The Softbank Business & IT site reports on the Manufacturing Japan Summit 2018, where companies like Hakutsuru, Kikkoman and Sanoh talked about how they train new employees and pass on expertise.
The panel was tackling the question of how to maintain core technologies/techniques and high quality production while training and nurturing the next generation of employees. Asked about what they focus on and how they control quality, Sakurai Kazumasa, Executive Director and head of the Production Department, replied on behalf of Hakutsuru.
The Hakutsuru (white crane) brewery, familiar to anyone with a passing interest in sake in Japan, was founded in 1743 in the east of the famous Nada area. It's known as one of the longest established breweries, active since the time of shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune.
They pour all of their technical expertise into the junmai daiginjō Tenkū that represents the brewery. They develop their staff so as to transmit, maintain and improve expertise and technique, including making sure everyone at the company works though beginner, intermediate and advanced levels of sake education - including non-production departments like sales. Staff also experience transplanting rice seedlings into the fields and harvesting.
Sakurai said that one way they maintain quality is by having everyone aware of the need to keep on producing a suitably flavoursome product, so tasting (きき酒, kiki-zake) is vital. He also commented that rice is a natural, agricultural product and so it's inevitable that its characteristics vary year by year. Brewing the same way year after year therefore will not give the same result. The brewery needs to take each year's changes into account when brewing, and confirm the final result through tasting. Tasting is also used to confirm the sake is still in good condition after changes such as transferring between tanks or bottling, so it arrives to the consumer exactly as intended.
They also develop their skills by entering contests where they measure themselves against other breweries, take market surveys and sample their own and other companies' sake purchased on the open market.
The company is said to attract lovers of sake as employees, especially as it encourages this awareness of making a flavoursome product. As well as the training given to all employees, there are special courses for the production specialists - particularly on brewing and bottling. Sakurai comments that although bottling is now heavily automated, sake brewing is influenced by a host of complex factors that are hard to quantify, so there is still a place for human intuition. And as so much relies on microorganisms, you have to be both very thorough and fast-and-loose as required.
The Hakutsuru brewery currently has five tōji, all permanent employees. Sakurai believes that practical instruction is the best way to nurture burgeoning sake enthusiasts. Candidates for management positions need a combination of specialist skills and the ability to see the big picture.
And although in the past brewery workers (all men!) were not allowed to have girlfriends, today women are the rising stars of sake, with some breweries having 25% or more of their staff women. Sakurai also suggested that women have better judgement when it comes to product development or developing flavours.