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Yahoo News Japan covers a sake event in London with some detailed figures on exports and interesting thoughts on how to expand abroad.

London-based reporter Masato Kimura reports on a sommelier workshop run by Isa Bal, head sommelier of the infamous Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire (UK), who gave a witty talk to around 50 sommeliers crammed into a hotel meeting room.

Bal became a sommelier in 1999 after working in the wine industry, and is one of fewer than 200 people to acquire the title of Master Sommelier. He also has a great interest in sake. Bal told the audience of sommeliers that sake can be served at ten temperature levels from 5°C (snow) and 10°C (spring) to 55°C (very hot). He emphasised that the aroma, flavour and mouthfeel as well as sweetness perceived will be different for everyone, and invited the crowd to try it out for themselves in a tasting.

He emphasised umami as a key characteristic of sake, and also that it doesn’t go only with classic Japanese ingredients like fish, dried shiitake mushrooms or konbu seaweed, but pairs equally well with other ingredients such as meat, Parmesan cheese, tomato and broccoli. He pointed out the complexity of the brewing process that produces these savoury elements, and that combining different types of umami has a synergistic effect (presumably not unlike combining different types of sweetness/sweetener).

Bal also indicated some of the barriers that sake faces in Europe: its powerful association with sushi has served it well as an introduction, but on the other hand makes it hard for it to leave the confines of Japanese restaurants even though many, including English tōji Phillip Harper, hold the familiar line that “sake doesn’t fight with food” (or that a sake doesn’t determine the choice of food). He went through the basics, giving the styles as daiginjō, junmai daiginjō, ginjō, junmai ginjō, honjōzō and junmai, adding that junmai had no alcohol added, and that milling ratio determined classification as daiginjō, ginjō or honjōzō

Ten types of sake including koshu were served in wine glasses (not masu or ochoko) which the reporter admits makes more sense if you think about pairing with Italian or French food. He also noted that as the sake was around 15% abv, the sommeliers’ cheeks were gradually turning pink as the tasting went on even though they were rinsing their mouths with water. Small plates of food included foie gras, artichoke, Parmesan cheese and meatballs in tomato sauce, which all proved to be surprisingly good matches.

Italian sommelier Marco Carnovale commented that he wanted to learn more about sake, and enjoys finding new food pairings for it. He thinks the big challenge for sake in the European market is dismantling the scepticism that surrounds it as an unknown product, but as times have changed in Europe from consuming large quantities of cheap wine to smaller quantities of fine wines, he thinks sake has a good chance.

Abdelilah Ait El Caid, sommelier for Brazilian-Japanese restaurant Sushi Samba, says he wanted to know more about sake as his restaurant stocks a wide range. He adds that the market for sake on the continent is growing and that for high-quality sake a slightly higher price is no problem, inviting potential diners with the promise of a 720 ml bottle of Zankyō Super 7 for GBP £690. (Milled down to 7% in case you can’t understand where the price comes from.)

The article then turns to export figures, with a detailed graph showing exports per year and breakdown by country/region. The workshop was hosted by JETRO London, who presented figures on export of seishu (products falling under the legal definition of sake in the Japanese Liquor Tax Law) from the tax office. The UK stood out as a big consumer in Europe, although the biggest markets currently are the USA, Hong Kong, China, Korea and Taiwan. However, total exports to the UK are just 5.8% of those to the USA – so the as yet untapped market in Europe may have greater potential.

The reporter summarised the talk as saying that although sake is starting to make its way into high-end restaurants, the low end of the market is at risk from “sake” produced in other countries. Bal summed up by saying that sake was on the verge of breaking through, but more had to be done to educate people about it. It is not a cheap product, but the UK is an open-minded market so it still has a fighting chance. Education is the key.