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A sake brewer, a sake retailer and an export consultant walk into a bar in Akashi, Hyōgo Prefecture… well, almost. The jobs are true, and two of them did meet in a bar, but now they’re focused on bringing namazake to southeast Asia and beyond.

The Kobe Shinbun Next site has an article on three guys doing their best to bring the true taste of sake to the world – and by “true” they mean “unpasteurised”.

Dai Watanabe operates an export consultancy company, Mikihito Ibaraki is the kuramoto owner of the Ibaraki brewery (famous for their Rairaku label) and Yasuki Tanaka owns the Tanaka Saketen shop. Watanabe, who previously worked for a logistics company, was a regular at Tanaka’s stand-up sake bar. Wanting to bring the great taste of the bar’s sake to the world, he found a kindred spirit in Tanaka himself who was at the counter mingling with his customers. Tanaka brought in Ibaraki, one of the bar’s suppliers, and the three started a new project with Watanabe’s company.

Namazake from Ibaraki Shuzō and other companies was presented at an international exhibition in Hong Kong in 2012. Great care was taken to ensure that the cargo of sake was kept refrigerated at all stages of air and land transport to maintain its quality. Although it was hard to ensure temperature control when the cargo went overseas, they wanted those at the exhibition to experience the fresh, fruity taste of unpasteurised sake.

Their proposal to send namazake abroad got a chilly reception from others in the industry in Japan, who said it would be nonsense as the cost of shipment would be too high. But when it got there, the namazake generated a huge response from local dealers and led to exports to Hong Kong the following year.

The three prioritised building relationships with people and restaurants over making sales. Although sake was increasing in popularity, they didn’t deal with importers whose only concern was price. Instead, they worked with people who would take care with handling and understood how to preserve the flavour of namazake, building up trust and increasing their fan base.

The result? Over 100 of the people they met overseas visited Akashi, including going on brewery tours and enjoying the local food. The three promoters went to England, France and Belgium in July to pay a return visit, deepening their personal contacts.

The three formed a non-profit organisation in April 2015, “The Art of Sake and Japanese Food Culture Mission Consortium” (SJFCM). [I think it’s fair to say no native speaker was involved in the choosing of that name.] Watanabe’s experience and connections were vital in making the move from talking at the bar to taking concrete action. Today 10 breweries and retailers are part of the group, which is supported by the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO). It would take a long time for anyone else to gain the same knowledge and experience that they have.

Spending over 200 days of the year outside Japan, there have been many times when they’ve drunk sake and realised it doesn’t taste the same as it does at home. Without proper temperature control, the quality is subtly affected.

They still focus on connections, pointing out that you can’t buy a relationship built on trust but the pipeline you gain from building trust is strong. So what next? A sake bar overseas where the taste is just like it is at home – but that’s the work of a lifetime.

While translating this, I realised that I met these guys at WABI in London in July 2017! Digging back through my collection of business cards, I met Mikihito Ibaraki at a stand that if I remember correctly had a keg of sake. I also met Shuji Furui from Kurumazaka at the same stand, which resulted in meeting up in November 2017 and sampling far too much sake at the Hanshin Department Store in Osaka, followed by sampling far too much more sake at some amazing places buried in the food/drink/shopping area underneath Umeda Station. And discovering iburigakko with cream cheese, which I’ve just heard I can get at a Japanese restaurant here in Zurich. I still don’t know how I made it back to my hotel, or woke up the next day. I suspect putting non-brewers under the table is part of the job description.