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 â€" 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 â€" 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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!