The Mainichi News site reports on a crowdfunding campaign that highlights what might be a persistent issue for sake - price.
A journalist received a promotional email from the Makuake crowdfunding site about a sake project that was allegedly attracting a lot of attention, namely advance sales of a limited-edition, high added-value sake brand under the SAKE 100 banner.
SAKE 100 (apparently shorthand for "offering brands of sake that will be just as fascinating 100 years from now") is a new initiative by Clear, Inc., parent company of the sake news site Sake Times (available in Japanese and English). This is the first launch for the initiative, a sake called byakko (百光, hundred light). [The readings for the name of the sake and for the name of the initiative aren't immediately clear, as the writer of the article notes it could be sakehyaku, sake-wan-handoredo, or the official sake-handuredo.] Somewhat impressed by their ambitious vision, the journalist keeps reading.
byakko aims to be the zenith of refined taste, satisfying to any drinker. Made by what the press release claims to be the brewery with the best brewing technique in the whole of Japan, Tatenokawa in Yamagata Prefecture, the sake is also priced as what they describe as a "global standard", JPY 17,800 for 720 ml.
Momentarily taken aback by the price, the journalist has a closer look. Tatenokawa is a pretty good choice. Fans of regional sake know it well, and the writer has had their Seiryū junmai daiginjō sake before. At 14% it was 1%-2% less than most, but very pleasant with a crisp aftertaste while lacking nothing in its highly refined flavour. (The journalist is briefly overcome with the desire to drink it again.)
Another factor in the price is the milling ratio - the rice will be polished to leave a mere 18%. As the journalist notes, more milling means more aroma and cleaner flavour, and this percentage puts it far past even the infamous Dassai daiginjō notoriously milled to 23%.
Pushing the envelope [or jumping the shark] even further, the rice is all sake-specific variety Dewasansan grown under direct contract in Yamagata Prefecture without the use of agricultural chemicals. Sake-specific varieties are difficult to grow as it is, so organic cultivation is a further challenge.
The press release then reveals a hidden aim of the SAKE 100 project - not just growing the market for high value-added sake, but pulling up the price of all sake. The people behind the project see the lack of a high-price market for sake as a serious problem. With demand growing both domestically and internationally for sake as a luxury item, they aim to set the benchmark for pricing. (The journalist thinks back to when he worked in a Japanese restaurant and another worker complained that the Japanese were the ones who least understood the value of their own sake. A bottle of wine would easily sell for JPY 3,000, but even the amazing Tatenokawa Seiryū could barely get that price for a 1.8 L bottle.
The journalist reflects that sake brewers are often said to do it out of love, or as a volunteer activity, with many making little or no profit. Is it right for him and others to carry on enjoying sake while averting their eyes from the difficulties facing those who make it? Is it right for people to work so hard and make something this good, but not be rewarded for it? Shouldn't real sake fans protest this situation by spending their own money? He feels like the SAKE 100 project embodies this awareness of the issues that sake lovers are more or less conscious of. The shock of JPY 17,800 for 720 ml feels like an accusation about the current state of sake pricing.
While recognising that it's hard to match price with value, the journalist wholeheartedly agrees that pricing commensurate with the effort involved is desperately needed.