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Japan brews ‘space sake’ from yeast sent into orbit

A brewery in Japan’s eastern Fukushima prefecture has created an out-of-this-world sake using yeast that came from space. And all to help the region recover from a devastating earthquake.

Arguably the most important ingredient in the sake-making process, yeast is thought to contribute to around 60% of the flavours and aromas found in the rice wine.

So it stands to reason that a completely unique strain of yeast would lead to a sake unlike any other that has been tasted before. At least, that’s what one Japanese brewery in Fukushima, in the northeast of the country, set out to explore when it rocketed its yeast into outer space in June 2021.

The yeast arrived at the International Space Station safe and sound, from where it remained in continuous orbit for one month. Since then, the respected sake producer has been painstakingly crafting a special sake made from the so-called “space yeast”.

Furthermore, it is hoped that sales of the sake will help in the ongoing recovery of the prefecture where it is made, which suffered devastating effects from the magnitude-nine earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck the region in 2011.

Known as the “Great Tohoku earthquake”, the natural disaster bulldozed more than 100,000 buildings and triggered a nuclear disaster when the tsunami that followed caused a cooling system failure at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. This resulted in a level-7 nuclear meltdown and the release of radioactive materials.

The direct financial damage wreaked by the tragedy is estimated to be around US$199 billion (16.9 trillion yen), according to the Japanese government, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in history. The shaking lasted around six minutes.

Fukushima, the southernmost prefecture of Tohuku, was ground zero for the nuclear disaster. The “space sake” was made to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the event.

“If you can drink this space sake and support the recovery, it will be a great encouragement for us, the people of Tohuku,” said a spokesperson for producer Ninki-Ichi, which crafted the sake. Many who lost their homes during the earthquake are still considered refugees, with no permanent place of residence.

“Since Fukushima has many companies that produce sake, we decided to send the yeast to space for making sake. The finished product is made with great care and competition,” said the producer, who describes the final product as being “very fruity and delicious” and “like a small universe”.

Ninki-Ichi prides itself on only brewing Ginjo and Daiginjo sakes, using traditional methods. Its sakes have a rice-polishing rate of 50%-60%.

Read more about the fascinating and complex relationship between sake and yeast here.

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