LONDON – An organization of experts based in London is working hard to promote sake across the world while also trying to reverse falling sales in Japan.
The Sake Sommelier Association (SSA) holds regular seminars to educate professionals in the alcohol industry across the world about the rice wine and how it complements many kinds of foods, not just Japanese dishes.
The SSA hopes that enlightening sommeliers at top hotels and restaurants about the versatility of sake will lead to more establishments stocking the beverage.
These “sake sommeliers” — as they are known after taking the courses — are also invited to judge a selection of fine sakes from Japan each year at the “London Sake Challenge,” which recently took place at Harrods department store.
The SSA hopes the endorsements from a select group of wine experts in London will also boost sales of the various products in Japan.
Xavier Chapelou, an SSA spokesman, said the European market for sake is “growing all the time” as Japanese food becomes more popular and more top-end chefs and sommeliers are waking up to the benefits of matching sake with a wide range of non-Japanese foods such as foie gras, black truffles, tomatoes, asparagus and cheese.
He said the higher alcohol content in sake, compared with wine for example, boosts the flavor of food.
“The real sommelier is someone with no boundaries who likes to discover new drinks,” said Chapelou, who has been a sommelier at some of London’s top hotels.
At the annual sake challenge, the products are awarded bronze, silver and gold medals. The judges also list suitable accompanying foods with each variety.
The SSA hopes breweries can use the London awards to promote their sake in Japan, particularly among young Japanese who tend to drink wine and beer. The association also wants to alert Japanese consumers to the fact that sake can be used with a wide variety of non-Japanese foods.
Chapelou said this is important because Japanese people are eating a wider range of foods and probably never think of drinking sake with them.
In addition, there are a growing number of non-Japanese restaurants in Japan and sake breweries can use the London medals to pitch their products to these establishments.
Chapelou acknowledged that sake is considered “an old man’s drink” in Japan and that sake lovers in Europe want to “give something back” and try to reverse the trend of falling sales and sake brewery closures.
“The message is that sake can be enjoyed with all kinds of food,” said Kumiko Ota, who set up the SSA. “For Japanese it’s quite a new thing to pair sake with food. It has opened our eyes and I’m sure it can increase sake’s popularity in Japan.
“Why not drink some sake with your gratin, pasta and tomato sauce or beef carpaccio? Or drizzle some cloudy sake over ice cream?”
European sake sommeliers were impressed by the 50 sakes on offer at the recent London contest and commented on the growing interest in rice wine and strategies for increasing sales.
Clara Rubin, a sommelier at a private members’ club in London, said, “Sake is popular with our clients, particularly as an aperitif and digestif.”
Rubin said she values the chance to speak to the sake brewers, and that European sommeliers are urging them to use more English labeling on sake bottles.
Rubin believes that ideally sake brewers need to get their products on the books of quality wine merchants in Europe, who have qualified and passionate staff members able to target customers who appreciate fine wines and spirits.
She said sake is an ideal accompaniment to tasty foods and meals like risotto, tapas, paella and beef cassoulet.
Fellow sake sommelier Julien Casorla is planning to import sake into France and has his sights on “opening up the minds of” chefs, restaurants and wine shops.
“We did a tasting with a top chef and he said he would put sake on his menu immediately,” Casorla said.
The London-based SSA was set up six years ago and has held sake sommelier courses in Italy, France, Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai. Chapelou said the courses are different than those in Japan because students learn about what kind of food goes with different kinds of sake.