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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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New Generation Sake

Aug. 27, 2015

People who make sake -- Japan's national alcoholic drink -- have been battling an image problem. Consumption of the traditional rice brew is only a third what it was at its peak 40 years ago. And the number of breweries is down by half. Against this background, brewers are boosting the quality of their product.

The main obstacle to sales is sake's reputation as a low-quality drink for drunkards. Indeed, more than 60 percent of sake on the market is mass-produced, with such additives as flavouring and extra alcohol. Most high-quality sake is made from only three ingredients -- water, rice and rice yeast, nothing else. This sounds simple, but it takes time and effort. At the typical brewery, high-quality sake accounts for just 20 percent of yearly production.

In an effort to turn around their business smaller breweries have put renewed effort into creating premium sake. This survival strategy has led to the growth of a whole new market. More and more people are now being exposed to quality sake. And this in turn has created new demand.

We visited a bar in Tokyo that offers 50 different brands of sake. Many of the customers are young -- and there is a strong brigade of female drinkers.

One woman says "It's sweet and light, and easy to drink. It's different from my previous image of sake."

The bar runs an all-you-can-drink promotion. This is certainly a big attraction. But it's not the only reason it's popular. The young generation is interested in learning about quality. And breweries are turning out a better product.

A restaurant owner says, "Most sake these days is lighter and more palatable. It used to be more sticky and sweet. It would get you drunk and make you sick."

Aramasa is a 150-year-old brewery in Akita, northern Japan. Yusuke Sato is the eighth-generation owner. A big factor behind Aramasa's popularity is its production method. Sato decided to return to the traditional ways -- using only rice, water and rice malt.

A distinguishing feature of Aramasa is the way Sato ferments the ingredients. "The yeast we use was discovered here 85 years ago," he says. "It's the oldest strain still in use at sake breweries."

Sato also uses wood barrels. It's a practice rarely seen these days. The barrels must be scrupulously kept clean to prevent mold -- which can ruin the sake. It adds up to a lot of work, but the master brewer says it pays off.

"Taste is important, but the story and the culture behind how the sake is made are just as important for consumers," says Sato. "We'd rather have let each bottle taste different, than go for mass production to make a boring, uniform taste."

Another brand winning new customers has been sampled at the highest levels. US President Obama chose the sake Dassai, from the brewer Asahi Shuzo, to toast Japan's visiting Prime Minister.

If Aramasa is returning to traditional ways, Asahi Shuzo has gone in the opposite direction. The company rebuilt its brewery this year, equipping it with the latest IT technology to track brewing data.

The control room looks like a laboratory. Staff monitor temperatures and the fermentation process for the whole production line, and keep detailed records.

In the fermentation room, the high-tech approach allows the company to do away with a master brewer. Production is automated wherever possible. Where human labor is required, workers follow a manual. Ages-old intuition has been replaced with scientific precision.

"It's more like working in a factory than a sake brewery," says one worker. "We are expected to perform the same steps in the process assigned to us every day."

The brewery's goal is the mass production of high-quality sake. To this end, Asahi Shuzo controls the temperature of its whole building, allowing it to brew all year round. Most breweries only make sake in the winter.

"If the sake breweries stick to tradition and intuition, we're not going to go see any development in the industry," says Hiroshi Sakurai, the president of Asahi Shuzo. "Asahi Shuzo produces 1,000 bottles of the highest quality sake a year. Other breweries only produce, maybe 100, in their whole history. Using our vast experience, we've achieved a drastic leap forward in making sake and satisfying the expectations of consumers."

Yuko Fukushima, joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio to further discuss the story.

Fukushima: So high quality alone won't save the industry's problems. You need mass production as well -- and that's what I found interesting about the innovation taking place at Asahi Shuzo.

Beppu: If Asahi Shuzo can achieve mass production, does it also mean it can reduce the cost of making high-quality sake?

Fukushima: Yes, they were in fact able to reduce production costs, but the point is, Asahi Shuzo isn't lowering the price of its sake. Their product is in such high demand, they don't need to. And there's more room to grow. Asahi Shuzo executives told me the new factory has tripled production capacity.

Shibuya: So what can we expect from the high-quality sake market in the years ahead?

Fukushima: Here are the figures for the last four years. With Asahi Shuzo, Aramasa and other breweries shipping more high-quality sake, the overall percentage of high-end product is trending up. And with more and more young people developing a taste for the traditional drink, it looks like that trend will continue. Exports are another promising area. Shipments abroad are picking up -- once again, we're mostly talking about high-quality sake. So we may see more expansion of this new market in the future.

Beppu: And of course, there will always be a market for cheaper sake. Personally speaking, I think the low-grade variety can be perfect for a casual drink with friends. Like all drinks, it depends on what you're willing to pay -- and maybe your definition of a good time.