Interview With Junpei Kubo, Owner of Kubo Honke
Co-founder of Kurashu and lover of all things delicious.
Kurashu: Thank you very much for taking the time today to speak a bit of your sake brewery and the sake you make. When we visited a couple of months ago, we enjoyed the traditional flair of the town and your sake brewery. So first, could you tell us a bit of the history of Kubo Honke Shuzo?
Junpei Kubo: Around the middle of the Edo period, the Kubo family moved over from a nearby mountainous place called Yoshino to Uda, where we are currently. Uda is a rural area, but at the time, it was flourishing as it was along the famous pilgrimage route to the Ise Grand Shrine. The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails were frequently used by people visiting religious facilities. In this small shopping street in Uda alone, where our brewery is located, there were over 20 sake shops and about ten restaurants serving people on their pilgrimage.
At that time, sake brewing was already Japan's leading industry. I think our ancestors came here from the countryside to make a name for themselves. That was our beginning.
During the Edo period, the Kubo Honke family did relatively solid business, and in addition to sake brewing, since this is a shopping district, they also worked as town doctors, saw patients, sold medicines such as Chinese medicine, and engaged in various other businesses.
That is also why your name has Honke (Japanese meaning of “head household”) in it, correct?
Yes, that’s somewhat correct. There were about 7 Honke businesses in this area, of which two were also sake breweries. One is Katsuragi Shuzo and the other one is Chiyo Shuzo. Those places are our branch family businesses. I think you also have that in Europe when the older brother takes over the company, the younger brother branches off to create another sake brewery and settle down at another place.
Then the Meiji era was a time of remarkable economic growth for Japan. While running a sake brewery, Kubo was involved in several other things. For example, Kubo was the first in Nara Prefecture to purchase a car and run a transportation business. From America, he bought a couple of dozens of Fords.
Before going to the next point, the two brothers, who were running the brewery, were fond of various studies and academics. So they followed famous teachers like Ogata Koan and Fukuzawa Yukichi in the Tekijuku (the school was one of the predecessors of Osaka University and Keio University). In this school, famous people gathered, like the person on the 10,000 yen bill Fukuzawa Yukichi. So our family had some connections in these spheres. Anyways, the Kubo family did a lot of things back then.
And also, from the Meiji period onwards, our family ran a small bank. Then Japan lost the second world war, and a lot of the business shrank. The economy was in shambles, the rice fields were taken, and most properties were gone.
As you might know, Nada had the most significant number of sake breweries in Japan.
In the Meiji era, the Honke family operated a sake brewery in Nada, which produced over 1,000 Koku per year. The money invested in the brewery initially came from the bank we built before. That's how the family kept the business running.
We did a lot of business like the car/transportation business or the biggest brewery in Nada. Eventually, after the war, the only thing that remained was the sake of the brewing business. We also had to stop brewing at our brewery here in Nara, for a certain period. At the time, table rice was scarce due to the war, but this was the same for all sake breweries across the whole country.
After the war, the big sake breweries did sell a lot of sake. However, they could not keep up with the production. They sold more than they produced. Therefore, they bought sake from smaller breweries like us, from the countryside, and sold it. This is called “Okeuri” [桶売].
SAKE FROM KUBO HONKE
So basically, the big players bought from the smaller breweries for their own brand?
Yes, that is correct. At that time, almost all breweries were like that. All the big breweries in districts like Hyogo’s Nada and Kyoto’s Fushimi.
After the way, the demand for Japanese sake gradually decreased. The prominent players, which had increased production capacities, no longer needed to outsource production to smaller sake breweries. This was around the turn of the century. My father said when this revenue stream is gone, it is over with the brewery. At this time, I was working as a banker. I thought it was unnecessary to go home and planned to work at the bank all my life.
But I also thought it would be a shame to quit something that had been going on for generations. So, in my thirties, I decided to go back home and take over the brewery from my father.
What were the reasons for leaving your day job as a banker and returning home?
First, I was born into a sake brewery family. Honestly speaking, I did not know much about sake and sake making at that time. For the time being, I thought only of continuing and keeping the brewery alive.
In that period, I went to clients and did sales myself. For the first few years, I tried to figure out what works and what does not work. Then at some point, I realized that especially smaller breweries can bring out some specialty or character. For example, Kimoto, aged sake, or our Nigori sake “Dobu”. I wanted to make exciting and unique products like those.
It was a bit of a back and forth, but the current brewmaster came along and made it into what it is today. It was a little difficult for me to master the Kimoto fermentation starter method on my own, but the current brewmaster helped and continued to brew with the Kimoto method.
Kimoto sake brewing requires a lot of manual labor but produces a richer brew.
What are you trying to achieve with your sake brewing?
The first is that the Kimoto brewing method is a very traditional method, which can also be seen as one of the origins of Japanese sake as we know it today. When you let the sake age, the flavor profile becomes more complex with time, which is in line with our food culture. Natural fermentation - there is nothing artificial about it. It goes well with food.
This fact has not yet gotten over to the people. There are almost no different opinions about that out there. The Japanese people are relatively weak in sake, or should I say alcoholic beverages in general. It’s said that we do not have the enzymes to process alcohol. Compared to Western people, there are fewer enzymes to digest the alcohol.
So a lot of people become sick when they drink too much. I want to make sake that can still be enjoyed in small amounts without feeling remorse the next day.
So the way we make sake is slightly different. The current sake marketed to the big cities like Tokyo is fruity, with the aroma of apples and melons and a somewhat sweet ginjo taste. What we make is more refreshing, astringent, and crisp, with high umami. It's the opposite of the industry's sake.
Yes, I felt it when I was able to taste your sake line-up and was surprised by your sake’s unique character. What would you say is the most unique point about your sake and your brewery?
One unique point would be our Nigori Kimoto sake called Kimoto No Dobu, which is very dry and made with the Kimoto fermentation starter method. I think there is almost no sake like this out there.
Our Kimoto has a crisp/sharp finish. One reason for this could be that the amount of yeast is relatively tiny. If the yeast population is too large in the fermentation process, they become distorted and give the sake a slightly bitter taste when they die. A dry nigori sake like ours can be rarely found.
Another unique characteristic of Kubo Honke is our aged Kimoto sake. Alongside the fast fermentation starter method, there is also the traditional fermentation method. Here, you can achieve different flavor profiles with a crisp finish due to the low amount of glucose. It cuts off very fast. In the case of Kimoto, you need to let it mature for three, five, ten years or more to get the depth of flavor that you want. If time is not taken, then those flavors cannot be achieved. The big breweries would never do this.
Is that because they want to ship it out quickly?
There is a need to improve the cash flow. From an economic perspective, it is crucial to directly sell the large volume of produced sake. Aging for five years and even more, the bigger breweries do not do that. That is also why I chose to play the aged sake card. From a marketing perspective, it makes sense to aim for a space where the big players are not in. The aged sake market is still very small, I think.
Yes, definitely. I think there might be potential because many first-time drinkers are exploring more options after they have gotten into the sake world. For example, more flavorful taste profiles like Kimoto or aged sake might be good options.
Among our customers, of course, we have Japanese restaurants, but we also have more and more restaurants serving international food like French or even Thai food. Our clients also include Japanese restaurants of course, but there are also those that serve Western cuisine, like French or Italian, or Thai, which is a little spicy. There is a yakiniku restaurant that serves yakiniku with a black miso-miso paste that has is aged for three to five years, and they say that our sake is the best sake to pair with that dish. Not many sakes out there pair up with that style of food so well.
I don't know if it is a proper way to express it, but in a way, our sake goes well with junk food. Something like hamburgers or even potato chips - junk food. There are not so many sakes that go well with this type of food. Japanese people, but also Western people, like their junk food. I’m not saying that they eat junk food all the time, but it is a good match with western-style junk foods.
Moving forward to the next question; where do you see the future of the sake industry? What are the next steps for your company?
One of them is targeting restaurants. I've also been running restaurants for some time, and I thought it would be a good idea to offer some more sake experiences there.
Your own restaurants?
Yes, I operate two restaurants in Osaka, where we also serve our sake. The restaurants are in Osaka’s central districts Namba and Nipponbashi (not to be confused with Nihombashi in central Tokyo). Unfortunately, we are currently not open due to the COVID situation and the state of emergency (editor’s note: this was at the time of the interview, they have since reopened). I think the situation is pretty similar in Tokyo. Hopefully, we can open again soon. Moving forward, I want to create an izakaya or bar where one can enjoy delicious sake.
Another thing I'd like to do is to revitalize this town. It's a very rural town, but there are a lot of tourists here, and there are also many historical sites to visit. I want to make the brewery one destination in the town. For example, in the spring we hold a small street market at our parking area where the nearby shops, like pottery makers, or restaurants & cafes have stalls. This is part of the town revitalization initiatives.
Also, sake rice farming is another thing I want to do, to have our own locally grown sake rice for sake brewing. We have a little bit of land, which we can repurpose over the next couple of years.
And speaking not only about Kubo Honke but about the industry in general: where do you think the industry is heading?
The overall production volume will not grow that much in the future. However, it is an exciting period for people who like sake, as more and more sake breweries are trying to create unique sake with character.
I talk a lot to other people in the industry and friends from other breweries. And it has become a time where finally, the face of the brewery can be accessible from the outside. The story can be now be told relatively directly to the customer, for example, through social media. So I think the style of marketing is changing and will change even more. It becomes crucial to create a direct link between the brewery and customers.
I think you might soon start brewing at your brewery. Please tell me if you have anything new upcoming this brewing season.
Honestly speaking, for ten years we have not released any new products. But I think our aged sake is always somehow new depending on the year. When I tasted our aged bottles, the 12-year-old sake came out well. And it is not expensive at all. For a big bottle (1.8 liters), the price is around 4,000 yen, not at all comparable to a 12-year-old wine. Sake is also not value-priced but cost-priced, which remains an issue. And the current COVID situation is also not a strong argument for charging more for sake.
It was great to hear about your story and the history of Kubo Honke. Thank you for that.
Are you interested in trying sake from Kubo Honke? Browse Kubo Honke’s sake here.
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