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Known as the country of snow, Niigata is famed for its high-quality rice and water, which give rise to the many century-old breweries in the prefecture, and Asahi-Shuzo is one of them. Interestingly, the most renowned brand of Asahi-Shuzo now is the relatively young “Kubota”.
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Niigata is ranked one of the top prefectures in Japan, boasting the highest number of breweries – totaling around 90 breweries. Asahi-Shuzo was founded in 1830, with ”Asahiyama” being the primary brand for the initial 150 years, which cemented the brewery’s top place in the industry; it was in 1985 when the ”Kubota” brand was launched which immediately made “tanrei-kakakuchi” (crisp and dry) Niigata sake a trend. The move also signified the brewery’s determination to reform and innovate.
The Kubota story dates back to the 1980s. Although Asahi-Shuzo has already established its fame by then, the bubble economy era has given rise to the mass production of low quality and cheap sake in the industry, which led to a vicious cycle of price competition. Asahiyama, the brewery’s sole brand at that time, was also caught in the middle of the price war, which has severely damaged the brand.
To put a stop to this vicious cycle, the fourth-generation president of Asahi-Shuzo, Mr. Toru Hirasawa, thinks that the future is an era where “quality outweighs quantity”, they must produce high-quality sake that people value. While economy boomed and manual labour was replaced by white-collar work, salt and calories were no longer considered as significant. He thus joined hands with like-minded Teiji Shima, the head of the Niigata Brewing Laboratory, who has been working to improve the quality of Niigata sake, to launch a project named “Tokyo X”.
It is predicted that there will be a change in people’s preferences for sake, instead of the mainstream sweet and dry type, a light and refreshing style will become more popular. They have, therefore, decided to create a groundbreaking high-quality sake that caters to the preference and eating habits of the urbanites while showcasing Niigata’s heritage and culture. The first sake developed back in 1985 was the “Kubota．Senju”. Using the name “Kubota” as when the brewery was founded, it suggested the going back to its roots and initial aspiration, thus demonstrated its determination to reform.
Kubota Senju is made with Niigata’s principle sake-brewing rice “Gohyakumangoku” and has firmly adopted the then rarely seen tanrei-karakuchi flavour as its main style. All the other Kubota sakes developed since then may vary in aroma, dryness, and umami, but one thing remains the same – the refreshing texture and crisp finishing.
The ingredients for brewing sake are simple, but in order to brew a signature style, the key is the “people”. Asahi-Shuzo’s overseas sales representative Mr. Yosuke Nishiyama shared with us, “sake brewing is teamwork, good quality sake can only be made with the leadership of a “toji” (master brewer), together with many professionals contributing at every step of the process. And it is through human interactions and training that the traditional brewing technique is passed on to future generations.
The sake-brewing rice “Gohyakumangoku” is chosen not only because of its Niigata origin but also because it is relatively moderate in size and low in protein, which is suitable for brewing Kubota’s signature light and crisp style sake. Asahi-Shuzo founded Asahi Noken, Ltd. as a research ground to experiment and elevate the quality of the sake-brewing rice. Being an integral ingredient in sake brewing, it would be of enormous help in improving the quality of sake if the brewer can predict the harvesting condition of the rice.
The message of “Niigata’s sake” will not be complete without a sake label designed and made in Niigata. The Kubota sake label is printed on traditional washi paper made from Niigata’s mulberry tree, and the calligraphy designed by artist Shoichi Sakazume from Niigata. All these efforts bring out Niigata’s cultural heritage and represent the brewery’s determination to stay true to its original intention, never cease to improve on its quality through reform and innovation.
When Kubota surfaced in 1985, it revolutionized the sake market in Japan. Before then, rich and sweet sake was the mainstream style. The new “tanrei-karakuchi” style introduced by Kubota was slowly becoming the new trend, which brought a huge change to the sake industry. Consumers grew more fond of sake with a distinct character, and that sake and food pairing became widely popular. In addition to the increasingly mature development of the Japanese market, Mr. Yosuke Nishiyama is also confident in the Hong Kong market, “there are many points of sales where customers can buy sake in Hong Kong; they love drinking sake not only in Japanese restaurants but even in local hot pot places, which shows how much Hong Kong people enjoy sake!” The brand never places advertisements but instead dedicates all resources to the refinement of product quality.
Our professional buyers knew the value of Kubota and therefore introduced the brand to our customers at an early stage, even before sake was popular in Hong Kong. We admire Asahi-Shuzo’s determination to grow and prosper with the Niigata Prefecture, as well as its constant innovation and development. Since two years ago, the brewery has launched the light “Kubota Junmai Daiginjo”, the premium “Tsugu Junmai Daiginjo”, and the “Seppou” series in collaboration with the renowned outdoor brand Snow Peak. All these flavours were new creations yet remained true to the “tanrei-karakuchi” philosophy.
We have collaborated with Kubota for many years, at the brand’s 30th anniversary party a few years ago, we came up with an extraordinary idea for the guests to experience Kubota’s sake. A representative Hong Kong movie theme song from the same year the sake is released was played at the dinner gala. The most memorable pairing was Leslie Cheung’s famous movie theme song from “A Better Tomorrow” back in 1986, it was played when the Kubota Manju is served. Judging from the satisfying expression of the customers, the marriage of sake, gourmet, and music seemed a great way to enjoy sake.
The character of Kubota has always been light and smooth, with many layers of flavours. Its signature “Manju Junmai Daiginjo” is rich in flavour, with a fruity and rice umami nose. Kubota’s recently launched products have different characters; some are mild and refreshing, some are elegant and delicate, each can be matched with different styles of cuisines.
This is the latest member of the Kubota series. After recognizing the change in eating habits since the founding of the brand, the brewery then created products to match with the modern dynamic culinary scene. The Kubota Senju has kept its distinct refreshing quality, featuring an elegant nose with a mild fruitiness, the signature ginjo aroma, and delicate palate, and finishing with an off-dry aftertaste. It goes well with fried chicken and skewer dishes.
Conveying their best wishes to all sake lovers, the Kubota Manju is inspired by the celebration of the birth of all living creatures. Blending Yamahai and Sokujo yeast, the rich rice umami can be enjoyed on different levels, balancing the sweetness and sourness, the palate is complex, creamy, and lingering. It is best paired with Wagyu or Iberico ham to bring out the umami flavours.
Sake can be enjoyed when outdoor as well! This collaboration with renowned outdoor brand Snow Peak was welcomed by sake lovers worldwide. The Soujou Seppou is characterized by its refreshing mascat and melon nose. The steam rice palate and the off-dry aftertaste make it the best accompaniment to dishes like shrimp tempura and yuzu salad. The brand new frosted bottle design this year gives a cooling sensation.
Additional tasty recommendationA superior artistic Sake from Asahi-Shuzo!
Made with the highest quality sake brewing rice exclusive to Niigata – Koshitanrei, and with the use of our unique in-house-developed “genkei seimai” rice polishing method, a rice polishing ratio of 35% is achieved which corresponds to about 20% residual protein in conventional polishing. Repeated research was done on the pressing process, to ensure the least pressure being applied, with about 40% of the pressed sake being discarded. The combined efforts of the artisans and innovative techniques have helped to reduce the unwanted flavours in the sake to a minimum and resulting in this unprecedented supreme quality sake.
It is recommended to serve in a wine glass to savour the intense fruity aroma and silky palate. When chilled, one can taste the gentle opening up of the aroma and flavour. It can be enjoyed alone or pair with dishes like lobster sashimi.
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