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Kurabito Life

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The role of the “kurabito” – one who works in a sake brewery – is incredibly varied. While the traditional image is that of a team of brewers hunkered down for a long brewing season of focus and isolation, nowadays the term has come to encompass the diverse range of tasks at the brewery involved in seeing a bottle of sake through from start to finish. That being said, for the most part, having a physical hand in the process of crafting sake, in more cases than not, is often central to the role.

New sake breweries are popping up right and left internationally, creating opportunities for ambitious brewers to experience the craft closer to home, however the role as it exists in Japan is very much something unique to beverage’s relationship to the livelihoods, people, communities and culture that it has been central to for centuries. This makes the role of working in a sake brewery in Japan incredibly special and intriguing, yet equally demanding and challenging.

As sake’s prevalence has grown internationally, so has the number of non-Japanese investing a significant part of their time and energy to the act of making sake here in Japan. While those cases are still few and far between, you can only expect it to become more common.

This week we invited three gentlemen from very different backgrounds with different motivations; their common thread being that they have all found themselves making sake as kurabito here in Japan, each at very different breweries of very different scale, style and philosophy.

We’re joined this week by Andy Russell at Imada Shuzo in rural Hiroshima, makers of Fukucho, Jorge Navarrete of Matsui Shuzo in the heart of Kyoto, makers of Kagura, and J.J. over at Imanishi Seibei Shoten in Nara, makers of Harushika.

Together with Sebastien, Chris and Justin, the group explores the nature of this truly invaluable, yet incredibly demanding, and equally rewarding career path. Grab a glass, sit back, and travel with these inspiring gentlemen to their respective locales for a taste of life in the kura.

If you haven’t heard, Sake Future Summit 2020 is happening on November 21-22! Imagine more than a year’s worth of Sake On Air on steroids, with visuals, packed into a single weekend. A lot of the sessions have been announced, but we still have lots of exciting announcements to come. Stay tuned!

Feel free to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, or reach out to us at questions@sakeonair.com. You can follow us on  InstagramTwitter, and Facebook, or join us over on YouTube, as well.

Thanks for tuning in with us this week and we’ll be back with more Sake On Air in a couple of weeks.

Kampai!

Sake On Air is made possible with the generous support of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association and is broadcast from the Japan Sake & Shochu Information Center in Tokyo. The show is a co-production between Export Japan and Potts.K Productions, with audio production by Frank Walter.

Our theme, “Younger Today Than Tomorrow” is composed by forSomethingNew for Sake On Air.

Hannyatou: Chef Soma & Russell King

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Drink Sake. Stay Soba.

It’s this simple mantra that has made Seattle’s Hannyatou and its neighboring soba destination Kamonegi almost overnight mainstays for the sake-inspired community of the Pacific Northwest.

It was almost exactly one year ago that Justin sat down with and renowned soba chef Mutsuko Soma and sake specialist partner-in-crime Russell King at their (then) newly-opened fermented creation-driven sake bar, Hannyatou. The pair’s appreciation for craft along with their fearless creativity have turned their co-creation just two doors down from Chef Soma’s soba haven into one of the most exciting sake stops, not just in the Northwest, but arguably in the country.

In less than three years, how do you go about bringing to life, not one, but two hit restaurants able to maneuver right for that elusive sweet spot between tradition and free exploration, pushing the envelope for traditional Japanese food and beverage while making it feel like a completely natural progression? That’s what we went to find out.

You might also be wondering why an interview conducted almost a year ago is just now making it to the airwaves. Originally scheduled for an early-Spring release, 2020 happened. We could have brought the interview out sooner, but given all that was happening and the surplus of challenges facing restaurants everywhere, we wanted to make sure we had a show that represented the dedication and hard work of Soma and Russell to the best of our ability. Not wanting to shower them with questions while they were scrambling to feel out their new format in the current reality, we decided to wait a bit.

The good news is that the latter half of the show you get to hear Justin catch up with Russell as he tells us all about how the last 6 months have played out, their setbacks and successes, the evolution of both Kamonegi and Hannyatou, and their positive vision for the still unforeseeable future of sake dining and sales in Seattle.

Grab your favorite ochoko or guinomi and settle in for a journey into Seattle’s sake heartland this week.

While you’re sipping along,  you’re welcome to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, or reach out to us at questions@sakeonair.com. You can keeps tabs on us on  InstagramTwitter, and Facebook, or join us over on YouTube, as well.

Thanks for tuning in with us this week and we’ll be back with more Sake On Air in a couple of weeks.

Kampai!

*Note: Since our follow-up interview with Russell King only a few short weeks ago, he has announced that he’ll be leaving Hannyatou to pursue other endeavors and focus on family. All of us here at Sake On Air wish him happiness, health and success on all of his adventures to come.

Sake On Air is made possible with the generous support of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association and is broadcast from the Japan Sake & Shochu Information Center in Tokyo. The show is a co-production between Export Japan and Potts.K Productions, with production and editing by Frank Walter.

Our theme, “Younger Today Than Tomorrow” is composed by forSomethingNew for Sake On Air.

The SG Shochu with Joshin Atone

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Lately it feels as though we’re teetering on the verge of shochu’s day in the limelight. Japan’s indigenous spirit with about as much market and mindshare as the beverage more commonly associated with the island nation – sake – has been gradually demanding more and more attention amongst some many of the world’s most prolific bartenders, mixologists and connoisseurs of fine spirits. However, despite the category’s all-too-common association at home, the incredibly diverse, distinct and delicious category has struggled to find a way to reach the masses.

With The SG Shochu, internationally renowned bartender and arguably currently the world’s most successful bar owner, Shingo Gokan, and his team at the SG Group are setting out to change that. Should they manage to realize their lofty goals for the product line, and the category itself, shochu could become a staple behind bars around the world…maybe by the time you’re reading this.

And the man responsible for helping lead that charge is long-time SG Group bartender, now The SG Shochu brand manager, Joshin Atone. For this episode, Joshin packed a bottle each of IMO, MUGI and KOME and joined Justin and Sebastien in the studio, where the trio sipped (and guzzled, as you’ll hear) their way through the process of developing a line of shochu from scratch that’s persuasive enough to claim a permanent spot both behind bars across the globe, while communicating what makes the category so unique and special in the first place.

Oh, and Snarky Puppy fans might enjoy this week’s show (and shochu) as well.

This week we’re (finally) back at the Japan Sake & Shochu Information Center, recording in the actual physical presence of one another for the first time in a long time. We missed this format! There will still be more online recordings coming down the pipe, but it was a nice reminder of how pleasant – and important – it is to be able to sit down together with our guest, and one another.

Go ahead and pour yourself a glass (or several) and settle in with us on this week’s episode of Sake On Air.

When you’re done, go ahead and  drop us a review on Apple Podcasts, or reach out to us at questions@sakeonair.com. You can follow our current limited movement on  InstagramTwitter, and Facebook, or join us over on YouTube, as well.

Thanks for listening and we’ll be back with more Sake On Air in a couple of weeks.

Kampai!

Sake On Air is made possible with the generous support of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association and is broadcast from the Japan Sake & Shochu Information Center in Tokyo. The show is a co-production between Export Japan and Potts.K Productions, with audio production by Frank Walter.

*Please note that the official theme song for The SG Shochu made by Snarky Puppy is not what is playing in this week’s show. You’ll likely have to wait just a bit more for that.

Our theme, “Younger Today Than Tomorrow” is composed by forSomethingNew for Sake On Air.

The State of Sake Amidst COVID 19: Part 2

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Thanks for tuning in to Part 2 of our special focusing on the current impact of COVID-19 on the sake and shochu industries. If you haven’t yet listened to Part 1, where we interview a number of significant individuals with unique perspective on the industry here in Japan, that’s a great place to start. You can find that here.

Slightly different from Part 1, this particular recording is more discussion-based. This time around several of your regular Sake On Air hosts, including John Gauntner, Sebastien Lemoine, Christopher Pellegrini, and Justin Potts, share anecdotal insights from their own experiences over the past several months. While our experience is by no means any be-all-end-all “official” word on where things stand, we hope that it will contribute further perspective, as well as provide some additional food for thought.

In addition to the impact of COVID-19, we also touch upon the serious flooding that has battered the Kyushu region throughout the month of July, only adding insult to injury in already incredibly trying times. This is impacting the livelihoods of the locals, as well as producers across both the shochu and sake industries.

If any listeners are keen to donate and contribute to the relief efforts still very much underway, please contact us at questions@sakeonair.com and we’ll be happy to provide you with a few potential options. As all of these activities and the information related to them are being conducted in Japanese, it makes it hard for the international community to support. If you’d like to help, let us know how we can help you.  

While all of us in Japan are now generally free to roam at this point, this particular conversation took place online, with John joining us from the U.S., where he’s been grounded since the early days of all of this, Christopher and Sebastien joining us from their respective locales in the heart the Tokyo metropolis, and Justin tuning in from his home Chiba countryside.

For this conversation, do feel free to pour yourself a glass or two of sake or shochu (or both) and settle in with us. After the show, we’d love to hear from our listeners about their experiences over the past several months all across the globe, so do feel free to reach out to us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook at @sakeonair, or mail us at questions@sakeonair.com.

Thanks so much for joining us across this special two-part series. As this is an ongoing challenge affecting everyone, we’ll very likely revisit this topic again six months or a year from now. While the hurdles to overcome are high any many, we’re all guaranteed to learn a lot through this process together. We look forward to helping keep you informed along the way.

We’ll be back to our regular programming in two weeks.
Until then, Kampai.

Sake On Air is made possible with the generous support of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association and is broadcast from the Japan Sake & Shochu Information Center in Tokyo. The show is a co-production between Export Japan and Potts.K Productions, with audio production by Frank Walter.

Our theme, “Younger Today Than Tomorrow” is composed by forSomethingNew for Sake On Air.

The State of Sake Amidst COVID 19: Part 1

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This week, we’re bringing you a double episode exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the sake industry here in Japan, and how that impact is beginning to reverberate through the international market.

The entire nation of Japan, while never undergoing a formal lockdown, was officially placed on State of Emergency status as of April 7th, a state which continued until May 31st, with the country gradually easing restrictions in phases over the several weeks that followed, leading to a complete reopening on June 19th.

During this period, restaurants and izakaya were requested to limit their hours of operation from 5am to 8pm, while closing all alcohol service by 7pm. This, combined with the request for the entire population to refrain from unnecessary travel, as well as shift to teleworking in all instances possible, transformed how people shopped, dined, and of course, accessed and consumed sake and shochu. As you might have guessed, for many breweries, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants, sake and shochu stocks became largely idle for months on end.

While sales numbers have been gradually recovering since June, the number of people testing positive for COVID 19 have also been on the rise as of late, with Japan now experiencing what at this stage might be considered a “mild second wave.” As a result, dining establishments have again been asked to curtail their hours of operation for the month of August, closing by 10pm, with particularly dense dining and entertainment districts in parts of Osaka being asked to cut back their hours of operation even further.

These front-line sales tend to get a lot of attention, however it’s the beverage’s deep agriculture ties, along with the particular timing of the pandemic which might result in a truly devastating fallout down the road. We discuss this as well.

To be honest, there’s still a lot that we don’t know. The impact from the past 6 months isn’t truly going to manifest itself for some time to come, and how the pandemic will develop both in Japan and internationally is, at this point, still anybody’s guess.

However, we do feel a responsibility to sake lovers around the world to share what it is we do know, which is why over the past couple of months we’ve been conducting a series of short interviews, as well as discussing this reality amongst ourselves, in order to help paint at least somewhat of a picture as to where we stand as of the end of August 2020.

For Part 1, we’ve edited together a series of excerpts from five different interviews that we conducted with individuals here in Japan who are in a position to offer particular insight into the impact COVID-19 on certain pockets or channels of the sake and shochu industries. Our guest include:

・Yoshiro Okamoto – Vice President of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association
・Koichi Saura – President of Saura Co. Ltd. (makers of Urakasumi) and co-chairman of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association
・Takahiro Ibaragi – Head of the International Sales Division at Nihon Shurui Hanbai
・Sam Mitsuya – Owner of Mitsuya Liquors
・Shinnosuke Hiramatsu – Retail Sales Office at Imadeya

When you’re done with this episode, Part 2 is already live, so you can jump over and continue this exploration whenever you’re ready. For Part 2 we bring your regular hosts Christopher Pellegrini, John Gauntner, Sebastien Lemoine, and Justin Potts together to anecdotally discuss the experience of the past six months. We hope you’ll find it to be an interesting supplement to the first-hand perspective provided in this episode.

Between this and Part 2, we’ve left you with a lot to digest over the next couple of weeks. There’s still a long road ahead, but we’ll be in it for the long haul. We hope you’ll stick with us. If you’re looking for a great way to support, there’s always one:

Keep kampai-ing.

Part 2 is here.
We’ll see you in two weeks.

Timestamps:
0:00:21 Introduction
0:05:17 Yoshiro Okamoto – Vice President of JSS
0:12:47 Koichi Saura – President of Saura Co. Ltd. (Urakasumi), Co-chairman of JSS
0:29:00 Takahiro Ibaragi – Head of International Department at Nihon Shurui Hanbai
0:41:48 Sam Mitsuya – Owner of Mitsuya Liquors
0:57:15 Shinnosuke Hiramatsu – Retail Sales Office at Imadeya
1:16:27 Closing

Sake On Air is made possible with the generous support of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association and is broadcast from the Japan Sake & Shochu Information Center in Tokyo. The show is a co-production between Export Japan and Potts.K Productions, with audio production by Frank Walter.

Our theme, “Younger Today Than Tomorrow” is composed by forSomethingNew for Sake On Air.