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Sake Moment - Dinner with The Head of Hakkaisan

sake moment july 2007If you recall from Newsletters past I had nice dinner with the international brand manager for Niigata Prefecture's Hakkaisan brewery Ms. Kumiko Kurasawa. I hit Kumiko with a three-page list of interview questions, which she answered so very well! We must have done something right as her boss - Mr. Jiro Nagumo - the owner of Hakkaisan asked to have dinner with me late last month. Who was I to say no?

Of course I had a ton of questions for the man who leads the best "branded" kura in Japan, but restraint got the better of me and I held back on the tidal wave of "thought provoking and stimulating questioning." (My quote!)

Being the rock star that sake brewers aren't - Mr. Nagumo did travel with a posse. But unlike bodyguards and drivers he brought with him to the US three guests who sell his sake in Japan. Two gentlemen were just like me - purveyors of sake - and the other fellow owned several restaurants all in Niigata. I was impressed with this bonding gesture and I suppose a slight reward for peddling lots of Hakkaisan sake. Relationship building is their strength for protecting the Hakkaisan brand.

The meal was progressing smoothly, but of course not smoothly enough for me, so I fired off some questions about his market demographics and how he can continue to fill the vacuum created by his dominant drinker profile of basically 40 year-old plus male drinkers who will soon be "retiring." This line of questioning and subsequent follow-ups drove home the fact that I was indeed a sake "weirdo." He was enthralled with my opinions and suggestions. I continually pounded him with the fact that he has a great responsibility to keep using his massive brand recognition for the betterment of sake on all levels. And that is when he hit me with this nugget!

After alluding to the fact that I love his Honjozo sake, he went on a little tangent on how good the "lower class" sakes are becoming in Japan. He stated that cost is one of the main inhibitors for young drinkers and that they get more for less in other libations. And when they decide to spend the same amount on sake, usually that level of sake is putrid, and therein lies the rub - the less you spend the less you get! Until now. As Jiro-san stated the entire level of lower class sakes are drinking so well now - trying to court the younger drinkers - that it has raised the entire quality bar of sake across the spectrum of categories. He is quite proud of this elevated quality standard and hopes that the perception of so-called "lower class" sakes will soon fall into favor. I asked the obvious question - "Well if your lower-class more affordable sakes are drinking so well, won't this cut into the sales of your premium brands - won't drinkers just stay at the lower levels?" He shook his head no and said that there is always a market for premium brews.

Now dinner was flying and I was having a blast, when out of the blue Nagumo-san leaned over and said "I think my Junmai Ginjo sake tastes so much better in America than in Japan." I asked him why did he think that and he said he did not know. And boldly I asked him "Would you like me to tell you why?" His chopsticks damn near fell out of his hands. "Yes of course," he said with a look of disbelief. (FULL STOP) As many of you good readers know I am and have always been fascinated with what transportation - read vibration - does to sake. I have conducted shake tests. I have brought traveled bottles of sake back to breweries to see how the movement over oceans and roads has a mellowing effect on sake - almost like a third pasteurization in feel. I have jogged with bottles of sake. Point being I was well armed to explain to my host why his favorite product drinks better on this continent than in his own backyard. He was flabbergasted! And I promised to bring him one of his brews when I next visit his kura!

All in all it was a sake moment that I shall remember for a very long time!

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