Kochi sake producers enjoy overseas export boom

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Muneki Matsumoto, the president of Tosa Brewing Co., is seen with the company’s three products that won gold prizes at an international wine competition. “I want people around the world to drink sake like wine,” he said.

KOCHI — Japanese sake producers nationwide have seen brisk exports of their products, and Kochi Prefecture is no exception.

In 2021, the prefecture’s exports of refined sake reached 270 kiloliters, an increase of 70% from the previous year and the largest quantity in 10 years. While domestic demand has stagnated largely due to the coronavirus pandemic, sake breweries are developing products geared at overseas customers and crafting sales strategies for overseas markets.

Muneki Matsumoto, the 41-year-old president of Tosa Brewing Co. in Tosa, Kochi Prefecture, travels around the world to pitch the company’s signature junmai daiginjo brand, called Keigetsu. “Small wineries are branching out worldwide to expand their distribution. Small Japanese sake breweries should be able to do the same,” he said.

When he became the sixth-generation head of the brewery in 2015, Matsumoto believed that the declining population would limit doing business in the domestic market alone. Instead of Tokyo, where many sake breweries would compete against each other, he turned his attention overseas. “No matter how famous a sake brewery may be, no one would know it so far away on the globe,” he thought.

Seeking to unlock the potential of other markets, Matsumoto has traveled to about 40 countries and regions, such as Britain, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Singapore. In 2019 before the pandemic began, he spent about five months outside Japan.

Currently, Tosa Brewing trades with businesses in more than 20 countries and regions. The company’s overseas transactions have grown steadily and are expected to account for more than 20% of its total trade this year. Matsumoto is also particular about the company’s sales approach, which is to deepen connections with wine wholesalers who have a large number of customers in local markets.

“We need to build a strong sales channel so that we can continue exporting even after the boom has passed,” he said.

The key, Matsumoto says, is whether sake can be integrated into local food culture. In May, three of the company’s products won gold prizes in the sake category at one of the world’s largest wine competitions held in London.

Tosa Brewing saw its cultivated area for sake rice expand about 50-fold, while staff members have increased from five to 30.

“People can have a good time together. New products are born out of such interactions,” Matsumoto said. “Sake is an indispensable part of a civilized society.”

Paring sake with food

Under the slogan, “Enjoy Sake Life: Bringing Suigei to the Tables of the World,” Suigei Brewing Co. saw its overseas sales in 2020 increase nearly sixfold from a decade ago. Exports have risen to 11% of total production, with the United States and China accounting for a combined 80%.

Suigei President Hirokuni Okura, 44, has traveled to the United States with bottles of sake many times. The company has held events in New York, Hawaii, China and other places to convey the attractiveness of sake.

Suigei markets its products as “sake to enjoy with food.” The company strives for a dry sake taste with a subtle aroma that does not interfere with food, as well as a sharp aftertaste.

“It’s also important to imitate successful examples of wine that are popular all over the world,” Okura said.

The company has also published a picture book that explains the sake brewing process in both Japanese and English in an easy-to-understand manner. In the near future, it plans to resume overseas events which have been suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic, and further push their products.

So-called Tosa sake advisors, who include some members of the Kochi prefectural sake brewers association, have set up a drinking club website, youtu-bu.jp, on which automatic translation enables conversations between speakers of Japanese and English. A video introducing sake breweries has also been added to the site to showcase the charms of sake to the world.

Their initiative received approval from the National Tax Agency as a branding promotion project intended to expand sake exports, and the website was revamped with a subsidy of about ¥20 million. There are currently about 500 registered users, and online drinking parties are held on a regular basis to deepen exchanges.

“We can also use the site to conduct business negotiations with overseas companies,” said Akihiko Takemura, the 60-year-old head of the association who is also president of Tsukasabotan sake brewery. “We believe this will be a powerful tool for expanding sake exports.”

Popularity of izakaya boosts demand

According to the prefectural sake brewers association, refined sake made up for about 269.9 kiloliters of the prefecture’s sake exports in 2021, up about 112.2 kiloliters from the previous year. The figure is the largest among prefectures in the Shikoku region and marked more than double the 2017 level.

Kochi Prefecture’s top export destination is the United States with 89.4 kiloliters, followed by China with 78.4 kiloliters. Both countries accounted for more than 60% of the prefecture’s total exports. They were followed by South Korea with 19 kiloliters, Hong Kong with 17.3 kiloliters and Singapore with 13.3 kiloliters.

Last year, the number of the prefecture’s export destinations fell to 27 countries and regions, down from 43 in 2019 due to the pandemic. Despite the decrease, export volumes have been increasing.

“The number of Japanese restaurants overseas has increased rapidly amid a Japanese food boom,” said a person familiar with the overseas markets. “The Tokyo Olympics and other events have made Japanese izakaya-style pubs popular, boosting demand for sake.”