*Produced by SilverKris for Haru Sake*
“We want to breathe new life, like a spring breeze, into the sake industry in a way that helps everyone – the consumer, ourselves as sake fans and, most importantly, the brewers”
Sake has been in the international limelight for years, with top restaurants around the world stocking premium bottles, and even breweries as far away as Oregon taking up production of Japan’s beloved national drink.
It might come as a surprise, then, that the industry is struggling. While exports have doubled in the past decade, domestic consumption in Japan has dropped by 20%. One factor in sake’s decline is a complex pricing system involving many middlemen, with small and medium-sized breweries lacking direct access to markets and bargaining power.
The 190-year-old Obama Brewery in Fukui Prefecture, for example, reports that its net profit per bottle of sake is less than $5 dollars before accounting for overheads. Coupled with competition from other spirits entering the domestic market, a staggering one in five sake breweries has disappeared over the past 10 years, and along with it, a broad diversity of techniques, traditions and flavours.
Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has made things worse. According to a recent discussion on industry platform Sake Times, sales in April this year fell by 50–70%. With restaurants and liquor stores closed for long spells, breweries resorted to e-commerce, despite a lack of experience and infrastructure. More seriously, without these venues, customers lack platforms to discover new sake, falling back instead on mass-produced labels with broad visibility.
This has spelt disaster for the most revered sector of the market: the small-batch boutique brewery. According to an article published in August by the Japan Times, beloved generations-old breweries are struggling in light of a lack of visits from overseas aficionados to Japan. The drop in demand has caused some breweries to swap sake production with alcohol sanitizer production, or sell off their rice stockpiles altogether. It’s not uncommon now to see online crowdfunding pleas from breweries desperate to survive in the short-term – though the structural issues of the trade remain unaddressed.
Singapore-based Haru Sake is determined to help Japan’s most special breweries survive by bringing them to Singaporean aficionados and eliminating exploitative practices in the trade. With a team comprising Singaporean and Japanese sake-lovers, the premium sake supplier works only with boutique breweries which produce less than 90 kilolitres per year.
For a sense of how niche and special that is, this profile of brewery represents just 5% of all the sake in circulation. Haru Sake liaises directly with four boutique breweries in Japan, stocking a total of 20 labels. These are sold at reasonable prices via the company’s website, eliminating unnecessary middlemen.
“We want to keep the art of sake alive and preserve these breweries – and the rich traditions that they have accumulated over centuries,” explains a spokesperson from Haru Sake. “Their low production is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s indicative of their attention to detail and commitment to artisanship, but it is also why they are the most susceptible to being squeezed out by current business practices.”
Haru Sake is the only sake supplier in Singapore to commission its own range of ultra-premium sake. The company is engaged in an ongoing crowdfunding campaign to produce a junmai daiginjo at the Obama Brewery, using groundwater from the Minami River and locally grown top-grain rice: yamada-nishiki and gohyakuman-goku.
“Other junmai daiginjos in Singapore go for anywhere from S$200 to above S$300,” explains a spokesperson from Haru Sake. “At S$198 at crowdfunding stage, our price is very reasonable. And yet, the polish rate for our sake is 29% which is extremely pure, especially in comparison with similarly priced products.”
This innovative campaign aside, Haru Sake intends to grow the Singaporean sake market through a variety of online and offline features. Its forthcoming Sake Compass and Sake Search Engine will guide users towards discovering bottles that will please a wide variety of palates, while more discerning clients can avail of the services of a professional sommelier. Haru Sake is also able to arrange memorable evenings at its partner restaurants, with carefully curated food and sake pairings that ensure that sake is enjoyed in the most meaningful way.
“Like our namesake, we want to breathe new life, like a spring breeze, into the sake industry in a way that helps everyone – the consumer, ourselves as sake fans and, most importantly, the brewers who often have to deal with near 40℃ indoor conditions when the rice is fermenting, and wake up at 4am midwinter to work on the brew.”