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New markets, new hope

Sake expert Natsuki Kikuya talks to The Drinks Report about how overseas growth is saving Japan’s traditional brewing culture

Natsuki Kikuya Museum of Sake

While sake sales in Japan linger in the doldrums, down by a phenomenal 60% from two decades ago, sake sales outside of Japan have been breaking records year-in, year-out.

The strong performance of sake overseas comes from the potent combination of the growing popularity of sake and the long-term reputation of Japanese culinary culture across the entire globe. In the UK, recognition of sake is noticeably increasing among wine and spirits professionals, local chefs, and restaurateurs, both in terms of sake’s affinity to a wide range of cuisines and its ability to add a unique colour and individual element to wine lists.

In spite of the certain mystery that sake retains, the industry has started to discover the beauty and wealth of sake through the diverse styles and flavours available today; this has led to an increasing realisation that knocking back a shot of hot sake on a Friday night is not the only way to appreciate this highly versatile drink. The beauty and health effects of sake are also prompting more health conscious consumers to reach for the sake bottle, in order to take advantage of its almost magical powers; with low acidity and no sulfites, sake has long been said in Japan to be good for rehydration, for the reconstruction of skin cells, and for improving skin clarity.

“One of the elements I see pushing sake sales in the UK over the past few years is the expansion and diversification of the sake drinking population in London,” explains Natsuki. “When I first came to the UK, around five years ago, sake was a luxury product only marketed seriously to affluent consumers. Today, by contrast, a wider audience, including foodie consumers and cultural influencers who are culinarily curious and keen to try new flavours, has started to learn about the diverse tastes and styles of sake. What’s more, sake is not only being enjoyed at Japanese restaurants but also in the home, to complement the modern lifestyles of consumers and as a replacement for wine and other alcoholic drinks.”

Numerous annual sake-related events in London are working to reinforce this growing number of UK sake fans by bringing the tastes and faces of Japan’s leading breweries to British shores, along with the best quality sake and the latest sake trends. The International Wine Challenge (IWC) has featured a sake category since 2007 and this has grown to become the biggest sake competition in the world outside Japan. Each year, the brewers who have won sake trophies visit London for the final IWC Awards Ceremony, as well as to present their sake for public tasting. This competition has functioned as a significant bridge between artisan makers of premium sake in Japan and wine and drinks professionals in the UK, working to “translate” sake into a British context and encourage a more rounded appreciation of the culture behind the sake industry.

Elsewhere, the Eat-Japan Sake Experience is now Europe’s biggest consumer sake tasting, held as part of the annual Hyper Japan event. It provides members of the general public with the opportunity to taste, as well as to rate and buy, a wide selection of sake from more than 10 breweries. Sake varieties showcased include sparkling, cloudy (nigori), undiluted (genshu) and aged (koshu), presented at a range of temperatures and in different styles.

“At the latest Sake Experience, in July 2013, we welcomed nearly 800 young and enthusiastic tasters, and the level of knowledge about and demand for sake among attendees is growing enormously every time. I am convinced that this sort of event has a critical role to play in educating and inspiring the next generation of sake consumers in the UK. It’s also a rare chance for breweries to interact with their audience, providing vital insight into consumer preference that can be fed into their marketing strategies for the UK and beyond.

“The government of Japan has also been getting behind the promotion of sake overseas, most recently through its Taste Japan initiative, designed to introduce Japanese cuisine and drink as accessible, affordable, and easily enjoyed with friends and family.

“Taste Japan was another presence at Hyper Japan in July 2013, and I was part of it as a speaker. My demonstrations focused on how to recreate an izakaya, or Japanese style pub, at home, with quick and simple recipes for nibbles and light bites that pair effortlessly with sake and other Japanese drinks.

“In my new business, I organise sake tasting sessions in smaller settings to allow consumers to enjoy sake from diverse and unique perspectives, such as sake pairings with Indian cuisine and spices, sake tastings looking at the impact of vessel shape and material, and even a sake dinner run in collaboration with Mark Hix and Ross Shonhan of Bone Daddies.

"My hope is that these opportunities will work to break down the cultural barrier of sake, as being too foreign or too mysterious, and to provide learning experiences that are based on the consumer’s own palate and senses in order to encourage a full understanding of the characteristics of sake.

“I am a daughter of a family that has been brewing sake for more than 300 years, and as such I do see this trend of increased market presence overseas as a real chance for the whole sake industry in Japan to retain and indeed to re-energise the traditional culture and art that define it.

“The traditional infrastructure of the sake industry has been under threat for many years; for example, the number of breweries in Japan has been decreasing every year, from 4,000 in 1955 to just over 1,000 now, and many of these are at serious risk of business failure. Enjoying sake and appreciating its delicate delights is a direct way to support the industry and the future of sake.

“Formerly, I worked at Zuma and Roka, and the sommelier team here came from all over the world: Italy, Spain, Australia, France, Sweden. This diversity highlights the cosmopolitan culture that drives trends in Britain’s capital; London is a unique cultural centre and a home for international gastronomic culture to gather, to interact, and to be re-evaluated. Vast selections of wines and spirits from all around the world are showcased in this city and then introduced to the rest of the world as the trends to watch.

“It seems clear to me that sake is fast becoming one of the most modern trends, a drink increasingly embraced by western culture while still retaining ancient traditions from Japan dating back a couple of millennia; this oldest of Japanese flavours is becoming one of London’s newest.”

Natsuki Kikuya was formerly head sake sommelier at Roka and Zuma restaurants. She won the IWC Sake Communicator Award in 2011 and is a judge for the IWC sake category. Recently, she has launched the Museum of Sake, a sake PR and education agency, to provide sake tasting and learning experiences in the UK.

Sake tasting image above by Kaori Ando
Pictured below: Natsuki talking at Taste Japan in Hyper Japan


7 August 2013