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Opinion: The rise of sake – Embracing tradition and innovation
FoodBev Media

FoodBev Media

29 September 2023

Opinion: The rise of sake – Embracing tradition and innovation

In a world where culinary trends come and go, one beverage has been steadily making its presence felt on the international stage: Sake. Originating from Japan, sake has experienced a significant rise in popularity over the years. According to Fortune Business Insight, the global sake market size was valued at $7.3 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach $10.47 billion by 2026. In the lead-up to World Sake Day – which takes place on Sunday 1 October – FoodBev Media's Rafaela Sousa celebrates sake's rich history and modern resurgence, showcasing its balance of tradition and innovation. Sake – also known as ‘Nihonshu’ – is a Japanese spirit with a history that dates back over a thousand years. Today, sake holds tremendous cultural significance due to its important role in ceremonies, social gatherings and celebratory events, such as weddings.

The drink consists of four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and a mould called koji. These ingredients, as well as the brewing process, play a significant role in contributing to the various flavours, aromas and textures that define the diverse range of sake available today. That said, the production of sake involves the use of a specific type of rice known as 'sake rice’ or 'sakamai,' which is a larger grain than regular table rice. Sake comes in various types – such as junmai, ginjo and daiginjo – each with its unique production methods. Nonetheless, the basis of the process remains relatively consistent: made through a process that involves polishing rice grains, steaming the polished rice, fermenting the steamed rice with koji, water and yeast, followed by a fermentation and filtration process to achieve the desired flavour and alcohol content. While often referred to as 'Japanese rice wine,' sake differs from traditional wine in its production and taste. Unlike wine, which is made through the fermentation of sugars, sake is brewed through a process similar to brewing beer, where starches are converted into sugars before fermentation, giving the drink its distinctive character. /Formats and flavours/ Sake offers a wide array of flavour profiles, ranging from sweet to dry and light to full-bodied. This variety has attracted the interest of many brands, driving them to experiment with new sake formats and modernise traditional recipes. One area where sake is having a 'glow up' is the RTD cocktails category. One example is the recent launch of Sake Sling canned cocktails, which are made from a blend of traditional Japanese sake with unique flavours. The drinks – which were launched in Mandarin & Cherry and Yuzu & Melon variants in July in the UK – combine fruity and botanical flavours with the distinct complexity of umami delivered by sake.

Another creation is Hape Sake Spritz, which comprises a blend of sake, fruit juices and tea extracts. Available in the US, the trio of spritzes contain popular Japanese flavours, such as Grapefruit with Elderflower & Ginger, Green Tea with Yuzu, and Lemon & Lemonade with Hibiscus & Lemongrass. Meanwhile, SakeBomb utilises premium Japanese sake in the crafting of its beverages, ensuring a consistently high-quality and authentic flavour experience. The canned cocktails are available in three flavours: 'Peach Smash,' 'Lime Drop,' and 'Berry Blast.' These flavours correspond to SakeBomb's in-house interpretations of Texas Peaches, Ginger Lime and Raspberry Lemon, respectively. /Cultural culmination/ Sake consumption is undergoing a remarkable surge, with the US becoming a notable participant. Over the decade spanning from 2012-2022, exports from Japan exhibited exponential growth, more than doubling in volume. The annual figure soared from approximately 14 million litres to 36 million litres, as reported by the Japanese Sake and Shochu Makers Association. Within this period, exports to the US witnessed a substantial increase, surpassing 9 million litres per annum, in contrast to the earlier mark of just under 4 million litres. The rise of sake’s popularity in the West, especially in the US, can be attributed to several factors. There has been a growing interest in diverse culinary experiences driven by a more globally aware consumer base. Sake, with its distinct flavours and cultural appeal, aligns with this evolving trend. The global rise in sake consumption is not limited to Japan alone. In recent years, sake breweries have been emerging outside of Japan, contributing significantly to this trend. Sake breweries have gained traction in regions such as North America and Europe. US wine and spirits importer Shaw-Ross acquired the TYKU Sake brand from Diageo in March as part of the company's efforts to strengthen its presence in the Japanese market. Wine Enthusiast reported that the number of breweries across the US has increased from five a decade ago to over 20 today. Sake breweries outside Japan often blend traditional Japanese methods with local ingredients and techniques, creating a unique fusion of cultures. The emergence of sake breweries outside Japan shows that this beverage is becoming popular worldwide, and consumers from different cultures are coming together to enjoy this drink. As these breweries continue to thrive, the global landscape of sake consumption is likely to continue evolving and expanding, solidifying its position on the international platform.

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