Ever since March 2020, getting sakes on time has nearly been impossible, so I'm always very excited when I can introduce new sakes to Sake Gumi members. And this month, these are all sakes that have been imported post-pandemic. The process of bringing in new sake is tedious and unpredictable, but the most seasoned importers make this as painless as possible by providing frequent and detailed updates to their retailers and consumers. Through this trying time, I am very thankful for the tight-knit community of sake importers. Three out of the four importers that brought in this month's sakes are situated right here in the Bay Area; a few even hand-delivered the bottles to ensure that Gumi members get them on time. So this month, I wanted to direct the magnifying glass on the importers, to give us a better view on how sake in these times are faring.
The challenges of bringing in sake mainly involves getting the proper approvals from government agencies, and timing various transportation entities from brewery to consumer. Richard Bischoff, Vice President of Suzuki-Marketing in San Francisco, describes the first steps of the difficult journey: "It takes a lot of work to turn rice into sake. It also takes a lot to import sake into the U.S. There are many steps and a steep learning curve. Want to try some new sakes for possible import? You just can’t have samples shipped. You need to get permission from the Tax and Transfer Bureau (TTB), the agency that replaced the ATF." Toshi Kojima, Vice President of Sake Story based in Seattle, tells us that this step is called "Formula Approvals" and is unique to sake (wine and beer are exempt).
Although it varies for each Sake Gumi offering, it typically takes six to nine months from planning the allocation with the importer to having them at the store on Gumi drop day. The main challenge that all of our importers expressed is securing a container. Kojima says, "Even if the cargo is ready at any given brewery, it cannot ship until we have a referral container booked and scheduled to go on a vessel. This could take weeks or even months right now. There are massive container shortages out of East Asia to North America with abrupt vessel cancellations out of Japan. Add to that, the lack of cargo trucks and drivers at U.S. terminals, plus the massive four to six times increase in container rates." Julie Bath, Partner at Sake Tengoku in St. Helena adds, "Further possible delays include customs clearance, long-shoreman strikes at the port, availability of a reliable trucking company with the right credentials to pick up the container quickly and transport the container to the warehouse."
Despite all the doom and gloom, there are silver linings to the situation. All of our importers are optimistic that sake brewers in Japan are ready and willing to export their sake to the U.S. "As you may know, sake production and consumption is on the decline within Japan for a number of reasons," says founder David Sakamoto of Jizake Quest of Oakland, "so breweries are eager to provide product for export, and many brewery owners are willing to take on that challenge." Bischoff adds to this sentiment, "The sake brewers we work with really appreciate the enthusiastic reception their sake receives in the U.S. and work really hard to help us."
After all is said and done, the most important part of the supply chain is YOU, the consumer! If no one actually pours it into a glass to enjoy at the end of this long journey, this whole process is moot. "The pandemic changed our business model," says Bath, "Previously we were 80% on premise (restaurants and bars) and 20% off premise (retail). During the pandemic that model completely reversed and we were successful by working with our retailers as much as possible." Kojima weighs in, "The pandemic definitely taught us a hard lesson in that sake as a category is still very under-represented in the retail markets and was heavily relying on restaurants and bars. We learned this the hard way when all of our amazing restaurant customers went into 'Covid Shut Down.' I am convinced we need to place more emphasis on retail establishments for the further development and education of sake in the U.S. market." As a retailer, we are grateful that importers are recognizing the importance of keeping our shelves stocked with fresh, new sakes.
Last but not least, we are immensly thankful to you, Gumi member, who completes the supply chain by drinking the sake!
Yoko, Co-Founder of Umami Mart and Kikizakeshi
Hakuyou “White Sun” Junmai Ginjo
Oya Chukichi Honten (Fukushima, Japan)
Taiyozakari Tokubetsu Junmai
Taiyo Sake Brewery (Niigata, Japan)
Shimaoka Shuzo (Gunma, Japan)
Sasanokawa Shuzo (Fukushima, Japan)