Sake packaging is fascinating – it comes in waxed cartons like juice for children’s lunch boxes, waxed cups with lids like iced coffee, plastic pouches with spouts like washing liquid refills, Tetra Packs like milk, PET plastic bottles like smoothies… and in cans!
Sirabee covers a pioneer of canned sake, Kikusui. Famous for their Funaguchi Kikusui Ichiban Shibori line and seasonal nigori Gorohachi, their nama genshu (unpasteurised and undiluted sake) is canned for one simple reason: back in 1972 when they started shipping it, the systems simply weren’t there to keep it cool, dark and sealed away from air all the way to its final destination. “Bottling” in aluminium cans was the best way to keep their delicate product in top condition, and opened up a new non-seasonal market for this particular style.
My return flight from Japan in December 2017 was delayed, so I ended up killing time at Shinagawa Station and stumbled across a Kikisui stand. Cans! Small, lots of different styles of sake available, and far less fragile than bottles for putting in my hold luggage. I was sold. I noticed some of them were nama (unpasteurised) and went to put them back, commenting to one of the guys at the stand that they probably couldn’t be stored unrefrigerated for the time it would take me to return to Europe, based on what other shops or brewers had told me. He gave me a hard look, and suggested that maybe other breweries’ hygiene standards weren’t up to it, but he had no problems recommending that I take the cans in hold luggage. Ouch. Good display of confidence.
Selling unpasteurised namazake was seen as a huge risk back in the ’70s, but Kikusui approached it with flexibility and a spirit of enterprise. Managing Director Kikuchi puts their success down to a single-minded emphasis on one thing and one thing only – putting a smile on their customers’ faces.
Popular sake concentrate on staying the same, and Kikusui is no different, but the market changes over time. They took a sake classified as Grade 2 under the old system (which I will also have to look into) and improved it so it met the requirements for honjōzō under the new (current) system. They overhauled their main product lines in 2017, decided to use 100% Niigata rice and also to display that fact on their packaging. Their Kikusui no Karakuchi and Kikusui no Honjōzō sake are normally pasteurised twice, first when going into storage after brewing and pressing, and again when bottled after maturation. From 2017, they were pasteurised only once, after pressing, and labelled with the corresponding term namazume (bottling/canning without pasteurisation).
I think there’s another advantage to the Kikusui cans, apart from being colourful and attracting attention with their bold design. They’re small, just 200 ml, making them less expensive and less of a risk than a large 720 ml bottle. They’re more tempting, easier to take a chance on and give sake a try!