Wednesday, June 20, 2012
John Gauntner: Sake Trends & Restaurant Service
--Ōtomo no Tabito
The sheer bliss of having over 45 different Sakes available for tasting. That made for quite a superb Monday, especially when I also got see and speak with John Gauntner, the famed Sake expert and "Sake Dendoushi" ("Sake Evangelist"), once again. John is an excellent Sake sensei and he was in Boston to impart some of his immense knowledge of this wondrous drink to a couple groups of Sake lovers.
On Monday, I was fortunate to attend two Sake events, including an afternoon Sake seminar & tasting at the residence of Takeshi Hikihara, the Consul General of Japan, located in Chestnut Hill. That event was a partnership with Chairman Haruo Matsuzaki of the Sake Export Association and President Peter Grilli of the Japan Society of Boston.In the evening, the Japan Society of Bostonhosted a Sake tasting and dinner at Cafe Sushiin Cambridge. John Gautner was at both events, making a brief presentation at each and then chatting with all of the attendees, answering all of their Sake questions.
Up front, John stated that there is "no bad sake on the market" and that "even the worst is pretty good." That doesn't mean that all Sake is premium or that it is all excellent. It indicates that the quality of Sake has never been higher than it is now, better than it was even 10 years ago. The quality should continue to improve with time so it is a great time to enter the realm of Sake.
Sake consumption in Japan peaked around 1973 and has been on a steady decline since then, where it now constitutes less than 10% of Japanese alcohol consumption. The number of Sake breweries has been on a steady decline as well, from a high of over 20,000, down now to around 1400 or so. But, 2011 saw a slight increase in consumption and there are signs that it could continue, which obviously would be very good for all. In addition, Sake exports to the U.S. have broken records in both 2010 and 2011. There are a number of reasons why the increases may continue.
First, the general overall interest in Sake has increased and that has led to more consumption. Second, as I mentioned recently, the Japanese government is declaring Sake to be a "national alcoholic beverage." Though the government lacks much of a budget or plan for how to promote Sake, their simple announcement has already garnered plenty of publicity. We can only hope that the government will devise some compelling strategy to promote Sake. If nothing else though, hopefully the increased publicity will continue. Third, though Sake consumption has traditionally been the primary domain of older generations, the demographics have begun to shift, with more people from the younger generations embracing Sake. That should invigorate the industry, giving them a larger market.
Let us start with the products category. First, about 10-20 years ago, Sake aromas, which primarily derive from the yeast, started becoming much more prominent, and eventually a number went too extreme, way over the top. Fortunately, many producers have begun to reign in these extremes, returning to a more reasonable balance. Second, though the number of Sparkling, Low Alcohol and Fruit-Flavored/Infused Sakes on the market have increased, they still constitute the tiniest percentage of production so they are not truly a significant trend. Third, more attention and publicity has been given to certain Sake styles, including Namazake, Kimoto, and Yamahai. This is good news to me, especially since the Kimoto/Yamahai is one of my favorite styles. Thus, I hope to see more Sakes produced in this manner, even though it is a more laborious and risky process. Lastly, there appears to be a surge in new pasteurization methods, which is leading to better quality Sake. In addition, there is much more storage of Sake in the bottle rather than cask during the usual 6-12 month aging period after production. This generally leads to smoother Sake.
As for the industry, there have been several key changes. First, a new generation of Sake brewers is entering the industry. The old guard, often 60+ years old, are handing over the reigns to the younger generation, often men 30-40 years old. This is infusing new ideas and life into the Sake industry, which is needed as the world is changing. Second, in that regard, with the advent of the Internet, social media, and such, marketing and sales have changed, and what worked in the past may no longer be applicable. Breweries must adapt to these changes, and a younger generation might best be able to handle these changes. Third, more experimentation in the Sake industry is now occurring, again likely due to the younger generation who are more willing to try new things, to expand their horizons and take risks. Where many previous brewery owners were never involved in the actual brewing, handing the reigns to their Toji, the newer generations of owners are doing it themselves, creating a deeper connection with their products.
In regards to technological changes, mechanization is far more prevalent in breweries, and the machines are more complex and advanced. The best part is that these machines generally perform the laborious tasks of brewing, yet still permit the skilled brewers to intervene where necessary. Less laborers are necessary but the human element remains to ensure the artisan nature of the Sake, as well as to control the quality. Despite the increased mechanization, brewing still remains more about "experience and intuition" and John even stated that to the brewers, "every year it is back to first grade." It has also been very helpful to brewers that there now is an abundance of assistance available to them. Textbooks, chemical analysis and research results are more readily available to the brewers and there is now more information exchange. Computers have made such communication much easier, and this has lead to a greater quality Sake across the industry. Resources for Sake brewing just continue to grow.
Restaurants need to understand that their primary goal in serving Sake should be to promote it, to get more customers drinking it. The more people that drink it, the greater your profits. With that goal always in mind, then a restaurant can implement a plan to best serve their Sake. In general, it is probably most beneficial to keep it simple, to ensure Sake is approachable. Consider that though wine can be intimidating to many customers, Sake is even more intimidating. If you place too many barriers to the comprehension of your Sake list, then your customers will opt for a different, and easier, beverage. If you choose to make your Sake more complex, you must be willing to handle the ramifications, and also ensure that your staff is adequately prepared to handle that level of complexity. But simple might be your best option.
What is the proper serving temperature for Sake? Most premium Sake is best served slightly chilled, as you would serve a white wine. Warming Ginjo, and especially Daiginjo, Sake though can destroy some of their complexity so it is not advised. Some Sake, such as Kimoto and Yamahai can be gently warmed, though not too hot. A restaurant should experiment with tasting their Sake selection at various temperatures to determine what will work best. You could make this more complex for your patrons, offering the same Sake at different temperatures, but that also can be a barrier to the average consumer. Making it simple might be preferable.
You can order your Sake list in numerous ways, such as by price, grade, style, region and more. One of the simplest and effective ways to do so is by grade, such as Junmai, Ginjo and Daiginjo. That also usually corresponds to price so that higher grades will cost more. You should also separate the more unusual types, such as Sparkling Sake and Koshu, aged Sake, into a separate category as they really don't fit well into a grade category.
It is also recommended that you carry a range of price points, from inexpensive to high-end Sake. You want some less expensive Sakes so that customers will be more willing to take a chance on ordering it. I have mentioned that to restaurants before, that marking up their Sake by 3-4 times the retail price is ridiculous. It is a significant barrier to customers who know little about Sake as well as more experienced Sake lovers. It can also be important to carry one or two very popular Sakes, to appeal to those who will seek out such bottles. Besides carrying full-sized Sake bottles, 720ml, you might also want some smaller bottles (300ml-500ml), as well as serving Sake by the glass. As Sake is more durable than wine, serving it by the glass makes sense. Following up on that, it can also be very helpful to serve tasting flights of 3-5 Sakes, giving customers an easy way to try several different Sakes.
Education is also very important. First, you need an educated staff, servers who know and understand about Sake. Just as you wish your servers to know about wine, they should also know about Sake if you serve it. They don't need to be experts, but they do need to understand the basics and be able to explain it to customers. It can also be quite helpful if your Sake list provides some educational information for your customers, even something as simple as descriptions of the various grades and types of Sake. That helps to remove another barrier for consumers, and gives them more reason why they might choose to order Sake rather than another beverage.