Next-Generation Sake: Finding the Perfect Brew With AI Technology at Kubota Sake Bar

With an ancient history and elusive culture, trying sake for the first time can be an intimidating endeavor. While the medley of flavors has something for all, some are discouraged after being served a brew that didn’t match their tastes. To help ease beginners into sake, while also giving connoisseurs a fresh way to rediscover the drink, Kubota Sake Bar in Shibuya, Tokyo, uses the innovative AI system YUMMY SAKE to pin down your palate and recommend you the perfect sake. We visited Kubota Sake Bar to see exactly how YUMMY SAKE works, and to find out more about Kubota from the bar’s sake-loving Taiwanese manager.

*This article was sponsored by Asahi-Shuzo.

Kubota Sake Bar: Bringing the Brews of Regional Niigata to the Heart of Tokyo

Kubota Sake Bar opened in 2019 in CHAOS KITCHEN, the sleek basement restaurant floor of Shibuya PARCO, an upmarket shopping complex in the heart of Tokyo just 5 minutes on foot from Shibuya Station. The bar is a collaboration between the MIRAI SAKE COMPANY, who design cutting-edge sake projects like AI tasting programs, and Asahi-Shuzo, a well-established sake brewery from Niigata Prefecture with almost 200 years of history.

Asahi-Shuzo’s definitive sake brand is “Kubota,” which was born in 1985 from the finest local rice and purest water to yield the crisp, clean, and dry “tanrei-karakuchi” taste that is now synonymous with Niigata sake. Kubota was originally a small sake brewery established in what was once called Asahi in Nagaoka City in 1830 as the predecessor to Asahi-Shuzo, and Kubota sake was given its name to honor the brewery’s rich heritage.

Over the decades, the Kubota lineup has grown extensively, ranging from old-time classics like “yamahai” to all the way to vivifying novelties like sparkling sake, yuzu citrus sake, cloudy “nigori” sake, and more. This is complemented by a spectrum of bottle designs, celebrating traditions with gorgeous artisan labels crafted from local “washi” paper, alongside the stylish, modern counterparts slotting in seamlessly at the trendiest of bars.

However, with such a broad range, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. To fully appreciate this incredible culture, a bundle of sake knowledge, experience, and even Japanese language skills are often required, which can discourage potential fans from enjoying the brew. To make these hurdles less overwhelming, Asahi-Shuzo teamed up with MIRAI SAKE COMPANY and opened Kubota Sake Bar to give those curious about sake a softer landing through a casual, fun drinking environment in a convenient location.

Kubota Sake Bar’s flagship service is the blind tasting course YUMMY SAKE, which is enhanced by a sophisticated yet practical AI system that will determine your sake palate and assign you one of twelve “tasting personalities,” taking all the pressure and confusion out of selecting sake.

Along with YUMMY SAKE, Kubota Sake Bar also serves sake by the glass, offers a self-service all-you-can-drink course from 100 carefully curated brews, and even has “otsumami” side dishes to pair with your drink! And if you’re a fan of the Kubota brand, Kubota Sake Bar has the entire Kubota lineup on the menu, including limited seasonal brews, as well as other offbeat, rare sake types, making it just as appealing for sake aficionados.

So, how does YUMMY SAKE actually work? And will it really be able to find a sake brew we like? We visited Kubota Sake Bar to find out!

Finding the Perfect Sake With the AI System YUMMY SAKE

On the day we visited Kubota Sake Bar, Asahi-Shuzo was running an event for international residents and visitors to Japan aiming to test out the AI tasting system YUMMY SAKE in non-Japanese markets. Participants were just as diverse as the sake itself, from those who had lived in Japan 20+ years and adored sake, to others who were totally new to both Japan and sake culture. As for myself, I am a big fan of sake, and was eager to see YUMMY SAKE in action, and whether it could accurately recommend a sake that suited my palate.

After taking a seat, individual cards with QR codes and passwords were distributed. Once we scanned the QR code and entered the password on our smartphones, we were taken to the snazzy YUMMY SAKE website, which is complete with English settings. The bartender then brought over our tasting sets - an arrangement of 10 small cups lined up in two rows. The sleek, polished black set blended smoothly with the moody bar interior, and I felt my anticipation surge as I gazed upon the smorgasbord of flavors.

Using YUMMY SAKE is refreshingly simple; taste the sake starting from cup no.1 and rate each brew out of 5 stars as you go along. Give a high score to those you love, and a lower score to the ones you don’t. While I was concerned that the technology might distract from the sake, the user-friendly interface and clear, straightforward instructions make it easy to focus on the tastings without getting befuddled.

Before starting, YUMMY SAKE advises you to take a swig of water in between each tasting to reset the palate, and to avoid talking to others to better concentrate on the sake. After entering our information (age, gender, country), we paused our conversation and threw ourselves into the bouquet before us.

YUMMY SAKE serves up a wide scope of flavors to appraise. Some were typical of the brisk sake of Niigata Prefecture, while others boasted rich umami or a piquant bitterness. Even before drinking, the differences were obvious, with a cloudy “nigori” sake on the right and a sparkling sake bristling with bubbles above it, while others were as clear as water. While not all were to my liking, as is intended, it was fun to sample sake outside of my usual preferences, and I found myself once again in awe of how brewers are able to draw so much out of such simple ingredients.

Another unique facet of YUMMY SAKE is the naming. Rather than traditional titles like “junmai daiginjo” and “honjozo,” which require advanced Japanese language skills to fully understand, YUMMY SAKE employs adorable Japanese onomatopoeia like “PuriPuri” (bouncy) and “ByunByun” (whirling) to describe each tasting personality. Instead of technical jargon, these onomatopoeia invoke a “feeling” that encompasses tastes, emotions, styles, and more. While those who can’t understand Japanese may not fully grasp these expressions, they are much easier to interpret and remember than classical sake definitions, and the well-written accompanying English explanations will further facilitate a clear understanding of your type.

After drinking and ranking my final sake, YUMMY SAKE compiled my scores and presented me with the tasting personality of “KurunKurun.” This is an “umami flavor,” described as a “full bodied sake with low acidity but high umami,” and a “rich taste, just like that of freshly cooked rice.” It also provides a pairing recommendation of “meat dishes” and “white rice,” and specifically suggests “aged ham.”

And as for the answer you’ve all been waiting for: Yes, this is exactly the kind of sake that I like! Ever since I was a child, I have favored savory, umami-rich foods like bread, cheese, anchovies, and, of course, rice, and was first drawn to sake upon moving to Japan for its potent umami.

With my appetite for sake awakened, I watched in suspense as the bartender poured me a glass of the AI’s recommended brew: Kubota Hekijyu, which is included in the YUMMY SAKE price. This much-coveted Kubota sake is made using the painstaking traditional “yamahai” method, whereby lactic bacteria is allowed to develop naturally in the mash without any starter or mashing, often resulting in a gamy, offbeat profile with heavy umami. The Kubota Hekijyu bottle was placed beside my glass, allowing me to jot down its name as a reference for future bar and izakaya outings in Japan.

As mentioned, YUMMY SAKE also recommends an “otsumami” food pairing to enjoy with sake. Mine was “aged ham,” while my friend’s was chicken dressed in a persimmon vinegar sauce. The salty and savory ham intermingled with the umami of the sake, smothering my tastebuds in a luscious mouthful. The availability of food pairings depends on the day, and they need to be purchased separately (all 500 yen excluding tax), but no matter what tasting personality you’re assigned, the staff will be able to whip up something delicious to complement it.

The bar fell into a hushed silence as the other participants mused on the sake before them, gradually evolving into cheers of joy as more and more tasting personalities were assigned. Walking around the room, it appeared all were satisfied with their final designation. A sake-loving translator from Syria who has resided in Japan for 20 years said “the sake chosen for me was well-balanced, without any lingering sharpness. I really like it a lot!” He was given the “YawaYawa” type, which is an “aged sake with a subtle sweetness,” “in the middle of light and heavy.” After finishing his glass, he immediately asked the staff to fetch him a bottle, which he bought without hesitation.

Another group were brought along by their sake-loving friend, and had little experience with the brew or its culture. “I’ve always considered sake to be a strong, alcoholic drink that was hard to handle, but I see now that there’s much more to it, and I really like the “milky flavor” sake that the AI chose for me,” said one member of the group, who received the sweet and milky PuriPuri type.

While you can’t use terminology like “YawaYawa” at regular bars or izakaya in Japan, these playful descriptions are a great jumping off point into the world of sake. The explanations make it easy to pin down exactly what kind of sake you prefer, and you can then take a picture of or write down the name of your designated bottle to ask bartenders and sommeliers to recommend more like it, giving YUMMY SAKE lots of real-world potential.

Regular Events to Spice Up Your Sake Experience

Along with YUMMY SAKE, Asahi-Shuzo’s grand plan to spread the appeal of sake to a wider audience includes running lots of diverse sake events. Pairing events are held once or twice a month at Kubota Sake Bar and other venues, which are often centered on how to pair sake like Kubota with international cuisine such as French, Taiwanese, and more. They are also planning more future sake seminars and workshops aimed at both newcomers and experienced drinkers alike seeking to broaden their sake education. In addition, Asahi-Shuzo regularly teams up with restaurants and bars throughout Japan to hold special pairing events, cocktail tastings, and more. New events are announced on their official Instagram, and details are posted on Peatix.

Kubota Sake Global Instagram:

Asahi-Shuzo Event Information:

Bringing the Joy of Sake to the World: An Interview With the Taiwanese Bar Manager

The manager of Kubota Sake Bar is Sui, who moved from Taiwan to Japan to pursue her interest in sake around five years ago. Sui has worked at Kubota Sake Bar since its opening in 2019, and is known in the industry for her extensive insight and spirited passion for sake, drawn in by its diversity and the fascinating brewing techniques behind it.

However, Sui shares Asahi-Shuzo's concern that the complexity of sake can overwhelm and dissuade newcomers, and she was impressed by the beginner-friendly YUMMY SAKE AI system. “If the first sake you’re ever served isn’t one you like, then you’ll likely be put off drinking it for life. Using YUMMY SAKE, you can sample 10 different kinds of sake and then be given a glass of sake tailored specifically to your tastes, which is ideal for first-timers and international visitors to Japan,” said Sui.

Even sake fans like Sui were unsure of the drink at first, feeling its alcoholic intensity overpowering. But after trying some sweeter and fruitier varieties, she began to understand its appeal, and dived deeper into the culture. “Many say that sake can’t be properly enjoyed without background knowledge, which makes it hard to get into, but YUMMY SAKE has opened the doors for people with zero experience to comfortably enter the world of sake.”

Trying out YUMMY SAKE herself, Sui was assigned the “PataPata” tasting personality, which has a sharp acidity with a refreshing buoyancy. She says that there is a surprising diversity in preferences among customers, with the smooth and dry “ByunByun” being the majority at around 30% of users, and a largely even spread between the others.

Sui can also converse in English, and is more than happy to answer questions and suggest additional recommendations. Most of the other bartenders are equally keen to chat, and they are all passionate sake fans who delight at seeing people from all walks of life enjoying the brew.

Once you’ve found a sake you like, Sui recommends purchasing a bottle. Using the AI recommendation, the Kubota Sake Bar staff can point you towards a drink that suits your tastes, and most are surprisingly affordable. If the weather is nice, Sui loves bringing sake out to drink at Yoyogi Park, which is just a 5-minute walk away. Yoyogi Park has spacious grassy lawns to sprawl out on to savor your chosen sake amongst nature, and during the cherry blossom season of late March and early April, the park bursts with the dazzling pink hues of “sakura” petals.

For fun, upbeat occasions like these, Sui recommends Kubota Sparkling, which has a bright and brisk flavor with fine, invigorating bubbles and muscat aromas. At just 12%, its alcohol level is similar to sparkling wine, and its sour-sweet character is agreeable to most white wine drinkers. Kubota Sparkling can also be enjoyed on the rocks or mixed with fruit juice to make cocktails, removing it from rigid, conventional drinking styles into something more fashionable and adaptable.

For other times, Sui’s go-to brew is Kubota Junmai Daiginjo (pictured left above), which sports a sophisticated, jazzy black bottle and English label to appeal to global audiences. These trimmings are backed by time-honored, steadfast traditional brewing techniques, yielding a balanced sweetness with acidic hints bolstered by splendid aromas.

Sui hopes that more and more travelers from overseas will visit Kubota Sake Bar, and that the YUMMY SAKE system will help create new sake fans and entice them deeper into Japan’s captivating sake culture.

Recommended Sake Pairing Recipes From Asahi-Shuzo

Asahi-Shuzo are also enthusiastically promoting their sake to overseas drinkers through pairing recipes. While many associate sake with Japanese food like sushi, Asahi-Shuzo proposes sake as a match for cuisine of any kind, including Western and more. Combining the unknown with the familiar is another frictionless way of guiding beginners into something new, and Asahi-Shuzo have curated a number of international sake pairing recipes from a wide assortment of cuisines, both simple and complex, for customers to prepare on their global website. Let’s take a look at a few!

Asparagus, Shrimp and Basil Pasta

Asahi-Shuzo has an entire page dedicated to pasta recipes and sake pairings, so pasta-lovers are in luck! One of these is the light and healthy Asparagus, Shrimp and Basil Pasta, which sees spaghetti, fried shrimp, and boiled asparagus topped with a creamy sauce made from blended onions, asparagus, Parmigiano cheese, and almonds. For pairing, Asahi-Shuzo recommends Kubota Senjyu Junmai Ginjo, which has a smooth and dry taste with hints of tartness ideal for both light and heavy creamy dishes.

See the full recipe and pairing here:

Spicy Beef Steak Grilled with Black Pepper

For something a little simpler, but with a hearty bite and spicy edge, try this steak recipe. Briefly marinate beef in tabasco sauce, grill it up, and garnish with seasoned okra, salt, and lime. Pair this meaty morsel with a helping of Kubota Junmai Daiginjo, also Kubota Sake Bar manager Sui’s recommendation, which, when chilled, has a clean and crisp aftertaste that acts as a counterbalance to the spices.

See the full recipe and pairing here:

Fruit and Cream Sandos With Orange, Kiwi Fruit and Almonds

For a refreshing dessert, make yourself one of Japan’s popular “fruit sandwiches.” Colorful and cute, they look just as good as they taste, and can be made by cutting up fruit, arranging it in a sandwich with whipped cream and sliced almonds, and dividing it in half. Asahi-Shuzo found the juiciness of orange and crisp acidity of kiwi to be the ideal match for the fruity fragrance and exhilarating tang of Soujo Kubota Seppou, a limited edition brew available in April.

See the full recipe and pairing here:

Asahi-Shuzo’s Global Website and Instagram

If you’re looking for more information on Kubota and other Asahi-Shuzo sake, then head to the official Asahi-Shuzo Global Website. Here you’ll find detailed descriptions of each sake type, as well as loads of mouthwatering pairing recipes like those above, and plenty more.

Asahi-Shuzo Global Website:

The Kubota Sake official Instagram account also releases the latest sake event details, pairing recipes, and other useful info in English before anywhere else. So, if you wish to join one of Asahi-Shuzo’s events, then definitely give it a follow!

Kubota Sake Official Instagram:

Find Your Sake in Shibuya at Kubota Sake Bar

Sake breweries like Asahi-Shuzo are well worth visiting, but their rural Japan locations are a trek for travelers, while the sheer spectrum of available brews makes sake as formidable as it is appealing to newcomers. Kubota Sake Bar solves both of these issues, with its central location in Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s biggest and most accessible districts, being super-easy to find, while the innovative and user-friendly YUMMY SAKE removes all the intimidating complexity. The open, casual atmosphere, friendly, English-speaking staff, and regular events makes Kubota Sake Bar Tokyo’s premier jumping off point into the world of sake. And once you’ve been assigned a tasting personality and enjoyed your selected brew, those who wish to discover more can take the next step and make the journey out to Niigata to uncover the real heart of sake culture for yourself.

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Kanto Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Steve Csorgo
Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Steve currently lives in Niigata City. His passions include discovering local sake, reading, and traveling to as much of Japan as possible. Hot springs, historical sites, and untouched nature are some of his favorite things about Japan. He enjoys writing about traditional crafts, offbeat yet charming towns, and interesting local stories.
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