By early December each year, the brewing season is in full swing at Kinoshita Brewery, makers of Tamagawa sake in the Kumihama township of northern Kyoto Prefecture. But unlike previous years, scaled-back production in 2020 means the brewery is far ahead of schedule.

“Because the coronavirus put a big dent in sales, we’re making less this season. We’re taking the pace down to one batch every other day, and then one every three days,” British-born master brewer Philip Harper says.

Harper and his team have already begun shipping shiboritate (“freshly pressed”) sake, which usually debuts later in the winter, and have nearly finished brewing Kinoshita’s signature summer sipper, Tamagawa Ice Breaker Junmai Ginjo for 2021.

After years of incremental gains, partly due to the drink’s growing popularity abroad, Japan’s sake producers are struggling with substantial losses in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Both domestically and abroad, restaurant closures and restrictions on dining have curbed demand for the drink. As Japan struggles to combat a new spike in infections, the widespread cancelation of corporate bōnenkai (end-of-year parties) has put a damper on usually robust holiday sales.

“People are going out less, which means that our sake is not selling,” says Tomonobu Mitobe, president of Yamagata Masamune producer Mitobe Sake Brewery in Yamagata Prefecture. “This situation won’t last forever, though. Eventually, people will start dining out again, so we have to keep hanging in there,” he continues.

Purchase plea: “People throughout the hospitality industry are going to need support, so if you love sake, keep on drinking,” says Kinoshita Brewery’s master brewer, Philip Harper (left). | COURTESY OF KINOSHITA BREWERY
Purchase plea: “People throughout the hospitality industry are going to need support, so if you love sake, keep on drinking,” says Kinoshita Brewery’s master brewer, Philip Harper (left). | COURTESY OF KINOSHITA BREWERY

During the nationwide state of emergency, which stretched from early April until mid-May, orders at Kinoshita Brewery fell by more than 50% compared to those in April of the previous year.

“After finishing the last batch in the spring, we sent some of the team home and then packed up the brewery in April. We usually get a lot of visitors in March, but it didn’t happen,” Harper says.

Thankfully, the brewery’s sales picked up in June.

“In the months since then, we’ve been up on previous years,” he says, attributing the recent uptick in sales to the government-sponsored Go To Travel campaign. “The ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) in the area are fully booked, and our brewery shop has been really busy.”

But with the government suspending the Go To Travel campaign from Dec. 28 through Jan. 11, it’s by no means a secure means of income. “There’s no doubt that we have benefited directly from the campaign with coupon sales in the brewery shop, and also from sales to local ryokan, which have been very busy…. So things will definitely slow down for us when it is suspended,” Harper adds.

He also admits that exports remain “hopeless, at around 20% of sales” compared to last year’s figures. It’s a big hit, even though exports make up roughly 10% of Kinoshita’s total sales. For breweries that rely more heavily on overseas trade, the situation poses greater challenges.

Although there has been little in the way of encouraging news for the industry, sake brewers are trying their best to remain positive. For producers such as Yamagata Prefecture’s Dewazakura Sake Brewery, the inability to travel and meet with consumers face-to-face has led the 128-year-old brewery to embrace teleconferencing technology.

“Since major events and overseas promotions have been canceled, we’ve been doing online seminars to communicate with our customers. It’s something we had been thinking of trying for a while, but (the pandemic) pushed us to do it,” says Sakashi Nakano, Dewazakura’s general sales manager.

Harper believes that one positive outcome of the situation might be a new appreciation for a wider variety of styles — in particular, the heartier yamahai– or kimoto-style brews with higher levels of acidity and amino acids for which Kinoshita is already known, which tend to have a longer shelf life than more delicate, aromatic styles.

“For so long, recognition value has been placed on fruity styles, but there are issues with that, as a lot of restaurants and retailers are now stuck with deteriorating stock,” he says, explaining that highly refined and fragrant styles may develop off flavors if not consumed quickly or stored in properly chilled conditions.

It is only a small positive, however, and when talking about the immediate future, Harper is less sanguine. “Hard times are going to be with us for a while. People throughout the hospitality industry are going to need support, so if you love sake, keep on drinking.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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