274 years ago, a humble lumber merchant in the Nada district of Hyogo, not far from the port city of Kobe, made an important career decision. He decided to brew sake. His name was Jihei Kano. Two and a half centuries later on a beautiful sunny Spring morning FGL met with his direct descendant, Mr. Kenji Kano, current CEO of Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Company, Ltd at the company's headquarters in Nada, not a stone's throw from where Jihei hand-crafted his first brews.
For any company to survive and prosper nearly three centuries is remarkable enough, but Hakutsuru's story is especially impressive considering the conflict, conflagrations and natural disasters that have historically beset the region. On this beautiful sunny morning, with Mt Rokko shimmering in the distance through the heat haze, and contented tourists filing from a tour bus into the company's Hakutsuru Brewery Museum, it's hard to imagine the devastation that was wreaked here during World War Two.
"Allied bombers targeted any buildings that had a significantly long roof,” Kano explains. Even though they were making sake, not munitions, the wooden buildings were targeted with incendiary devices. 90% were completely destroyed. "Fortunately for us, we were able to keep our workforce despite everything,” Kano adds.
Almost as catastrophic was the destruction caused by the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of January 17th, 1995. In less than a year, however, facilities had been repaired and the badly damaged museum reopened in 1997. "Yes, we've certainly survived some troubled times," explains CEO Kano. "We've been able to recover from the hardest of blows because of the strong base upon which Hakutsuru is founded: a determined and skilled workforce with centuries of sake-making know-how, a key populous location with first-class distribution networks, pure water and the finest rice".
This combination is age-old, but it serves the company as well in the second decade of the 21st century as it always has. The sea-lane distribution that meant sake could be easily shipped in bulk to Osaka, and Tokyo remains as important today as Hakutsuru ships its sake worldwide.
Not only has Hakutsuru survived, it has become a spectacular success, on a global scale. This comes as no surprise. In the modern era, the company has always been outward looking. By 1900, just 15 years after the Hakutsuru Company was officially registered, bottles of its sake were being exhibited at the World's Fair in Paris. By 1909 a branch had been established at Dalian in China and by 1914 in Tsingtao; the Tokyo branch didn't open until 1915!
Today the company exports its sake and other products to 40 countries and regions worldwide, and has annual sales in excess of over 34 billion yen per annum (roughly 304 million dollars). According to Mr. Masayoshi Matsunaga, the GM of Hakutsuru’s International Business Division, current key overseas markets include North America, South Korea and other Asian markets such as Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, where a cultural awareness of sake has developed significantly.
Mr. Kano explains the secret of this success
"Reliability, quality and safety have always been company watchwords, and we've been especially successful at building good relations with, and between, wholesalers and retailers. The brand is trusted not least because, due to the scale and quality of our production, we can be relied upon to maintain a consistent taste, and ensure every single batch is of the highest quality".
In contemporary sake appreciation there is often a skewed emphasis on rarity, and the value of limited-batch releases by small producers. However, as sake expert John Gauntner notes in this excellent feature for FGL “Many of us love to love the smaller kura because of their romantic appeal. But there are just as many interesting, impressive and satisfying stories about the large brewers, and their sake can be great and always well priced.
Bear in mind, companies like that can make exactly what they want, and with great consistency. And their contributions to the industry over the years have been indispensable to its progress”. He cites Hakutsuru as the pinnacle of large-scale sake brewing excellence.
The judges of the World Monde Selection 2016 Grand Gold Quality Award clearly concur. They have awarded the Premium Hakutsuru Junmai Dai Ginjo "Hakutsuru Nishiki" gold medal status each year for eight years, Hakutsuru Marugoto Shibori Nigori Yuzu-shu each year for six.
"It may surprise you to find one group of people who have always, historically, shown a great appreciation of Nada sake", says Mr. Kano, with a wry smile, "The citizens of Tokyo. The Eddoko Tokyoites have always found the taste profile on our sake agreeable. Sushi and soba noodles developed as fast food for the busy workers of Edo, and they wanted a relatively uncomplicated sake that they could drink smoothly and quickly. We fit the bill perfectly centuries ago, just as we do today".
“There’s a popular misconception that it’s ‘hard to get into’ sake, but in fact with a balance of umami deliciousness and amami sweetness, it’s actually a gentle taste, especially suitable for female and occasional drinkers. We explain to overseas consumers that it has the same sophistication, with different styles and terroirs and subtleties that you find with wine”.