Food & Drink

Ex-robotics scientist sets sake brewery's star rising

by Keigo Matsushita

Kyodo

A former robotics scientist who gave up his career at Hitachi Ltd. to work for his family-run sake brewery in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, has used his acquired business skills to turn it into a rising star among makers of the traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage.

Daisuke Kikuchi, 33, became interested in making robots after he saw a “Star Wars” movie when he was an elementary school student. He studied robotics at the graduate school of Waseda University, a leading institute in the field, and joined Hitachi upon graduation to develop robots useful in people’s daily lives.

But in the fall of 2009, he was suddenly asked by his father, To, to join Kikuchi Sake Producing Co. founded by the Kikuchi family more than 100 years ago. To, 67, an award-winning master brewer, was eager to continue production of the company’s mainline Sanzen sake brand.

The consumption of sake in Japan was then one-third of its peak in the 1970s, and although the sake brewery was on the brink of bankruptcy as a result, To continued striving to improve the quality of its products.

The young Kikuchi, the eldest son in the family, dithered over whether to comply with his father’s request, but one day while walking in his hometown district of Tamashima in Kurashiki he was struck by its desolation.

“The days when employment at big companies means a stable life are over,” he recalls thinking at the time. “I want to return what I have fostered to my hometown and society. I would regret it if I failed to save the brewery that has lasted more than 100 years.”

Kikuchi returned to the family business in April 2010 and took charge of marketing. Hoping to achieve widespread recognition of the Sanzen brand in Tokyo, he tried to sell the sake at major department stores in the metropolitan area, but in vain.

He also encountered frictions with employees at the brewery because of his detail-oriented business practices. He admonished them when they made mistakes in receiving orders, and consequently five of nine employees left the company.

Despite losing some of his confidence, Kikuchi saw a ray of hope when he posted an advertisement on the company’s website a year after his return to Kurashiki. With the ad listing various awards won by the brewery’s products to stress their high quality, inquiries about them began to increase.

“My experience of compiling reference materials for academic meetings and in-house presentations (at Hitachi) proved useful at last,” he says wryly.

An increase in luxury brands of sake in the company’s product lineup, suggested by Kikuchi based on his market research, also proved successful.

Kikuchi “works out business strategies through the collection of government data and inquiries with wholesalers,” his father says. “Our workshop has grown vibrant as he has hired young workers.”

Kikuchi considered exporting sake in 2012 when he heard traditional Japanese cuisine was about to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

He thought that although the top 10 percent of sake producers commanded 80 percent of the domestic market, big breweries were slow to develop overseas markets, and this provided a good business opportunity for smaller breweries. He decided to take action ahead of the 2013 UNESCO designation, creating a brochure and website in English.

He also found an importer in the United States through Junichiro Ota, 49, president of Ota Corp., a leading Tokyo-based sake wholesaler, and marketed the brewery’s products by telephone and email. He even visited the importer with his father.

Marketing in English from Japanese brewers was rare and showed Kikuchi’s eagerness to export, says Masahiro Takeda, 33, Japanese-American vice president of the importer. Products made by Kikuchi Sake Producing are popular in the United States and the importer has distributed them to luxury restaurants as well, Takeda says.

Sanzen won the Gold Medal in the Japanese sake category of the International Wine Challenge, an influential international wine competition, in 2012.

With these marketing and other efforts, the brewery has trebled sales since fiscal 2003 when it logged its worst of earnings.

Kikuchi has “achieved what is difficult for a small company through his ardor and study,” Ota says. Kikuchi Sake Producing is “a rising star among small sake breweries.”

Kikuchi admits he had a hunch that he could utilize his experience as a robotics scientist for production of sake. In fact, he has been analyzing data on brewing in each tank in detail in a bid to create optimal environments for sake production.

However, combining computer technology with the skills of a master brewer like his father is easier said than done. The production of sake is a “deeper world” than robotics, he says.

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