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Interview With Kumiko Kurosawa From Hakkaisan Brewery

sake interview may 2007Last month I had the pleasure to dine with a sake friend of mine, who I see time and time again at tasting events here in the Bay Area. Kumiko Kurosawa is the International Brand Manager for Hakkaisan Brewery from Niigata Prefecture, and is responsible for all overseas markets - including the US. Now in case you do not know it Hakkaisan is probably the best "branded" sake in Japan - known by all as makers of really great sake. If there is a national "brand" contest Hakkaisan will either win it or come in second place every year. They just have a killer brand and it is the envy of the industry. But as you will find out in this brief interview that brand just doesn't magically appear, they work like hell on it by constantly massaging it and staying incredibly focused. Also joining us was Mr. Taro Tanigawa who is the sales and marketing manager for both the domestic and international markets. Taro-san's comments are partially blended in with Kumiko's thoughts.

Herewith is our conversation, which she had no idea that I would be "interviewing" her, and was followed by a very special sake that I had been aging!

BT - From your perspective at Hakkaisan, how is the health of the sake industry in Japan? The Strengths? And the Weaknesses?KK - Three years ago the industry was really hurting. Things were quite bad. Small breweries were closing and big breweries were laying off lots of employees. I think this trend won't stop, but we may see a leveling out of sorts. Also there is a major taxation issue that is looming for next year. As it stands now, and for tax break purposes, small kuras (breweries) that produce under a certain amount (1,000 koku) are currently not taxed at a level as high as the larger producers. But next year they will get the full taxation, and this will certainly see the demise of many small breweries. In a sense that is too bad, but also that is the way markets work. Small breweries also succumb to the fact that they do not have good marketing or distribution outlets.The good news is that sake and food are coming closer together. The restaurant sake market is still gaining market share. People are incorporating sake into more meal situations, and not just in Izakayas (sake pubs). This is a good trend, because on the other side ritual sake drinking is declining. As you know sake is very much tied to religious occasions, special events, and these situations are seeing a decline in terms of sake participation.

Another weakness is the fact ("which you have pointed out in past Newsletters") is that there is a serious health perception around sake. It has become so muddled that even doctors are recommended drinking "distilled" beverages as the "healthier drink." This is not true, but the distilled beverage industry has done a great job in marketing this perception.

BT - Are you seeing any trends in terms of the demographics of sake drinkers?

KK - The absolute main consumers of sake are late aged males in their 40's and 50's. Younger drinkers cannot either afford sake on a daily basis or are wooed into distilled beverages or new style beverages such as infused beers. If they do drink sake then it is usually cheap sake and then they think - perceive - sake as being no good. More women are trying to learn sake, and there is a small movement towards trying to get more female sake sommeliers.

BT - Is the "Shochu Boom" over? What other enemies lay in wait?

KK - Yes there is pretty much a consensus that the "boom" is over, which is good as it positions shochu as a trend. But shochu will always take market share on account of the pricing involved. Shochu is cheaper and more potent. The next "enemy" is plum wine. There is a strong movement towards as plum wine boom. Many brewers and distillers are entering the plum wine market and the consumption trend is rising quickly.

BT - How viable are the overseas markets perceived?

KK - Brewers take exporting very seriously. There has been a 50% increase in exports in the last 12 months and we do not see this number declining in the near future. At Hakkaisan we export only 1% of our production. My goal and desire is to see that number become 10% in the next five years (At this point Kumiko smiled a look that said that this was very unlikely). But we in the industry appreciate consumers who enjoy sake, so if the trend is higher over seas then we will make better and more sake for those people.

BT - How is the health of the famous Niigata sake market?

KK - So bad! Sake is losing 5% of market share each year. Older sake drinkers are switching to beer and cheap shochu. They are the core of our market, and even they are leaving sake. It is too bad.

BT - Why is Niigata perceived as one of the best sake centers in Japan?

KK - Firstly, our style of sake is preferred by the drinkers. It is smooth and clear, and when you taste a sip at a bar or store you are sold. The perception of good sake is that we make a different style of sake that happens to be good. Niigata sake is not heavy, and as such it compliments light flavored Japanese cuisine. There are not too many heavy Japanese foods.

BT - Do Niigata breweries do any joint marketing in Japan? How do you keep the image of Niigata sake strong?

KK - We mainly focus our attention on a massive sake festival each year that draws hundreds of thousands of sake fans to Niigata. It is a great festival, and I recommend any tourist to come and visit during the festival. They will like it. Hakkaisan is in over 1,000 liquor stores, and usually what happens is liquor shops group sakes together by prefecture in many cases. So the Niigata offerings are always displayed together and many of the names stand out. The customers are then reminded that Niigata makes good sake.

BT - Okay take your company hat off for a second and what other prefectures do you consider makers of great sake?

KK - (Looking around to see if anybody may know her) I think Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures make very good sake. They have very strong brewery owner associations that share a lot of information and are team oriented.

BT - As a retailer of sake I often have to speak about the Big 3 from Niigata - Koshi no Kanbai, Kubota, and Hakkaisan - what is the perceived difference between these very well known breweries?

KK - Good question. Simply put each of these breweries has a different customer base. Koshi no Kanbai positions its image as a rare and hard to get sake, which speaks to a more elitist group of drinkers. Kubota targets the opposite of the elitist drinkers and focuses on the middle-market. And Hakkaisan tries to target everybody, the common drinker to the elitist who knows good sake. We are the everyman's drinking sake.

BT - Okay no let's talk about Hakkaisan - how is the health of your brewery?

KK - Business is good! Our owner's influence over the brewery and the market is really strong. His mission is to sell good quality sake to the entire market, and our vendors and customers are responding. We have a good brand, good momentum, and good distribution points that protects us during some of the down turns in the sake business. We are very proud of our product line.

BT - How long has the current "administration" been in place - the Kuramoto and Toji etc?

KK - The Chairman of the Board is 76 years old, and he left control of the brewery to his 48-year-old son who is now the President. The Toji has been head brewer for the last ten years but he has been working at Hakkaisan for 30 years. In terms of employees, we have 43 year-round kurabito, and when the season is high we add 20 more for a total of 63 kurabito.

BT - Yet again Hakkaisan was voted the number one brand in Japan in the Dancyu Magazine Sake Poll - Why?

KK - Quite simply we make good sake in a prefecture that is known for making good sake. But more importantly we manage our brand by a strategy of putting Hakkaisan in as many restaurants as possible. Restaurants increase the visibility of a sake, and more and more drinkers will recognize our brand if they see it at their favorite restaurants. We target the high-end as well as the common drinking restaurants - from $150 meals to $25 meals, and we are accepted and appreciated at both ends, because our sake is good with food.

BT - Currently you have three products available in the US - Honjozo, Ginjo, and Junmai Ginjo - any plans for more offerings in the coming future? Your namas always receive very high marks - any chance?

KK - All I can say is that we have registered two additional products for the US market.

BT - Okay, now on a personal note do you have any thoughts on being a woman in a predominately male industry?

KK - So much time has passed. Now women in the sales and marketing divisions of breweries are so common. There is no real issue there. In terms of making sake this issue still exists to an extent. Women have to work harder to gain respect, and we are only now seeing an increase in higher-ranking female kurabito. But again it is not really an issue, because making sake is difficult and it is just about getting the job done - either by a man or a woman.

BT - Now for the hard-core readers - what ingredients does Hakkaisan focus on?

KK - We basically focus on Gohyakumangoku rice from Niigata, Yamadanishiki from Hyogo, and Miyamanishiki from Nagano. Our kubo (yeasts) are association numbers 7, 9, 10, and 14. I think it is great that your readers want to know this.

BT - Is there anything that you would like to say to the Newsletter readers?

KK - I would like to stress for your readers and customers to drink sake with various foods to find their own match. Sake and food go so well together and you will find a new feeling in exploring different cuisines and sake. And by all means keep enjoying Hakkaisan.

BT - Thank you Kumiko and Taro-san! And for your enjoyment I have brought a chilled bottle of Hakkaisan Ginjo that I have been personally aging for 10 years! The date on the bottle is September 1997. (When I produced this sake offering both of my dinner mates were flabbergasted. Why did you age it? They asked. And I responded with my typical answer that well-made sake last a long time - defiantly more than perceived. But I stressed that the sake must be made well! Now I will say that they specialize in making fresh and tasty sake, so I took them by surprise by producing this old sake. I will write a few notes about the sake, but suffice it to say they prefer their Hakkaisan fresh! That said they were overwhelmed with how soft and smooth and drinkable the aged sake had become. They also noted that this bottle was from the first brewing season of their current head brewer (Toji), and this made them smile. I am certain that word has gotten back to him about this!!)

Hakkaisan Ginjo - Dated Sept 1997
Niigata Prefecture.
Color - Light brown
Nose - Earthy, molasses, crushed leaves, wet wool, and mushrooms.Feeling - Thin and compact, super smooth, silky, slick, round and bouncy
Flavor - Very compact vein of flavors, cooked fruits, steamed rice, vanilla, chestnut, butterscotch.
Thoughts - Just a very cool drinking experience. A soft and collapsed flavor field still remains balanced and almost bouncy. Good deep rich flavor tones in a super silky fluid. Chilled is preferable as a pronounced acidity comes out at room temperature. Proof positive if the sake is built well, it will last!
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