BY MASAFUMI TATEMATSU STAFF WRITER
Hideharu Ohta, president of Daishichi Sake Brewery Co., says his sake "grows from a bud into a large flower" when it is matured for more than a year. (Eiji Hori)Hideharu Ohta stands in rice paddies where his employees are trained to farm in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. Surface soil has been removed due to radioactive contamination. (Eiji Hori)
It seemed fitting for Hideharu Ohta to have a presence at a dinner party that the Dutch royal family hosted at Paleis Het Loo on Dec. 14.
Ohta, 51, is Japan's unofficial ambassador of sake, the 10th chief of the brewery his ancestors founded 260 years ago.
On the table at the Dutch royal family dinner were bottles of Minowamon, a "daiginjo-shu" (very special brew) from Ohta's Daishichi Sake Brewery Co., based in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture.
The palace stands in Apeldoorn, a little more than an hour's drive from Amsterdam. It is extremely rare for sake to be served at a dinner party of a foreign royal family.
Ohta has long undertaken a mission of spreading the message of sake abroad.
He has set his sights on global markets by appealing to taste buds with the "kimoto method," said to be the most orthodox sake brewing method.
Ohta lives by the words told to him by his mother-in-law, "Rakutenmei," which means "enjoying the mandate of heaven."
"I think the mandate of heaven for me is to pass the kimoto method, the treasure I took over, down to future generations and make its wonders better known in Japan and around the world," Ohta said.
In the kimoto method, naturally occurring lactic acids and bacteria are utiled to brew sake, without using additives.
But few brewers have used this method since World War II because the maturation process requires much more time and effort than other methods and controls are more difficult.
Ohta, who studied law at the University of Tokyo, once dreamed of becoming a political scientist but decided to take over the family business at his grandfather's request.
When he visited a French winery in 1992, Ohta was impressed because the midsize operation has a worldwide reputation.
"If wine sells this much around the world, sake is worth the same level of appraisal," Ohta thought.
Fifteen years ago, Ohta set up an organization with 12 breweries to promote exports.
While sake was already being exported, quality control was less than satisfactory in the distribution stage.
Even sake that turned yellow was being sold for prices several times higher than in Japan, so it was not necessarily enjoying a good reputation abroad.
Ohta's organization asked retailers and other businesses to maintain low-temperature distribution from breweries to storefronts.
It cut intermediate margins to hold prices down to levels 50 percent higher than those in Japan and provided information by holding seminars for sommeliers and restaurateurs.
Distribution of sake in good condition and at reasonable prices led to a sake boom in the United States.
It also became common for sake to be listed on menus at exclusive restaurants in the Netherlands and France.
In 1999, Daishichi, a midsize brewey with annual sales of 1 billion yen ($12.66 million), began taking part in Vinexpo, a major alcohol trade fair, ahead of larger competitors.
When Japan hosted the Group of Eight summit at Lake Toyako, Hokkaido, in 2008, Daishichi's sake was chosen for a toast at a dinner party for the wives of G-8 leaders.
The same year, Gault Millau, a French restaurant guide that rivals the Michelin Guide, asked Daishichi to become one of its official sponsors, the only one from Japan.
Excerpts from the interview with Ohta follow:
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Question: Your brewery here in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, is only about 60 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which was crippled by the Great East Japan Earthquake. What have you done to prevent radioactive contamination?
Answer: Fortunately, buildings were not destroyed, or stored sake bottles were not broken. Upon learning of the accident at the nuclear power plant, our master brewer closed all the windows of the brewery and covered ventilation fans with vinyl sheets. With quick initial responses, the inside of the brewery was kept clean, and we have tried to maintain that condition. Vinyl sheets are hung like curtains at locations where people come and leave, and wet towels are on hand so that people who come from the outside can wipe away dust. But these are emergency measures. I am considering attaching high-performance filters to air intake ducts and installing air curtain devices along routes where materials are brought in.
Q: How has the nuclear plant accident affected your business?
A: I had been resigned to suffering damage from rumors. But many people encouraged us, saying, "Hang in there, Tohoku" and "Hang in there, Fukushima." The support we received has turned out to be far stronger than the negative impact. In April and May, we saw more sales than in average years. Officials in the distribution industry have also held a campaign to support us after confirming the safety (of our products). We appreciated that they came out in our support.
Q: You have been exporting sake aggressively since you became president in 1997.
A: Seventy percent of our exports goes to the United States. The remaining 30 percent goes to Asia--Hong Kong and Singapore--and European countries--Britain, the Netherlands and France. Exports have been gradually increasing, but they still account for less than 5 percent of our overall sales. We are focusing on establishing our brand, not increasing export volumes. We are exporting high-value added sake, such as "ginjo-shu" (special brew). If that becomes popular, we want to expand the lineup.
Q: Does the appreciation of sake differ from country to country?
A: In the United States, the sake market has expanded since around 2000. The words such as "junmai-shu" (pure rice sake) and "ginjo-shu" (special brew), are understood, and consumers drink expensive sake after understanding their value. We have seen more bloggers on sake and more operators of specialty sake stores. The market has been expanding quietly, rather than experiencing a boom.
In France, sake was wrongly associated with strong distilled spirits, such as those found in China and Vietnam. When we took part in Vinexpo for the first time in 1999, many people asked about alcohol content, believing that it must be extremely high. They looked puzzled when we told them it is 15 percent. Visitors stayed away from our booth in the morning. Today, no one asks what the alcohol content is anymore.
Q: What are the attractions of sake for people in other countries?
A: Refinement, harmony and fullness. These are the qualities inherent to sake. It is a sophisticated taste into which complex elements have blended. No particular taste, such as sourness and astringency, stands out. The Japanese word of "umami" (pleasant savory taste) has been established internationally. I think sake is an alcoholic beverage that contains "umami" most in the world.
The taste of wine depends greatly on grape harvests of that year, but the taste of sake is not necessarily determined by rice. We can produce sake reminiscent of freshly cooked rice or sake with a rich, fruity taste. In that sense, sake is an alcoholic beverage created with free will, not one governed by fate.
Q: Daishichi's sake has good body, not a light and dry taste. What are the secrets?
A: Our kimoto method can produce a flavor of complexity and harmony and a smooth texture, the characteristics that cannot be expected from simpler methods. Our sake contains elaborate ingredients, which can be brought into harmony only through maturation. Daishichi's motto is, "Leap to the farthest possible." We received the grand prize at the National New Sake Awards competition, but we decided to work for higher goals, instead of taking part in the competition. The competition is held in May, when sake has just been brewed, and I'm afraid that Daishichi's sake is not appreciated fairly at that time. When we sample just-brewed sake, we may conclude that we cannot drink it for two to three years, but that may eventually turn out to be a great brew. We are most happy when we produce such sake.
Q: Do you think your sake is appreciated globally because it is brewed with the kimoto method?
A: All ethnic groups around the world have brewed beverages, using fruits and grains found in their regions. Rice was one of the ingredients used in Japan. The kimoto method is close to where sake brewing started and to the way brewed beverages are universally around the world. I think the kimoto method shares the set of values for the world's brewed beverages, such as "a more complex and strong taste" or "growing into good sake through maturation."
Three hundred years ago, no other biotechnology as complicated and delicate as (the kimoto method) existed in the world. In a sense, I think the kimoto method is as valuable as "Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji). When Murasaki Shikibu wrote the novel more than 1,000 years ago, no comparable literature existed in the world.