Sake brewmaster Yasunobu Tomita

Photo Credit: Junya Mori

Photo Credit: Junya Mori

Shichi Hon Yari sake company, one of the oldest and smallest breweries in Japan. The sake brewery was founded in the 1540's and is managed by the 15th generation of the family.

1. What is your role at Shichi Hon Yari? 
I am owner of Tomita brewery. I have been in charge of sake making since 2005. I focus more on sake making in the winter time, but mainly I take care of sales of Sake in our company.

2. Have brewing methods & taste changed in recent years from 1500's?
Unlike these days, in the 1500’s they hadn’t developed a refined milling system, so sake was made with brown rice and natural yeast. After World War 2, a new develop a milling system changed the taste of Sake.

3. How well do your retailers in Japan sell Sake vs Shochu or Wine?
After World War 2, beer has been consumed more than sake. Along Japanese food culture’s changing, gradually Shochu to wine sales increased. Shochu sales started to pick up in 1973 and finally started to settle 2014. Now, people are able to choose their favor of sake, so small breweries could stay a marketable business.  A wine boom had started 15 years ago and has slowly decreased.  

Good news, small breweries have been in the spotlight the past few years. Despite of big competition from corporate companies, current consumers look for who makes and what ingredients used that help to small breweries stay strong.

4. What about the costs associated with making sake compare to 20, 10 years ago?
Sake Labor union (Toji Kumi) throughout Japan work in agriculture fields during the season, and move on to Sake making during their off season which is winter time. It has provided a good balance between the Union and the brewery. Sakakura (Sake Brewery) numbers has decreased almost ½ of what it was 20 years ago. Now there are only 1300 breweries in Japan. Sakakura has been an aging generation which could cause the financial troubles and close down the Sakakura. We decided to have full time employees. Not only they make sake in wintertime, but they learn from the consumers during the off season, to provide us with the information to for make great sake the following year. I believe the strong financial base keeps us going and I need to find a balance between quality and profit.

5. What percent of your sales does the US and overseas market account for?
We started exporting in 2005. Total sales of 10% is overseas and the USA is the largest market.

6. What are your visions for for future?
I would like to grow rice and make sake from our own rice. However, due to modern culinary lifestyles, it has led to decreasing rice consumption, and local farms have had a hard time with production and profit. I would like to support our local farms. However, I feel that not knowing growing our own rice misses a step in the sake making process. I would like to grow own rice. So, I have been looking for a right place (such as soil & weather) to grow sake rice.

7. What kind of rice do you (or your local community) plant for your sake?
Saka Mai (:Sake rice) ‘Tamasakai’. FIY, that grain of rice is different than rice we consume at the dining table.

8. I heard that you had a special rice plant 50 years ago and started to grow it again recently. ‘Watari Bune’. Tell me about separates it from the others.
11 sake brewery decided to get together and to grow the old Shiga rice ‘Watari bune’. This old style Shiga rice easily absorbs water and is easily broken. However, we try to use flavors contained in the the grain.

9. What is your message to audience how important rice as one of main ingredient in Sake?
Like Beer is hops, Wine is grape, if there is no rice; sake would not be born. 

Photo Credit: Junya Mori

Photo Credit: Junya Mori


Craftmanship with Rice

The Birth of Sake came back in NYC, IFC Center last weekend. As expected, it was a beautifully executed documentary describing sake brewing season. Sake makers are commit 6th months being away from their family and they input their soul into the 6th generation of traditional sake methods.  We were fortunate to be present for the Director & producer Q & A after the screening.

How did you feel during the film?
The Crew and sake makers lived together for the during the shooting of the documentary. This  allowed sake makers at the Brewery to open their heart and build trust, as one of their own.

How long did it take to film?
3 extended visits for 2 years

What was the biggest change/challenge the story?
One of sake makers (Yuchi) sudden and unexpected death provided devastating emotional turmoil as Japanese do not like to display emotion openly.

What was a initial meeting and how did you approach them?
Erik met  Yasuyuki Yoshida brewery’s sixth-generation heir at a fundraising event. Erik had asked him to donate their sake for the event. Since then, their friendship grew over the next year and he visited the the Brewery and fell in love with the process of making sake. It was originally intended to be a Short film, but it became a full length documentary feature film.

Is there female workers?
Like other Japanese craftsmanship, Japanese believe the God of Sake will not allow any female workers in their work. They believe it would bring jealousy. However, the new generation has made a change to bring a female workers for the first time last year (2015.)

How is their Business doing now?
Since the Film screened in public two years ago, their sales has increased. As a result, they have  extended the work from 6 months to 7 months in production.

How many crew members for this film
Usually Director and producer, sometimes a 3rd person for audio

What is the difference of this Brewery that distinguishes it from a modern sake Brewery?
Modern sake making is year round and a full time 9-5 pm without discrimination upon the rice quality. Over the course of the year, Rice quality and/or flavor could be different and it has to be to adjusted. The best way to control the quality is the traditional way used by this traditional brewery and not by the mass produced factory process where this is not accounted.

What was the reaction from sake makers and/or village?
As Special guest, the master and Yuchan were at Tribeca film festival. It was also screened in their town, where it became very emotional because Yuchi’s sudden death.

Explain the film’s ending:
Wanting to film as a circle, the film starts at the brewery in beginning of sake making and the ends with sake makers walking back in brewery again for new season displaying the cycle as continuous.