Sake Revolution–Part II

By Makiko Segawa (Tokyo). In the second part of Makiko’s series on Tokyo’s sake supply, it becomes obvious that the wildly popular drink is facing obstacles from every direction–the biology of its ingredients, the traditions of sake artistry and government regulations like protectionism of Japan’s rice industry. All that does seems consistent is rocketing global demand for what many are beginning to call “Phantom Sake.”

Business at Tokyo’s Orihara-Shoten–a shop that offers sake tasting–is booming.

The shop’s owner, Kozo Yokota, credits much of his success to their practice of sampling sake, instead of in department stores where customers must buy sake by the bottle. “Compared to our opening year, the profit and volume of customers almost doubled today,” he remarked with a big smile.

Kozo Yokota at his succesful shop Orihara Shoten in Tokyo

Kozo Yokota at his succesful shop Orihara Shoten in Tokyo


Sake customers enjoying Kozo's shop.

Sake customers enjoying Kozo’s shop.

The store has become so successful that locations are opening in other countries, such as Singapore.

But there is one thing that will cloud Kozo’s confidence: an “Out of Stock” sign.

It’s a sign Kozo sees more often than he would like. For some varieties of sake, he sometimes has to wait up to six months for new stocks to come in.

Dassai, one of the most popular brands of sake, is often called “Phantom Sake” because of its constant shortages.

Empty shelves where Dassai sake would normally be found.

Empty shelves where Dassai sake would normally be found.

And it’s not just in Kozo’s shop that sake shortages are an issue. Consumers will also encounter “sold out” signs in supermarkets and bars.

Kozo has a theory about the root cause of the scarcity: “…we are in shortage of sakamai,” the special breed of  rice used in sake production. “If only we had more sakamai,” he says.

The Problem with Sakamai

In Japan, there are about 1,500 sake breweries. Those companies that use mechanized brewing systems make up less than 1 % of that share. The majority of breweries are small-sized companies. According to a survey by The Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, in 2012 there were only 5 sake breweries that capitalized at over 3 million U.S dollars with more than 300 workers. Meanwhile, 1,434 companies were middle or small-sized breweries, which capitalized at less than 3 million U.S dollar with less than 300 workers.

Some breweries produce only 300-400 bottles a year. For hundreds of years, most of these breweries have relied exclusively on traditional sake artisans called Kurabitos and overseers called Tojis.

Before even considering a rice shortage, the tendency for most sake breweries to be small-scale and use only traditional brewing methods–which are not only slower, but are also dependent on the seasons–makes the production of sake limited to begin with.

But there is a shortage of domestic rice, which only compounds the already limited stock of sake.

For just one sake company, Dassai, to produce 5,000 1 liter bottles of sake, 200,000 staw rice bags of yamadanishiki (the finest kind of sakamai) is needed a year. However, the total production of yamadanishiki across all of Japan today is only about 300,000 staw rice bags.

Jun Sato, the head of Regional Division, Japan Economic Institution describes rice as a bottle neck for sake production.  Jun explains that the production of sakamai requires more complicated growing techniques, the plant is sensitive to wind and it plants its roots slowly. All of these factors make it difficult to grow, especially in large, consistent quantities.

Because of its nature,  sakamai shares less than 3 % of all rice production in Japan.  For instance, yamadanishiki, the most precious breed of sakamai, is produced by only 4 of Japan’s prefectures out of the 47 prefectures receiving subsidies from their local governments.

“In order to alleviate the shortage, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishery should promote a policy to make each prefecture give incentives to farmers growing sakamai—all prefectures must produce sakamai,” Jun explains.

“Good sakamai, like yamadanishiki, costs a couple of times more than average rice. So, farmers can earn a greater profit with sakamai,” Jun adds.

When Imports aren’t an Option and Machines are Controversial

If domestic sakamai is out of stock, why not import sakamai from overseas? This seemingly simple idea is not currently feasible in Japan. Japanese rice is heavily protected by tariffs: As much as 341 yen is taxed per kilo of imported rice, before distribution and transportation fees are even factored. That’s a 280% tariff, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishery.

While most people involved in sake production–from economists to artisans–agree that cultivating more sakamai is a must, the transition to more mechanized breweries is less certain.

Artisan sake brewing from The Miracle of Feeding Cities on Vimeo.

“Through the introduction of more mechanized breweries, the mass production of sake is quite possible. However, it costs quite a lot of money—for instance, the most popular sake company in Yamaguchi prefecture must have invested 50-100 million U.S dollars to install its mechanized system. What we need is more human capital in rice fields, sake bars and restaurants, not in sake breweries because we can transform these establishments into machine driven factories overtime,” Jun explains.

Nikkei Business Online reported on April 18th that over the course of 30 years, Dassai’s ratio of operating profits is about 13%, higher than any other sake maker. Since 2000, they initiatied sales in overseas markets: the EU. U.S. Middle-East, and other parts of Asia. Today, they are keen to sell Dassai in as many as 20 countries across the world. They are now renovating their brewery in Yamaguchi prefecture to boost production capacity. Yet, no matter how perfect and efficient the new Dassai facility is in Yamaguchi, the short supply of yamadanishiki and other forms of sakamai will continue to loom.

When asked about machine run breweries versus hand crafted, Kozo explained, “The taste of sake would be changed and it would lose its seasonal flavor if they are all made by machines.”

Daisuke Kashiwa, a Toji, at the sake brewery Otokoyama in Kesennuma, Miyagi alongside the Tsunami affected coast line, said, “Each old brewery has its own taste and scent. I do not like the idea of making my brewery into a fully mechanized system. If my brewery became like a factory, the original flavor of the brewery would go away.”

Hiroyuki Yoshikubo, an executive of the 330 year-old brewery Yoshikubo-Shuzo, simply says, “I don’t trust the machines at all,” and that “No matter how advanced the latest models are, if I am asked which sake I want to taste, that made by a young college student with the latest machine or that made by traditional Toji after years of unremitting efforts, I have no doubt about choosing the latter.”

Posted in Tokyo