Sake Facts – The “Story”
I love sake stories. I really do. Call me cheesy, call me corny, and call me yeasty, I don’t care. I just like stories about sake – how they are made, who made them, why they were made, unique techniques, unusual aspects of sake family dynamics whatever! I love sake stories, and this is a good thing because there are a ton of them.
In a word the sake industry uses “the story” for its products more than most. I should know. I have been telling and selling these stories for well over a decade, and I personally feel that it has been the number one “tool” to my success as a sake retail store owner. Sake is different! Period. It is so alien to so many mainstream customers of wine and spirits etc. So much so that in most cases what people have been historically taught about sake was wrong and this has led to many misconceptions about this superb ancient beverage.
So how does the story work? Good question. If you were to ask me about a sake and I said, “This is a dry unpasteurized ‘nama’ Junmai Ginjo that goes very well with salty savory grilled meats,” then you’d have a general sense of that brew. But, and here comes “the story,” if I said, “Ahhh! this baby is made by a great sake brewery that has taken fermentation to the next level as they specialize in “hana” (flower) “kobo” (yeasts) to ferment their amazing sakes. In fact the sake you are looking at is made with a sunflower yeast! They use many different flower yeasts from marigold, begonia, Rhododendron to guess what? Strawberry yeast! Cool right? And then the story hook is set. Hell yes, you’d like to try a dry Junmai Ginjo sake that is made with yeast from a sunflower.
There is no question that sake is a hand sold libation. I have been saying for years that of all the boozes out there, sake by far requires the most personal introduction and transfer of knowledge to the consumer before a sale is made. That’s the way it is and that is the way it will be until sake is as mainstream as your Napa Chardonnay. Trust me when I tell you what a pleasure it is when customers come into the store and go directly to a bottle or two of sake and bring them up to the counter no questions asked. Of course we love talking sake, but when we don’t have to that means sake is doing its job in a new sense.
As such, the “story” continues to be one of our top selling weapons as it puts a feeling to a sake as well as the general knowledge. It’s so damn fun drinking a story! This sake is made by a female toji (master brewer), this sake was made using classical music during the fermentation period, this sake was made using an ancient rice varietal that was lost to mankind, but was revived when a few grains were discovered in an envelope, this sake is stored in ice igloos, this sake was made using a drip filtration technique that is very labor intensive, this sake was made by a brewery that has 5 employees who only use instruments that are over 100 years-old, this sake was made by the first white brewer in Japan, this sake was made after milling the rice to 8% removing 92% of each grain, this sake was put in a bottle that was sourced in Italy, this sake was made by a new generation of young brewers who have formed a group to promote their sakes, this sake was made using the oldest brewing technique, this sake was made in total secret and no information has purposely been given, this sake was made by foot (boots actually) where the brewer stamped the mash with her feet, and this sake was made by a dog! (Just kidding, I don’t know if a dog has brewed sake yet, but it’s a good story.)
Pretty fascinating, but I must say that we are at a major tipping point in the history of sake. Where once the story was very much needed for the sale of that sake, now importers are focusing perhaps too much on the story! Some breweries are almost taking the story too far and are forgetting the most important factor of just making good sake. Brewers and importers today are competing not with the product so much as they are competing with their stories. There is so much sake out there that they need a leg up! They need that story to create a buzz, which in turn sells their sake. So now we are getting all story!
Recently I was given a bottle of sake to taste and review. One look at the bottle and it screamed, “Story.” The bottle was literally covered in a manga wrapper. And guess what? The sake was called Manga. Story meet sake, sake meet THE STORY! Are all cases as obvious as this, not really. But when I listen to wine distributors speak about their less familiar sake offerings I often find that they rely on the story of the sake more than the actual taste of the sake. Remember when I said that I love to drink the stories, because you actually get a certain feeling of drinking the story? Now it seems that I am being forced to drink the story and not the sake. The brew can be average or even “not good,” so the story must be strong to keep interest. Hmmmmm? That sounds a little weird.
The bottom line is that the sake story has been a major component of the recent history of sake in the west. It has helped retailers and restaurant servers to communicate sake in a way that makes this foreign beverage seem a little closer. And as I said before it has been one of most important tools to get people into a bottle of sake, but the story is now evolving into a marketing plan that may just push the story more than the product. Sake does not need that! But maybe, just maybe this is the new story.