In a nation that thrives on trends, sake is not very trendy. Shochu went through a very serious boom, and now there is a mini Umeshu trend that is seeing significant sales increases. Sake simply has not had it’s turn yet! Futsushu sales have fallen through the floor, and premium brew sales have remained flat with only a slight uptick. However, outside of Japan it’s a completely different story. Sake seems to be having it’s popularity boom abroad!
Sales in the US have been steadily increasing for the past decade, and the quest for premium sake has led the charge. Why now? Well, for some time now, sake was held captive by the lack not only of promotion but of education as well. The only folks who knew anything about sake, and were in a position to speak about it, were sushi chefs or restaurateurs. The only problem with this is that they didn’t want to endure the laborious task of teaching people – rather they just recommended sakes and said “drink.” Likewise, the only companies in a position to promote sake education were the importers, and they treated sake as a secondary product line to their food and restaurant supply sales. Sake was more of an afterthought to fill out containers of food stuffs coming from Japan, via importing firms. It had no champions, and the result was that the American market knew nothing about sake – in fact, we knew less than zero as misconceptions ruled the day.
This has slowly started to change and the popularity of sake has thusly taken off in the West. The reasons are several fold. First, 9 out to 10 people take their first sip of sake at a sushi restaurant, and the popularity of sushi has exploded over the past 10 years. As Americans have embraced Japanese foods they have also embraced sake. In terms of the importing of sake, a new breed of sake-only importers came online, and they do a great job in terms of promoting it to the market, as well as filling the education vacuum. These sake-only importers are also responsible for the penetration of sake into western restaurants – shattering the misconception that sake must only go with sushi.
These torch-bearers also had a secondary effect on the Japanese food importers, who also carried sakes. They forced these companies to step up their efforts to carry a wider variety of brews and promote more sake culture. In 2003, the first sake-only retail store in America opened in San Francisco, and this was followed by many wine stores filling out their offerings for sake. A third component to the increased popularity of sake came in the form of westerners who began writing books on the subject. Lastly, bars across America started to dabble in sake and sake-based cocktails, which was followed by a large Asian-fusion cuisine movement that strongly incorporated the drink. All of this new exposure created a burgeoning awareness of sake in the west, and the result is increased demand across the board.
Importers, in some cases, have seen double digit increases in sales for the past 8 years in the US. In 2010, the UK saw a 20% increase in sake sales. Will these numbers continue? Does off-shore represent a better market than at home for sake producers? Could the export market sustain the industry? Many producers say that exports only account for 1-2% of total sales, whereas others say 4-5%. Is this enough to keep the sake industry going? For now, brewers feel that it is far more viable to be loved locally rather than globally for their product – the only problem is that this love is only coming in the form of their current aging customer base.
At one point in time 30,000 sake breweries dotted the tiny nation island. Today that number is down to 1,400 and dwindling. Consider that each kura (brewery) produces on average 10-15 products per season and you are looking at a lot of sake to choose from. The national brands have their value loving customer base and the local jizake have their loyal “neighborhood” base – the question in more cases than not comes down to price. Premium hand crafted sake is expensive, and that is one of the most important factors in the drinking decision process. There are two paths and they are competing to gain the middle ground. Large macro breweries are trying to create “small label” premium brews in an attempt to attract the high-end sake drinkers at a better price point, and the smaller micro-brewers are trying to make higher quality futsushu to attract the value conscious drinkers. And all the while both camps are trying to stave off the other more popular alcohol selections in the market.