In 1812, Japan had yet to be modernized, and the region where Tokyo now sits went by the name of “Edo.” It was there and then that a company called Wakamatsuya decided to start brewing sake and set up a facility close to Tokyo Bay – what’s now known as the Shiba area in Minato City.
This location was near the mansions used by feudal lords of old Japan. Satsuma dignitaries who passed through became fans of the sake offered here, and some of them are even said to have used the back rooms of the brewery to hold clandestine meetings.
Thanks to these dignitaries’ support, the brewery achieved success throughout the 19th century and even had a front row seat to the historic stand-off with the warships of US Commodore Perry, which ultImately resulted in the opening of Japan to foreign trade.
Wakamatsuya’s Edo Kaijo sake was also sold during the upheaval of the Meiji Restoration, which was a major shift in Japanese culture from feudal lords to a parliamentary government. Perhaps, it was partly due to this cultural shift that in 1909 Wakamatsu decided to stop brewing sake and focus on their other products instead.
The sake vats would remain dry for the rest of the 20th century.
As Tokyo continued to grow into one of the world’s largest metropolises, Wakamatsuya was still operating as a company offering various daily living goods out of their shop near Tamachi Station in Minato. In 2003, control of the company was handed down to Shunichi Saito, the seventh-generation descendant of its founder.
Saito noticed in recent years that the shopping area around his store had been declining and thought that perhaps dusting off the brewing equipment might help bring some charm back to the community. But, sake brewing was a long-forgotten skill in the family business, so the idea was little more than a pipe dream at the time.
It wasn’t until a twist of fate put Saito together with Yoshimi Terasawa, a Kyoto-born brewer with a background in microbiology, that the dream started to become reality. Terasawa, though, who was more familiar with the harsh realities of the sake brewing business, advised against starting a brewery, warning Saito the endeavor probably wouldn’t be profitable.
But, Saito felt otherwise. He saw a sake brewery in the heart of Tokyo as something more than just a production facility; it was potentially an entirely novel business in a booming metropolis where there is otherwise nothing new under the sun.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Terasawa gradually became more involved in the project and together the pair undertook the “impossible” challenge of getting a sake brewing license in Japan.
For decades, the National Tax Agency had deliberately been withholding licenses to any business that couldn’t guarantee a stable business within the first year while also not disturbing the profit-making abilities of other established breweries. Those conditions left little room for acceptance, but Saito’s brewery and its location made it a little more feasible.
In addition to constant negotiations with his local tax agency office, Saito had to get the 100 year-old brewery ready to brew 60,000 L (15,850 gal) annually before a license would even be considered. This meant he needed to increase its brewing capacity by about 10 times.
It was an uninviting offer, but both men stuck with it and decided to remodel the entire building, converting all the upper floors from living quarters to industrial-strength steaming and fermentation chambers. It was still a tight fit and required Terasawa’s expertise to streamline the design.
Their tenacity eventually paid off and in July of 2016, they were granted a proper sake brewing license.
Tokyo Port Sake Is Reborn
On August 16, 2016, the first bottle of Edo Kaijo was pressed in over a century. Terasawa describes it as a sake with a restrained flavor. so as not to overpower paired foods.
Edo Kaijo is only one of a wide range of offerings from Tokyo Port Brewery, such as plum and blueberry liqueurs, amazake, and the traditionally home-brewed doburoku. They also recently resurrected an old supply of Edo yeast to create the Tokyo Classic line of sake sold exclusively through Nihonshu Genka Sakakura.
Business was good right from the start, thanks in part to Terasawa’s knowhow and business connections, as well as Saito’s accurate prediction that the only sake brewery within the circular Yamanote train line of Tokyo would quickly gain attention.
Tokyo Port Brewery is still going strong and is a great, convenient place to visit while in the city. Although they don’t offer tours, likely due to the tight quarters of the brewing floors, there is still lots to do and see in the area.
Across the street is the long-running Wakamatsuya store, which now sells all of Tokyo Port Brewery’s brands along with a variety of items for some fun shopping. On top of all that, there’s even a Tasting Car parked outside.
Above all, Tokyo Port Brewery is a great way to see a sake brewery every bit as traditional as its peers, without taking the long journey into rural parts of Japan. It’s also an excellent chance to see and feel a favorite haunt of Satsuma clan emissaries in Tokyo and drink a cup in their honor.