There are many forces working against the success of sake – from poor economies, to radically increased fuel and energy costs, to a graying workforce that has no immediate succession possibilities. The costs of raw materials continue to go up, whilst tax incentives to brewers now are falling off the books. The “national” beverage has to take a ticket and get in line. In a word the sake industry must re-create its own existence. It must re-connect with a new breed of sake consumers, either in Japan or abroad. A handful of massive breweries have opened up operations on many different continents – North America, South America, Asia, and Australia to name a few. And many more small breweries are looking to export their products to feed new demands.
The US and Taiwan account for over 50% of sakes that are exported today. Europe is lagging way behind and China has yet to awaken. But these overseas markets only account for about 1% of sakes produced in Japan. The unique aspect of sake is that it is better perceived and received in foreign lands than it is at home. This warm reception has accounted for 6-10% sales growth rates for premium sakes in the past 8 years. Is this trend sustainable? Or is sake having its trendy fad-like boom on foreign shores rather than home?
Will exports ever carry the weight for the industry? Could the export market keep some breweries in business? There is a good chance. The “West” represents love to an industry that has felt many cold shoulders of late. But, brewers have been reluctant to really make a serious effort to cultivate new markets abroad. Many compare the trials and tribulations of sake in the US to that of Tequila. Tequila came to town in the form of Jose Cuervo™ silver – a clear butane tasting substance that was seen as “true” tequila. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and as better tequilas came to market this generated further and more powerful demand. In this scenario it is the act of getting a better product into the hands of consumers who in turn fuel more demand for better product. Sake is at this stage in the States.