The US Sake Scenario – Getting Huge
The market is hot! Sake sales in the US have gone up dramatically in the past few years, and many brewers and exporters have taken note. In 2003, there were roughly 400 imported sakes that were registered in the US. (All sakes and other boozes and any food stuffs that come into the US must get cleared and labeled with the appropriate wording -- e.g., "pregnant women should not drink, etc." -- by the certifying governmental agency before being sold to the public.) In 2004 and 2005 this number increased by about 50. But what is in the pipeline will blow you away.
Typically it takes about 5 months for a sake to get "legalized". And I am not joking when I tell you that there are about 160 new names waiting to come to the US market in the next 12 months. I know each and every bottle that comes into the states now, and I am amazed at the number that will soon be here. It is daunting. And I fear for a small backlash of over stimulating the market. But let us go back before we take this macro view of sake consumption in the US and abroad.
If you are a regular reader to this newsletter you will recall that it was the food companies who first started importing sake into the US. They carried sake as a side-note to their more profitable food sales. This paved the way for the sake-only importers, who focused on bringing in sake as their core business. And lastly the wine and spirits importers who wanted to expand their portfolios represented the last vehicle for sake to touch our shores.
In the past 10 years many labels came and went. A brewer would notice that their sakes weren't selling well and would not want to continue exporting thus the line was dropped. Or in another case breweries would go bankrupt and their sakes would cease to exist. We currently have three different sakes whose breweries have gone belly-up. When we are done selling these sakes they are done forever, unless of course the brewery gets saved and keeps producing under that name. During this time the number of sakes available fluctuated slightly as some would get dropped and importers would introduce some new sakes. This current explosion was never felt in the past.
Today I personally know of six new importing efforts under way. And all six are sake only endeavors. For example one company is made up of the "unrepresented" breweries in Niigata who would like to see their products in the "hot" US market. All in all, some of the most amazing sakes will soon be available right here in your back yard. When I hear the names of some of the breweries my jaw hits the floor! Really! We will soon be importing sakes of incredible stature and note. Some of the most sought after sakes in Japan will soon be on our shelves. Why?
Each of my established sake importers have expressed that "business is good." So good in fact that the breweries are really pushing their sakes overseas to meet the demand of the "hot market." As you all know the sake industry in Japan is really hurting in a big way. Sales for regular (non-premium) sake are sinking drastically. And premium sake sales are sideways at best. Thus the "hot" US market makes these guys feel good, because they see that there is a whole new group of people enjoying their sake. And they love that, because they love making sake. (There is also an unimaginable stress involved when you are the 13th or 18th generation owner of a brewery who may consider closing your doors for business after hundreds of years)
The bottom line is that all of these importers are chasing the market demand. But at what cost? There are 4,000 wine labels to choose from in the US. That is overwhelming. And soon we will have close to 600 sakes to choose from. There will be consequences for certain. Will the "hot" market stay hot? I have said all along that sake is not a fad, and it will be here for the long haul, but will such rapid expansion have a negative impact? Who knows?
I do know that both the consumers and the importers should think in terms of longevity. We should not go crazy by bombarding a semi- successful market, and likewise we should come to grips with what is already available before wanting new sakes. In this light I will wholeheartedly honor the new arrivals – as any sake is a good thing – but I will also encourage my customers to explore what has already past the test of time – the sakes that have been here before the "hot" market arrived.
There is a sake for everybody. More importantly there is a style of sake for everybody and therein lies the fun. If you have a comfort zone already established I congratulate you, but I also say, "get out!" Get out of that comfort zone of one or two sakes, and try something completely different. Even if you think that you don't like "sweeter" types of sake, try one. If you only like unfiltered sake then take a chance on some filtered sakes. Explore the jungle now while it is still manageable, because soon it will be overgrown!