Can Japanese sake go global?

Posted at 04/22/13 9:11 AM

 NAGOYA - Ambitious Japanese sake brewers have turned to foreign markets in an attempt to replicate wine's global success for the traditional Japanese drink.

As exports of sake, which is essentially a rice wine, have been growing in recent years, trade fairs and competition events have become common. That is fueling the ambition to win worldwide recognition for sake.

Banjo Jozo, a sake brewery in Nagoya, has for several years been cultivating foreign customers. It is now exporting the Kamoshibito Kuheiji brand of sake for consumption at some upscale establishments, including the Ritz Paris hotel and a three-star restaurant.

The brewery, managed by Kuheiji Kuno, 47, the 15th-generation owner-manager, employs around a dozen workers whose average age is 27 or 28.

At one time, Banjo Jozo embraced mechanization to produce sake, going with the trend of mass production. However, as "the taste was poor," Kuno said, the brewery returned to the time-honored brewing method that relies on manual labor.

As a result, Banjo Jozo's production volume has plummeted to a fifth of the peak level over the past quarter century. Rather than seeking to increase volume, Kuno said he wanted to assure "a quality level that I can be proud of."

Seven years ago, Banjo Jozo made its first forays into France and other foreign markets. Kuno traveled himself to those markets to peddle his brewery's sake, and he gradually gained customers in Germany and Switzerland as well as France.

Kuno is apparently offering sake for foreign palates as Japan's answer to wine. "Japanese sake is brewed, just as wine is. I want to bring it to a new stage by making it a global drink," Kuno said.

His brewery sells some sake in bottles with wine-like labels, and he suggests sipping from a wine glass would be a good way of enjoying the taste of sake.

Overall sales by volume of Japanese sake in fiscal 2011 totaled about 600,000 kiloliters, around half the level in fiscal 1996, according the National Tax Agency which is responsible for regulating sales of alcoholic drinks.

Meanwhile, the volume of exports has continued to grow, reaching about 14,000 kl in 2012, government trade data show.

In some cases, export is a desperate move by sake brewers pushed to the wall because of the dwindling domestic sales. But an increasing number of brewers are aggressively courting foreign customers.

Isojiman Shuzo, a sake brewer in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, boasts such robust domestic demand that it is hard-pressed to make enough sake to satisfy the appetite.

Even so, Yoji Teraoka, 57, president of Isojiman Shuzo, has a global ambition. "Wine has taken root in Japan, but sake has not done likewise in other countries," he said, referring to wine's popularity as a drink to go with various cuisines.

"I would say that other countries have some foods that go well with sake," Teraoka said. His brewery started exporting sake to the United States and Britain seven years ago. "It would be interesting if (sake) acquired the kind of status that wine has attained in Japan," he said.

Sakata Shuzo in Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture, is also exploring business opportunities in Asian countries as well as in France and Belgium.

Shoichi Sato, 66, president of Sakata Shuzo, said he will promote sake as an experience of Japanese culture to gain widespread acceptance. "It may take time, but I'm sure it will be accepted if we make patient efforts."