At the foot of the Japanese Alps northwest of Tokyo, the rice polishing machines at sake producer Miyasaka Brewing Co. have fallen silent for the season. All but a few fermentation vats sit empty, and most of the white-clad workers, who spend the chilly winter months making Japan's traditional rice wine, have gone home to tend to their farms.
But one thing at this 340-year-old family-run business is still going full tilt: the marketing machine. As sake consumption in Japan evaporates, Miyasaka is busy trying to drum up new drinkers. "It's a very dark period for small brewers," says 50-year-old Managing Director Naotaka Miyasaka.
Miyasaka isn't the only small-time sake brewer who's hurting. For years, Japanese have been abandoning the national drink in favor of beer, imported wine, and shochu, a homegrown liquor. In the year ended Mar. 30, 2005, sake consumption fell to 826 million liters, 7% below the previous year, and half its postwar peak in 1976, Japan's National Tax Agency says.
To stay afloat, Miyasaka and many of Japan's 2,000 other producers are aiming to sell their prizewinning bottles across the Pacific. Although sake isn't exactly new to the U.S., the market has long been dominated by industrial-size brewers that flood stores and restaurants with cheap swill best drunk hot to cover up its rough edges.
Now small and midsize breweries are taking a different tack. They're playing up the labor-intensive, artisanal traditions of their jizake, or microbrews, and trotting out their top-of-the-line bottles for Americans. Made from fermented rice, sake is slightly more potent than wine, packing an alcohol content of 15% to 18%. And the oldest breweries rely on techniques honed over centuries, such as mixing the rice and koji (a special mold) by hand. Award-winning bottles can have flavors and aromas as complex as Bordeaux or Burgundies, and aficionados describe them with wine-like terms such as nutty, crisp, light, and dry. "Good sake does a good job of selling itself," says Chris Pearce, president of Honolulu's World Sake Imports LLC.
Well, sort of. Last year, exports to the U.S. hit nearly 3 million liters, up from 1.8 million in 2000, according to Japan's Finance Ministry, and this year looks strong, too. But those levels are still a drop in the cask: less than 1% of Japan's annual sake production and about a third of what Japanese brewers produce in the U.S. Even so, there are signs that premium brands are making inroads. While sake exports to the U.S. were a modest $22 million last year, that was nearly double their level in 2002. And the average price per bottle has risen to around $13, up from about half that a decade ago.
Sake is riding a wave of Japan mania. In San Francisco and New York, wasabi and miso have gone mainstream, and sake is even featured on the menu at some French and Italian restaurants. "Sake is chic," says Kevin Hyland, a bartender at Haru, a New York Asian fusion restaurant that serves "saketinis" as well as high-end bottles that can go for as much as $130 a pop.
So Miyasaka keeps pushing his brew overseas. Although exports represent just 4% of his $15.5 million in annual revenues today, he predicts they could one day be a fifth of sales. To boost his profile at home and abroad, he is studying the marketing techniques of wine producers: devising new bottle shapes, hiring renowned calligraphers to design labels, and giving sake seminars to waiters. And Miyasaka has taken a page from wineries in France and California: At the front of his old, low-slung wooden warehouse, he has set up a gift shop offering aprons, T-shirts, and -- of course -- bottles of sake.
By Kenji Hall, with Hiroko Tashiro in Tokyo