The Dassai sake brewery, Asahi Shuzo, tucked away in a mountain valley about an hour from Iwakuni City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, doesn't look very different from the hundreds of others dotted around the countryside.
But the traditional facade hides revolutionary ambitions. Even the brewery's brand name, Dassai, which literally means "otter festival," has a footloose feel.
"Dassai" was a pseudonym of the haiku poet Masaoka Shiki, who died in 1902 and was famous for overturning the conventions of Japanese literature at the time.
Asahi Shuzo only produces "junmai daiginjo" sake, or highly refined pure-rice wine. Its flagship brew is made with grain milled down by 77 percent in a process called "ni-wari san-bu." This is supposed to remove the unrefined taste imparted by outer layers of rice grains. Only premium Yamada Nishiki rice is used.
Nevertheless, the brewery's products are still around 30 percent cheaper than junmai daiginjo sake made by other breweries with similar milling ratios. In the last 10 years, its sales have increased six-fold, and annual double-digit growth continues.
The secret, says brewery president Hiroshi Sakurai, is a willingness to challenge long-held shibboleths of his industry.
Sakurai, 61, took over the family business in 1984. At the time, it relied on cut-price brews with added alcohol and rarely produced pure-rice sake. Sales were dropping by around 10 percent annually.
Attempts to go up-market with pure-rice refined drinks drew some positive reaction in Tokyo, and Sakurai decided to go the whole hog, milling his rice down to 23 percent.
Sakurai heard that milling to 24 percent was the previous record, and he decided to beat it.
"It was a plan to revive a brewery on the brink of going under," he says. "There was no high-minded philosophy behind it. As a result, it became easier for consumers to grasp what we were doing."
In 1999, Sakurai did away with the company's traditional "toji" (master brewer) system. Today, a laboratory filled with white-jacketed staff stands adjacent to the main brewery. Graphs displaying the sugar and alcohol content of each brewing tank are stuck all over the laboratory wall.
"The data is shared among all of our staff. It is a break from the unscientific brewing method of relying on the toji's instincts," Sakurai says.
While many breweries only begin the brewing process in winter, when temperatures are low, Asahi Shuzo is working on new brews over 400 times a year. The brewery's interior is kept at a temperature of 5 degrees year-round. This "shiki-jozo" (four-season brewing) technique helps us accumulate a staggering amount of knowledge. But it is one of the reasons for Dassai's highly competitive pricing.
Sakurai's son works as a sales representative and travels around Japan and the world to promote the brand.
"We're not a traditional business. We're a manufacturer," he says. "Japan's breweries' over-attachment to their production techniques and aversion to proactive sales efforts has brought about the downturn (in the sake industry). The sector is in critical condition."
The facts support Sakurai's urgency. The number of sake breweries in Japan has dwindled from around 3,500 just 40 years ago to approximately 1,500 today. Total sales had been sliding for 16 years before a slight boost in 2011 following promotion efforts in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
In the 1980s, brands from Niigata such as Ishimoto Shuzo's Koshinokanbai and Hakkai Brewery's Hakkaisan were big sellers, spearheading a general trend toward light, crisp styles across the industry.
Highly refined "ginjo" sake recipes were the main theme of the 1990s, with major manufacturers and local breweries like Dassai competing on their rice-milling ratios and yeast-derived aromas.
While neither trend sparked an increase in overall consumption, there was an industry-wide movement toward a standardization of flavors with the unfortunate result that it became harder for individual breweries to distinguish themselves.
Toshiaki Yamada, 49, laboratory chief of the market researcher Sakebunka Institute, says today's industry is market by two distinct strategies from local breweries: "industrialization" of the sort typified at Asahi Shuzo and "agriculturalization."
"By scrapping the master brewer system and implementing shiki jozo, they are able to keep costs down while producing junmai daiginjo sake at a reasonable price," Yamada says of Asahi Shuzo. "This has similarities with Fast Retailing, which oversees the low-priced, high-quality Uniqlo clothing brand. (Coincidentally) it also has its head office in Yamaguchi Prefecture."
Shinkame Shuzo in Hasuda City in Saitama Prefecture typifies the alternative approach, "agriculturalization," which focuses on rice varieties and cultivation methods as a way of distinguishing a brewery's products.
Shinkame switched all of its output to pure-rice sake in 1987, becoming the first brewery in the postwar era to do so, and executive director Yoshimasa Ogawahara displays a similar acknowledgement of the need for change to his counterpart at Dassai's Asahi Shuzo.
"We want to put an end to the postwar era of sake," he says.
Ogawahara says he strives to make sake with a perfect balance of five flavor characteristics: sweetness, tartness, sharpness, bitterness, and astringency, as well as the rich flavor and body of the rice.
Milling the rice to an inch of its life is not a priority. Shinkame's principal products retain 50 to 60 percent of the grain in the milling process, and one brew retains as much of 80 percent.
"If you polish the rice to excess, you lose the flavor," says Ogawahara.
Instead, there is a laser-like focus on the rice varieties and methods of cultivation used on the farms that supply the brewery. The brewery invites fans of its brews to contract farms in Narita City, Chiba Prefecture, each spring and autumn to help plant and harvest rice.
Shinkame is also a center of training in the industry. In 2007, Ogawahara sent out a call to 20 breweries where his former trainees are working in order to establish a group that promotes the production of "junmai" sake.
One of the group's member breweries, Akishika Shuzo of Nose Town in Osaka Prefecture, began growing its own Yamada Nishiki rice in its fields from 1985 as a means of controlling all aspects of sake production. Even executive director Hiroaki Oku, 56, takes part in harvesting the rice, which keeps his face tanned all year round.
"The flavor of our sake differs from rice field to rice field. It makes sake a lot more interesting," he says.
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Memo: Classifying sake
The words displayed on sake bottles such as "junmai," "honjozo," "ginjo," and "daiginjo" were introduced by the National Tax Agency in 1989 in line with an amendment to the Liquor Tax Law.
Sake that is made only with rice and rice malt and has no added ingredients such as alcohol or sugar is called "junmai-shu." On the other hand, "Honjozo-shu" refers to sake with added alcohol that is derived from fermenting or distilling sugar cane or other ingredients but accounts for less than 10 percent of the weight of the rice, which is polished to a degree of less than 70 percent.
In the case of both junmai-shu and honjozo-shu, if the rice is heavily milled and fermented using a process called "ginjo-zukuri," which involves keeping it at a low temperature for close to one month, it can be called ginjo or "daiginjo," depending on the degree to which the grain is milled.
Additionally, sake that is made using a special method other than ginjo-zukuri may be designated as "tokubetsu junmai-shu" or "tokubetsu honjozo-shu."
Brews to which none of these descriptions apply are regarded as "futsu-shu" (ordinary sake), and, according to the National Tax Agency, 68.6 percent of sake produced in 2010 fell under this category.
The current market share of junmai-shu (including ginjo-shu and daiginjo-shu) is 16.1 percent, which represents an increase from 11.8 percent in 2001. In contrast, the market share of ginjo-shu (including daiginjo-shu) with added alcohol and honjozo-shu has fallen from 20.2 percent to 15.3 percent.
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