This follow up article builds on the two areas – “ingredients and equipment” – previously investigated which continue to cause challenges to international sake breweries, often leaving their owners scratching their heads, and reaching for their cheque books.
So, assuming you have your brewery now built and all the ingredients to hand, ready for that first fermentation, can you confidently fire up the rice washer and steamer with enough knowhow to make even a passable end sake?
Fortunately, the area that is in the biggest state of change is perhaps knowledge-sharing. There is more support now from Japan than ever, with international Japanese funded breweries opening up. And, crucially for homegrown funded ventures, this situation that was once met with some reluctance, is now a much more open dialogue.
Patrick Shearer, Head Brewer at Ben’s American Sake, explains that in years past, questions were often met with half-hearted non-committal answers like: “well it depends on what kind of sake you want to brew” or “if that works for you, then it works”.
The gamechanger for this within the international industry reflects a burgeoning sake export market and, importantly, the sad fact that domestic consumption in Japan is declining. In 2017, consumption was just a third of what it was at its peak in 1973, according to the National Tax Agency of Japan, largely fuelled by the younger generation’s lower consumption of alcohol.
Simply put, Japan needs the international market interest and demand for sake to support their own brewing industry. As such, brewery staff and advisors are becoming more open about sharing knowledge and experience, something which is critical for the success of the international brewers.
Julian Houseman, long time sake guru and Osaka resident, explains: “The person who knows the most in non-Japanese breweries would likely be considered the person who knows the least in many Japanese breweries. This is not meant to be disparaging to non-Japanese brewers, it’s just a reflection of experience, availability of information and the overall wealth of knowledge in Japan”.
In fact, even within the Japanese brewing community, several brewers have mentors they still regularly refer to for advice and troubleshooting. More and more, enabled by internet communications, the international brewer is now also reaching out to the Japanese sensei for help.
Andrew Centofante, North American Sake Brewery Co-Founder & Head Brewer, found himself without the necessary resources and support network as he set up his facility and so took a more proactive approach: “Most written resources are in Japanese and it can be very difficult to truly understand the nuance of certain aspects of sake brewing. Luckily I have been able to travel to Japan and try to learn from other sake brewers here in the USA“.
In an effort to improve the situation back in America, Andrew was instrumental in instigating a homegrown forum to help bring together the sake community throughout the US and beyond – the Sake Brewers Association of North America – the very first sake trade organisation outside of Japan.
The last factor to consider in all this is of course the end consumer’s own knowledge. Craft beer, the resurgence of gin, tequila, mezcal and other South American fire waters have all been launched to a general public at least somewhat familiar with these beverages.
However, sake initiation for many people is often not a pleasurable one, drinking overly-warmed poor quality sake at the end of an already boozy night, served by people with little interest in it. We’ve all been there.
In some ways the shrouded mystique of the drink is what makes it so special, but also what makes it most inaccessible. Matt Kingsley-Shaw from Melbourne Sake knows this all too well, announcing on the Sake On Air podcast recently that “education is the biggest challenge we all have, the more people understand, the more they will appreciate”.
Although many of the challenges previously faced have improved, this area is lagging behind still, as Patrick Shearer highlights: “One of the biggest challenges we still face is customer education. When I was at Sake One almost a decade ago they said the same thing then… people are still afraid to try Sake. Most people say they tried it once and it was gross, or it gave them a terrible headache, and when we explain that we make a higher quality of Sake and it is served chilled and sometimes even carbonated we still get a lot of hesitance”.
At Ben’s American Sake, Patrick has taken this to heart offering a wide range of traditional and infused Sake to broaden consumer appeal, explaining that they taste a lot like a great premixed cocktail. The key is tasting and trial. Generally, having had a better sake experience, customers will then buy a few cans or bottles to take home and continue enjoying.
In an international city like New York, revellers are more open to trying new things but are still “uncertain and confused” when it comes to sake, according to Shinobu Kato, Owner/Brewer of Kato Sake Works, who is passionate about helping them overcome their reluctance.
Julian Houseman has a very interesting take on the attitude of non-Japanese consumers to sake. His view is that regardless of the quality of sake being tasted, it just won’t resonate or “connect” with some consumers. They simply won’t fall in love with sake in the same way that many others do. And herein lies the opportunity. Whereas Japan’s sakes will largely always be inherently traditional and, well, simply Japanese, the non-Japanese brewer has the flexibility to adapt and morph the beverage to meet more local tastes.
In addition, Julian goes on to explain that non-Japanese sake will always be compared to Japanese sake “regardless of how a brewery markets itself using disclaimers such as ‘we aren’t making Japanese-style sake’ or ‘we’re making sake to suit our local climate/cuisine’etc.”. The danger remains all too apparent, it’s just not possible to go head to head with a Japanese brewery with generations of sake making experience.
Julian believes that non-Japanese sake, unlike what has happened in the beer and wine industry, just cannot overtake the real deal that is imported Japanese-made sake.
His suggestion? Don’t try and compete with Japan per se, look to new flavours that don’t exist in the Japanese sake world. Leverage the common language and communications that English (or French, Norwegian…) speaking breweries can have with their consumers unbridled by the laws and regulations that Japanese breweries must follow. Let’s face it, we’re all too familiar with the difficulties of deciphering Japan’s sake labels.
Texas Sake’s Adam Blumenshein has done just that, offering 13 sakes on tap, sake flights and sake cocktails, alongside a food trailer which is located in front of the brewery. The drinks are marketed to appeal to the target audience with accessible names and tweaks on familiar favourites, not least a Japanese take on a Mimosa – the Saké-mosa is made with sparkling sake, rather than champagne, orange juice, aromatics and orange bitters.
But still, as a final thought, if you have made the leap and commitment to meet all these challenges to brew sake outside of Japan then you are so driven and truly passionate about what you’re trying to create. You’re determined to earn the respect and be seen as a peer to Japan’s mighty brewing teams. So, is offering sake with a local twist good enough for you, will that alone allow you to sleep at night?
I’ll leave it to Andrew Centofante to sum this sentiment up:
“I think there are many challenges to brewing sake but I love it and embrace those challenges every day. The only way to overcome these challenges is to continue to brew the best sake that we can. We hope to show everyone the beauty of sake“.
About the author:
Will Jarvis is based in Hong Kong and the author behind Sake Matters, focusing on the Japanese beverage and surrounding culture. Will has previously worked for a variety of international food businesses around the world, is a trained chef and certified Sake scholar. Web: http://www.sakematters.com | Instagram: @sakematters | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
With special thanks to:
Ben’s American Sake – http://www.bensamericansake.com
Zenkuro – http://www.zenkuro.co.nz
Melbourne Sake – http://www.melbournesake.com.au
North American Sake Brewery – http://www.pourmeone.com
Kato Sake Works – http://www.katosakeworks.com
Dojima Sake Brewery – http://www.dojimabrewery.com
Texas Sake – http://www.txsake.com
United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)
The Asahi Shimbun
South China Morning Post