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food / travel

Sake Gets Sassy, Aims For Global Millennials Market

While Japan's overall alcohol consumption is in decline due to an aging population and low birthrate, Sake is showing a revival at home and abroad. There's even a new variety with Champagne-like bubbles.

Always looking cool (or hot)
Always looking cool (or hot)
Wakako Takeuchi

TOKYO — Brewers of Japanese sake have recently been expanding their product ranges to attract a wider customer base. Types of sake currently being produced include sparkling versions and ones that complement Western food. Most of these new kinds of sake are being marketed mainly toward women, younger people and overseas consumers as fancy and fresh alcoholic drinks.

Japan's consumption of domestic alcoholic beverages is in decline due to an aging population and low birthrate. However, sake consumption, which peaked in 1975 and then experienced a continuous decline, has recently showed signs of a revival, with about 600,000 kiloliters per year consumed since 2011.

A spokesperson at a major brewery said that a key factor in the upturn is a renewed interest in sake following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. "People are starting to appreciate sake again as a result of the recovery from the disaster."

Many breweries of sake (known in Japan as nihonshu) are seeing the upturn in consumption as a good opportunity to create new demand by developing products for female and younger customers. They are keen to change the widely held view that sake is an alcoholic beverage only for middle-aged and elderly men.

Additionally, sake exports are on the increase as a result of the growing popularity overseas of washoku Japanese cuisine. Sake exports were valued at 11.5 billion yen ($96 million) in 2014 — a 60% rise on 2009. In response to this, sake that can be enjoyed in a wine-like fashion is being sold both domestically and overseas.

Myokoshuzo Co., a brewery based in Joetsu has produced a new sake series called Montmeru, which is designed to complement more specific foods. The first sake in the series, Khaviyar, was released in autumn last year for 1,500 yen ($12.50) excluding tax. Its high alcoholic content of 19.8% means it goes well with fish roe, such as caviar. Another in the series, Joie de Poulet, was released in June this year for 1,800 yen ($15) excluding tax. Its key characteristics include a spicy aroma and tartness that complements chicken, especially when roasted.

One of the reasons Myokoshuzo began developing its Montmeru series is because foreigners who are accustomed to drinking wine are often told that sake generally goes well with Japanese dishes, meaning they have difficulty selecting brands.

Morita Co., a brewery based in the central city of Nagoya, launched its Morita Junmai AR4 sake aimed at younger people in July. It is priced at 1,080 yen ($9) and is made with yeast from cherry blossom trees on the grounds of Nagoya University. The sake, which has a sweet-and-sour flavor reminiscent of sweet white wine, goes well with cream-sauce pasta and chocolate, while it can be enjoyed not only chilled but served on the rocks with soda.

Junmai AR4 came to fruition when a Morita employee attended a reunion event at the university. One of his former professors commented that, "Even students who study brewing don't drink sake. Can't you produce one that young people can enjoy?"

The brewer then began a project, working jointly with the university and the Aichi Center for Industry and Science Technology, to separate the yeast from local cherry blossoms to be used in the production of sake.

Sake with an effervescence similar to sparkling wine is widely available in stores these days. Ichinokura Co., which is based in Osaki set a precedent when it began selling its Ichinokura Sparkling Sake Suzune for 772 yen ($6.50) in 1998.

Ichinokura decided to develop the drink after wondering if it was possible to produce a champagne-like sake. The products feature delicate bubbles, which are the result of a fermentation process that occurs after the sake is bottled, while alcoholic content is kept as low as 5% so that women can easily drink it. The brewery has since expanded the Suzune series to include five types.

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