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American Sake Has Nothing on Japan's Sake Culture

To walk into Brooklyn Kura, a newly opened sake brewery and tap room in Industry City, Brooklyn, you wouldn’t be remiss to think you were walking into a new craft beer brewery. But in the light-filled, tap-lined, wood and concrete minimalistic space, curious New Yorkers sit alongside Japanese tourists and expats, sipping glasses of sake and exploring the new frontier of drinking.

Sake has been in the Japanese drinking lexicon since the third century B.C., but it’s only been in the last couple of decades that the rice-based beverage has started to gain prominence in the United States While exports are on the rise—category volume has grown 16 percent in the U.S. from 2011-2016—sake consumption in Japan has dropped to about 6 percent, according to sake educator and writer John Gauntner. Perceptions about sake are hugely divergent between the two cultures, creating an interesting dichotomy for the historic beverage.

Until about 1925, when the rice polishing mill was created, which is used to craft premium sake, most of the sake produced in Japan was low quality table sake.  Dubbed “your grandfather’s drink” in Japanese culture, the omnipresent beverage, often used in ceremonies has been replaced by beer and cocktails amongst the younger generation. Americans, however, are taking an interest in the premium styles and exploring options. Much of this can be attributed to the overall rising interest in Japanese culture in general. “There’s no country that’s more hipster than Japan,” says Monica Samuels, National Sake Sales Manager for Vine Connections.  “Everything is so painstakingly slow and artisan and forage and craft, I just think that’s going to be appealing for a while to come. Japan is such a leader in technology, but you will see this 85-year-old guy making soba, in the same soba shop for 50 years, and you wonder why doesn’t he retire or find a way to make his soba more efficiently. It’s such a paradox in Japan, that as important as being a leader in technology is, maintaining that craftsmanship and that artistry is more important, that intangible, cultural thing.” Interestingly, America’s interest in the beverage is having a rebound effect in Japan. As premium sakes are being appreciated outside of Japan, people are rediscovering what they have in their own backyard.  While sake sales are dropping, much of that is happening in the table sake segment, which accounts for 70 percent of the market, and the premium segment is seeing growth.

When we talk about premium sake, the conversation mostly revolves around junmai, which is considered “pure” sake. However, honjozo, a style that contains a bit of added alcohol, falls into this sector, although it’s often seen as the black sheep of premium sake. “They’re delicious but have the whiff of something inferior because of the table sake market that’s dragging the image of alcohol-added down,” says Timothy Sullivan, sake educator and founder of urbansake.com.  Both in Japan and the U.S., honjozo gets a bad rap, but “the longest running, government-sponsored, alcohol tasting competition is in Japan, the Annual New Sake Competition, where the breweries of Japan submit to the government a showcase sake that represents their skill,” he says. “It’s not something that’s sold to the general public but it’s a sake they make especially for this competition, and the vast majority of the sakes submitted are Aruten-Shu (alcohol-added style) because you can boost up the aroma, you can create very extended, rounded mouthfeel and luscious texture using the alcohol added technique. So these are the sakes that brewers are making to present their highest level of skill to the government.”

Honjozos lend themselves to warming, though; the heat brings out complexity and enhances the umami and aromatic notes.  Heated sake, called okan, is a tradition in Japan, and Sullivan says, "I worked at Hakkaisan [brewery] for one year. I was surprised that every time I went out with my friends who were brewers themselves, they would invariably order warm sake, and this is the sake they made. That was just their cultural and personal preference.” However, in the U.S. warm sake carries the stigma of being cheap swill because that is often people’s first experience and reference point.  “Ten years ago when we first opened O-Ya, people asked for it because that’s what they knew,” says Nancy Cushman, founder/owner of Cushman Concepts and Advanced Sake Professional. Her challenge for many years was to get people to appreciate premium sakes such as the delicate junmai daiginjos, which are best served chilled. She feels now people are more educated about what premium sake is, and appreciating a range of serving temperatures could be the next step.

Cushman presents diners with an in-depth sake list with anywhere from 30-50 selections, which is fairly traditional for any U.S. beverage menu. But in Japan, it’s not unusual to only see one or two vague listings for sake as people tend to order “off-menu,” often relying on brands they know. “It’s safe,” says Gaunter. “You’ll look like you know what you’re drinking and you will enjoy it.” Samuels agrees and says for brewers, although there’s more handholding for U.S. customers and explaining what sake is, western customers are more open to experimenting, which makes the market rewarding and creates more opportunities for brands.

Back at Brooklyn Kura, co-owner Brian Polen is relying on this spirit of experimentation as a driver for his business. “We’re trying to present sake in a familiar way that highlights similarities between things American consumers already enjoy,” he says. “People ask me every day, how should I drink this? Well, we’re serving this in a wine glass for a reason. Move it around, smell it, look at the color, taste it, try and articulate what you’re tasting. All things that you would do picking up a glass of craft beer or a glass of fine wine.” By highlighting sake’s similarities to other beverages, he finds it makes it easier to highlight differences, and eliminates some of the cultural hurdles. He hopes to lower the barrier of entry for sake drinkers, close the cultural gap, and ultimately make sake as common as a pint in you local bar.

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