Kayo Yoshida talks to Food & Wine about how her brewery is changing the sake industry.
As a child, the sake brewery was Kayo Yoshida’s playground. Yoshida is the fourth-generation descendant of a sake brewery owner, but according to tradition, her brother should have inherited the brewery. That is, until Yoshida decided she wanted to join the family business. Since then, she’s become the first woman in the country to be the president of a sake brewery—the Umenoyado brewery, in Nara, Japan.
“I have a brother who is seven years younger than me. Since he was born, everyone had no doubt that he would be the one to take over the business, and I thought I would be a part of the business of Umenoyado in the future in some way because I loved the company very much,” she tells Food & Wine.
Hesitant to invite criticisms that she benefited from nepotism because her father owned the brewery at the time, she decided not to get a job at the brewery straight out of university. She worked at a trade company first, but after two years, her father asked her to come work with him at the brewery.
“Once I started working at Umenoyado, my love for the company only grew stronger. I had a feeling that my father might say yes if I asked to take over the business, and I felt strongly that the employees would follow me,” she recalls. “However, I did not have the heart to ask, ‘Would it be OK if I take over the business when my brother is supposed to do so?’”
While attending a leadership seminar, one of the speakers told the audience, “The worst thing for a leader is making no decision.” She took that advice to heart, and approached her father, explaining her wishes: She wanted to inherit the family business, instead of her brother. Five years later, she became the company’s president.
However, Yoshida will admit that “since sake brewing is a classic Japanese tradition, it tends to refuse change." She can recall a time when women weren’t even allowed in the brewery, but insists that she’s faced "no obstacles that were gender-related.” She actually dismisses the idea, firmly stating instead that she’s “lucky be a woman.” Yoshida is focused on bucking a different set of traditions.
“We decided to make sake-based plum wine for the first time,” she explains. “People thought we were ridiculous for venturing off and said we should not make such product as a Japanese sake brewer, but we are doing it anyway.”
Yoshida has transformed her brewery into one where creativity and youthful energy reign. The majority of her employees are under 35, many of which are women; Yoshida says that Umenoyado employees a “female-to-male ratio of over 40%.” Umenoyado also recently partnered with Benihana to produce a limited-edition version of their TYKU sake, especially for the restaurant chain.
When it comes to the future of the industry, Yoshida is thinking globally: With the market for sake in Japan shrinking, she hopes that the next venture for sake producers will be exportation. To do that, Yoshida thinking that sake should be customized to fit the taste of each country that where it’s being exported.
“The sake industry has no choice but to make a big change,” she says.
Yoshida is clearly an adventurous, determined spirit (on top of her duties at the brewery, she’s raising two young children), and it’s the prospect of new ideas, and more intriguing challenges, that seem to fuel her passion for brewing sake.
“I love for my bedrock to be shaken,” she says. “I love encounters with the unknown.”