, and the ‘hime’ – princess – of ‘Ehime’. Then there’s a cherry tree in the grounds that was rescued from death by one of the brewery workers, and that had to be included. The recovered cherry represents the brewery which also recovered.”

Kondō-san indicates a price chart and a little booklet underneath the Shintō god shelf.
“This used to be a liquor shop selling beer and so on. Back in the early 1990s, the prices of beer, sake, and shōchū were fixed, and people would drop into their local liquor shop for drinks after work. If they had three glasses of beer, that would be recorded with the date. Then on payday, the customer would pay off the tab. If they forgot, you could take the record to their company, and the company would pay. But in the mid-90s, some people disappeared without paying, so local shops started charging cash there and then.”

Hakari-uri – “selling by measure” – is the traditional method of buying sake direct from the brewery. Local people would bring their own ceramic sake vessels to the brewery, and purchase sake by units of the Japanese weights and measure system. Kondō-san has restarted this system to emphasize the local production for local consumption aspect of the brewery. With hakari-uri, the strict labelling requirements for retail products don’t apply, so in keeping with his delight in fooling around, Kondō-san produces a constantly updated series of labels featuring himself in various more-or-less ridiculous guises.

Information

Name in Japanese: 近藤酒造

Pronunciation: kondō shuzō

Address: 1-11-46 Shinsukachō, Niihama, Ehime 792-0802

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