#16 From rock bottom to success? by Hiroshi SAKURAI
“Finding a distinctive aroma”
When we started to make sake by ourselves, my employees and me, the person that was the happiest about it was my wife. Because the toji and his kurabito always came to work all winter, it was my wife who had to take care of all their meals. It's a tremendous amount of work: there were five to six men living at the brewery and they were practically strangers. Plus, their three meals meant she could not go anywhere during the winter. But now that this burden was off her shoulders, she was in a much better mood. She started to say all around: “Because we're not in the toji system like other sake producers, I don’t have to cook anymore! Our staff goes home at 5.30 pm like any other company.”
The failure of the local beer restaurant in 1999 brought us into debt, but operationally we started making profits. We had cut down significant expenses by not having to pay for a toji anymore, we had also stopped dealing with wholesalers. It was unheard of for a sake producer to cut off a wholesaler. Even though the opposite is quite usual. The reason was that around 1997, the steady sales of Dassai began to decline. So I went and asked the liquor stores that were selling Dassai. They told me that the wholesalers wouldn't sell them Dassai, saying that Dassai was selling too well and its production was too slow for the market. But while I was hearing that, I had a surplus of inventory at my company. So I went and asked wholesalers about this. They told me that sake in general was not selling that well at the moment. Clearly, something was wrong: wholesalers and retailers were not saying the same thing. I could only assume that the wholesalers had just stopped selling it. As a wholesaler, you want to sell all your producers, not just Dassai. They were starting to tell the retailers, the liquor stores that wanted to purchase Dassai, that if they really wanted some, they had to purchase other sake as well.
It sounds a bit rough, but that's when I stopped doing business with the wholesalers. If things were going this way, then I had no choice but to sell my sake myself. I started to deal directly with liquor stores by telling them: “Purchase Dassai directly from me, or just stop selling it altogether”. Some shops continued to do business with me and some stopped selling Dassai.
As our finances were getting better, we were able to invest in equipment. We implemented bottle pasteurization equipment. Back then, sake producers would make the sake pass through some sort of tube and heat it, but then aromas would easily change and get damaged. But if you pasteurize the sake after it is bottled, the quality improves. At first, this was the only point where we could compete on a technical level. In 2000, I bought a centrifuge machine to extract our sake. This was the first time it had ever been used for sake production. I think the manufacturer gave me a discount because I was the first sake producer to buy one, but it was still about the price of a Ferrari. It was developed by the Sake Brewing Research center of Akita Prefecture. Back then, when they wanted to test it, our brewery was the only one that had some sake ready to be pressed. When we first tried it, the sake was really great: it was clean and had a quite different aroma than the usual sake. Normally, the pressure is applied to the fermented sake but with a centrifuge machine, sake is separated from the mash with no pressure at all so the natural Junmai Daiginjo aroma is enhanced. I just thought: “Wow, this is it”. But it was so expensive, and since it was developed in Akita Prefecture, I was reluctant to buy it, thinking that some Akita brewery would buy it. But while I was waiting, no one actually would buy it. So the following year I decided to actually buy it. The sake we started to sell using it was called “Dassai 23 Centrifuge”.
Next story: "Crafting sake year-round: a stable quality"