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Unique sake from father-son team

by Melinda Joe

Kumpai Shuzo stands along a quiet stretch of the Kyu-Tokaido Road, across the Abe River in an old part of Shizuoka City. Run by father-and-son team Seiji and Hidetoshi Ichikawa, the brewery has remained in the same location since the family’s ancestors began making sake in the Edo Period.

Prior to 1937, the brewery had represented a small sake empire — the result of a merger that subsumed four producers in the area — and brewed quantities of futsū-shu (table sake) for mass consumption under a different name. Today, the focus at Kumpai Shuzo is on tiny batches of premium brews, painstakingly made by hand. Ever since the previous tōji (master brewer) left the company in 1996, Seiji and Hidetoshi Ishikawa have been doing everything themselves.

During the brewing season, their workday begins at 6 a.m. The Ishikawas keep to a tight schedule throughout the morning and take turns overseeing various stages of production. “When one of us is tending to the fermenting mash, the other starts the next batch,” Seiji explains. The afternoons are spent attending to administrative matters, such as taking orders, making deliveries and working in the sake shop at the front of the brewery. A few years ago, Hidetoshi even took on the job of designing the labels, which father and son attach to the sake bottles with the help of other family members.

While the average yield of a “small” brewery is 70-80 kl per year, Kumpai produces only 14 kl annually, due to staff limitations. “Every day is challenging,” admits Seiji. “But we always work together.”

Kumpai is one of several breweries that have shifted away from the traditional system of employing a master brewer and are now making the sake themselves. For some, the decision is the result of financial pressure. Most sake breweries are small, family-run businesses, and many are, as one industry insider notes, “barely profitable.” Others take on the responsibility of brewing in order to gain greater control over the house style. For the Ishikawas, the reason was twofold: Business had declined since the company resumed its operations (following a hiatus during World War II) in 1950, and Seiji wanted to establish Kumpai as a premium brand.

Seiji had learned about the brewing process from the company’s long-term tōji. “I started to think that this might be something that I might be able to do with my son,” he says. After the master brewer passed away and problems arose with his replacement, the Ishikawas took the plunge. At first, the two “disagreed” on technical points because they had studied sake-making under different master brewers, but Seiji says that they soon fell into a rhythm of working that now feels “completely natural.”

“We don’t fight,” he laughs. “Harmony is important for making sake, and the sake you make always reflects your character.”

One of Kumpai’s most popular items, the autumn-release Momiji Junmai Ginjo Genshu, is smooth and fruity, with a rounded sweetness that lingers briefly on the palate. The Ishikawas strive to brew sake that is “soft” and comforting, “sake that you can relax with at home.” Momiji is proof that their teamwork is paying off.

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.