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If wine can spread to all corners of the Earth, why not Japan's most famous alcoholic beverage?

Brewers set out to take sake global

by Noriko Kawamura

Kyodo

Ambitious sake brewers have turned to foreign markets in an attempt to replicate wine’s global success.

Exports of sake, which is essentially a rice wine locally referred to as “nihonshu,” have been growing in recent years, and trade fairs and competition events have become common. The proponents, some of whom are motivated by an unquenchable ambition, feel ready to take it up a notch.

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

The brewery, managed by Kuheiji Kuno, 47, the 15th-generation owner and manager, employs around a dozen workers with an average age of about 27.

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 its time-honored brewing method of making it by hand.

As a result, Banjo Jozo’s production volume has plummeted to a fifth of its peak 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 to those markets to peddle his sake and gradually gained customers in Germany and Switzerland as well as France.

Kuno is offering sake for foreign palates as Japan’s answer to wine.

“I want to bring it to a new stage by making it a global drink,” he said.

His brewery sells some sake in bottles with winelike labels, and he suggests that sipping from a wineglass is a good way to enjoy the taste of sake.

Overall sales by volume of sake in fiscal 2011 totaled about 600,000 kiloliters, around half the level in fiscal 1996, according the National Tax Agency, which regulates 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, exporting is a desperate move by brewers pushed to the wall because of the drop in domestic sales. But an increasing number are aggressively courting foreign customers.

Isojiman Shuzo, a brewer in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, boasts that domestic demand is so robust that it can barely make enough sake to satisfy demand. Even so, President Yoji Teraoka, 57, has global ambitions.

“Wine has taken root in Japan, but sake has not done likewise in other countries,” Teraoka said.

“I would say that other countries have some foods that go well with sake,” he said.

His brewery started exporting sake to the United States and Britain seven years ago.

“It would be interesting if (nihonshu) acquired the kind of status that wine has attained in Japan,” he said.

Sakata Shuzo in Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture, is 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 a way to experience Japanese culture to gain widespread acceptance.

“It may take time, but I’m sure it will be accepted if we make patient efforts,” Sato said.