#26 From rock bottom to success? by Hiroshi SAKURAI
“A large-scale business, with weak spots”
The main sake-crafting facility of Asahi Shuzo is a 12-story building. The location is the same as the original sakagura, in Osogoe, Iwakuni City, Yamaguchi Prefecture. It is 60 meters high. When it was built in 2015, it was then the fourth tallest building in the prefecture. The reason why we made it tall is that there is little flat land available, as we are located deep in the mountains we just had to extend it upwards.
You might say that we should just have to relocate. It would have been cheaper to build it that way. But for one thing, our company was growing so fast that we couldn't afford the time to look for land. The other was an attachment to the land, and the kind resentment you have when you are from an underpopulated area. If you live in an underdeveloped, underpopulated area, the people around you only think about getting subsidies from the authorities. However, this only leads to a more accelerated depopulation of the area. I felt some resentment to that. It may sound like a big deal, but I just wanted to show people that you can do well, you could succeed even in an underdeveloped, underpopulated area of the countryside.
Since it is a building, people often are misled into thinking we are mass-producing sake with machines. However, the basic process of sake making is just done from top to bottom. We wash the sake rice on the upper floor, then steam it downstairs before taking it one floor below and make koji rice. Afterward we take it one floor down to ferment it tanks, before pressing the sake and bottling it further downstairs. The rice is divided into small portions and everything is washed by hand, and the koji is also handcrafted. Our sake is fermented in 3,000 and 5,000-liter tanks, two of the smallest classifications for fermenting tanks, even for local producers of the sake industry. It's actually cheaper to ferment in larger tanks, but it cannot provide a uniform quality.
By building our main sakagura, the production capacity for our company, together with our second sakagura, reached 40,000 goku (1 goku is about 180 liters). The next year, in 2016, the production capacity was about 25,000 goku and sales exceeded 10 billion yen. In the midst of all this, we began to face some problems.
In the summer of 2016, we had a bad stock of sake. As we have been increasing production and sales, we had misjudged the demand for our sake for the month of August. It would have been better if we could have just adjusted the production the following month, but we couldn't move fast enough. That’s a symptom of a “Big Company Disease”. It was around the time when the sake-making staff exceeded 120 people. If you want to use this many people like your own arms and legs, you need a certain amount of know-how. And we weren't up to scratch.
Then, in 2019, we had been supplying some Dassai sake that contained a different alcohol content than indicated on its label. You see, usually, when our sake is pressed after its fermentation, it is about 16.8 degrees and then watered down to about 15.9-16.1 degrees. The two people in charge of adding water and blending it to the sake, were not stirring it after adding water. So the alcohol content would differ depending on the bottle. We had found out about it during a usual internal quality tasting. The two people in charge said they thought the sake would blend uniformly just by adding the water, but I think they just didn't do it because it was too much trouble for them.
I could have just shut my mouth about it, but then that would have been a bad example to show my own staff. Have had shut my mouth about it, they probably would not be able to proudly craft Dassai, without cutting any corners. So I decided to begin a voluntary recall of 260,000 bottles of sake, which represented the tanks they were in charge of. What I learned from that was that people make mistakes and cut corners. And to think of ways to avoid that is necessary for large companies. That just was my own mistake, into relying upon and believing in people’s good intentions.
Next story: "Shima Kosaku and the Heavy Rains recovery"