Sake Social was one of 2 US based companies invited to Japan in July of this year (2013) to represent the sake market--Sake Social as the largest online retailer, and the other company a quickly growing importer. There were another 8 companies they brought in from around the world including: Paris, Tel Aviv, Berlin, Amsterdam, Singapore, and Shanghai--JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) sponsored the trip.
But before the trip even started, I got caught up at the SFO airport due the tragic plane crash. In fact, we were on the runway when the plane hit, and I actually felt it. Happened right in front of me--crazy, somber moment in my life (view from my plane seat)..
So, after a brief stay in SFO, I was able to get on another plane and catch up with the group a day later.
After a long day of traveling and making my way to Kyoto via plane trains and automobiles, as soon as I hit the hotel where the event was located, they marched me up to the stage to present Sake Social--caught me a bit off guard, and, needless to say, I was haggard...
The next morning kicked off what was to be an intense trip where they had me meet with over 300 breweries in Kyoto and Yamagata. Each meeting was roughly 30 mins and was "speed-dating-esque". In most meetings the brewery had me sample their wares, and, while most people were tasting and spitting it out, I of course swallowed it all down greedily...
Some brews we already carried, some I hope to add in the near future, and some were downright crazy...
In addition to meeting with the breweries, we also toured some breweries (one that dated back over 500 years ago), a couple sake rice fields (yes sake rice is different than table rice...errr...at least the good stuff is), a rice milling facility, and even a sake museum (see images).
Here were some of my takeaways from the trip:
1. From the get-go, this program was great for connecting the manufacturers to the importers/retailers. It bypassed a lot of the red-tape/fluff starting from the exporters and distributors, to lost in translation break-downs.
2. It was a great program for getting exposure to a number of different breweries, with a number of different types of products. This was especially important for Sake Social because we simply don't get this exposure to the breweries because we are going through importers that are forcing our hand on product.
3. It was a great networking event--connecting names/brands to faces which goes a long way in building brand trust across the ocean.
4. Some of the brewery owners that I met with simply couldn't fathom sake being sold online. I showed them our website and I think it took them back a bit--almost like it was depersonalizing the sake experience...who knows...but definitely eye-opening to many when I gave them a tour of sakesocial.com. It was especially cool for those breweries that we actually sell their product--they loved reading our fun descriptions, and how we translate and productize their brews.
5. When I asked breweries how would I differentiate it against the other 100 premium brews that we sell online, in most cases (not all), what a brewery might think is important, and help them to sell volume in Japan, doesn't necessarily work in the US. For instance, whether or not they grow their own rice or type of yeast they use. Now granted, for sake aficionados, it totally matters, but the US sake market is still nascent, and most consumers are still learning. Whereas with the wine market, there are hordes of loyal drinkers to specific grapes, regions, etc.
At the end of the trip, JETRO put us up in a amazing spa, rented out the conference room, and catered a traditional Japanese dinner where we all pulled out samples and drank the night away...and yes, I almost missed my train to Tokyo and on home to Austin TX...