June 2008

Sake Branding - Momokawa Goes Murai!

Posted by admin in 2008, June, Newsletter

sake branding june 2008Last month I received an email from my pal Dewey Weddington -Marketing Director -of Sake One in Oregon. You will recall Dewey was my guinea pig in New Orleans when I took several sakes - with great success - into the heart of Cajun cuisine country. (See Newsletter Aug. 2007). The point of his email was to inform me about the current "organic" status of his brewery. As I have mentioned in past issues the US does not recognize the "organic" status of sake in Japan. Apparently their standards are below or dare I say inferior to our standards and as such sakes that are "organic" in Japan cannot be called "organic" in the US. Splitting hairs - I dunno! But I do know that Dewey was pretty stoked with their efforts:

We just got our certification for Organic production. First certified organic saké will release in June. I know, I know there are "organic" sake out of Japan but they are not legally organic in the U.S. and are under different standards. U.S. Standards are more rigid and defined. With our certification our organic bottles will carry the USDA seal.

Now this organic issue is interesting but it is not the point of this piece. The point is rather my respect for the parent brewing company that went into partnership with Sake One - Momokawa brewery in Aomori Prefecture. When I replied to Dewey I asked him how the "branding exercise" is doing? Not organic branding, but rather the entire line of imported sakes, which are new in name only!

The story is an interesting one. See if you can detect in advance the problem that Sake One and Momokawa encountered. Essentially, the Murai family (owners of Momokawa in Japan) went into partnership with an American concern to first export then make sake in America. After several years of just exporting brews they sent over brewers and expertise to capitalize on local resources to make "the finest sake in the US." You may have seen their efforts in those cool cobalt blue bottles called Momokawa "Pearl" "Ruby" etc. As they were producing these sakes with much success they also kept importing sake from Aomori called Momokawa as well. The Dai Ginjo is a multiple Gold medal winning sake, much celebrated in Japan. See the brand conflict yet?

Well where Gekkeikan continues to import sake from Kyoto whilst making brew in Folsom, CA, and where Yaegaki continues to import sake from Hyogo and all the while brews in Los Angeles, and where Ozeki imports from Hyogo and also brews in LA, and where Takara Shuzo (aka Sho Chiku Bai) imports from Kyoto while still making sake in Berkeley, CA the Momokawa brand went through a massive redesign to eliminate the confusion of the "here vs. there?" question.

I was so impressed with their "Re-brand" that I asked Dewey to set it up from their brewery's perspective. So herewith is one of the success stories in the branding of sake "overseas." Momokawa to Murai Family:

Murai FamilyNearly sixteen years ago our company (SakéOne) began as a simple importer of Momokawa Brewing Japan (Aomori Prefecture) saké. About ten items were brought to the U.S. and quickly gained a strong following. Over the years the Momokawa brand evolved and gained national recognition but not as an import saké, as one brewed and bottled in Oregon. In 1997, as part of a joint venture between SakéOne and Momokawa Brewing Japan, the first U.S. Kura designed exclusively for Junmai Ginjo saké brewing began bottling under the Momokawa name. The intention of using the name on the Oregon products was good, to honor the brewery that helped us get started. Yet after a few years confusion reigned. The Oregon brand grew into its own with national distribution and strong awareness. A joyous yet perplexing situation.Working closely with Momokawa Brewing Japan we dug in for months to define the best solution to our challenges. After much discussion, research and creative interpretation we realized that the obvious answer was staring us in the face. It had been watching us for years. The iconic Nebuta Warrior found only on the Nebuta Honjozo bottle.

The Nebuta Honjozo had become, after all the years of importing, the most remembered, the most recognized. It carried a unique image - the Nebuta Warrior, one that represents a historical battle when giant paper and bamboo warriors were lit up at night to frighten the enemy. An image that today is associated with the internationally acclaimed Nebuta Fire Festival in Aomori Prefecture. And today, fortunately so, only Momokawa Brewing Japan is allowed to use the Nebuta image for saké. Perfect! We agreed on using this commanding image. Now, what about the name?

Once again, the answer was staring at us. Looking us right in the eyes. Talking. Engaged in the process. This was Tohru Murai and Kyota Murai. Fifth and sixth generation Murai to operate the brewery. Murai, a family name with generations of saké passion, rooted deep in Aomori and saké innovation. A family whose dreams of sharing saké with the world helped bring SakéOne to life.

An opportunity to celebrate the Murai Family, its saké heritage, the people behind the brewery and their pure passion for the wonderful elixir that brings us together was and is ideal. It provides the brand with a unifying name and tied to the Nebuta Warrior image it is eye- catching, easy to pronounce and remains top-of-mind. And with the new label comes more information including SMV, rice, milling and other notes all in English making easier for American's to read and learn more about saké.

Currently we carry three Murai Family products - the Tokubetsu Honjozo, the Nigori and the Nigori Genshu. We used to carry the superb Dai Ginjo (multiple gold medal winner) but it didn't move well in the store, and as such we let it slip through the cracks. Yes when you carry over 200 sakes you need champions for each brew. If there is momentum with this re-brand we can always look at adding the Dai Ginjo back to the line up. I have always had a fondness for this brewery and these folks! Herewith are my three reviews for these brews in stock:

Murai Family "Tokubetsu Honjozo"
From Aomori Prefecture.
Tokubetsu Honjozo.
SMV: +2 Acidity: 1.4
"Tokubetsu" means special and in this case the sake is made from rice milled to 60%. "Honjozo" means that there is a little brewers alcohol added to bring out texture and aroma qualities and does not fortify this sake. In fact with a nose filled with white grape, blueberry, and mineral water elements this brew drinks incredibly easy and user-friendly. Soft lychee and grape tones pair with a hint of berry and melon flavors in a super-soft like-water flow. Thin and slick this sake is pure easy drinking! Look for more fruit flavors when chilled and more grains at room temperature.WORD: Balanced
WINE: Soft reds/Creamy whites
BEER: Creamy ales
FOODS: Grilled and savory fare, sashimi, crustacean, tofu.
$12/300ml & $27/720ml
Murai Family "Nigori"
From Aomori Prefecture.
SMV: -18 Acidity: 1.4
This is the only imported 1.8L bottle of Nigori sake available in the US, and the Murai Family does this solely for True Sake. With a gentle creamy nose filled with honey, melon, whipping cream and vanilla tones, this unfiltered sake is smoothness personified. Round and soft there are buckets of flavors that work in total unity - from lychee and honey dancing with white grapes to cream and coconut singing with Cool-Whip! This is 60 fluid ounces of milky love!
WORD: Velvety
WINE: Fruity Reds/Sweet Whites
BEER: Creamy ales
FOODS: Spicy fare, grilled fare, desserts.
Murai Family "Nigori Genshu"
From Aomori Prefecture.
Nigori Genshu.
SMV: -22 Acidity: 2
This unfiltered or "Nigori" sake has a plump nose filled with sweet cream, grape, honey and yogurt elements. At 19.9% alcohol one would expect a massive punch of a sake, but this creamy and fruity brew is smooth a round for such a robust dance partner. Look for hints of berry, grape, and vanilla tones that are carried on a velvety and expansive fluid. Not overtly sweet and a tremendous finish for a 20% milky madman! Think milky and silky.
WORD: Smooth
WINE: Fruity reds/Chewy whites
BEER: Hefeweizen
FOODS: Big flavored and spicy dishes, creamy and cheesy pasta, desserts.
$10/300ml & $23/720ml

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