Beer, surfboards and life down under – an interview with Ippin sake brewer
Sake brewers are a mysterious breed. Enigmatic hermits, working away in remote, snow-covered kura. Drinking sake with every meal and staunchly holding on to traditions. Right?
Well, we have a chance to get to know them better. A scion of Yoshikubo family, who are the makers Ippin sake, now resides full time in Sydney. Satoshi Yoshikubo is here to promote Ippin and advance the popularity of sake in general.
Now, Yoshikubo family has been brewing for over 200 years, still following traditional, time-tested brewing methods. So when I got the opportunity to meet one of the men behind the Ippin brand, I prepared for a formal and exceedingly polite meeting.
I met Satoshi at the local craft brewery “4 Pines” (yes, we drank beer, not sake) and straight away knew that he was anything but a hermit. Or staunch traditionalist.
Sake has had an image problem in Japan for a long time. An old man’s drink. In recent years, there have been signs that the fall from grace has bottomed out. The only way is up now. Consumers drink more premium grades like ginjō. As the popularity of sake continues to grow overseas, the youth of Japan has finally paid due attention to the fascinating national drink.
Satoshi is the member of that young, hip and worldly generation who is bringing sake back into vogue. He is also a member of the brewing dynasty, so his endorsement of sake is busting with credibility. He really is the future of Japan’s sake industry.
So, what brought Satoshi to Sydney? And what DO sake brewers drink themselves? Read on.
All images by Satoshi Yoshikubo.
So how does the youngest member of sake brewing dynasty end up in Australia?
I first came to Australia in 2011, to surf and learn how to make surfboards. I spent 2 years working at a surfboard factory on Sydney’s northern beaches. To be honest, sake was the furthest thing from my mind. Then, my brother, who is the director of our family company, asked if I wanted to stay in Australia longer and market Ippin sake. Now, I am Yoshikubo brewery’s International Sales Manager.
Your favourite thing to do in Sydney?
Surfing, and drinking beautiful local beers. I love pale ale like Coopers, 4 Pines, or 50 Lashes. Bluetongue is good too.
What’s your favourite Japanese izakaya in Sydney?
To many to name! Nowadays there are so many quality izakaya all over Sydney, I don’t have to miss Japanese food at all.
Let’s talk about Yoshikubo brewery. The Yoshikubo family has been brewing sake for over 200 years. How does the family tradition stay alive?
The current president of our brewery is our grandmother Fumi Yoshikubo. In Japan, a family business usually passes down to the oldest male in the family. I am the youngest of four grandsons, so I have always known my eldest brother was going to succeed our grandmother. So I never gave brewing much thought. Now that I have the chance to promote our historic sake overseas, I realise how proud I am of our clan.
It is quite unusual for the brewery to be headed by a woman. How did your grandmother come to be the brewery president?
Originally, it was my grandfather who was the president. Neither I nor my three older brothers have met him, as he passed away very young, at the age of 53. My grandmother only had daughters, no sons to pass the family business to, so she took over more than 35 years ago.
In 1987 our kura was completely destroyed by a big fire. We lost everything, but my grandmother found a way to continue brewing. She is 80 now, and still the big boss. She is so strong! Her management style is tough, and she is very stubborn, but we all respect her. We are here because of her, for sure. Thank you grandma!
Who is your toji?
For the past 80 years, our sake has been brewed by toji from the Nanbu guild. Our current toji Tadayuki Suzuki joined our sake team when he was just 18 years old. He spent two decades learning. After 22 years, he is now our head Toji. He is definitely the backbone of our operation.
What makes Ippin sake special?
To me, what’s special is the feeling I get when I drink our sake. I can taste the water from the well in our town. I can taste the work of our brewing team. To me, it is the taste of home, even when I am in Australia.
Also, we brew according to a secret recipe. Our yeast is top secret. It is original, only grown in our kura. No other brewery uses that yeast.
Can people come and visit your brewery? What should visitors try?
For sure! Any time. You will need to book 3 days ahead. If you can bring a friend who speaks Japanese, you will enjoy your visit much more. The best time to come is mid-February, as you can try shinshu, the freshly brewed sake. Also, you can visit the famous plum blossom festival at Mito city’s Karakuen garden during that time.
Our most popular, and oldest, products are Junmai and Kinsen Karakuchi (futsu-shu).
If you visit in winter, bring a warm jacket! It is under 10℃ during the day.
Let’s talk about the current state of things in sake industry in Japan. For a while, sake has had an image problem with younger people, it was considered the old man’s drink. Young people didn’t want to go into brewing, either. Is it changing?
Well, it differs by brewery, but 80% of kurabito at Yoshikubo are around my age, in their 20s. I think my personality is better suited to promotion or sales. But I am keen to learn more about sake brewing and will be spending a few weeks at our brewery this winter.
As for young consumers, I think, in their twenties, they drink any alcohol simply to get drunk. I was like that. Same as here, in Australia? I actually preferred beer as I didn’t know how to drink sake, even though I was born in Japan. So young people have no knowledge and no interest in sake, to start with.
Then, around 30, they earn more money, and can afford to drink sake. They also begin to appreciate history associated with sake. Sake is seen as historic, cool. Now that I am 28 years old, I am ready to drink sake. Hahaha.
Your brewery exports sake all over the world. What are the biggest changes in sake distribution you have seen in recent years?
Refrigerated containers! They, by far, have made the biggest difference to the quality of sake available overseas. Now that most sake is transported refrigerated, sake overseas can be as fresh as it is in Japan.
What’s your view on the Australian sake market?
Australian market is still young. At my tastings, about 40% of people have never tried sake before. Sake popularity is just beginning, but will continue to grow rapidly, for sure. I think consumers want to enjoy Japanese culture through food and sake.
What is the most important thing people need to know about sake?
Don’t be afraid to try it!
Sake is rice wine, same category as wine, not hard liqueur.
Also, you don’t have to drink shots.
Finally, what is your favourite way to drink sake? Hot/warm? What is your favourite grade?
Personally, I love cold sake with sashimi, and I love warmed sake with hot pot food. And I love to drink Junmai with everything, even food from other countries.
So, there you go! You can catch Satoshi at his tastings all over Australia. He usually announces tasting events on the Ippin facebook page.