Takao Nihei’s Pioneering Sake Research
Hawai‘i Herald Columist
In the summer of 1956, having overcome an outbreak of bacterial contamination that threatened to bankrupt the Honolulu Sake Brewery, Takao Nihei planned to return to Japan and take up his post at Kyowa Hakko, a leading pharmaceutical company active in amino acid research. He was 31 years old at the time, with a golden future in front of him. He would continue to research and publish, perhaps becoming the laboratory director of a major brewery, or even the director of the National Research Institute of Brewing. For Nihei-san, the temptation to return to Japan and embark on this wonderful and fulfilling life must have been overwhelming.
And yet, after two years of strenuous effort to get Honolulu’s sake up to an acceptable level and then being recalled just months later to deal with a major problem, he knew the situation at the Honolulu Sake Brewery was precarious. There was no reason to believe that sake-making in Hawai‘i — never easy to begin with — could survive without a skilled brewer living in the Islands. Reflecting later on how he came to remain in Hawai‘i, Nihei-san said it was because of the Issei he had met. “They worked so hard in those sugar cane fields, and they had barely enough money for food and clothes, let alone a glass of sake. But when the Honolulu Sake Brewery started up, all over Hawai‘i, people could afford at least a glass on Saturday night. Many people told me that if it hadn’t been for that one glass of sake, when they could relax and remember the dream that had drawn them to Hawai‘i in the first place, they would have given up and gone back to Japan. And that’s why I decided to stay in Hawai‘i and make sake.”
In his first two years in Hawai‘i, Nihei-san had tamed the troublesome California rice and learned to make good sake from it. He had developed a new technique for preventing spoilage, essential for making sake in Hawai‘i and later adopted by breweries all over Japan. Now, with his home in Honolulu, his wife Misayo beside him and a daughter on the way, he approached his next big challenge: complying with the labor laws of the state of Hawai‘i, which stipulated an eight-hour work day.
To read the rest of this article, please subscribe to The Herald!