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Sake Retail - Chikurin Highlights a "Sake Selling Point?"

sake retail sept 2007What is a "selling point" in the world of sake? The prefecture where the sake is made? The rice varietal used in production? The Toji who made the sake? How they store the sake - snow igloos etc? This question pounced on my brain several months back when Niichiro Marumoto from Marumoto Sake Brewing Co. makers of Chikurin/Hou Hou Shu made his second pilgrimage to True Sake.

Brewers love coming to True Sake because they get to see the "frontlines" of sake sales in the West - as in "exporting." They pretty much ask the same questions - which sake is the top seller, do the customers ask for sakes by name or category, how many bottles does the average shopper buy per visit, who is the average customer, how popular are 300ml bottles and how are sales? We greatly enjoy these questions and proudly try to give them as much information as possible.

Niichiro's second visit to the store was pretty much like his first and I answered each and every question that he tossed my way. But at one point we had the "lost in translation" moment that could not be answered by me or Miwa and we let the topic float away. I could tell Marumoto-san was frustrated and he wanted to know the answer or at the very least express his point more clearly, but it was not meant to be. When he said goodbye I knew immediately that we would be talking about this point/issue some time in the near future.

Lo and behold I received a "clarifying" fax from Japan a week later. The only problem was that it wasn't that "clarifying." So what in the hell were we talking about that became such a failure to communicate? It had to do with ownership of rice. At Chikurin they own their rice supply. They grow their own brewing rice. And for that he felt as if this made a tastier sake. And therein rests our rift in communicating. He couldn't express why this made a better brew. (I definitely understand the line of thinking - don't get me wrong)

I would argue that only a small percentage of brewers own their own rice fields/supplies. The majority of "jizake" or small production kuras use local rice grown by local farmers who are either part of a co-operative or are small independent farmers. Or they do a blend of part ownership and part local purchasing. They also purchase sake brewing rice from non-local rice groups that deal in higher end rice and usually are from different prefectures.

When we were speaking about brewery ownership he was indeed very proud. He saw this as unique and quite a differentiator when speaking about competitors. I asked him about the bond that a brewery forms with a local community when they purchase rice from the locals? I have seen many a kura that are quite proud of this brewery/independent farmer relationship - so much so that they place the name of the farmer on the polishing machines when his rice is being milled. Likewise the local rice co-operative that sells rice to several local breweries also has that unique "local" bond that speaks to the "community" value of sake.

And of course one would be remise to forget the age-old bond of the local rice farmer making up the ranks of the "kurabito" (sake makers), who would march to the brewery in the fall with flags in hand to start the sake making season. The tradition, the pageantry, the local lore! And this brings us back to the void in our conversation. Does a brewery make a better rice than a local independent rice farmer? Do they control the product better? (Organic techniques etc?) Or does rice that is grown beside a brewery by others have the same quality and flavor components? In general I would say no! I'd say that farmers make rice and brewers make sake - each the best at their own game. (I of course could be swayed in specific instances, but I am generalizing here.)

So it was there at True Sake that I thought about a sake selling point, while speaking with Niichiro who was extolling the virtues of growing his own rice. Yes, the terroir is present. Yes the quality is present. Yes, the "from shoot to bottle" ideal was in effect, but did that translate into a "must have" selling point that would sway a customer out of another bottle of sake into one of his brews?

I tried to speak about what I will call the "Wine Assumption" - that each vineyard has its own grapes! When you see a wine label you can be pretty certain in most cases that the vineyard grew and maintained their own grape production. I mean it is that ideal right? A press right in the middle of their endless rows of grapes! And I think as a customer if you were told that the vineyard bought its grapes from somewhere else that this might be a negative in a manner of speaking. It happens - sure. But on the whole again I will stress that a vineyard is or is thought of for its grapes. Should the same be true with sake? Would you buy more Chikurin or Hou Hou Shu knowing that they grow their own rice?

Most sake brewers will identify where their rice comes from on the bottle of specific sake. "100% local rice" or "Premium Yamadanishiki from Hyogo Prefecture" for example. Would you be more curious to try a sake that had a sticker (in English preferably) that read "Made With Brewery-Owned Rice"? If so then this is a sake selling point! Perhaps we should do a test and add our own little sticker or signage to Chikurin to see if people do indeed purchase for this fact! Maybe we will!

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