A sake brewer once said, “the quality of sake can never exceed the quality of its ingredients.” Premium sake maker Asahi-Shuzo lives by this rule, working closely with local communities to cultivate top-quality rice and to preserve the pristine environment that provides the water used in its products. President Yasushi Hosoda discusses the company’s nearly 100 years of history and its masterful approach to blending tradition and innovation
Can you tell us about the history of the company and how it has evolved?
The company started brewing sake in the 1800s, and in 1920 it was the first sake brewery to become a limited company in Niigata Prefecture. We introduced the latest facilities for production, which was very rare at that time, and our initial brand called ASAHIYAMA gained recognition in the domestic market. In 1985, our main product, KUBOTA, went on sale bearing the original name of the company, which was the culmination of our challenging spirit and production techniques to be one step ahead. Asahi-Shuzo Sake Brewing continues to combine traditional techniques with innovative ideas to create new products. In 1994, we started exporting to the United States. We believe that we were one of the first to introduce Japanese sake to the U.S. market.
In Niigata Prefecture alone there are 89 or 90 companies that make sake. What makes you stand out from the rest?
There are many types of Japanese sake. The taste varies depending on its brand. We researched how people live in a society, their working patterns and their food preferences. These factors were very important for us to decide what kind of taste of sake we should produce. And we concluded that we should produce one that is dry and clear, not sweet or thick. This is how KUBOTA was born, out of an effort to create the ideal tasting sake as well as to meet customers’ needs. Obtaining top quality rice, pristine water and high-level techniques are mandatory for its production.
As truly local sake brewer, our first focus is on the rice. We cultivate a special top-quality sake rice called Gohyakumangoku, which is made in Niigata prefecture. We launched contracted farming for the very first in this area and conducted rice quality research and strict quality control. This all helped us produce the best rice grain for sake production. The second main ingredient is water. Niigata Prefecture, located on the Sea of Japan’s coastline, offers a plentiful supply of clean groundwater. In our area, the water is super soft water, flowing down to a small town called Koshiji, which gets a lot of snow in the winter. In addition to the rice and water, we also make the most use of our master brewers experience, integrated data, new techniques that came from basic research, and our in-house yeast that we developed. All of this helps establish our individuality.
What are the main trends that you see in America and what are your future expectations for this market?
We are seeing Japanese cuisine gaining popularity, and we expect this trend to extend to Japanese sake, especially the premium kind. We are currently exporting to 30 countries, and America accounts for 30 percent of our sales. We believe that the United States is a great country that embraces different cultures from around the world and is good at making them even better. We think that our sake surprisingly has compatibility with other cuisines in the United States, and it now seems to be spreading out to the states in the suburbs. The U.S. is a large country so we still have some potential for growth there, and we are also focusing on Asian countries.
What are the logistical challenges of exporting top-quality sake to the United States?
Sake tastes best within one year, although you can still drink it after that if you keep it in a proper way. Therefore, we have contracted distributors that can preserve the quality of our products well. We also have an order-production system. We start to bottle sake right after we receive an order and deliver it right away. That is why we prefer to sell to restaurants so that people can consume it faster. We also provide instructions to the restaurant staff about how to keep this sake in optimal conditions.
How do you match your sake to the local cuisines in the countries where you export?
We usually visit our overseas markets and have actual meals with our products. We contemplate what type of sake goes best with each dish with chefs and the other staff. We also conduct demonstrations if necessary.
American consumers really value branding. How are you getting them to buy your sake?
Establishing our brand in the United States is significantly important. Although we started exporting our products in the 1990s, the key importance for us to bear in mind is that KUBOTA is local sake, and it should be loved by local people. This is the story that we have to convey to the U.S. market, including the story of KUBOTA and its product information. Therefore, we founded a subsidiary company in the United States in 2018 to gather the responses from our customers and take action instantly to meet their needs.
How do you stay on the cutting-edge of the industry?
Our master brewers have always said that the most important thing is to have top-quality ingredients. Besides honoring this mandate and try to make use of it, we’re always challenging ourselves to develop something new while keeping our customers in mind. We try to find out their needs, sometimes even before they are aware of them themselves. We try to be one step ahead.
What are the company’s future plans?
In 2020, we will be celebrating our 100th anniversary, and to celebrate this milestone we will produce a brand new sake.
You’re also involved in environmental and cultural activities in the village of Koshiji, where you are based. How does the company partner with the local community?
We work to preserve the area’s uniquely pristine environment. The important ingredients of sake are water and rice, so you need top quality rice and top quality water to make top quality sake. Interestingly, fireflies are a good indication of an environment with clean air and water, so we cooperate with the Koshiji community to foster an environment in which fireflies may propagate. We believe that everyone should get involved in protecting the environment, and one of our goals is to work together with the community, especially elementary school children. Our employees visit schools to do outreach work and help children release fireflies into nature. We also subsidize groups and organizations that work to protect the environment.
Regarding cultural activities, we work to preserve the local food culture and other cultural aspects. Our Entrance Hall often hosts concerts, while Shoraikaku Villa, the home built in the early 20th century by Asahi-Shuzo’s founder Yonosuke Hirasawa, is used for tea ceremonies, storytelling and other cultural activities.
Why is Japan so attractive to foreign visitors, and how does your company contribute to this vision?
Japan receives many overseas visitors and this is because each different community has its own special culture and traditions, food, architecture, and seasonal events. Our food is particularly appreciated, and there is a growing interest in sake culture. We believe that just a little sip of KUBOTA evokes beautiful images of Japan. What we want is to see our customers smile.