Interview: Koji Kawakami, Yoshinogawa Sake Brewery

With Yoshinogawa President Koji Kawakami

Founded in 1548, Yoshinogawa Sake Brewery is the oldest in Niigata Prefecture. That is 462 years of sake making in Niigata!

I recently had the distinct honor of sitting down with Yoshinogawa’s 19th generation company President, Mr. Koji Kawakami, to ask him so questions about thoughts on sake, pairing sake with food and this hopes for the future of sake in the USA.

Timothy Sullivan: You have the oldest sake brewery in Niigata. Growing up did you always know it would be your destiny to run a sake brewery?

at the Brewery

Koji Kawakami:
I am an only child and our house was located right next to our sake brewery. Growing up, I never thought about other jobs outside of working at our sake brewery. Some people have asked me if I wanted to get away from the brewery and do something else but, no, I’ve always been very happy to be here. When I was younger, the brewery was my playground and the brewery workers were my friends. So for me, it was only natural that Yoshinogawa Sake Brewery was the place to be.

Timothy Sullivan: When you travel and introduce your sake to people, how do you describe the key points of your style of sake?

Koji Kawakami: I describe it like this: When you have your first sip my of sake, I want people to immediately think about having another cup.

Timothy Sullivan: There are a lot of successful sake breweries in Niigata. What makes that region of Japan so good for sake brewing?


Koji Kawakami:
Back in the 1970’s all the Brewers in Niigata got together and decided as a group to make a commitment to brew really good sake. My Grandfather was at one point head of the Niigata Prefecture Sake Brewer’s Association and that was one of his goals, too… to focus on making excellent sake.

Niigata is the only prefecture that has a prefectural government run Sake Research Institute that supports research to promote better sake making. I feel this decision by the Niigata sake brewers to work together to make better sake helped establish Niigata as a center for outstanding sake.

Timothy Sullivan: I recently learned that Niigata is one of the largest rice producers – second only after Hokkaido. Do you use a lot of locally grown rice in your sake?

Koji Kawakami: Of the sake we make for retail sale, 100% of it uses local Niigata rice.

Timothy Sullivan: What strains of Niigata sake rice do you use in your sake?

Koji Kawakami: Gohyakumangoku. Also koshi-tanrei which is a relatively new hybrid made from Gohyakumangoku and Yamadanishiki. It’s a hybrid that was originally developed by the Niigata Prefectural Sake Research Institute I mentioned earlier as a new sake rice for Niigata.

Timothy Sullivan: What year was Koshi-tanrei first used in your sake?

Niigata Sake Rice

Koji Kawakami:
We started using Koshi-tanrei in our sake about 8 years ago for the first time.

Timothy Sullivan: I want to ask a little bit about koji and yeast. I heard that you make your own yeast at your brewery?

Koji Kawakami: We have a subsidiary company that makes yeast – one of only 5 in Japan. We provide yeast to bread companies in addition to wine, and of course sake yeast. Having immediate access to the freshest yeast makes for great sake. Beyond being the freshest, our sake yeast is also proprietary.

Timothy Sullivan: I also heard you have 3 different koji rooms at your brewery. Why three koji rooms and how are they different?

Koji Kawakami: We have one Koji making machine which we developed in 1963, so that is in one room. We have another koji making room dedicated to for finest “all hand made” sakes. Lastly, we also have a state of the art koji making room at our new brewery facility that opened three years ago.

Washing Sake Rice

Timothy Sullivan: I get a lot of questions from Americans about pairing sake with food. Do you have any food pairing recommendations specifically for your sake?

Koji Kawakami: It’s a difficult question because there is a lot of food that I think pairs well with Yoshinogawa sake but there is so much variation in styles and types of food and it ends up being a personal experience for each individual. I will say that I believe sake is an ideal beverage for food pairing

Timothy Sullivan: Do you have any message for American consumers of your sake?

Koji Kawakami: Not just for Americans but also for Japanese people as well, my message is that sake should be a product that allows people to enjoy themselves and have fun. Too often in the sake world you might hear “don’t” do this with sake or “never” serve sake this way. In my view people should drink sake the way they like it, enjoy sake for what it is and not be limited by too many rules. It’s good to think outside the box and enjoy sake in your own way and share it with everybody.

Echigo Junmai

Timothy Sullivan: What’s the future of the sake market in the US? what are your thoughts on where we’re headed?

Koji Kawakami: Even though sake has been available in the States for a while now, in my opinion it is still very much the beginning. As I mentioned before, sake is an ideal beverage for pairing with all kinds of food and I know this trend will continue. It’s very exciting and fun for me to see where this will go. As more Americans get to drink it, there are a lot of options out there for sake right now. Before in the States, we were limited to a much smaller sake selection, but now because there is a larger selection of sakes out there, it allows Americans to experience a variety of great flavors and experiment with pairing and, again, to think outside the box when it comes to enjoying sake. We’re still at the start and there is a long way to go, but it will happen. I’m very excited and happy about it!

Timothy Sullivan: I am too! Thank you very much for taking the time today!


To learn more about Mr. Kawakami’s Yoshinogawa Sakes, please visit my Sake Notebook page for Yoshinogawa. Kanpai!