Master Taster John Gauntner on the promising prospects of premium sake
Flamingo Tokyo sat down with sake evangelist, educator and consultant John Gauntner for a conversation about the growing global interest in Japan's sake culture, and the forces that shape its expansion into new generations and spaces. John is the only the non-Japanese Master of Sake Tasting, bestowed by the Brewing Society of Japan (Nihon Jouzou Kyoukai).
How did you become so familiar with sake?
I came to Japan in 1988. Originally I studied and practiced electrical engineering in the United States but I wanted to take a break so I took a stint with the governmental JET program, ostensibly for one year... At first I wasn't very interested in sake but on New Year's Eve of 1989, a gentleman, who was a handful of years older than me, invited me over to his house for dinner. He was really into sake, and when we got there he introduced me to five or six types. It was the first time I ever tried premium sake, the first time I compared sake and the first time I had it not hot. I was completely blown away by the depth and the subtlety of it, how interesting it all was. From then on I started to slowly study sake, and one of my main motivations for studying Japanese was actually to understand sake better, so it was a very pure interest. A few years later I met someone at a party who worked for the Japan Times and we spoke about sake. Eventually, he asked me to write a piece about sake. By then I've never written anything publicly in my life, but I decided to take on the challenge and ended up writing a 5,000 words special feature on sake. Then the newspaper asked me to write a column, and then a publisher asked me to write a book. When you start writing publicly about something, you can't make it up and you can't repeat yourself, so I started getting more and more involved with the industry — do export related work, start educational programs and so on. It was a very organic, natural flow. I often like to say that I didn't choose this line of work — it chose me.
You mentioned the issue of awareness and education, and I read on your website that sake comprises less than 0.1 per cent of the alcohol market in the U.S. How hard is it to expose people abroad to it?
You have to realise it didn't even exist abroad just 25-30 years ago. Coming into a country that's basically built on European heritage, with very strong beer producers, was hard. Even wine has come out pretty strongly only in the last 25 years or so — it existed before as a commodity, but much less as a premium product. Additionally, the alcohol distribution system in America is pretty draconian, and it's very hard to introduce things freely. You have to get the big distributors into it and give importers a strong distribution base in order to start importing it in the first place. You can bring sake into the U.S., of course, but then who's going to buy it? You'll need to forge relationships in 50 states and it's a long, tedious effort. For all these reasons sake is not going to make headways into the U.S. quickly. It's on a very good path, but it will take time.
Sake is really associated with Japan, but it is produced outside the country as well. How is that going?
That's true. You have, right now, five big Japanese companies who produce in the U.S. and about 12-15 smaller brewers. Their production is minuscule, but still, I want to encourage them. There are plans to build new sake breweries now in the U.K. and France. Sake is also already produced in Canada, Brazil, China and Thailand. As for the demographics — if you look at wine demographics in the States, you can see sake demographics: New York, California, Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Florida. Where you sell a lot of wine you are going to sell a lot of sake, but it's also distributed internally in every state, and the volume is growing incrementally. So of course it grows more in the larger population segments on the coasts, but it also grows proportionally, on a smaller scale, in the inner states as well. Sake got its footing from Japanese restaurants, but it is now moving, very healthily, away from restaurants into to new spaces.
What can help sake become more widely accepted?
The first big mover is exposure. The importers and exporters started bringing in better sake, and the competition helped exposing consumers to very good products. Education was a big part of it too. Twenty years ago people used to say thing like "Sake? That’s rocket fuel!” In particular, wine people were pretty averse to it - but when you get these people to actually try some daiginjo sake they start changing their minds. Recently, sommeliers working the floors in restaurants have embraced sake and done a great job introducing diners to it. It is also essential for sake to move away from Japanese restaurants — people need to drink it more at home and with more types of food, and this is also already happening. The harder issue is getting to a sufficient quality of production abroad. In Japan, they grow seedlings and then, painstakingly, they transfer these seedlings with care onto the field. In the U.S., however, they throw the seeds out of an airplane, so they are not going to get the same quality of product. When quality and prices go up, the economics of sake will improve. Can it happen? Sure. Will it happen? Probably, but it will take time getting the quality of raw materials to the Japanese level. Look, it took Napa valley 100 years to produce good wine, and this was with 1950s technology right? The good news is that we are in the right direction.
Where do you see more potential for sake to become popular?
Only three per cent of sake is exported so even if this figure triples the market will stay domestic. The U.S. is number one since people don't have the same, long history with wine. In London and Paris, people show interest, but their second glass will probably be wine. Asia is a big potential, the next six countries after the U.S. are all Asian countries. Korea is closing in on the U.S. but it is still mainly because of cheaper, value sake. The U.S. is still a premium sake market, and the demographics for premium sake are getting younger.
Japan has seen a revival of traditional local culture. Is it helping the smaller, local breweries survive?
I think that the interest in jizake (local, craft brewers) is a little bit misplaced. The big brewers make predominantly inexpensive stuff, but they also make great, reasonably priced premium products. The inexpensive futsushu (value sake) is about 70 per cent of the market and it's been on decline since the early 1970s. The premium market, however, is smaller and growing at about 10 per cent a year. So the market is contracting in general, but quality products are on the rise. Since the tax on happoshu (beer-like products with lower alcohol levels) is going to go up soon, the prospects are looking good for high quality sake. You can count on the premium sake market to grow at a healthy 10-20 per cent a year pace. Craft Japanese beers are also growing, but they are too expensive to become successful abroad, where there is also fierce local competition in most cases. The same can be said of Japanese whiskey, which is going to peak soon, I believe. The one thing that sets sake a part from all the rest, is that it is a completely different product. We don't have anything like it in the West — and we've just scratched the surface so far. So, the potential for sake is much greater.
What can Japanese brands and breweries do to market themselves better abroad?
They need to develop a story about who they are, where they are from and why they're unique. I remember interpreting for a distributer who met a Japanese brewer here and tasted his sake. He said the sake was great but he had 25 similar products, which might not taste the same, but were just as good. A good story is the only way to make your sake stand out. "The oldest brewery in Japan", or "we use yeast off the rafters", or "we use the same water to grow the rice and brew our sake". Every brewery, or sake master, have an amazing story to tell. It's pure marketing.
What about the domestic scene? Do you see innovation in the way sake is branded and marketed?
In Japan it's a whole different story. There are dozens of intricate dynamics when it comes to the Japanese market. Parallel imports, for example, are allowed here, and, in order to avoid clashes with distributors, some Japanese brewers create new brands. The famous Dassai is a good example — it used to be called Asahi Shuzo, and the president decided to focus on premium, daiginjo sake only. He pounded the pavement in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and even in New-York, pushing his product and eventually, they achieved their aspirational status. Koshi no Kanbai, from Niigata, had interestingly focused on the same product-line for over 40 years, but they constantly raised the bar in quality, gradually and consistently refining their production. Nambu Bijin, from Iwate,emphasised their sterling, technical aspect, with a very adept president, who is also a graduate of Tokyo's prestigious University of Agriculture. Rihaku, from Shimane, are less flamboyant than Dassai or Nambu Bijin but they are very constant, and have a firm, rich style that helped them gain a good presence in Asian markets.
These are all veteran companies. Do young people make a difference within the industry itself, or as consumers?
These companies are all old. Since the industry is contracting, the Ministry of Taxation is reluctant to let new players compete with breweries that are already struggling. However, when the kids in these families are taking over, after sake brewing, or agriculture studies, they usually revamp the production process, or market the products differently. Nice labelling, more information, going out to do tasting events, making it available online and so on. These are fresh developments and you indeed hear these stories often. In Japan, the big breweries were buying, and supporting smaller ones until 1973, but now sales are down and they can't keep it up. This leads to a phenomena of younger brewers developing and marketing their products through their own initiatives. As for consumers, interestingly, the cheap sake is consumed mainly by the older demographics, but 30 and 40 year olds usually go for the higher price-point premium sake. This trend continues to trickle down, but 20 year olds, or students, still go for the quicker buzz. There is a common belief in Japan that you need to be older to appreciate sake, but this also might change, if people felt less intimidated approaching it. This was, and is, the key both for the younger demographics, and for international consumers.
You can read and learn more about sake also through John's blog, Sake World.
- Article by Omri Reis