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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Russell

One Cup Sake: More than just a single serving friend

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

From right to left: Funaguchi, One Cup and Tenon Junmai

The now iconic blue and white label that adorns Ozeki's One Cup sake first burst onto the scene back in 1964. The release, of what was at the time a completely revolutionary concept, purposely coincided with two major events in Japanese history - The Tokyo Olympics, and the opening of the high-speed tokkaido shinkansen (Bullet Train) linking Tokyo and Osaka. The latter of these was integral to its initial success, as the single serving cup format was perfectly suited to the afternoon or evening commuter who could easily pick one up to wash down their eki-ben (a boxed lunch sold at major train stations across Japan) as the Bullet Train whisked them at record speed towards their destination. Indeed, at the time of its original release, they were sold exclusively from Tokyo Station. Only later did they become the ever present fixture of convenience stores and supermarkets throughout Japan.

However, the original remit for the One Cup was far more ambitious than just being a mere single serving companion for Japan's business commuters, and was actually intended to bridge the significant gap that had emerged between the sake industry and younger consumers. The now well documented decline in the sales of sake was still looming, yet it was already well on its way to earning a reputation, one that would perennially haunt the industry, as something that only old men drank. The clunky 1.8l isshō-bin was still the main bottle of choice for breweries, and the sake industry badly needed a jolt to bring it back into the more casual drinking habits of Japan's thirsty modern workforce.

Thankfully, One Cup did just that, and sales grew exponentially over the following years, proving without a doubt that the format worked. Despite the numerous competitor products that inevitably followed, Ozeki's initial offering continued to rain supreme within the sector, and, in fact, still remains today Japan's most popular single serving sake by a significant margin. However, although sales remain strong, since that heady period of economic growth following Japan's post war recovery, a seismic shift has occurred in consumer preferences within the domestic drinks market. Once serving as a bridge between the sake industry and the younger generation, One Cup now perhaps epitomises the gap that has again emerged.

Indeed, even amongst the small, but steadily growing, number of next generation sake drinkers, the uber-cool brands of premium sake they consume in trendy specialist bars across the country now seem a world away from the image of an old man casually drinking a One Cup in the local park. Unfortunately for Ozeki, as One Cup has become synonymous with the format, and cheap sake synonymous with one cup sake, it is they who have taken the brunt of the rather poor image that emerged domestically. Even amongst many producers there has up until very recently been a certain reluctance to associate with single serving sake for fear of lowering their brand's image.

However, the crucial word in the previous sentence was recently, and thanks to an increase in the number of small to medium sized producers coming to the sector, over the last few years, demand for sake in smaller sizes has once again been gaining traction, albeit slowly. Furthermore, there has been a noticeable improvement in both the variety and quality of the liquid going into the cups, with some breweries really pulling out the stops to ensure that some very interesting sake is available in the small 180ml format. Yet, the history of the one cup actually has one other previous significant step-change that played a crucial role in the format's evolution, and may have paved the way for this more adventurous cup sake market we enjoy today.

Boom Years and Sake in a Can

The aforementioned seismic shift in consumer preference that occurred specifically relates to the so-called jizake boom of the early 1970's. I have covered this topic in a previous blog, but, to briefly summarise, it was a shift in consumer preference towards more artisanal, locally produced sake, from that of large scale, automated, nationally recognised brands. The connotations attached to both sides, rightly or wrongly, were that of big factory made sake, particularly those from the two powerhouse regions of Nada and Fushimi, against that of small scale sakagura from more rural areas, particularly the northern Tohoku region. Essentially, the definition of quality changed, and consumer preference swung towards brands with stronger connotations of the craft and skills of traditional sake brewing. Crucially, this shift opened the door to a new generation of consumers who were increasingly more perceptive to different styles and profiles. It was, in a sense, the beginning of the sake industry's latest phase of modernisation that would lay much of the foundations for the market we know today.

It is against this backdrop, perhaps fittingly considering how modern a concept it must have seemed at the time, that the one cup format made a significant leap forward in its development with the release of a product that for the first time brought fresh nama-zake to the wider market. Nowadays in Japan, we take nama-zake for granted. But in the past, freshly pressed unpasteurised sake was deemed too fragile and unstable to ship across the country. Therefore, sake such as this was a privilege restricted only to the brewers fortunate enough to be able to taste it straight from the press. However, in 1972 the Kikusui Sake Company in Niigata changed all that with the release of their revolutionary Funaguchi ichiban shibori, or First Pressed nama-zake in a can.

Funaguchi are actually also undiluted genshu, pack quite a punch, and belong in the honjozo, or added alcohol, category. Like One Cup, they come in a small cup shaped container that facilitates the on-the-go informal drinking style that the format is famous for. The main difference, though, is that Funaguchi's cups are made from aluminium. As it was for its Ozeki predecessor, the packaging was revolutionary for the time. More importantly, the aluminium design shields the delicate liquid inside from harmful light rays that could easily spoil the sake. They are also filled to their maximum 200ml capacity in order to reduce exposure to oxygen. Furthermore, with the added benefit of hindsight, Funaguchi, and now One Cup for that matter, have rectified the original design flaw of the One Cup by including a separate plastic lid that can be used to re-seal the can after opening.

Proving to be a worthy successor to Ozeki's One Cup, Funaguchi ensured that the 1970's also marked the beginning of another concurrent boom, that of nama-zake. Japan's love affair with this fresher, rawer style has never really abated, and unpasteurised sake is now a mainstay of the industry's portfolio, commanding a small but significant share of the overall market. Admittedly, if one was being pedantic, it could be argued that a canned sake technically doesn't belong in the same category as the traditional glass one cup. However, the similarities in size and function ensures the canned varieties also take a place within this category. Furthermore, although possibly just the voices of my own echo chamber, it seems that Funaguchi, although not outselling the One Cup, has perhaps surpassed it from the sense of standing the test of time better, transcending the un-cool image of single serving sake that has developed over the decades. One might even go as far as to say, certainly amongst foreign consumers at least, that the now retro looking yellow cans, which I like to call "modern showa", could even be considered cool.

Premium Cup Sake

The steady annual increase in the sales of premium sake over the last few decades is directly reflected in the new, yet modest, wave of sake one cups that have been trickling into the market over the last few years. But what the current market for these more premium products lacks in size more than makes up for in vibrancy. Indeed, part of the appeal in buying one cup sake these days is in discovering the myriad of colourful, intricate, and increasingly inventive designs on either the labels or the cups themselves. It is not an exaggeration to say that some could even be described as pocket sized works of art, with one producer on Japan's southern island of Kyushu releasing a series based on arita-yaki, a traditional style of porcelain.

However, the eye catching, and often quirky, designs should not detract from the great improvements in both quality and variety that has taken place in recent years. The wider sake one cup portfolio now boasts examples that contain such delights as ultra-premium ginjo-shu, blended aged sake, or junmai-shu that was brewed specifically for warming. Older styles of brewing also have some representation, with a few brewers making one cup that contain sake brewed by the traditional yamahai method of making the yeast starter. There is even a brewery in Tokushima that has released a one cup containing the once outlawed doburoku.

Of course, the higher price of these more premium varieties has also ensured that sake one cup are no longer regarded as just simply a cheap segment of the market. Indeed, the price of some that contain the most premium categories, such as dai-ginjo and aged sake, can even start to reach the same price level as one can expect to pay for a cheaper sake in the standard 720ml size. The fact that some consumers are willing to pay such a high price for such a small quantity is surely a positive sign for the future of the industry.

One Cup in an unknown future

The sake industry has in the past often been accused of being too rigid, and slow to adopt to change. However, the one cup format is evidence that it is in fact allot more adaptable and forward thinking than some people are willing to give it credit for. When you consider the entire history of the one cup format, and the various innovations that have occurred over the years, this small segment of the market represents a real microcosm of the developments that have taken place as consumer trends have shifted. Nowadays, the sake industry is frequently compared to the wine industry, with the latter often being held up as benchmark to which the former should aspire. However, I have yet to see anything in the wine world that provides consumers with such an interesting side-note to the overall enjoyment of the beverage.

People have been saying for years that sake needs to make itself more approachable in order to enter into new demographics, particularly when attracting consumers who visit from overseas that will inevitably be curious about what is still Japan's national beverage. Well, the one cup format can easily fill that role. They are simple in their format, require limited investment for people who are maybe trying sake for the first time, and consumers don't need to worry about navigating the perennial issue of trying to match the sake to the perfect drinking vessel. You just pull the lid off and start drinking.

Connoisseurs may scoff at this less than formal way of drinking, especially considering the level of quality contained in some of the more expensive one cups . But as I have said on many occasions now, sake is sophisticated, but it is not pretentious. As much as it feels right at home in an upmarket restaurant served from a nice wine glass, or in an elaborate ochoko during an expensive kaiseki meal, it is equally at home in much more humble settings, like at a barbecue with simple foods like yakitori and pizza. Dare I even say, sitting on a park bench on a nice spring day.

The fact that the sake industry has this little gem in its portfolio, and considering the timing of its recent mini-resurgence, it may yet prove to be very fortuitous in the near future. With the terrible events that have been unfolding in 2020 due to the outbreak of COVID 19, significant change is expected across the board in the alcoholic drinks market. Specifically relating to sake, there are genuine discussions right now about whether or not the once mighty isshō-bin, surely one of the most recognisable symbols of the sake industry, may soon have had its day. Instead, within a landscape of uncertainty surrounding the restaurant industry, more and more consumers are calling out for smaller sizes that can be consumed at home to accompany a takeout from the surviving eateries that they once frequented.

As sad as this reality may be, and I am sure I would not be the only one to mourn the loss of these, admittedly cumbersome, large bottles, it may be an inevitable reality in the near future. If they were indeed to disappear from the consumer habits of consumers in Japan, it is hard to see a way back for them even once things return to normal. For this reason, as more and more producers and retailers consider the need for smaller portion sake once again, the one cup format may yet prove to be the perfect companion for the post COVID sake industry. Perhaps fittingly then, with The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games hopefully due to go ahead in 2021, the humble little one cup sake may once again have a large role to play in promoting sake to a wider audience.

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