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12 Aug 2008 06:00
Centuries after their ancestors first turned rice into wine, the Japanese are falling out of love with their traditional tipple.
Once a staple in homes and restaurants, sake is being squeezed out of the affections of the average drinker by imported wine and shochu, a fiery local spirit that is undergoing a renaissance in the trendy bars of Tokyo.
Now that sake’s central place in Japanese social occasions is under threat, the country’s struggling breweries are pinning their hopes on growing interest on the other side of the Pacific.
According to finance ministry figures, sake exports rose to a record high of 11 334 kilolitres last year, up from 7 051 kilolitres in 2001.
About a third goes to the United States, followed by Taiwan, Hong Kong and, more recently, China, where shipments doubled to 426 kilolitres between 2002 and 2006.
While sake is enjoying unprecedented popularity overseas, at home it is in terminal decline. Since peaking at 1,7-million kilolitres in 1975, sake consumption in Japan has fallen every year since 1995 to a record low of 700 000 kilolitres in 2006.
The Japanese drink just a third as much sake as they did 30 years ago, when it accounted for a quarter of all sales of alcoholic drinks.
Sake’s United States renaissance is being driven by a handful of family-run breweries quick to realise the dangers posed by their compatriots’ waning appetite for their national drink.
“People ask if we alter the flavour of our sake to suit the American palate. We do not. We are just selling them sake that we believe is the best around,” says Yasutaka Daimon, the sixth-generation head of Daimon, a sake brewery in rural Osaka.
Daimon, whose family has been brewing sake—a rice-based fermented beverage—since 1826, was among 20 breweries that co-founded esake.com, a group to promote their products overseas.
The results have been dramatic. After sending their first batch of sake to the US in 2003 the breweries recently sold their 91st container, each holding 1 250, six-bottle cases. Their premium sake is now available in 45 states. For small-time brewers like Daimon, cracking the US and Asian markets is not simply about higher profits margins; it is a matter of survival.
He now exports a third of the sake produce at his brewery, where brewing methods have changed little for almost two centuries, and recently sold his first case of a high-end sake in the emerging luxury-goods market of Russia.
Sake has even won over the world’s most notorious wine snobs: the French. Jean-Paul Hevin, the renowned Paris chocolatier, regards Kawasemi no Tabi, a sweet sake brewed in Niigata, as the perfect accompaniment to his confectionery.
But consumption in Europe still lags far behind that in the US. “Whereas Europe is traditionally wine country, the US is not traditionally anything,” says John Gauntner, a sake expert and author of five books on the subject.
“Americans like their wine, but it’s less established, so the country is more open to new trends. Europeans taste sake and say “yes, it’s good and clearly a quality product”, but the next drink they have is wine.
“But this too is slowly changing. There is more potential [in the United Kingdom and Europe], as Europeans surely have a more refined palate than North Americans.”
While sake’s spread has benefited from the global popularity of Japanese food, its decline at home has been quickened by a shift from the traditional diet of fish and rice to one that includes more meat and dairy products.
The industry was also hit by the tax agency’s decision, 20 years ago, to stop issuing new brewing licences when existing master brewers retired and were unable to find successors. In the 1980s there were an estimated 3 500 breweries; now there are 1 350.
For brewers like Daimon, the best hope of a revival in the domestic market may rest on triggering a knock-on effect among ambivalent Japanese who decide to give sake another chance once they see how well it is going down among the style-conscious drinkers of London, New York and, increasingly, Moscow and Beijing.
“Young people who come here to drink my sake say they didn’t realise it could be so good—they thought it was an old man’s drink,” says Daimon.
“The Japanese are very concerned about what foreigners think of their country, so if we have more success in the US market, then Japanese consumers may give it another try.”
But insiders believe the industry can no longer depend on the legions of Japanese office workers who habitually punctuate their daily commute home with a visit to the pub.
“Sake is finally coming into its own as a connoisseur beverage [overseas], so I do not think the novelty will wear off,” Gauntner said.
“Its roots and true quality are too deep.”—
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