For sake breweries in Japan, these are the dismal facts. Japanese consumers have been cutting back on the national tipple for the past four decades. More than 1,000 breweries have gone out of business since the 1980s. The master brewers, known as toji, are becoming an endangered species. The country’s population is shrinking, which means fewer drinkers, and many of the mom-and-pop sake shops that were a key sales channel for breweries are throwing in the towel. The words growth potential don’t spring to mind.
But what if the industry’s problems were self-inflicted? This is how Nao Kohara sees the industry now. He’s an entrepreneur who runs a tech start-up in Tokyo and happens to drink a lot more sake than your average Japanese.
His view about the industry was formed by experience. Last year he and a drinking buddy, Masa Takeshita, made 3,000 bottles (2.1 kilolitres) of sake. They had never brewed before. But they happened to know of a brewery they could use, one that was barely surviving – Takeshita Honten, the 150-year-old brewery that Takeshita’s family owns in Kakeya, a remote village in Shimane prefecture, in western Japan.
The duo’s We Love Sake project was dreamed up in dimly lit bars over sips of sake. It was never about making money: Kohara and Takeshita liked the drink so much, they wanted to know firsthand what brewing was like. They figured they weren’t alone, so they set up a crowdfunding website, offering bottles to anyone who travelled to Kakeya and helped them lug rice, clean barrels and stick labels onto bottles. Kohara moved his entire tech company to Kakeya for a month. To their surprise, 120 people signed up to help. Since the March launch of their sake, Kakeya, they have sold so much of their stock that they’re rationing what’s left – and they didn’t even go through any of the usual distribution and sales channels.
The experiment has saved Takeshita Honten. For the coming brewing season, which starts in November, Kohara and Takeshita are planning to expand: over 120 days they will produce 60,000 bottles (43 kilolitres) – a 20-fold increase from last year. For the first time in at least two decades, the brewery will operate at full capacity. Half of the bottles will be exported to the US. Kohara has hired four MBA students from Stanford University (his alma mater) to prepare for US sales. Officials from Shimane prefecture have asked how they can help.
Kohara admits that he feels a big responsibility. There’s still plenty of uncertainty ahead. Is the project sustainable? Can the brewers, who are in their seventies and eighties, handle the work load? Will people make the trip to Kakeya? Can they sell 60,000 bottles? Will Takeshita Honten still be around in the next five or 10 years?
So far, they have defied expectations and raised the brewery owners’ hopes about the future. Kohara’s English fluency, tech-savviness, resourcefulness and knack for storytelling have served him well. Local officials see this as a promising way of bringing tourists to a remote prefecture where wages and economic output rank among the lowest in the country. If they succeed, it could show the way forward for many others in an industry that’s dominated by small, family-owned businesses. Maybe the prospects for the sake business aren’t so dismal after all.
Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia Editor at Large.