Japan looks West to save sake
KENSUKE Shichida, the head of a century-old sake brewery in southern Japan, spent a dizzying week in London restaurants tasting a variety of exotic and confounding dishes: pub food, gourmet burgers, French food, Angus beef and ceviche.
The experience left him slightly bewildered and ill, he said, suffering from a food hangover.
But Mr Shichida, 43, is on a mission, he said, to take his family-brewed sake to European restaurants and pair it with Western cuisine, which means charting new territory.
It is an exercise of necessity. Japan is proud of its sake heritage, but sales have been falling for decades. Mr Shichida and a number of other brewers are trying to help reverse its decline before it is too late.
"I'd be lying if I said pairing sake with burgers didn't hurt my pride as a Japanese," he admitted at a recent dinner, poking a piece of lamb kidney and sweetbreads - a first for him - with his fork hesitantly.
"But we need to be exploring this path to survive as a brewer."
He added: "Sake is surprisingly versatile. I've discovered it goes well with many Western recipes, perhaps even better than wine or beer."
Fresh oysters, for example, usually go hand in hand with champagne or Chablis, which have a crisp acidity.
But Mr Shichida, who runs the 140-year-old Tenzan brewery, believes that sake works better. The drink is more mellow and less acidic, and its cleansing properties help remove the oysters' briny taste, he said.
And sake's umami - a savoury sensation considered to be the "fifth taste" - helps improve their fleshiness.
At a recent dinner at Hixter, a restaurant here, head chef Ronnie Murray paired a plate of Launceston lamb and meaty girolle mushrooms with Mr Shichida's 75 Junmai, a full-bodied sake that uses unpolished rice, a rarity even in Japan.
The Japanese generally prize sake that contains highly polished rice, which produces a flowery and smooth taste. In contrast, Mr Shichida's sake had a round, woody flavour with a tempered acidity that complemented the lamb's earthiness.
"Wine tends to be more acidic and cuts through the taste of meat," said Gareth Groves, the head of marketing at Bibendum Wine, a retailer that recently announced that it was stocking premium sake from Japan. "Sake is less about cutting through the food than sitting alongside it."
Sake ranges from sparkling, somewhat similar to champagne, to namazake, which tastes best straight from the vat, unpasteurised. Meaning "raw sake", namazake offers a taste of the ethereal, as it can sour within hours.
Another sake uses yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit, making the drink a tangy cousin of the Italian limoncello, while umeshu is kind of a plummy version of the Hungarian dessert wine Tokaj.
Some chefs and food lovers describe the experiment with sake as a shot in the dark. But, for brewers, the challenge is urgent.
Sake consumption has fallen sharply in Japan since the 1970s because of a decreasing birth rate and a switch by many drinkers to wine - much of it imported - or other domestic drinks like beer, whiskey or shochu, a Japanese spirit.
Japan exported about 5,000 tonnes of sake in 2012, but mostly to Japanese restaurants, limiting its audience. Overseas sales are still a small fraction of total sales.
The number of brewers - mostly old-fashioned and family-owned - has shrunk to around 1,000 from around 4,600 in the earlier part of the 20th century.
"The sake industry won't survive on its local market," said Barry McCaughley, a food-and-beverage consultant based in London.
Restaurants and retailers are starting to push sake as the next drink fad, similar to craft beer, whose popularity has exploded in Britain.
For all the gambling on foreign sales, brewers say they have one ultimate aim - bringing sake back to Japan as well.
"If we're able to tell the Japanese, 'Look how much foreigners are enjoying sake', that would give them an opportunity to rediscover sake and revive demand," Mr Shichida said.
"We don't want our culture to disappear. We really don't."