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Sake Breweries - A Happy Brewery and A Sad Brewery

Every sake brewery has an aura about it in one shape or another. Some breweries are smart, some are professional, some are silly, some are happy, and some are sad. But a "feeling" exists that is very noticeable to outsiders. Earlier this month I was an "outsider" visiting several breweries in Ishikawa prefecture in Japan. Without naming two of the breweries, I had two very different experiences when visiting them. One was indeed a very happy brewery, and the other exuded a sadness that I haven't felt too often in a kura.

The happy brewery was filled with positive vibes. The owner was smiling and so very positive about the brewery and the sake industry in general. There was an overwhelming sense of pride in their efforts and their brewery. They showed me their new cold storage building, which was powered by 100% solar panels on the roof. They showed me their very clean sake making areas and apologized for only repainting the floors every other year. They were smiling when walking me through the facility. They also showed me a swallow's nest inside their brewery. The inhabitant was a swallow that has returned three years in a row and literally follows the owner around the brewery. When we were on the other side of the kura the swallow flew over to check on the owner. It was amazing.

The happy brewery was also open to tasting 365 days a year. Locals come to the kura to purchase sake year around, and if the employees are off the owners themselves do the tastings for anybody and everybody. Imagine that! Their pride was overwhelming, and I am now an even bigger fan of their business and their sakes.

It's hard to write about a sad brewery, but in a word it was simply sad. The other kura has an incredible brand name in the business, and it is respected very much for past efforts namely because they had a superstar head brewer (toji) who was loved by all in the sake industry. Roughly ten years ago when the brewery was on a roll they decided to do what many small breweries always ponder but never do, and that was to expand. A massive capital spending campaign saw the brewery buy tons of new equipment and built two new facilities including, a shochu operation.

When I walked around the brewery there was a feeling of sadness. The owner and toji were with me, and they continually lamented about making sake. Things were not good they told me. They had purchased 5 rice polishing machines but only use 2. They both frowned when they looked at each other, and when I asked what the capacity at the brewery was they said roughly 200 shikomis - tanks. I then asked how many tanks they made this season, and again a sheepish frown came over their faces. Then the toji muttered 60. I was stunned.

We then went to the other facility that housed the cold storage and the shochu department. It was massive and felt dead. I was thinking about a morgue. I asked the owner what percent of total sales did the shochu account for and he said barely 2%. Oh my god I thought to myself, all of this for 2%? It was the classic over-reach. They did what so many breweries are tempted to do - they expanded in good times. But fickle sake drinkers can love you one year and not the next. I was truly surprised. It physically hurt me listening to their stories. They were almost catatonic. They spoke so negatively of the sake market, and I felt sorry for them.

Sake making is a wonderful business, but an extremely difficult one. Steeped in family tradition there are responsibilities that modern businesses have no clue about. But at the end of the day the owners have the ability to control their own destinies in a manner of speaking. They have a say in the way the "aura" of a brewery will proceed. (Of course this comes down to if they are making money and selling sake, but actions can be formulated to aid in this regard.) A happy brewery is that way because of the owners, and likewise a sad brewery is that way because of the actions of the owners. I sincerely hope that the second brewery will realize that they can change their aura, but it has to come from within. The market will not help them. They must help themselves.

I realize that this is the classic tale of two cities in a manner of speaking, but having visited well over 50 breweries the passion or lack thereof is noticeable in the first ten minutes. I also realize that it is difficult to judge a brewery on the basis of "aura," but when I mentioned the second brewery to a friend of mine, who had visited the kura a year before, he concurred almost immediately. He said that they were doomed. I wouldn't go that far. But they definitely need to turn the corner, and I hope that they do!
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