A New Hope: Rejecting terroir and the wider gentrification of sake.
Updated: Feb 24
In recent years, the sake industry has been experiencing radical change, both internally and externally. Any debate regarding whether this has been for better or worse is likely an exercise in futility. However, few will argue at least that change was both necessary and inevitable in order to stimulate a rapidly declining industry. With Japan's aging population, combined with a tendency by the younger generation to consume less alcohol, a new approach was needed in order to rejuvenate an industry suffering from almost three decades of chronic stagnation. Of upmost importance was eliminating the poor reputation that had been blighting sake domestically, which alienated a younger generation who had simply passed it off as something from a bygone era.
One of the most positive and noticeable of these changes was the development of overseas markets. Indeed, the need to enter into and nurture new demographics outside of Japan forced the hand of many within the industry into thinking outside of the box when coming up with new more innovative promotions and marketing. With an increasingly diverse array of new products, clever branding, and a general improvement in how to approach sales, sake finally regained some of its cool-factor again. This was crucial in order to stake any kind of a claim in what is a highly competitive and ever evolving international drinks market.
Thankfully, the result of this more modern and increasingly inventive approach has seen a surge in the popularity of sake overseas. Exports have been rising exponentially each year, and greater investment is finally being made to help increase awareness of sake outside of Japan. Crucially, the wider industry now actively supports the numerous different individuals and organisations in educating a new generation of overseas professionals to work on the front-line of promotion and distribution. It seems that there is now a general recognition of the huge potential of exports, and an appreciation that different strategies are needed from those historically adopted within the Japanese domestic market.
Unquestionably, the most common approach to date has been to try and align sake with that of the wine world. In an attempt to woo this vast demographic, great lengths have been taken to make sake more suitable to their consumption habits. These include promoting the wine glass as the vessel of choice, a strong tendency towards drinking sake chilled, to labelling that borrow from the often confusing lexicon of the wine industry. This more cosmopolitan way we enjoy sake today has certainly made its integration into western markets easier, and provides a far more practical proposition for wine drinkers overseas. Regardless of whether you prefer to consume sake in a more traditional way, or whether you welcome these changes, this more wine-like approach has certainly helped sake grow overall. On this basis alone, it is difficult to argue with its effectiveness, at least as a short-term strategy.
However, these changes are not merely superficial, and in many ways it could be argued that they simply reflect sake's natural progression into the modern era. After all, much of what is being brewed nowadays has also undergone its own transformation over the decades. More specifically, the emergence of ginjo grades, very often more light and floral in style, has created a need for greater flexibility and variety in regards to drinking vessels. Not always, but very often, the composition of conventional ginjo suits a wine glass more than a traditional ceramic cup, and wares such as these accentuate the wonderful aromas and flavours that brewers can now so skilfully coax out of the rice and modern strains of yeast.
Sake of Rice Wine?
It seems then that the close relationship that sake now has with wine is intertwined with a need to continue developing new demographics outside of Japan, and the emergence of a more modern ginjo style that has proved particularly appealing to wine consumers. However, as more and more is borrowed from this behemoth industry, the line between the two beverages has become increasingly blurred. So much so, that it can be argued that the industry now finds itself in a position whereby the constant comparisons are actually proving to be detrimental to long-term growth.
Although several industry professionals have stated that they don't see a significant issue in being so closely aligned with wine as long as sales are still increasing, by focusing too much on trying to claim a seat at its table, we run the risk of losing sight of what makes sake so appealing in the first place. By neglecting some of sake's truly unique selling points we are thwarting its true potential and relegating it to some kind of sub-category of wine that is made from rice. Indeed, it is telling that an increase in the use of the incorrect term rice-wine seems to runs contrary to the great strides that have been made towards increasing consumer education about sake outside of Japan.
The scale of the problem was evident during a previous episode of the Sake on Air podcast that attempted to tackle the topic of terroir in sake. Already a divisive subject, trying to establish whether or not there is actually even a valid argument for this loosely defined French concept in sake has in the past proven inconclusive at best. At worst, it has revealed an almost belligerent determination from some within the industry to establish more common ground between these two very different beverages. This latest discussion also proved inconclusive, although the panellists did make it clear that they were only introducing the topic, rather than trying to determine whether or not it actually exists.
As the numerous different theories about what could constitute terroir were presented throughout the show, each were quickly dismissed when flaws inevitably emerged.
However, during what had been a notably balanced and thorough debate up until that point came the somewhat surprising statement from one of the panellists that sake had reached a stage whereby it "needed" terroir in order to take the next step in its development overseas. This was at odds with the content of the debate that had proceeded it, and seemed to imply that, although not yet established during the discussion, the need for it was beyond any doubt. It set the tone for the remained of the discussion, and felt definitive in its conlusion that sake was dependent on this aspect of the wine world for any future growth.
Giving the panellist the benefit of the doubt on this occasion, perhaps they were just mistaking regionality for the much more idiosyncratic topic of terroir. Either way, the fact that these two very different discussions were once again so easily entwined is indicative of how much time is being devoted to this subject. I am an avid listener of Sake of Air, and I am sure that the panellist in question had only the best of intentions for sake at heart. However, if what was meant in his statement was as he worded it, then I have to respectfully disagree. Surely sake hasn't reached the point whereby it needs what is essentially just a vague French term applicable to wine in order to attract a wider audience. Doesn't sake have more in its locker before it has to call upon a concept that, in all honesty, probably isn't even that high on the agenda of the average wine consumer? In other industries that have attempted to adopt it, for example the whisky industry, the concept has gained very little traction, with only one or two producers tirelessly persisting with pushing it in their marketing. But most importantly is the question of why so many within the industry seem determined to try to establish its existence?
By raising this question, I am certainly not trying to criticise the fabulous panellists of Sake on Air, nor any of the other professionals who choose to relate sake to wine. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree that there is a need for a back-story of some sorts to help make sake more appealing overseas. However, this certainly doesn't have to be terroir, and it's evident incompatibly with sake only seems to exasperate misunderstandings amongst consumers. Instead, I would like to highlight that this ongoing discourse on terroir is indicative of the influence that the wine world now has on sake, and represents a growing gentrification of sorts of the industry in general.
But before I am accused of being anti-terroir, I would like to clarify that if it does in fact exist in sake, then I am not suggesting it is necessarily a bad thing. The more weapons that sake has in its arsenal the better, and it is of course interesting to learn about the various regions that produce the vital ingredients that go into making it. However, we shouldn't confuse all discussions about regionality with the much more convoluted concept of terroir. Nor should we expend too much time and energy trying to pursue this ideal of a sake that is made entirely of produce within the direct vicinity of the brewery. Surely there comes a point when we can except that, in the vast majority of cases, trying to establish terroir within the current industry is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole...
Sake is still very much in its infancy in many of the new demographics that it has gained overseas, and now is a pivotal moment in its development. Therefore, I believe it is the perfect time to be determining more solid and realistic foundations that will ensure its place in the drinking habits of overseas consumers. As hard as it may be for die-hard fans of sake like myself to acknowledge, there is still a possibility that it could just become a simple novelty to be enjoyed occasionally as an alternate to wine. Therefore, we must ignore these more strenuous elements and instead focus on the more obtainable aspects of what makes sake the magical beverage that it is.
With that said, it is counterproductive to continue to waste even more time going over old ground counter arguing as to why sake and wine actually have very little in common. Instead, it is much more constructive to re-focus on some of the truly unique selling points that sake has at its disposal. For example, when I first became interested in sake, it wasn't because of the similarities it had with wine, rather it was specifically what differentiated it from it that first peaked my interest. Not only do these qualities act as powerful selling tools that could be better used to generate more hype overseas, but they are also things that not even the mighty wine can compete with. If these rare qualities that sake posses can be better communicated to the growing audience of people curious about sake, perhaps it might even one day bring it out of the shadow of the wine goliath and be recognised for its own merits alone. Therefore, the following is a list of areas that I personally feel should be leading the charge in elevating sake towards global superstardom.
Versatility of Occasion
No discussion about the merits of sake is complete without mentioning its incredible versatility of occasion. I am constantly being asked what my favourite type of sake is, and I never really have a definitive answer. That is because there is genuinely something for all occasions, and living in a country like Japan the distinctive changes in the seasons are more often than not the determining factor in how I choose to enjoy it. Sake is sophisticated, but it is certainly not pretentious, and it blends in perfectly with all manner of occasion. Super-chilled exorbitantly priced premium dai-ginjo will certainly do a fine job of amusing a few socialites in expensive bars around the world, but this one niche category is hardly the ideal solution to increasing the sales and popularity of more humble varieties, like junmai or honjozo. Sake has much more to offer than just this very small demographic, and it is this abundance of variety that should be communicated at every possible opportunity.
For example, late winter and early spring in Japan tends to consist of a wonderful barrage of shibore-tate, or freshly pressed sake. This marks the first release of the season for most breweries, and the sake tends to be ever so slightly less refined than what will follow later in the season. Sake such as this often suit a good ochoko, sometimes even slightly warmed to soften the rougher edges slightly. At the very least, these seasonal brews are a taste of things to come, and provide a well priced welcome to the season of new sake that lies ahead.
Then comes late spring and early summer, with the majority of new release sake coming in the form of big, fat, and juicy nama-zake. For me, this is when the wine glass comes into play, with a nice large glass of chilled feisty nama serving as the perfect refreshment to fight off the fatigue of the summer heat. Purists may baulk at this next bit, but recently I have also found that adding ice to high alcohol / undiluted genshu (Tamagawa, Ice Breaker is a personal favourite) makes for a fantastic summer combination.
Roll on Autumn, and the gloriously rich and umami laden hiya-oroshi sake is upon us. These more mellow and slightly matured sake form a truly sensational partnership with the various seasonal foods that accompany, what is for many, the most appealing season in Japan. I personally prefer the slightly larger guinomi for this type of sake, as the main attraction is the umami, not the fragrance. Furthermore, I have come to associate Autumn as the best season to try the idiosyncratic pair of yamahai and kimoto. Very often these two types lend themselves to a bit of ageing, and it always seems that there is a wealth of good examples around at that time of year. This also perfectly coincides with a drop in temperature outside, which lends itself to a switch from chilled sake to perhaps one of its most distinguishable and unique features: The ability to be enjoyed at warmer temperatures.
The ability to warm sake, and the transformation that it undergoes as it starts to cool down in the cup, is arguably one of the most rewarding aspects of this fascinating beverage. Although extra effort is needed, those that take the time to experiment with the subtle shifts in flavour and aroma that occur across the various different temperature ranges will unlock a whole new world of enjoyment. For someone who was born and raised in a part of the world with long bitterly cold winters, it seems that a beverage with this incredible ability makes for the perfect winter companion. Japan of course also has very cold winters, and the feeling you get when you take that first sip of a nicely warmed sake after a long hard day's work is simply sensational.
At the danger of overstating this point, this incredibly rare ability is perhaps the most unique selling point that sake has in its locker, yet it is unfortunately so often overlooked when being promoted overseas. The reason for this perhaps stems from the bad perception many people have towards warm sake after trying cheap imitations that are often served extremely hot to mask their harsh flavours. However, as mentioned before, the industry has made great efforts to improve its educational infrastructure overseas. Indeed, many of the world's leading sake professionals often talk up the merits of kan-zake and the added dimension that it provides over wine. However, perhaps as a result of these bad experiences in the past, combined with the added effort needed to prepare the sake, it seems the battle to change people's opinion is unfortunately being lost.
Therefore, more effort is needed by the wider sake industry to promote the huge potential that kan-zake has in attracting new consumers, and in differentiating itself from wine. Let me start by urging anyone who is sceptical to go out and buy a nice earthy junmai, preferably either a kimoto or yamahai, heat it up as high as tobikiri-kan (about 55 degrees Celsius) and observe the transformation as it cools down in the cup. This cooled sake is known as kanzamashi, and the taste when you find the sweet-spot will change your relationship with sake forever.
Establishing a Back Story
The main argument presented on the aforementioned episode of Sake on Air in favour of terroir was that sake needs a back-story. Presumably what was meant was something that consumers can visualise in their mind's eye that gives a sense of the place from where the sake was made. This ultimately adds value to the product and allows consumers to relate to the quality and effort that has gone into its production. As I mentioned previously, in this respect, I am in complete agreement. However, two things immediately come to mind when I think about what seems like such a relentless effort to establish terroir as that all important back-story: Firstly, you don't need to establish terroir to talk about the quality of the ingredients that go into sake. And secondly, there is arguably a much more potent back story available that is both easy to establish and doesn't come with any ambiguous connotations.
But before I cover that, I would like to first offer another very obvious alternative to terroir that, although not quite as romantic as the idea of everything being brewed from locally sourced rice and water, it still provides the consumer with a nice story of the agricultural regionality of Japan, and the rice producing regions that it comprises of. For example, the brewers rice with the best reputation in Japan is of course the mighty Yamada-Nishiki. Specifically, this is found in Hyogo prefecture, and certain regions within that prefecture contain the most prized varieties of them all. The same goes for Omachi-mai that comes from Okayama, Kame no O from Yamagata, and so on and so on. Brewers will often source these particular cultivars from their home regions because they believe them to be of the highest quality. Although not locally sourced, and therefore not conforming to terroir, it does show that they care enough about their products to go to the extra expense of sourcing the finest raw ingredients.
This is the reality of the sake industry in Japan, and it is far more practical to communicate this than try and contort the face of the industry in order to identify terroir. Regardless, unlike in wine production whereby the quality, or lack of, is largely determined by the raw ingredients, sake brewing is instead much more dependent on the production techniques. Of course quality ingredients will go a long way in helping make good sake, but the underlying factor is a team of brewers who have mastered a tight production process. Which leads me nicely into the one aspect of sake that I think is more important than any in legitimising its quality as a craft beverage, and provides consumers with a truly compelling back-story that will ultimately add to its enjoyment. That aspect is of course the brewing process.
The complex and unique process by which craft sake is made is surely one of the most intriguing of all the alcoholic beverages made today. You don't necessarily need to have a detailed understanding to appreciate the effort that goes into each batch, but the more you learn about it, the more fascinating it becomes. It is also not a slight on the wine industry to say that if you compare the two brewing processes, sake is by some margin the more intricate of the two. Indeed it is more than surprising that modern discourse around sake so often focuses on such things as terroir and domaine, when it has perhaps one of the most complex and compelling brewing processes of any alcoholic beverage in the world. This is what first attracted me to the wonders of sake, and it is what keeps me fixated with it today. It represents possibly the most untapped resource that promoters have at their disposal, and offers the perfect back story in order for sake to take that next step overseas.
Of course not everyone is interested in such things as production processes and the locality of the ingredients and such. Some people just want to enjoy and appreciate a tasty beverage without having to learn anything about it. And that is completely fine. After all, it is the ultimate purpose of sake to be enjoyable. However, for those that do want to delve deeper into this fascinating beverage, surely the brewing process is far more interesting, and ultimately tangible, than the elusive concept of terroir. The areas that I have highlighted are all significant reasons to be optimist about the future potential of sake, not just overseas, but in rejuvenating the rather depleted domestic market in Japan.
Indeed, to try and consolidate all of the points made in the above list, and when you consider all that sake has going for it, it could be argued that what sake needs more than anything is to rediscover its self-confidence. Perhaps even develop a bit of a swagger again. Sake is truly in a category of its own, and can do things that no other beverage can do. It is made by such a unique and intriguing process that this aspect alone is enough of a back story to win over new audiences. If the industry can better focus on these unique selling points, then it can surely free itself of the constant wine comparisons. Only then can it stake a real claim to be recognised for its own merits, and not constantly live in the shadows of another.