Travelling to Japan can have a transformative effect, inspiring people to start careers firmly rooted in their love of The Land Of The Rising Sun. For Tracey Delaney, the opportunity to represent her school and go to Japan sparked a life-long appreciation for the country.
Since then she’s become a global ambassador, a sake sommelier and provided support to the UK’s first sparkling sake brewery. Read on to find out more about Tracey’s story.
Good to have you in Yamato Magazine Tracey. You’ve built up a wealth of knowledge about Japan through the years and it’d be great to hear what your first experience with the country was and what inspired you to travel there.
Thanks for inviting me in discussion with you. I love the passion with which you produce content about Japan. It’s been particularly comforting these past couple of years when armchair travel to Japan is all we’ve had.
I was first acquainted with Japan in the late 80s when I was chosen to represent my school on an exchange programme between New York City and Tokyo junior high schools. After being selected I spent the first few months at The Japan Society New York on Saturdays learning about Japan, its culture and customs; I still remember the anticipation walking up Park Avenue wondering what I’d discover each weekend and the inspiring surroundings of the Japan Society.
That was my first step toward my deep love for Japan. In the autumn I had a Japanese girl come stay with me – share my bedroom, life, school days and the experience was reciprocated when I went to Japan the following spring.
From the moment I got to Japan I felt an instant combination of intrigue and familiarity, it felt inspiring, curiosity provoking but very much like home.
I didn’t speak Japanese and lived with a family who didn’t speak English and went to a school that didn’t have much English either but somehow it worked. It was pure cultural immersion and delightful, eye opening and made me think ‘I’m coming back, I’m becoming fluent in Japanese and I’m going to live here.’
Fast forward some years and that’s exactly what I did with a year-long exchange programme at University with Waseda University followed by a role as a Coordinator for International Relations on the JET Programme in Yokohama and then a corporate career with Deloitte (Consulting) in Tokyo.
Taking a step back, that exchange programme in junior high school not only had a profound impact on me but also drove incredible value for Japan. I’ve become a brand Japan diplomat in my own right, worked to drive shareholder and customer value across multi-national businesses in Japan and worked to help increase the knowledge and love of sake here in the UK.
It all began with a simple exchange of young children and blossomed into a passion embedded in my heart, my life, my family and my work. I think it’s magical, the power of human interactions across borders and the long term investment and impact that it can make!
You specialise as a global brand strategist and how has that influenced your relationship with Japan?
In some ways it’s probably the other way around. My work with Japan in part turned me into a global brand strategist and transcreation expert.
Both across my consulting career and financial services I’ve worked with multinational companies with a global footprint, global strategy who often are left a bit perplexed about what to do with Japan; is it similar? Too different? Do we just take strategies and assets and translate them, job done?
And of course there are some ‘lost in translation’ moments between the HQ in the US, UK or elsewhere and Japan. It’s really all the text book questions and issues that do exist.
My philosophy is there isn’t a one size fits all answer. So much depends on the product, cultural context, cross-cultural understanding, customer/user experience, human truths and business objectives. Japan is a micro-case study of challenges across all those dimensions.
This type of thinking helps to develop and drive a strategic mind that can then flex to look globally across markets/countries and synthesise strategies, actions and develop a solid approach to transcreation (e.g. looking at all the factors above and finding the right solution off a global footprint).
Where are some of your favourite places to visit in Japan?
It’s funny the most mundane places can be my favourite. With small children I can say Japanese bathrooms are the best not just because of the world-class washlet toilets but because they often have a small seat attached to the wall for a child so the parent can take care of themselves with two hands. The attention to service design in Japan is just phenomenal.
That said, one trip I loved was a 10-day ryokan hot spring exploration in Ishikawa Prefecture with my husband and my then 5-month-old. We drove from Kanazawa through Yamanaka and Yamashiro Onsen and around the Noto Peninsula.
A highlight was the incredible Lamp no Yado ryokan. It is a spectacular historic property perched on rocks along the sea and rotenburo outdoor hot spring baths on your balcony overlooking the sea. Lamp no Yado is one of the most sublime places I have stayed. Noto itself is very rich in culture and food; lacquerware, sake, wine, fish, nature.
You’re also a sake sommelier and I’d love to know what your first experience with sake was like and how it’s evolved over time.
My first experience with sake was one I remember for all the wrong reasons because it was somewhat awful – the classic all-you-can-drink (nomihodai) type event as a student with cheap drinks all around and a sake in the mix.
I didn’t like it and most regrettably in the 6 years I lived in Japan I tried to avoid sake – what a mistake looking back.
Fast forward to the mid 2010s and the Japan tourism boom, so many people were asking me ‘what sake should I drink in Japan’? ‘What brewery should I visit’? I was embarrassed to be a ‘Japan Expert’ but be at a loss to answer these questions.
I also had tasted some Dassai in my travels back and forth to Japan and suspected sake wasn’t as terrible as I remembered so I decided to use part of my maternity leave in 2017 to enroll in London in the SSI’s International Kikisakeshi course led by Satomi Dosseur (and co taught by Tengu Sake’s Oliver Hilton-Johnson) to stop being embarrassed by sake questions.
Well, it turned out to be so much more than that. I discovered not only an incredible, delicious, mind-blowing beverage in a range of tastes and temperatures but a craftsmanship, passion, history and modernity I absolutely fell in love with.
Since then I’ve visited many breweries, drunk even more sakes and started to run sake tastings and some talks about sake in addition to partnering up with Naoki Toyota the CEO and Toji (Head Brewer) of The Sparkling Sake Brewery to advise on all things marketing, brand, partnerships and sake education (in addition to a full time corporate job and mothering 3 small humans!)
It’s the love of (and sometimes the sake itself) that sustains me to juggle all these things that I love!
What are your favourite kinds of sake and brands?
I love them all. No, I really do. It’s hard to step back and pinpoint one because it depends on the season, what I’m eating (sake doesn’t fight food due to its low acidity so it actually goes well with so much!), my mood and often my understanding of the brand and the technical complexities of the sake itself.
There are incredible sakes across all classifications from your futsushu (table sake) to “super premium” junmai daiginjo’s and everything in between. Never limit yourself to a ‘category’ of sake!
Also as it relates to brands, each brewery has a story, a history, a legacy. It’s equally as hard to choose. You have a lot of sake brands breaking boundaries, being led by women, focusing on design, partnering across borders and categories (e.g. Tatenokawa x Foo Fighters or Shichigen x Alain Ducasse) trying new and inventive things like sending sake yeast to space, or into the deep sea, focusing on ‘premiumisation’ in the category, or focusing on no intervention and craft sake.
It’s also interesting to see how brands are trying to drive differentiation in the category and of course COVID has changed the marketing landscape and opened up numerous direct B2C marketing and sales opportunities and also ‘inside looks’ (e.g. virtual brewery tours) into what could often be difficult to access for the general public both in Japan and overseas.
You’re currently supporting The Sparkling Sake Brewery. What is your role at the brewery and how did that connection come about?
Going back to the maternity leave in 2017 where I truly discovered sake, it’s also the year Naoki and I met through a mutual friend who had gone to live in Japan and subsequently introduced Naoki and I as we were both on parental leaves with a small baby. It’s ironic we both ‘discovered’ our love for sake in the UK, in 2017, during a parental leave.
Naoki went back to Japan eventually and came back to the UK in late 2019 and proposed I join him collaborating on this nascent idea he had to launch the world and UK’s first sparkling sake brewery in the UK.
As our values around nature, Japanese aesthetics and love of sake were very much aligned this seemed like a dream opportunity I was eager to embrace and that’s how it all began!
We work as a team across the UK, the Netherlands and Japan to bring to life the brand, marketing, customer experience, design, packaging and website. For the majority of us, it’s in addition to our day-to-day jobs which is testament to how much passion, motivation and belief we have in The Sparkling Sake Brewery and our product ‘awa’ as well as for the potential for sake in general in the UK (and abroad).
What do you think the appeal of sparkling sake is and where do you see it going in the future?
Broadly speaking, sparkling sake has an appeal as an easy to drink, usually lower abv (5-12% vs 15-16% generally for still sake). There is also, especially in the overseas markets, a sort of novelty or fascination factor in that many people don’t know sparkling sake is a ‘thing’ and it peaks a good deal of curiosity (and delight once drunk!).
There is a broad range of types of sparkling sake from still sakes that are injected with CO2 bubbles to a product like ours which is a no intervention, second fermentation in bottle whereby the bubbles are produced naturally through the organic interaction between the microorganisms, rice and water.
In the future I see the category growing at pace both in Japan (where there is an Awa Sake Association; an association developed exclusively around sparkling sake made to certain standards) and in the overseas market where sparkling sake can make a positive addition to any celebration or meal.
There continues to be a trend where consumers are looking for lower alcohol beverages (e.g. around the 11-12% abv range) and sparkling sake naturally fits into this category.
And with our product we use a natural approach in harmony with the seasons which also continues to be a focus for consumers; seeking out products which respect and work in coordination with nature, the environment, the locality and are low-no intervention.
If you could change one thing about the sake industry, what would it be and why?
It would probably be to put the great Japanese service design ethos into the way sake is categorised and presented. For example, the classification system in the sake world is rather complex especially for the overseas market. Futsushu, junmai daiginjo, honjozo, polishing ratios, addition of brewer’s alcohol (or not) and so on are all such a tremendous mental load for consumer (in addition to being a mouthful to say to someone who doesn’t know Japanese).
Is there a way to make sake easier to understand, a simpler classification which can help consumers easily understand and choose? Moto sake bar in London has a wonderfully user-friendly classification system at the bar to display their sakes which visually helps customer navigate what type of sake they may like to drink.
Where would you like to see The Sparkling Sake Brewery in the next ten years?
First, in a much bigger premise (but with the same small batch hand crafter mentality). We’re currently in a small 400 sq ft brewery which is cosy but we can’t do tours or tutorials (which we get asked for often!)
In a more macro context I would love to see our products integrated into the daily lives of UK consumers (and restaurants) who are passionate about nature, seasonality, craftsmanship, food and drink.
We would love to see consumers have a natural reflex to ‘grab a bottle of ‘awa’ as they do for champagne or wine. And, I’d say to for sake as a category in general, we’d love to see people reach for a bottle of sake to pair with cheese or a Sunday roast.
It’s important to us to not just promote our product but sake as a category and beverage in general as working together and promoting sake, all boats rise and all of us who love sake win!
We’d love readers to follow us on Instagram @TheSparklingSakeBrewery and try our debut product ‘awa’ (meaning bubbles in Japanese) which can be purchased on our website during limited batch release periods or in-store at Pantechnicon’s Sakaya in London.
You can also find me on LinkedIn.