Continuing with a long and fascinating article from Nikkei Business Farm about one sake brewer network you might not have heard of – the Tokyo University of Agriculture.

Total exports of sake in 2018 hit JPY 22.2 billion, setting a new record for the ninth year in a row. But these exports account for only 4% of production. Masumi Nakano, president of the Dewazakura brewery, is also Chairman of the Global Strategy Committee of the Japan Sake and Shōchū Makers Association (JSS). He points out that just under 40% of French wine is exported, meaning there’s still huge potential for sake exports. He hopes that the Tokyo Nōdai network can work together to find ways to stimulate overseas consumption.

For example, the industry recommends keeping sake at around 5°C during transport to ensure it arrives in good condition. Temperature-controlled transport is difficult for any one company to manage on their own, and if they wait until they have enough to fill a container they may only be able to ship infrequently. But if several breweries combine smaller loads in the same container, they can ship more frequently while ensuring their sake is properly cared for. The nationwide Tokyo Nōdai network of brewers is key to helping such things happen. [Note: I know three breweries in Gifu who do just this. No idea if they’re Tokyo Nōdai graduates or not.]

Another brewer with memories of learning and being supported on an almost daily basis is Kōsuke Kuji of Nanbu Bijin.

He talks about having Masumi Nakano, president of Dewazakura, and Takagi, president of the brewery that makes Jūyondai, come and look over his new kōji room when it was under construction, and having Shichida, president of Tenzan, check his new bottling building. Everyone gave him advice on usability or improvements based on their own experience. For Kuji, the best thing he got from university, beyond knowledge and skills, was this network of fellow students, graduates and later students. He graduated decades ago, and is proud to work in what must be the only industry with a university network like this.

Nanbu Bijin starting exporting seriously in 1997, and received an excellence in export award from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) in 2017. But they faced many obstacles when starting to expand their market, including being accused of using preservatives, turned away because they were thought to be sending their surplus abroad, and told by Japanese resident overseas that the sake they could buy locally wasn’t any good.

Kuji credits his ability to keep going through those tough times to support from his university friends: people like Itō of Dewatsuru/Karihō, Shichida of Tenzan, Kinoshita of Amabuki, Shindō of Gasanryū. He also points out that the efforts of previous students, now kuramoto in their own right, created this market and pulled him and others along into it. And now, they need to create the necessary connections with the next generation.

Sake produced by local kuramoto was only consumed locally until around the 1950s. In the days when large quantities of sake were consumed domestically, local brewers might even sell their genshu by the tank to the big breweries. By the 1970s, many graduates making sake had become attuned to the differences between rice varieties, yeasts and brewing methods, using them to create their own labels and create jizake as a genre that took hold nationwide. The challenge for Kuji’s generation is to take that jizake overseas.

The top export destinations by volume in the overseas market at the moment are the USA, Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and Europe is also increasingly considered a potential market.

Hosaka muses that to make progress in the European market, steeped in the history and culture of wine, the challenge ahead is terroir. He assumes that Europeans will be looking for differences in flavour rooted in specific places, created by their soil and climate.

Difference in sake is created by production methods rather than soil. In particular, many high-end sake destined for export are ginjō class made with highly-milled Yamada Nishiki. It’s hard to say much about  regional differences.

This has led to acquiring and displaying internationally protected geographical indications (GI) to make the origin of regional sake clear. Sake-producing areas that currently have a GI are Hakusan (Hakusan City, Ishikawa Prefecture), Yamagata at the prefectural level, and Nada.

Masumi Nakano was part of the team that secured the Yamagata GI. He wants people to talk about Yamagata sake in the same way they talk about a Bordeaux or Bourgogne wine.

Making sake that reflects a terroir means using rice grown in the prefecture, yeast strains developed in the prefecture. It also revitalises the local area and makes it easier to promote it overseas.

Getting a GI requires using local water and producing and storing the sake within a geographical boundary, which has its own challenges in terms of coordinating people inside the designated producing area. Despite these challenges, breweries have their chance to shine thanks to the Tokyo Nōdai network and continuous innovation in style within the traditional methods of production.

Sake is different from other alcoholic drinks in that you can compare different types. [Not sure what the article is trying to say here, as that’s hardly unique to sake.] You can taste for different brewing methods, different breweries, at different temperatures, with different food and in different glasses or cups. Masumi Nakano thinks that the multidisciplinary network created by Tokyo Nōdai, including food technology and agricultural science and crossing between academics, industry and government, will be critical in communicating this facet of sake overseas.

Tokyo Nōdai had 100 academic and industrial or official partnerships as of March 2019, bringing together life science, food science, environmental science, health science, energy, regional revitalisation and more. This ever-expanding network linking people, products and projects has a lot more in store.

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The translations/summaries of Japanese language news articles and other content provided on this site are part of a personal project to increase the amount of information about Japanese sake available in English.

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All translations/summaries are © 2017-2019 Arline Lyons.

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