Kokuryu: To preserve our traditions, we must evolve. Each year we strive for a better brew.
Kokuryu Sake Brewing Corporation
"Preserving tradition is not simply about reproducing the same flavor year after year – it’s about evolution, always aiming for a better flavour than the year before. Our sake isn’t made simply to inebriate, but also to pair beautifully with meals and turn the simple act of drinking into a cultural experience."
We spoke to Kokuryu Sake Brewery President Naoto Mizuno about his thoughts on the future of sake and how he plans to tackle the challenges ahead.
Born in Fukui Prefecture in 1964, Mizuno graduated from Tokyo University of Agriculture with a degree in brewing science. He worked at Kyowa Hakko until 1990, when he joined Kokuryu Sake Brewery. In 2005, he became company president. He works actively to promote sake overseas and elevate its status as traditional culture.
In the sake brewing process, every step is of equal importance
The basic ingredients of sake are water and rice. The process begins with the washing, and then steaming, of the rice – if this isn’t handled well, the product can be ruined even at this early stage. From culturing the koji mould to pressing the mash, great care must be taken so that every step of the process is executed perfectly.
Years of uncompromising commitment to quality ensures excellence
At Kokuryu, we operate under the premise that we can never create exactly the same product twice. Instead, we simply aim to brew a better sake than we did the year before.
Each year’s harvest of rice is different, after all, and temperatures fluctuate throughout the fermentation process too. Our customers’ tastes also change year-to-year - if we weren’t continually striving to create better sake, I don’t think we could continue to satisfy them.
Preserving tradition while continually evolving
Continual evolution is the key to preserving tradition. We’ve been brewing sake since the Edo Period, but in the 1960s and ‘70s, when warm sake was in vogue, my father made the decision to begin brewing ginjo-shu, a type made to be served chilled. In 1975, ‘Kokuryu Daiginjo Ryu’, went on sale. It was the first daiginjo sake to be made nationally available in Japan, and it proved very successful. My father was single minded in his pursuit of excellent flavor and innovation. That's what allowed his sake to live up to customers’ expectations. Our company motto is incredibly simple, and it’s been with us since our brewery was founded – ‘make good sake’. Of course, everyone has a different opinion of what that means. To me, it’s about creating top-quality sake that stays true to the spirit of Kokuryu.
In ancient times, sake was a drink that connected human beings to the deities. It gradually made its way into daily life as something to be enjoyed by ordinary people, and now a new style of sake drinking has appeared, in which it is paired with meals. At Kokuryu, we strive to create sake that accentuates the flavours of whatever food it is enjoyed with. Our sake’s refined and elegant character is thanks to the ingredients we source locally from Fukui Prefecture.
I think we’re at a point now where people are beginning to truly treasure the time they spend with sake. It can be paired with a wide variety of foods and offers different experiences throughout the four seasons. As with wine, there are also vintage sakes. Not only delicious, these vintages are a wonderful
way to mark life’s milestones and anniversaries. Our ‘Muni’ was the first in the line of vintage sakes we now offer.
Lessons learned from brewing sake
I opted to study at Tokyo University of Agriculture, the only university in Japan which offered a course in brewing science. After graduating, I began working at Kyowa Hakko, where I learned the fundamentals of sake brewing. I learned about the artisans still using traditional methods to make sake with unique characteristics every year, bucking the trend in an increasingly mechanised brewing industry. Sake, I discovered, is the product of diverse teams of artisans coming together to work in harmony.
All kinds of people come to join us at Kokuryu these days. Some are fascinated by Japan’s traditional crafts, others hold dreams of becoming master brewers. We are privileged to operate within the vicinity of Eihei Temple, and I believe sake brewing has something in common with the religious training undertaken within its walls. Even after many decades in the role, our chief brewer still comments on the challenging nature of sake brewing from time to time.
Any kind of work comes with challenges, but it’s important to find some pleasure in what you do as well. I believe there’s some joy to be discovered in every task, and that’s what I hope our young employees will manage to do as they gain experience. We can take pride in the thought that we bear responsibility for upholding Japan’s traditional culture.
Promoting Japanese traditions and culture
I believe sake brewing in and of itself is an important element of Japanese traditional culture. If we look at the history of sake, we can see that it has never been made solely to drink – it has always been entwined with various customs and cultures. Artefacts including utensils used by feudal lords to enjoy sake, and sake drinking vessels, have been discovered in a wide range of forms that vary throughout the centuries.
An understanding of sake brings with it an understanding of Japanese history. In order for overseas customers to fully appreciate the wonder of sake, I believe it’s very important to provide them with comprehensive information about its cultural significance.
I want to brew a sake unique to Fukui Prefecture
We currently export our sake to the United States, United Kingdom, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Canada, and Australia, but the volumes are still low. I think the way forward lies beyond simply exporting the products; what’s needed overseas are people knowledgeable about sake who can serve customers in the same way wine sommeliers do.
If we were to see an increase in establishments overseas with the kind of cuisine and service suitable for high-quality sake, then I would be keen to increase our exports to those locations. We’ll keep working hard to promote knowledge of sake overseas and make a name for the Kokuryu brand.
On the other hand, I’d be thrilled to see visitors travelling from around the world to enjoy our sake here in its home of Fukui Prefecture. My love of wine has taken me to France, California’s Napa Valley, and beyond. There are areas like Bourgogne in France that are all countryside with little to see except for the vineyards, yet they attract visitors from around the globe. People are drawn solely by the allure of Bourgogne’s natural landscape, food, and wine. I believe Japan’s breweries harbour the same potential. I want to brew unique Fukui sake that has the allure to draw visitors from around the world.
In recent years, enjoying sake with sushi has become very popular among foreign tourists. My hope is that those tourists who come to Japan to enjoy sake can be tempted beyond the urban centres, out to rural breweries. Visitors would surely appreciate the unique situations and distinct flavours to be discovered in each region. It’s my mission now to create a foundation for this kind of tourism.
The importance of education: how to drink sake and pair it with cuisine
The internet has played a pivotal role in making information about sake far more accessible. There are even online courses and schools dedicated to educating people about sake and the culture associated with it. At Kokuryu, we’re also playing our part. Through our official website and social media, we educate customers on sake culture, how to drink sake, how to pair it with food, and so on.
Passing the baton on to the next generation
I’m the eighth generation to head this brewery, and I feel strongly that there needs to be a successor to carry on that long history. I have three daughters, and I’d love to pass the mantle onto one of them, but
only if they themselves were willing. To that end, I feel it’s my job to make sure this company is an appealing place to work. My dream is for us to have an international clientele who will travel here to Fukui from all over the world. Not only that, but I hope to foster an environment and company philosophy that allows us to take advantage of the great potential for cultural exchange with those visitors. If I can take even the first few steps towards making that a reality, I’ll be happy to pass the baton on to the next generation.