Reintroducing sake to Japan
Daisuke Komatsu’s father insisted that he not succeed the family business. With sake sales falling nationwide, he saw no future in their microbrewery. “He urged me to study, go to a good college, and get a job elsewhere. He thought that was a better plan for me,” says Komatsu.
But soon upon landing employment at a securities firm, Komatsu realized that the life of a salary man was a poor fit. With a strong mind to do what’s right by his own measure, he failed to excel as biddable employee. He envisioned a different path, one in which he held the reins. As he entertained ideas from owning his own bookstore or flower shop to opening a bakery, he remembered a little microbrewery called Komatsu in the countryside of Saga prefecture that was going out of business. “If you want to be a small business owner,” he told himself, “there’s one waiting for you back home.”
The village of Ouchi flanks both sides of a river in the valley that runs between Karatsu, a coastal city to the west, and Saga, the prefectural inland capital. In 1997 Komatsu left his secure job and good salary in Tokyo for a return to Ouchi. He didn’t fancy himself a craftsman, a maker of anything, he simply wanted to steer his own ship and answer only to himself. “I didn’t return with any notion to start brewing sake, only to revive the Komatsu Brewery business,” he explains. He would fill the position of company president. Following the model set by his father, the model every brewery in Japan adhered to at the time, the brewery president was a businessman only.
Though ostensibly still in business, activity had all but ceased as his father prepared to shutter the brewery doors. With relationships abandoned and staff laid off, all was quiet. The first step was to restart production. “There is no revival unless you make sake,” Komatsu realized. He would start with a very small production run and slowly increase capacity as he rebuilt a market. But no matter the batch size, the process takes months and he worried that a tiny first run wouldn’t warrant a bremaster’s salary. “As I was wondering what to do, I realized that it would be best if I made the sake myself. I’ll make it and I’ll sell it.” A brewery president acting as brewmaster was unheard of at the time. “We’re talking 17 years ago,” Komatsu explains. “The owner of the brewery and the maker of the sake were two very different jobs.”
Activity had all but
ceased as his father prepared to shutter the brewery doors.
Sake’s popularity in Japan peaked in 1970 and has been in steady decline since. “When I came back from Tokyo to take over here, I had no idea that sake consumption had dropped so far. When I started production in 1998, it had already fallen by 50%. Now it’s at ¼ of what it was in 1970,” says Komatsu. Though many factors have conspired to push sake out of popularity, the easiest to identify is a changing food culture in Japan. Along with a move away from the traditional Japanese diet towards a more western diet goes a shift towards beer and wine.
A national infatuation with shōchū in the first decade of this century furthered sake’s decline. But Komatsu credits the shōchū boom for potentially facilitating a domestic rebirth of sake. With sales falling, “brewmasters quit which opened the door for a new generation, often the company heirs, to start making their own sake. The system has really changed over the last 10 years.” Komatsu continues, “and as a result Japanese sake has really gone up a notch. It’s much better now. When you take a closer look, these young successors are making better sake than the veterans.” He cites a couple of explanations. Veteran brewers had become complacent, following traditional production standards without impetus to innovate or improve upon them. This new generation of brewers is more curious, more adventurous. And if they are also the business owner, responsible for the bottom line, they inherently possess a deeper investment in the product.
With a handful of seasonal employees, Komatsu begins brewing in December and continues through to early spring. The hours are long, the work physically demanding. During the brewing months, great plumes of vapor billow from an enormous wooden container in which rice is steamed each morning. Streams of light from a roof ridge skylight pierce the yawning air. One man stands atop a ladder shoveling out the hot rice. The others spread the rice onto bats lined with linen and wheel them into the cavernous hall to cool.
A few loads of rice are carried through a wooden door into the koji mura, the room at the heart of every brewery, where Komatsu spreads dark green spores of koji (Aspergillus Oryzae) mold over freshly steamed rice. The spores incite the saccharification process and have significant influence over the sake’s final taste.
Komatsu’s approach to brewing has evolved over the years. “When I started, I thought, I’m going to make sake that everyone says is delicious.” But as a brewer, he came to realize that there is an infinite variety in what you can achieve in the taste of sake. Simultaneously as marketer, he discovered the infinite diversity in consumer palettes. “Six or seven years ago I got this feeling that no matter what variation of sake I brew, there will be those who think it’s good and those who don’t.” It was from that realization that Komatsu sake truly distinguished itself. “Now I make the sake that I like, that I’m proud of. My customers buy it because they like it. In this way, there is no pressure on either end. It’s the most straight forward producer-consumer relationship.”
Komatsu Brewery is one of the smallest microbreweries in the nation. The entire process is carried out manually, using the original tools and equipment that Komatsu inherited. “I want to make sake that contains the essence of authentic sake from the past,” he says. “These days sake is predominantly made in breweries full of modern stainless steel equipment in an automated process. You can probably make good sake that way, however true sake was made like this long ago.” Revival and preservation are equal objectives. “The Japanese sake culture cannot be passed on if one aims to automate and save on labor,” he says. “This kind of brewery is quickly disappearing from Japan. I can at least preserve this one.”
“The Japanese sake culture cannot be passed on
if one aims to automate and save on labor."
Sake’s current foreign boom is a result of a domestic bust. Unable to find a consumer base at home, many breweries are looking further afield. Sake exports nearly doubled between 2002 and 2012. The current administration is intent on increasing exports of sake and other rice based products another 5 fold by 2020. At a time when many breweries are grasping at their share of the export surge and ramping up production, Komatsu is setting limits and drawing his circle as close to home as possible.
Sake brewing capacity is measured in koku, a unit of 180 liters. Komatsu began production at 60 koku and has slowly increased over 16 years to 240 koku. “My goal is to make 300 koku, no more. That’s the limit of our capacity in terms of maintaining quality,” says Komatsu. And when it comes to circulation, “Sixty percent of my sake stays right here in Saga prefecture,” he says. Another twenty percent doesn't leave the island of Kyushu. The last twenty percent is distributed throughout Japan.
The history of sake has been a constant advisor as Komatsu seeks the best path forward for his brewery. “In the old days distribution logistics didn’t exist,” he explains. “Sake was a local product. At the end of the Meiji era (1912) there were 5000 breweries nationwide, 90 here in Saga prefecture alone. The sake made in Ouchi was consumed in Ouchi. Using local rice and local water to make a local product that the local people drink, that cycle is the most ideal. That’s the origin of sake. Likewise, I want to keep as much of my distribution as possible local. I don’t have a notion to push sales all over Japan and overseas.”
Eschewing the export wave, Komatsu is committed to reintroducing his sake to its original community. “I want to create new fans of sake here. I have since day one,” he says. His dedication to education serves this purpose. He is generous with information, ushering the consumer into the world of sake by revealing a process that other breweries hold in secrecy. “At any other brewery, you’d never be allowed to enter the koji mura. They’d never let you touch the rice,” he says. For Komatsu, this transparency is key to creating new sake aficionados. “After having participated in the process I bet your experience drinking sake from now on will be different from before. That’s how I get people interested.”
At the height of his father’s era, sales were presumed. There was no need to meet the buyer and talk about sake culture, but Komatsu is brewing in very different times. “It’s a grassroots movement now to rebuild a consumer base. We gather 10 – 15 people and have a sake tasting party. To get 1000 people on board, we go 10 by 10.”
This approach has held him in good stead so far. Unlike his stint at the securities firm where, he says, “I was their soldier, getting as much business as possible and pushing sales on people who didn’t want what I had to offer,” Komatsu is nearing an equilibrium of production and demand. “Since I came back to start producing sake, I’ve always held in mind the history of breweries. I’m 46 now,” he says. “Maybe I have another 20-25 good years. If I think only about the time I have left, expansion and exporting would be a beneficial path to follow. But if I take the long view, where this brewery will be in 100 years, if I don’t solidify our connection to this place, to the people right here, in the end this brewery won’t survive.”