Times are tough for the sake industry. Gone are the days when Japan’s once-beloved national beverage held a place at every table; now, in a market flooded with beer, wine and shochu, sake struggles to compete. Domestic consumption has fallen every year since 1995, hitting a record low of 700,000 kiloliters in 2006.

“The situation is very serious, what with declining consumption and the loss of market share to other alcoholic beverages,” says Naotaka Miyasaka, president of Miyasaka Brewery in Nagano Prefecture. According to Miyasaka, the rise of shochu in particular has severely crippled sake sales. He attributes this both to shochu’s lower price point and the shift in diet from typically light Japanese fare to heavier, richer food.

Lack of consumer interest is not the only problem, however. “As the sake market shrinks, businesses related to sake-making start to disappear,” he says. Manufacturers of the equipment for the industry, such as rice-milling machines, rice steamers and bottling machines, are gradually going out of business.

Miyasaka also worries that the supply of sake rice may prove insufficient in the coming years. High risk and low profit have made rice farming unattractive to the younger generation. “We at Masumi have a tradition of joining the rice farmers every year to help plant and harvest the rice,” he says. “But in five years, we’re not sure if we’ll be able to buy all the rice we need.”

Yasutaka Daimon, the owner and master brewer at Daimon Brewery in Osaka Prefecture, sees labor shortages as one of the biggest issues facing the industry. “In the future, who will make the sake?” he asks. Despite the effectiveness of recruitment ads, maintaining interest is difficult. “People leave without stating exactly why. They just say, ‘It’s not for me.’ ” One bright spot is that the uncertainty of today’s economy has led some young people to rethink their options. Disillusioned by office jobs and careers in the finance sector that offer little security, Daimon says, people are “looking for craft and real skills.”

D espite the bleak circumstances at home, sake-makers have one reason to be optimistic: Sake is enjoying tremendous success abroad. According to the Ministry of Finance, exports rose from 11,334 kl in 2007 to 12,151 kl in 2008, nearly twice the volume of exports in in 2001.

The trend began in California and has spread across North America into Europe and Asian markets such as China and South Korea.

The popularity of Japanese food is largely responsible for the rise in consumption. More recently, though, chefs have stared pairing sake with other cuisines. High-profile restaurants such as the centers of molecular gastronomy WD-50 in New York, The Fat Duck in the U.K. and Spoon in Paris now feature sake on their wine lists.

Monica Samuels, Sake Ambassador for the U.S. distributor Southern Wine and Spirits, believes that the Japanese beverage will continue to make its way onto menus at non-Japanese restaurants.

“Our clients include already steakhouses, Italian restaurants and Argentine barbecues,” she says.

Wine celebrities, too, have been endorsing the drink. Last September, wine doyenne Jancis Robinson introduced a sake event held by the British Sake Association in London. Shirley Booth, the organization’s founder, says that “the growth of understanding in the last two years has been significant.”

Sake is even gaining a following in unexpected places such as Stockholm and Berlin. Swedes have an “open- minded attitude” toward sake, says importer Ake Nordgren, who has seen yearly sales increases of 75 to 100 percent since starting his company six years ago.

Susanne Rost who imports sake to Germany is also gearing up for faster growth this year. “I hear more and more voices talking about sake in Germany, not only my own,” she says.

This foreign interest has had a knock-on effect in Japan. Sake’s global popularity has had a positive, albeit minor, impact on domestic sales, as brands such as Masumi and Dassai with a strong presence overseas seem more attractive to Japanese consumers.

T he trend has created increasing demand from abroad for hands- on sake education. Osaka’s Daimon teamed up with sake expert John Gauntner and San Francisco-based sake retailer Beau Timkin this February to launch the Mukune International Sake Brewing Internship Program, a free course that teaches the basics of sake-making at Daimon’s brewery in Katano City, Osaka. Although the majority of interns hailed from the United States, the program also attracted industry professionals and pure enthusiasts from Singapore, Norway and Finland.

The program, says Timkin, offers people the chance to become an active participant in the sake world, and he hopes that it will pave the way for further “alco-tourism” in Japan, similar to wine tourism in other countries.

During each six one-week session, interns took part in all the stages of production, from the seemingly mundane task of washing rice to the all-important process of preparing koji, rice with the mold spore that facilitates the conversion of starch to sugar. The finished product will be exported and sold under the label Tozai, which means “East and West.” The course involves much lifting and shoveling of rice, but the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

“For me, this program offered invaluable physical insight into this particular system of manufacture that I couldn’t gain from books — the sights, smells and, most importantly, the living connection of the people,” remarks Richard Gummoe of Connecticut. Gummoe filmed the experience for an episode of “Boy Meets Still,” his public-access program about alcohol.

Sessions scheduled for 2010 are already fully booked, with over 100 people on the waiting list. Daimon and Timkin speculate that the program may be expanded beyond the Daimon Brewery. Timkin says that “other breweries are definitely taking note.”

Coupled with sake’s growing international reputation, efforts such as this one may spur Japanese to “reclaim” the beverage. “I think we’re going to see a boom in Japan sometime soon,” Timkin says. “As sake gets more and more respect abroad, young people are going to say, ‘Hey, that’s our culture.’ “

For more information, visit www.mukune.com

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