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Gov't to open special zone for small-scale Japan sake breweries to promote tourism

A sake brewer is seen at a brewery in Nabari, Mie Prefecture, in this file photo taken on Dec. 6, 2018. (Mainichi/Akiko Hirose)

TOKYO -- The government will start allowing sake makers to operate small-scale breweries in fiscal 2019, in hopes of increasing facilities for foreign visitors to have hands-on experiences and driving regional revitalization through tourism.

Each brewery is currently required to have a brewing capacity of more than 60 kiloliters of sake annually to acquire a brewing license. However, the government will now relax the regulation under the structural reform special district program, which is designed for regional revitalization and other goals. In the areas designated as "sake special districts," the requirement on licensing will be lifted for breweries producing less than 60 kiloliters a year.

Existing liquor companies in the areas will also be allowed to establish tourism facilities at old Japanese-style houses or in other buildings, as well as small hands-on breweries at roadside rest areas or other shops. The central government will start designating municipalities for this special treatment starting in the fall of 2019.

Obata Sake Brewery Co., a traditional brewing company on Sadoshima Island, off the Sea of Japan coast in the northeastern prefecture of Niigata, established a hands-on facility in the building of an abolished school in 2014. There, customers can experience the processes of brewing sake with local rice. However, Obata is unable to produce more than 60 kiloliters of sake. As the government does not place such strict production rules for "liqueur" brewing licenses, the company adds flavor to the products in the final stages, and sells them labeled as liqueur rather than sake.

"We will be able to label our products as sake after this area is designated a special zone by the government," said Obata President Takeshi Hirashima, excited about the prospect. "If foreign tourists visit the island and experience the brewing process, then we can create fans of both sake and this island."

According to the Ministry of Finance, Japanese sake export by value in 2017 stood at about 18.7 billion yen -- breaking the record for the eighth consecutive year. The export destinations for sake have also been expanding across the globe, covering North America, Europe and other Asian nations. The government expects that demand for experience-based tourism at Japanese sake breweries will rise along with the increasing number of inbound visitors.

There are a total of some 270 special districts associated with alcoholic drinks in Japan. There is one for "doburoku," unfiltered sake made of rice and other crops, which was established during the 2003 fiscal year, where farmers and other producers are approved to produce the beverage. There are also special districts for fruit wine and liquor created in fiscal 2008, where designation was made under the condition that companies use local specialty fruits. In fiscal 2017, a zone for distilled spirits, or "shochu," was also added.

(Japanese original by Daisuke Oka, Business News Department)

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