Food & Drink | KANPAI CULTURE

Young brewers, new sake and classic flavors

by Melinda Joe

Contributing Writer

When Kensuke Shichida took over as the sixth-generation head of Tenzan Shuzo brewery in the 1990s, the sake industry was struggling with a major image problem. Sales had dropped sharply from their peak in the 1970s, with Japanese consumers increasingly turning to beer, wine and whisky. The once-beloved brew was widely viewed as an “old man’s drink,” and the old-fashioned imagery that was frequently used to market the beverage did little to appeal to younger drinkers.

These days, sake is enjoying a new wave of popularity, thanks to improvements in quality, an ever-expanding variety of styles and the spread of sake education programs. The trend has been bolstered by sake booms in overseas markets such as the United States, China and Great Britain, as well as efforts to promote the drink by celebrities such as former football star Hidetoshi Nakata, whose Japan Craft Sake Company runs Tokyo’s annual Craft Sake Week. Stylish specialty shops and bars abound in Japan’s capital and major cities, and the brew appears on menus at top restaurants all over the country.

Today’s average sake buyer is between the ages of 40 and 60, according to a global report published in 2019 by market research group Fortune Business Insights, which cites per capita income and middle-aged consumers’ taste for luxury drinks as main factors. A recent survey of more than 2,000 Japanese drinkers conducted by the publication Sake Times revealed that despite an overall decline in sake consumption among people under 40, the number of women in their 20s who reported drinking sake more than four times a week doubled from 8 percent in 2017 to 16 percent in 2019. The figure for women in their 30s showed a similar increase, rising from 11 percent to 17 percent in the same period.

This is good news for the sake business, and producers such as Shichida are pushing to grow market share among millennials while also supporting younger brewers. In October, Tenzan released a new sake created by a group of eight brewery workers in their 20s and 30s. The team, Shichida says, was responsible for developing the project “from scratch” — overseeing everything from the concept and production to the final packaging design in hopes of reaching “people of the same generation.”

“It’s an educational exercise for the staff, but I want them to experience the pleasure of making a product that is then sold in the real world,” he says. “By listening to the market, they will receive a lot of feedback and also learn how difficult (the process) is. This will teach them how to become serious brewers.”

The sake’s name, Re:echo, reflects this sentiment. In keeping with the preferences of the brew’s target audience of sake newbies, the style is fresh, lively and easy-drinking at 14 percent alcohol. The sake comes in a green bottle with a bright pink label depicting a graphic of a drop of sake surrounded by ripples.

Made with Miyama Nishiki rice polished to 50 percent, it shows intense strawberry notes both in the bouquet and on the palate, with hints of bubblegum sweetness swirling around the center and culminating in the kind of tight, clean finish that I associate with Tenzan and Shichida (the maker’s line of sake that focuses on different rice varieties) brews. The brewery recommends pairing it with fried seafood or salmon sashimi, but I could also imagine it with a plate of prosciutto or as an aperitif — a toast to the next generation of sake fans.

For bottles of Re:echo, visit tenzan.co.jp.

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