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Digital transformation meets sake brewing: Utilizing NEC Group technologies to preserve tradition

October 1 is World Sake Day, an event established to mark the season when sake brewing begins after the rice harvest and to recapture the spirit of passing on the sake tradition to future generations. The NEC Group is also playing a role in preserving the flavor of sake, a part of Japanese culture that the country is proud to share with the world, and handing down the art of sake brewing to the next generation with its technologies and personalized services. What new value is NEC creating in the world of sake, which at first glance seems somewhat analog?

Visualizing intricate sake brewing data to preserve flavor and pass on the craft of brewing

Progress is being made toward combining a traditional Japanese industry with IT—or in more recent terms, the digital transformation (DX) of that industry. The members of NEC Solution Innovators responsible for this project are all in agreement when it comes to their feelings on it, saying, “It has been rewarding because we are interacting with two worlds that are polar opposites.”

Sake brewing involves many intricate and complex processes as well as large quantities of data, including the time spent soaking the rice in water, the time and temperature required for fermentation, and the ingredients. NEC Sake Moromi (Sake Mash) Analysis Cloud Service is used for the management and digitalization of this data. Moromi refers to the main fermentation mash containing steamed rice, kome koji (steamed rice treated with Aspergillus oryzae, or koji spores), and yeast starter, and is the stage before sake is actually created. It is said that it is the quality of the moromi that determines the flavor of the sake.

Thanks to this service, brewing data can be monitored from outside the brewery, enabling brewers to more easily leave the brewery and go on business trips even in the midst of the brewing process, which was simply not possible in the past due to the fact that it was such a hands-on process. Another advantage is that it is easier and less taxing than keeping handwritten records, enabling more time to be spent concentrating on flavor.

The visualization of data management, which is often perceived as relying on experience and intuition, is expected to not only lead to improvements but also help train new leaders in sake brewing.

The toji (master brewer) for Otokoyama Co., Ltd., a sake brewery in Hokkaido, told us, “Otokoyama has fans all over the world, and we must provide sake that is of the same quality even when the toji changes.” A total of 14 breweries have introduced this service, including industry leaders with well-known brands such as Kokushi musou (Takasago Shuzo, Hokkaido) and Aramasa (Aramasa Co., Ltd., Akita Prefecture).

A service developed by listening to the concerns of master brewers and respecting their artisan sensibilities

NEC Solution Innovators found itself wondering what it could do to resolve social issues rooted in the local community. The starting point for this Sake Moromi Analysis Cloud Service was actually a search for new business opportunities. Thanks to a connection between a member of the Hokkaido branch of NEC Solution Innovators and the toji of a sake brewery dating back to their student days, the company was introduced to an issue faced by many breweries—passing on traditions. “In addition to record keeping being tedious, it seems to have become the goal in itself, with the information not even being utilized.” The service was developed based on information and feedback from toji, and field trials began in 2016. Two years later, in 2018, the service was officially released.

Demonstration screen for NEC Sake Moromi (Sake Mash) Analysis Cloud Service

Other companies also offer services for digitalization of data from the sake brewing process. So, what sets NEC Sake Moromi (Sake Mash) Analysis Cloud Service apart? Shinya Tajima, the person-in-charge at NEC Solution Innovators for this service since it was launched, said that “we created the system by listening to the opinions of sake brewers.”

More than just automating the handling of numerical data, we focused on making the process straightforward through simple input formats using tablets, for example, in an effort to make as little change as possible in the brewery workflow. Also, by including the data for all processes for input, the service facilitates the preparation of reports and other documents to be submitted to the National Tax Agency.

We have continued to update the system by incorporating onsite feedback. For example, last year, we made it possible to use temperature sensors to automatically input temperature data, which until then had to be manually entered.

Supporting high-quality sake brewing recognized by industry leaders

The NEC Solution Innovators project members who work with the brewers also feel a sense of accomplishment in what they are doing.

Tajima recalled, “I was really happy to hear that they won the gold prize (at the Sake Awards) after adopting the system we created.” Yoshihisa Morimoto, the toji at Takasago Shuzo, which won the gold prize at the Annual Japan Sake Awards in 2022, gave the following compliments: “Throughout the season, we constantly check the data and assess the daily operations against the data from past success cases. I think this was what made it possible for us to win.” Daisuke Nakajima, who took over responsibility for this service from Tajima, said that “being recognized by a renowned leader in the sake industry boosted my confidence in our service.”

Takasago Shuzo’s master brewer Yoshihisa Morimoto

This service is also linked to the citizenship activities carried out by the NEC Group beyond the boundaries of business. Hirose Shoten (Ibaraki Prefecture), which helps with the sake brewing activity for the NEC Paddy Making Project, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, has also introduced the Moromi Analysis Cloud Service on a trial basis. Keinosuke Hirose, president of the Shiragiku sake brewery, said, “The service enables smoothly passing on some of the techniques of the art when young people and potential toji successors join the company. I hope that through the use of this service more people will take interest in the world of sake.”

The NEC Paddy Making Project also holds sake brewery tours with the cooperation of Hirose Shoten.

The goal is to pass on Japan’s sake tradition to following generations. This is an endeavor that is also in line with NEC’s Purpose of “creating the social values of safety, security, equality, and efficiency and realizing a sustainable society where everyone has the chance to reach their full potential.”

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