Asakura recaps by saying that in order to move away from the cheap sake in waxed cartons that lines supermarket shelves and aim for a new medium to high quality core product range made by natural methods, Satō had to go to the bank for a loan.
Satō comments that there was no crowdfunding at the time. He heard about the former head of production at Dom Perignon planning to open a sake brewing facility in Toyama Prefecture, and the Vuitton Group (LVMH) trying to buy a brewery a few years previously. So although some brewing is being funded by financing today there was nothing like that back then – and he wouldn’t have thought of it anyway.
Asakura muses that there are many more options available for financing today. He then asks what he hopes isn’t too amateur a question – is it possible to brew sake to a specific flavour profile? Satō says that it’s possible to some degree, but resists precise control. You have to spend a long time making adjustments. Traditional brewing methods are not fully understood and so are hard to control. But he treats that unpredictability as a plus, with each and every batch having its own particular character, beyond what he intended.
And that’s what makes him uneasy about what he sees happening in the modern sake market – homogenisation and industrialisation. He seems strong echoes of the government-controlled system even today. Brewing was an important source of tax revenue, making up nearly 40% of the money in the country’s coffers at the time of the Russo-Japanese war. If your perspective is liquor taxation, then it makes sense that the National Tax Agency (NTA) should be in charge of the sake industry. And the industry has also benefited from government support, with research organisations such as the National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB) and specialists and advisers scattered around the country.
The winning formula for the National New Sake Tasting Competition held by the NTA is clear and gold medals are relatively easy to win. So, many kuramoto take the easy way and fall in line, joining others on the same path. But that leads to everyone releasing similar products to the market and all sake ending up the same, which is what Satō can’t stand.
Asakura notes that it’s rare in this day and age for an industry to be so heavily controlled by the state. Satō points out that it’s thanks to public sector guidance that the quality of sake production has risen across the board to its current level. State intervention is not without benefit. But if brewers rely on it too heavily, the result is homogeneity. The public sector was never going to be good at getting breweries to differentiate from each other. Their mandate is to help as many people as possible, which means they develop universal guidance and materials and resources anyone can use. They’re not in a position to carry out detailed market research and give advice. So even if a sake wins gold at an NTA competition, it doesn’t mean it will do well in the market.
Does that mean the government is more of a hindrance than a help, wonders Asakura. Satō says he wouldn’t go that far. He credits this long-term state support for the blanket increase in sake quality. The problem is more that producers have not yet moved on to develop their own individual character. So long as the industry is made up of family businesses holding the required licenses, it doesn’t really matter who the successor is – which has its good and bad points. Most people will do what he did, learn the scientific basis of brewing at an organisation like the NRIB or by studying agriculture at university. The key is gaining a wider perspective in that window of time before they return to the brewery. Unless that happens the successor will go back home and find themselves in an environment where current conditions are taken for granted. They’ll never think of doing something new themselves, of changing anything. And that puts limits on what they do with their sake and their company.
Is there much of an opportunity for gaining a wider perspective as a family business is handed down through the generations over and over again, asks Asakura. Satō points out that the sake industry has gone through massive rationalisation, particularly in the short post-war period. Science-based production doesn’t rely on the senses, so it’s not usual to see sake breweries relying too heavily on production manuals. No matter where you go, the recipe for high quality sake is pretty much the same. So much so that it’s worth developing machinery to make the process easier. If everything is laid out like that, forming an easy route to follow, anyone who wants to make big changes will find themselves in the minority.
And that isn’t tradition, claims Satō. It’s a holding pattern. And it’s not a modern phenomenon either. Everything changes. Long-held traditions don’t just end, they continue on through a series of innovations. And that’s why it’s essential to allow innovation to take root in the sake industry.
This is a very long article, but a fascinating one with its focus on how the old classification system still affects the sake industry today. I’ll post it in four instalments.
- Original article (Japanese, Diamond Online, 7 December 2018)
- Aramasa (Japanese, worth a look for the graphics even if you don’t speak Japanese)
- Japanese National Tax Agency (Japanese)
- Japanese National Tax Agency (English)
- National Research Institute of Brewing (Japanese)
- National Research Institute of Brewing (English)