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Born - Spreads its Wings (Katoukichibee Shouten Brewery)

Popular at dinner functions for state guests and diplomatic events, Born is a sake produced by Katoukichibee Shouten, a brewery with a rich history of one hundred and sixty years. Currently, Born is served in one hundred and five countries around the globe, where it is praised as a sake that encapsulates the Japanese culture. On top of that, it has won first prize at tens of international sake-tasting competitions. We had the pleasure of speaking to Atsuhide Kato, the eleventh generation head of the company, who endeavours to promote Born and Japanese culture worldwide.

Inheriting the brewery at 18 years old

Atsuhide Kato

“I was a premature baby, born in December of 1957, in the havoc of the holiday season. It was a month before my due date, and I weighed only four pounds and seven ounces. My older brother passed away when he was young, so my parents had been eagerly awaiting another boy in the family, and I was raised with a lot of care. My father was a kendo athlete and a swimmer, so I have many memories of going to support him when he participated in matches and competitions.”

“However, my father suddenly passed away from liver cancer at fifty-two years old, just as I was supposed to start studying at a famous university in Tokyo, in April. My original plan had been to leave university in September to pursue a business and economics degree at an elite university in Boston, U.S.A., after achieving top marks in the entrance exam. I had intended to inherit the family business some time in the future, but I never thought it would happen so early.”

“If I had gone through with my original plan to keep studying overseas, I don’t expect I would have come back for another twenty years or so. I truly believed that inheriting the business at such a pivotal time was my divine destiny. If I hadn’t become head at that exact time, Katoukichibee Shouten might not have become the company it is today. Seeing as I took over the business more than twenty years earlier than I would have otherwise, I felt like my life had been fast-forwarded by twenty years.”

“My study abroad experience in Boston got cut short. Having said that, my daughter, who now works at an airline company, had the opportunity to complete her studies in Boston. Seeing how she got to study in that same city, I was as happy for her as I had been for myself.”

Research and recognising his father’s brilliance

“When I joined the company, I had the opportunity to attend the National Research Institute of Brewing for around three years while beginning my work. At the time, I was still only around twenty years old, and an inexperienced youngster. Despite that, as the heir of Katoukichibee Shouten, my peers were very kind and taught me all sorts of things. I’m still extremely thankful for that.”

Some of Japan’s most famous sakes, brewed by Katoukichibee Shouten

“On top of being a brewer, my father was a chairman of the Sake Brewers Association, and a judge for the Kanazawa Regional Taxation Bureau Sake Awards. Of course, I admired him a great deal, but I wanted to take some time to explore a different path in life. Back then, my dream was to do the research I wanted abroad, and then work there for some years before returning to Japan to inherit the business. I thought I would have plenty of time – ten, twenty years, even – until I would return home.”

“However, with the sudden passing of my father, I didn’t hesitate to change my plans and focus on taking over the brewery instead. I believed that was my destiny by God.”

How a first-rate Master Brewer turns specially-selected, contract-farmed rice into delicious sake

We use carefully selected rice, pure natural water drawn from a 184-metre deep well, and our own yeast in order to brew our sake. All the brewery staff pull together to create the finished product. “Brewing sake isn’t something that can be done alone. In order to deliver truly delicious sake, you need a chief brewer with good artistic sense and skill. I’ve also been supervising our brewing since I was in my twenties, but our current chief brewer is Akira Hirano (48). I first met him when he was in his twenties, too, when he came to our brewery from Kamaishi city in Iwate prefecture. I was charmed by his flair for brewing.”

Brewer Hirano carries out koji mould culturing, an indispensable step in sake brewing.

“Though he was young, I fast-tracked Hirano’s promotion to chief brewer immediately. I told him, ‘I want you to make the best sake in all of Japan!’. After that, he took the Nanbu Brewers’ Guild Exam to qualify as a Master Brewer, and achieved the best results in the entire country. His success was even reported with a photograph of his portrait in the newspaper. Evidently, my eye for his talent was not mistaken. My eldest son joined an I.T. company for a while after graduating from university, but now he’s also part of our company as vice-president. Working as a team with Hirano, he’s doing a splendid job in supporting the brewery.”

“We’ve been making additive-free junmai sake for around twenty years now. One of our brewery’s most distinctive traits is the fact that we use only our contract-farmed brewer’s rice to create junmai sake, and we brew it using our very own yeast. It all started when a close friend from my high school days asked me, ‘why do you add extra alcohol to sake? Can’t you just make it with rice?’, and I found myself unable to answer right away, even though it was such a simple question. We had already been awarded the gold prize at the National New Sake Appraising and Deliberating Fair, but I thought I might try a new approach all the same. That conversation happened when we had just started selling our in-house goods on the global market. I became completely set on making the best Japanese sake in the world, using only rice as the base ingredient.”

“Grains are something that everybody eats worldwide. Many say that rice is the most flavoursome amongst them all, and Japan’s rice in particular is recognised all around the globe as having a delicious quality that cannot be beaten. Our flagship brand, Born sake, is made from specially-selected, contract-farmed brewer’s rice (rice most suitable for making sake), which lets it bloom into a most delicious sake. I’m extremely proud to call such an exquisite sake ours.”

A Sake with a story

This special tanuki holds a Shiragaki-ware ceramic sake bottle. When spoken aloud, ‘tanuki’ sounds similar to ‘excel beyond others’ in Japanese. Thus, the ornament symbolises a prayer for success in the business world, as well as the teaching of ‘sanpo-yoshi.’* It was gifted to the brewery by a head Oumi merchant.

“When we design a product, we start by creating a story. This story relates to the effect we want the sake to possess. For example, our sake named Born: Dreams Come True was created with the intention to market a top-class sake that will remain relevant in the twenty-first century. It can be interpreted as a good luck charm for the customer, acting as a vessel for a prayer that they will have the power to actualise their dreams.”

“Alternatively, it can be a celebratory drink for those whose dreams really have come true. For those people, the hand-crafted one-litre bottle is designed to resemble a trophy, to represent how the drinker is the one and only victor of their destiny. For the same purpose, we made it so the bottle glitters a dark gold when full, mimicking a first-place trophy. The glittering effect disappears once the bottle is empty because, just like people, it’s impossible to shine without substance.”

“On the twenty-second of October 2020, The Japan Times featured two of our sake, Born: Chogin, and Born: Wing of Japan, in an article about a national ceremony attended by the Emperor. That was an absolute honour.”

“Before the coronavirus pandemic, I used to travel abroad for business purposes more than seventy times a year in order to promote our sake overseas. At the moment, the market share of Japanese sake consumption in Europe doesn’t even make up one percent. However, that means that there is a possible ninety-nine percent to branch out into. I firmly believe that Japanese sake has limitless potential.”

“The reason I travel abroad so often is because I take staff there to enrich their training. Because of that, they often call me Wing of Japan, too. The thing is, if you don’t directly talk to people, you’ll never know anything about their inner character. You can find out a lot about someone via their body language and way of speaking, even if you’re only with them for half a day.”

Sake as a bridge to Japanese culture

“Until now, Japanese drinking etiquette has been mainly limited to Japan only, which is something I’d like to change. I want our sake to introduce Japanese culture to many people worldwide, and have them realise that sake is a must-have wine. For example, tea ceremonies were said to be very popular among many military commanders in the Sengoku period, such as Oda Nobunaga. Expanding our business overseas, I have a vision to educate people on how becoming acquainted with Japanese sake is a way to understand Japanese culture – just like tea ceremonies are.”

“Pouring each other a glass of sake shows that you respect that person. In fact, you could call drinking sake a microcosm of Japanese culture itself, as it’s focused on showing respect and gratitude to your drinking partners. Those values are repeated all throughout Japanese culture. Still, no matter where you are in the world, I think it’s important to show the people around you that you’re grateful to them, and that you acknowledge and respect them. Those principles always ring true.”


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