Mr. Koichi Maesako: A New Generation Of Sake Brewer Obsessed With Fermentation

Written by Yukiko Nagatomi
Translated by Yoko

A generation shift is taking place in the sake industry.
Breweries challenge themselves to try new things without ever fully sacrificing the traditions of the past.

At one of these breweries, Ishikawa Brewery in Tokyo, Mr. Maesako, who has recently assumed the position of toji sat down for an interview with me. He is in love with fermentation and this love drives him to brew sake.

When Mr. Maesako showed up, he was dressed in happi, a traditional Japanese livery. My first impression of him was that he was gentle and nice. It has been 3 years since he became toji at Ishikawa Brewery. 34 years old, he has dedicated himself to the sake brewery at Ishikawa Brewery for the last 10-odd years.

His first encounter with fermentation was a class in a high school while studying food science to become a pastry chef. He was naively shocked by the fact that sake is made of sugar and yeast. He claims that it was at that moment that he made up his mind to become a sake brewer instead.

After graduating from high school and while preparing for university entrance exams, he found a part time job at Ishikawa Brewery and applied. He has worked there ever since.

Two summers ago, he was promoted to the position of toji , or head brewer. The president called Mr. Maesako and offered to make him toji. Mr. Maesako notes that he’d hesitated at first since the former toji had been almost twenty years his senior. But he accepted. His dream had always been to become a toji. He’d studied for it in university. His decade of service had prepared him for it. There was little reason to refuse.

Extraordinary Love for Fermentation

He is so addicted to fermentation that he calls himself a “fermentation enthusiast.” He says his head is full of fermentation.

He says, “For me, the first priority is not brewing tasty sake loved by everyone, but rather the fermentation. Even though I experience failure, it’s fine. Because they give me chances to explore subjects in depth and these failures can teach me important lessons.

sake with a focus on fermentation is advancing on a journey beyond “tasty.” Maesako says, “ There are many fermented foods in the world. Contrary to natto and/or kimchi with their very strong love-it-or-hate-it flavors, alcohol is a sort of universal fermented drink. I think this is one of the charms of sake brewing.”

When it came to fermentation, Mr. Maesako spoke quickly and passionately. That gleam in his eye when he’s talking about his craft leaves a strong impression.

The Overseas Strategy Of Ishikawa Brewery

Some of the features of Ishikawa Brewery are guided tours in English and their active utilization of social media tools. To my question about an overseas plan, Mr. Maesako answered: “I always think of overseas market. I would like to reach a lot of customers in the world. I also would like to make full use of social media tools.”

They opened a sake stall at the event held in Honolulu the other day. “I make the best use of my broken English and gestures to communicate with foreign people. It’s a shame to hesitate to approach overseas markets just because of a language barrier. If you don’t try, you won’t succeed. So, I just try!”

They are actively engaged in expanding their business overseas. To my question about the response in Honolulu he answered: “In the US, alcohols are ranked clearly such as high-end, middle and lower classes and people enjoy alcohol according to the class they belong to. I would like to develop sake targeting at high-end class, spending time and effort on it and selling them with a proper price as a value-added sake. I would like to make this happen in 2 to 3 years.”

Mr. Maesako has a clear picture for the future. He looks calm, but I felt the strong passion inside of him.

Collaboration With The Beer Department

Beyond the sake department, Ishikawa Brewery also has a beer department. The two often cooperate in everything from technology sharing to product collaborations. One such project was introduced in my last article: #mugipon, a liqueur collaboration blending malt and unprocessed sake.

He explains, “We talk about many things with coworkers in the beer department. One of the techniques we actually adapted from beer brewing techniques is the filtering technique.”

For Mr. Maesako, who is always searching for new things, Ishikawa Brewery with its beer department must be an exciting place to work for.

The Goal as a Sake Brewer

“What kind of sake would you like to develop?” I asked to him.
He answered with smile: “I would like to try crazy things. I would like to develop all kinds of funky sake that no one would ever think to develop!
I was all ears, impressed and moved by his “funky” answer and was all ears.

According to Mr. Maesako, Ishikawa Brewery’s sake is made for everyday drinking. It’s a “table sake” for everyday use but not for special occasions. It goes well with a variety of everyday Japanese, Chinese and even Western dishes.

To my question about SAKE recommendations, he presented a sake made with apple acid. Ishikawa Brewery’s philosophy is: “Toji s challenge! New taste of Tamajiman ‘the pride of Tama.’.” This is new type of sake exemplifies the kind of “funky” creation that Mr. Maesako is aiming for, a perfect expression of their new philosophy.

He has adapted a new yeast which generates lots of apple acid in an attempt to develop a new taste completely unique to existing sake.

I bought and tasted it at home.

This sake has a soothing rice aroma with a fruity apply accent. When I took a sip, its refreshing taste spread throughout my mouth, and a mellow rice flavor lingered for a time after . Its acidic taste is admittedly addictive. Once I started drinking it, I felt like drinking more and more.

I also like the cute illustrations of the bottle labels that look like a picture book. These illustrations serve to soften the hard image of sake. The series of sake using apple acid goes so far as to weave a story with these special labels.

Mr. Maesako happily proclaims that he would like to challenge different types of sake in following with the new tradition of Ishikawa Brewery. His challenge will continue forever and ever.

A Craftsman’s Profile

During the interview, I had a chance to watch the mash fermentation process. They had just started this process the previous day, and the mash was at peak fermentation.

Although I don’t know much about fermentation, I was impressed by the sight of it and was reminded that sake is a sort of living thing.

He mixed the mush with a paddle saying, “I may be over-fermenting this a little.” The focus on his face was completely at odds with the jolly man who’d sat with me for an interview. It was the look of a craftsman. It was humbling, almost sacred.

Writer’s Notes

What impressed me most about Mr. Maesako was his smile and his answer to the question of what kind of sake he would like to develop. He said bluntly, “I would like to develop funky sake!”

“This guy is so interesting!” I thought and at that moment started to like him. The more you learn about a brewer’s passion for sake, the more fascinated in it you become.

I’ll come back here when the sake that I mixed with a paddle is ready.
Ishikawa Brewery is an attractive place that you will want to come back to many times. I believe that the combination of its long history and the new essence that its young toji brings to it come together to create this uniquely fascinating brewery.