Brewing Up Opportunities: A Brewery Where People Come Together
When people think of a sake brewery, they often envision a place out in the countryside, surrounded by natural scenery. However, even Tokyo is home to its own breweries. I headed to nine different facilities including sake breweries, wholesaler shops and others in search of local Tokyo brews. Let's take a look at TOSHIMAYA SHUZOU Co., Ltd., the brewery that makes the sake "Kinkon."
A chance meeting can open up a new path. You can’t help but feel that way when speaking with Takaharu Tanaka. Born into the family that operates the Toshimaya Shuzou brewery in Tokyo’s Higashimurayama City, he is now working there as the head of sales.
The history of Toshimaya Shuzou dates back to just before the start of the Edo period in the Kamakura Kashi area of the Kanda district in Tokyo. Toshimaya Juemon who managed the shop in the area created a small drinking area in a corner of the store, and it became popular and very crowded. This was the origin of kakuuchi, a style of liquor shop where customers can enjoy their purchases inside the shop. After that, Toshimaya Juemon started brewing sake as well. Then in 1935, the sake shop and brewing operations were separated, and Toshimaya Shuzou was founded. The Kinkon brand has continued to be offered ever since the time of establishment. It was first distributed in its native region of the metropolitan area as a locally produced sake from Tokyo.
A Will to Popularize Tokyo Sake That Is Strong Enough to Move Mountains
Mr. Tanaka was unsure of his chances of success, so he took on a different job. But with his grandfather’s declining health, he decided to return to the family business. “I didn’t even really know how to discern the flavor of good sake, never mind how to brew it,” he recalls. On his father’s recommendation, he underwent three months of training at the National Research Institute of Brewing, located in Hiroshima prefecture. However, he found the lessons nearly incomprehensible. Fortunately, his roommate was Takahiro Hirai of Miyagi prefecture’s Hirakou Shuzo brewery, which produces Hitakami sake. Mr. Hirai assisted Mr. Tanaka by breaking down the content of the lectures for him, and that was how he learned.
Mr. Tanaka returned to Tokyo. While having a drink with his friends, he took a sip of Kamoshibito Kuheiji, a brand of sake produced in Aichi prefecture. The impact of the flavor was immediate. “It was delicious. I felt like I wanted to make a sake like that in my company’s brewery. So I started thinking about how to do it.” He spoke immediately with his chief brewer, but it wasn’t easy to quickly reach an agreement. Mr. Tanaka traveled to the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi to consult with Mr. Hirai, seeking for a way to break out of the status quo and make progress toward the future. After receiving several pieces of advice, it was decided upon to visit a certain shop. Called Koyama Shoten and located in Tokyo’s Seiseki Sakuragaoka, it is the leading shop nationwide that deals in local sakes.
Because he was leaving directly from Ishinomaki, Mr. Tanaka showed up at the shop without a bottle from his brewery to conduct sales without an appointment. Luckily, he was able to meet Mr. Koyama, the company president. He mustered his courage and made his pitch.
“I want to brew sake that will be distributed from Tokyo to the entire country. If it goes well, I’d like you to sell it.”
Mr. Koyama was surprised at first, but he was moved by Mr. Tanaka’s enthusiasm. A contact from Mr. Hirai, who said, “Get on board and take the ride!” provided the final push.
Upon hearing the announcement that a shop that would carry the brewery’s sake had been found, the chief brewer gave his approval, responding “Let’s do it!” “Even with the experience and expertise we’d built to that point, developing a concept and preparing from scratch presented a challenge. I feel the new sake is a ‘work’ created jointly by our sales and production departments.” They placed focus on “sake that tastes like it’s just been made.” The sake they spend so much time and effort on is not filtered and not diluted with water. The main fermenting mash is pressed and bottled without any changes.
Drinking the full-bodied sake they created, Mr. Koyama said, “It’s unrefined. But it’s definitely something special.” As it was their first try, they put everything into receiving a passing evaluation. Now it was time to think of a name for the sake. Since establishment, the brand name Kinkon has been an idea. Upon hearing the name, Mr. Koyama nodded. “The name Kinkon has a feel of being something from long ago, and it influenced me. Why did you want to present this sake to the world so much? You just knew you had to put that feeling into the brand.”
Mr. Tanaka thought it through carefully, and came up with the brand name Okunokami. To protect the brewery, to protect the people who made this sake important to them and the prosperity of the shop—that is the meaning behind the brand. It is sold only in trusted shops. It is sold for the profits of the shops that conduct the sales, so even the brewery doesn't sale. Every year the evaluations go up, and this special sake is now what the brewery in known for, having been developed into a flagship product.
Brewery Tours, Kakuuchi, Events: A Brewery Where People Come Together
Sake brews opportunities. Mr. Tanaka’s experiences have shown that to him clearly. He is actively opening the brewery to the public, wanting to make it a place that creates opportunities for people. Seven years ago, he started the Nighttime Brewery Tour. After viewing the preparations in brewery, visitors can enjoy sampling the sake. There is a fixed number of 15 participants, and the event has become so popular that every time it is held, five times that number of applications are received. Also, following in the footsteps of Toshimaya Juemon, a kakuuchi is opened every weekend. “The female staff, part timers, and sometimes the chief brewer serves snacks, and the customers enjoy their sake here in the brewery,” says Mr. Tanaka.
Currently, there are more than 30 events each year. Every November they hold their largest event, the Toshimaya Festival. There is a club event where a DJ plays music in the warehouse, there are movies shown in the production area, and stages outside host a variety of performances. Local restaurants set up booths, and an astounding 1,500 people visit the brewery to enjoy the all-day event. Some people are not particularly interested in sake and come just for the event, only to have their first encounter with the delicious Japanese spirit. “I’d like it to be a place where we can communicate our passion directly with others who love sake,” says Mr. Tanaka. And so, the story continues.
“That’s why we focus so hard on the quality of the flavor of our sake. We want to keep on trying, and keep on making an even better product.”
(Author: Asako Nakatsumi)
Hours of Operation: Sunday (1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.）
A 15-minute walk from Higashi-Murayama Station on the Seibu Shinjuku Line
3-14-10 Kumegawa-cho, Higashimurayama City, Tokyo 189-0003
Brewery tours available. Reservation required. Two tours per day (starting at 10:00 and 14:00)
No tours on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays