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Education helps bring the taste of sake to the world

by Shizuka Wakashita

Special To The Japan Times

(Publicity)

The remainder of this year is poised to be a busy time for sake producers as a wave of promotional events sweeps across Japan — and the rest of the world.

On Oct. 2, following an awards ceremony in Kyoto, the country’s first Miss Sake will make her debut as an ambassador to popularize the beverage at home and abroad.

From October through March 2014, visitors to Japan will have the chance to enjoy a sip of sake poured by sake makers at duty free shops in Narita, Haneda, Chubu and Kansai airports.

Culinary events have been planned for the fall and winter to serve sake in different countries and show how the drink can be paired with local cuisine.

These outreach programs, organized or supported by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association’s (JSS) Overseas Strategic Committee, are intended to help sake brewers gain a foothold in the global market.

Sake sales overseas have been rising steadily for the past decade. According to statistics from the National Tax Agency, shipments reached 14,131 kiloliters in 2012, double the volume in 2002. Sake fanatics overseas are now seeking out further information and resources to learn more about Japan’s traditional national drink. Naturally, many have turned to the JSS, the largest union of sake producers in Japan.

At first, JSS did not have a specific division to answer those inquiries, but the flood of contacts prompted the organization to create a committee to specifically take care of inquiries from other countries five years ago. JSS appointed five brewery owners to head the Overseas Strategic Committee, and the goal is to create a system as well as an environment to help Japanese sake makers increase exports.

The Overseas Strategic Committee undertakes various initiatives through legal action, sake events and promotions to raise awareness about sake overseas.

“We want people to know more about authentic sake and how to enjoy it,” said Izumihiko Masuda, head of the Overseas Strategic Committee and president of Masuda Tokubee Shoten in Kyoto.

One of the advantages of creating a special committee to deal exclusively with foreign markets is that they can tackle legal matters with the Japanese government — something individual breweries would have a hard time doing. The committee submits requests to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which in turn negotiates with individual governments.

One of the long-standing hurdles faced by sake makers wishing to expand abroad is the hefty tax levied on imports, which raises prices.

Also on the committee’s agenda is a move to create a new category for sake under the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System Code (HS Code). The HS Code is an international system for the classification of products to determine tariffs for traded products. Sake is currently classified, ambiguously, as “other fermented beverage,” while beverages such as wine, beer and even vermouth have individual HS codes. Giving sake its own HS code could encourage the recognition of sake overseas and also enable the industry to obtain the accurate figures of sake imports to foreign countries.

The committee offers opportunities for sake makers as well as consumers through events overseas. They have chosen key places to hold sake tasting events in the United States, Europe and two areas in Asia. Although such functions may not sound like a new idea, the committee is determined to make changes to the program that will prevent the events from “being just like fireworks and not resulting in actual business,” Masuda said.

The committee has been trying to create different opportunities to serve sake in order to reach a wider audience. One such example was at the reception of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting (known as Davos for the Swiss resort at which it is held) in January 2013, where sake was served at a Japan-themed event.

“Sake tasting in unusual settings is great,” said sake importer Henry Sidel of Joto Sake in New York. “Trade shows have been done so many times, with the same people, but such exposure at Davos and airports is good. What’s exiting is introducing sake to new people and hearing them say it’s delicious.”

Education is another aim. The committee is going to publish a textbook on sake basics in eight different languages — including English, Chinese (two versions), Korean, French, Spanish, German and Italian — in response to requests from around the world and is considering setting up sake schools overseas.

“There is just not enough information available overseas about sake; there are not enough trusted educational websites, materials or books about sake,” Sidel lamented.

Education is, as Masuda points out, however, equally important for sake producers who are new to the export business, and the Overseas Strategic Committee together with JETRO has begun offering seminars in Japan to teach brewers about foreign markets, the local culture and new trends.

Both sake professionals and consumers agree that another major obstacle to marketing sake abroad is labeling. The definition of the word “sake” is vague in Japanese, and English terminologies, which are not standardized, are often confusing to customers. Further complicating matters is the fact that brewers can themselves determine what to call their brews — as long as they conform to the basic rules that determine the grades of sake — and detailed information rarely appears on sake labels.

“You can mix whatever rice you want. You can even mix four kinds of rice, and it is hard to distinguish what’s good and what’s not by looking at the label under the current laws,” said Yasunobu Tomita, the 15th-generation owner of Tomita Brewery in Shiga Prefecture. The committee is conducting research and consulting with beverage industry professionals overseas in order to find a solution to this problem.

The key to success in this regard, suggests chef Keisuke Matsushima of Michelin-starred restaurant Keisuke Matsushima in France and Restaurant I in Japan, may be found in the practices of winemakers. Matsushima says that government officials should “learn from other countries.”

He notes that famous wine regions have attached short, catchy copy to their brands, while sake producers lack similar marketing savvy: “Chablis is dry chardonnay, and Beaujolais nouveau is fresh wine from Bourgogne. Sake should have some phrases that are easily understood,” he explained.

While many of the experienced brewery owners engage in more political and organizational initiatives, younger brewers are striving to connect with new audiences in their own ways. Tomita began exporting his Shichihonyari sake in 2005 and his focus has shifted since meeting more people abroad.

“People overseas see and talk about sake in the same way that they do about wine,” he observed.

Consumers abroad are more interested in the region, the rice, the history of the brewery and the basics of sake, whereas Japanese audiences ask more technical questions about brewing techniques, the characteristics of the sake and price. As a result, Tomita has begun to place more emphasis on the terroir (to borrow the French phrase used by winemakers) of his sake and tries to communicate the unique facets of the quality of the local water, the area’s climate and the setting of the brewery.

Even one trip abroad, however, can be a huge financial burden for many producers, as most of sake breweries are small, family-run businesses operating on narrow profit margins.

“It would be great if the Overseas Strategic Committee could support small breweries to ease the risk of going overseas,” Tomita said.

Doing business abroad is a venture full of uncertainty, and many breweries lack the economic means and the know-how to navigate the international market. By educating sake producers and consumers and facilitating legal reforms, the Overseas Strategic Committee may be able to create an infrastructure that will enable more sake makers to expand their business abroad. Tomita and other small brewers hope they will succeed.

Download the PDF of this ‘Summer Davos’ Special