March 2007

Interview with Yasutaka Daimon - Brewery Owner and Sake Good Guy

Posted by admin in 2007, March, Newsletter

In early February I had a chance to take one of my favorite "sake guys" to dinner in SF. Yasutaka Daimon is the owner of Daimon Shuzu in Osaka - makers of the Junmai Ginjo called Mukune or "Root of Innocence." (I will put a Mukune review at the end of the interview.) Little did he know that I was going to spring a 3-page questionnaire interview on him, but the trade off was very tasty as we went to Chez Spencer the "pound for pound" most underrated French restaurant in the Bay Area. (Yasutaka wanted to go "French.")

As I am always on the sake prowl, whether it be drinking or "experimenting" with sake, I surprised my subject by bringing a bottle of Mukune to Chez Spencer to see if what I preach on a daily basis actually is close to reality. Yasutaka's eyes opened wide when I produced his brew in such a splendid environment and even he said, "Will this go with French food?" So for you foodies I will confirm the "what I consider to be the obvious" realization that sake does go with rich flavors and deep layers of French attitude. (By all means please replace French attitude with Italian, Peruvian, Russian etc when it comes to sake - it all works!)

I'll be brief but let it be known that we paired each of the following flavors with a very well known old vine Chardonnay and a very "crowd pleasing Australian Sauvignon Blanc." The first dish was a poached oyster, which overwhelmed the two grape beverages, but was really enhanced by the smoothness of Mukune. Then a course of Bouillabaisse was placed in front of this libation dissection, and Yasutaka thought for sure that it would blow away his Ginjo, but in reality the Chardonnay and S.B. turned far too acidic, while Mukune mellowed the entire play. It was a surprising yet highly effective pairing. Lastly, the ugly-duckling little Japanese Ginjo from Osaka was paired with a superb roasted duck dish and let it be known that the other two "contestants" went the way of too far acidic backlash, whilst Mukune pulled out the richness and smokiness of the duck.

Now onto the real sake thoughts of a sake pioneer:

BT: How is the sake industry doing now compared to 5 years ago?YD: Depending on the specific brewer you will get many different answers. Some of them are doing well while others are not doing well at all. What is obvious is that futsu-shu is dying rapidly. (Futsu- shu is common or table sake, which is milled/polished to less than Junmai levels - roughly 20% removal.) Bottles that used to cost 1,400 yen are now selling for 500-600 yen, and there is no margin whatsoever. Lowering prices has killed the market.BT: What does this mean to the size of the industry?

YD: It means that we are losing so many breweries a year to closure. There are 1,800 licensed breweries, but only 1,200 are brewing. Last year we lost 50 breweries, and we can expect to lose 300-400 in the next five years at this current market rate.

BT: What is the silver lining in this destruction?

YD: The good news is that the shochu boom is over. That bubble of popularity has burst, and the sake industry has to look forward to a far more compact era. Also, a lesson that has been learned the hard way is that small breweries - Jizake - have come to realize that there has to be far better relations between family and sake makers. (Meaning that the owners and their families must have far better relations with the hired sake makers.) The result of this difficult time will be better for the future of sake making, as families and brewers will have a more unified relationship.

BT: How well do your retailers in Japan sell sake versus shochu, wine, and spirits?

YD: Well, I wish there were many True Sake's in Japan. There is such a disconnect between retailers and brewers. They know nothing about sake today. If they knew as much about sake as True Sake we would be the dominant beverage in Japan. They don't care. They want the fast money. The easy sell. They don't care about sake, they care about money.

BT: What about the costs associated with making sake?

YD: (puts hand to head) The oil costs are so high. The energy to make sake is more expensive than ever. But we are seeing a reduction in the price of brewing rice, which accounts for the most expensive aspect of making sake. Overall the costs of making sake have remained roughly the same, but have been increasing a little each year.

BT: In terms of the big picture, what is the greatest weakness with the Japanese Sake brewing industry?

YD: Like you said the skill of the presentation of the greatness of sake. We have no idea how to convey the essence of sake to the consumer. The retailers don't. The wholesale system is dying. The message is lost. And the media does nothing at all to help. There is much room for improvement.

BT: There is very little exposure to Osaka Prefecture sake in the US - tell me a little about the Osaka sake market:

YD: There are 16 breweries in the guild, but only 11 are currently brewing. There is a vast perception in Japan that Osaka cannot make good sake because it is so industrial. They don't think that we have water, mountains, a freshness like other prefectures. This is not true.

BT: How do you define Osaka sake? What is that certain quality? (I call it a layer of excitement.)

YD: Very significant quality that reflects the amazing taste of the cuisine in the region. Kansai people know the subtlety of freshness -the umami - of flavors, the simplicity that is not too salty or overdone. We do not make overly dry sake or completely pristine sake. Don't expect us to be like other prefectures that make clean and dry sake. We appreciate a complex sweetness called Kamigata that is ours and ours alone.

BT: Have brewing methods changed in Osaka and the rest of Japan in recent years?

YD: The biggest change has come in the form that the original Toji system is going away. (Toji system brewing has historically been very driven by guilds and a sense of brewers being separate people from the owners of breweries - BT) Today the kuramoto (owner of the brewery) and the Toji (head brewer) must be on the same page - there is no room for feuds or run-ins. We are seeing the dawning of a new generation of a more integrated system between owners and makers. The families are having more of their children come up through the brewing side as opposed to the operating side.

BT: In terms of drinking sake, what do you think of the palate of American drinkers?

YD: Surprisingly it is not that different from the Japanese sake drinker's palate. This is really hard to believe. The Americans have shown a sophistication that many average Japanese consumers do not possess. It is so surprising that they are not so different. Perhaps this is because of all of your hard work?

BT: What percent of your sales does the US and overseas market account for?

YD: This last year the overseas market represented 35% of our total sales. And next year we expect that to be about 40%.

BT: On a personal note what did your father say to you when he handed the family brewery over to you?

YD: He said that he "didn't know what to do." The sake industry was so in flux, and so destined for trouble that he felt that we needed a change. He saw me as a needed change to the entire system. He felt and relayed to me that his years of experience didn't work any more that a new time had come and a new direction was needed. I was expected to provide a new direction.

BT: What will you say to your son when the time comes?

YD: Sake brewing is not so easy. It is so complex. I want him to know what a healthy kura feels like. I also want him to know that there is no separation between workers and owners - the generational obligation to kurabito (sake workers) - that we have an obligation to support them in their way of life.

BT: Before we speak about you're amazing Ginjo called Mukune - if you didn't own a brewery what would you be doing in life right now?

YD: I would be a wandering priest in India - crazy! (Laughing) Just joking! (In a serious expression) My black sheep days have benefited me as I am now so focused on making excellent sake.

BT: Lastly what do you like about your Junmai Ginjo called Mukune?

YD: The body and acidity. The harmony between the umami and the acidity. Not too light, not too heavy, just a certain contentment.

BT: Thank you my sake brother and herewith is my review of Mukune that we sell for $18/300ml and $39/720ml:

Mukune "Root of Innocence" 
Osaka Prefecture.
Junmai Ginjo.
SMV: +2 Acidity: 1.8
Mukune is a mysterious sake made for those looking to explore big flavors and disappearing acidity acts. This thick and rich sake has an acidity that says goodbye before hello. With an amazing nose of ripe melon, raspberries, honey, balsa wood and flowers, it drinks like a dream. If you close your eyes you may very well find a vein of strawberry and anisette flavors too. A magical Ginjo that "explains" the concept of sake. Think "Biblical" and imbibe.
WORD: Complex
WINE: Full bodied reds/ White Burgundy
BEER: Huge ales/Soft stouts
FOODS: Salty and savory fare, shrimp dumplings, sautéed filet of sole with lemon, oily fried food. (And of course some serious French fare)

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