Japanese sake makers want to tap into Vancouver market

Faced with a declining domestic market due to a rapidly aging population, Japan’s sake industry is refocusing its export efforts in North America, including Canadian cities such as Vancouver.

Earlier this month, 10 craft brewers from the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association visited Vancouver as part of its three-city North American mission to boost exports. What’s unique about the visit, organizers say, is that while it has previously focused on American cities, this year featured only one U.S. stop (Dallas) and two Canadian stops (Vancouver and Montreal).

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The idea, said the executive director of the Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro) in Canada, was to expand the Canadian market’s view of sake as a traditional Japanese drink, with emphasis placed on cosmopolitan Canadian locales to showcase pairings with European and western cuisine.

“Japanese restaurants in Canada have been serving sake to people for many years, but the sake is usually served warm,” said Jetro Toronto’s Takuji Sakai. “That’s only one way to have sake, but many Canadians, because they are used to having warm sake, thought it could only be drunk warm. So we are trying to educate and promote, introducing cold sake into this market.”

That’s why, Sakai said, the delegation to Vancouver featured a trip to western culinary establishments to showcase the varieties of sake and the ways it can be consumed. That includes cold and room-temperature sake paired with dishes from French cuisine, as well as Pacific Northwest dishes.

“Sake’s mellow flavours are ideal to complement natural flavours,” said Takashi Hatori, consul general of Japan in Vancouver, noting the West’s shift towards healthier cuisine and lighter tastes goes well with sake’s profile. “Vancouver, gifted with a multicultural population and a demand for fine cuisine and new things, is an ideal market for Japanese-made sake.”

Sakai also mentioned sake is still most heavily consumed by Canadians of Asian origin — specifically Chinese Canadians — so cities such as Vancouver and Toronto will continue to have strong markets for the rice wine. But he added that the current effort is a clear attempt to broaden sake’s appeal beyond consumers who are familiar with Asian culture and cuisine.

Tokyo’s play for more sake exports in Canada has push and pull factors. On the pull front, the aforementioned market conditions in Canadian cities coincide with Japan and Canada both being in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) as a reason to look for more free-trade opportunities. While Sakai said Japan sees the CPTPP as a bridge for other agricultural products, most other processed foods the country wants to export require extensive food safety documentation in either English or French under Canadian laws.

The Japanese agricultural sector’s small and medium-sized producers often lack the resources to handle English/French documentation. That creates a barrier for other products to expand market share in Canada quickly. Sake, however, has no such requirement.

“Sake is an exception, so we are especially promoting it now,” Sakai said, adding that Japan’s sake exports to Canada have increased 12 per cent to 13 per cent every year on average since 2010.

Producers also face domestic issues because Japanese consumers are drinking less sake. Due to the drink’s strength (15 per cent alcohol by volume versus nine per cent to 16 per cent for wine and three per cent to nine per cent for beer), sake is usually drunk by middle-aged consumers, and that demographic is shrinking rapidly as Japan’s population ages. There were about 921,000 births in Japan in 2018. That’s down approximately 25,000 from 2017 and marks the third straight year of births falling below one million. That number contributed to a net population decline of 448,000 in 2018, according to a Japan Times report — the 12th straight year of population decline in the country.

A United Nations forecast estimates Japan’s rural population will shrink by 17 per cent between now and 2030 and fall an additional two per cent every year afterwards. 

Younger Japanese, meanwhile, have shifted their preference to western drinks like beer, wine and mixed cocktails.

That’s why the export growth of sake is so important for Japan, Sakai said. Sales in markets like North America have doubled in the last decade.

Sakai added that he would like to see other Japanese agricultural exports also make the jump.

“It’s a very important time not only for sake, but for all of our agricultural exports,” he said. “In Japan, we are facing an aging population where the number of consumers are decreasing with the population. So the Japanese market is declining; if we are to keep our production, we should export more.” 

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