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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

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Hakuyou “White Sun” Junmai Ginjo

Oya Chukichi Honten (Fukushima, Japan)

Seimaibuai: 55% Chiyo Nishiki, SMV: +3, Acidity: 1.6
This crisp and dry sake comes from importer Sake Story in Seattle whose mission is to spotlight producers in chihou (remote areas) that are hidden gems. The brewery, Oya Chukichi Honten, is one of the smallest brewers in Fukushima Prefecture. They currently only produce about 600 goku (approximately 108K liters) and a vast majority of that is sold within the prefecture. Notice the light yellow hue to this brew, then enjoy aromas of yogurt, cloves, and tangerine peel. We love the white pepper finish that goes well with spicy foods like Japanese curry or papaya salad. Sip this sake slightly chilled in a glass cup.

Taiyozakari Tokubetsu Junmai

Taiyo Sake Brewery (Niigata, Japan)

Seimaibuai: 60% Gohyaku Mangoku, SMV: +5, Acidity: 1.3
We are lucky that Jizake Quest is located right here in Oakland. Founder David Sakamoto's original intent was to start a sake brewery here in the Bay Area, but started importing sake first, highlighting jizake (microbreweries) in Japan. Ultimately, his goal is to host jizake tours in the future! He started bringing in this sake in 2020, right when the pandemic started. Pour it at room temperature or warm in a ceramic guinomi and take in aromas of maple, bread pudding, and crimini mushrooms. I loved the creamy palate of this sake that still ends dry. Sakamoto's favorite pairing with this sake is Pho Ga

Gunma Izumi Usu Midori Junmai Ginjo

Shimaoka Shuzo (Gunma, Japan)

Seimaibuai: 50% Wakamizu, SMV: +3, Acidity: undisclosed
During a 2019 visit to Shimaoka Shuzo, Julie Bath (Partner at Sake Tengoku) explored sakes that had not been available for import previously. This sake was one of them. You may have seen aged sake from this brewery on our shelves (amber in color, delicious on cold days), so we were so excited to see an un-aged sake from the same brewer that would land this spring. With aromas of banana, coconut, and Nilla wafers, this is an ideal sake to have chilled during a hot summer day. Complex flavors of bread and yogurt, finished with crisp acidity pairs well with creamy cheeses (including cheese cake) and olive oil

Fukushima-ichi Karakuchi "ICHI" Honjozo

Sasanokawa Shuzo (Fukushima, Japan)

Seimaibuai: 65% Hitemobori, SMV: +22.7, Acidity: 1.5
Hold on to your seats! This karakuchi (extra dry) honjozo comes from Suzuki-Marketing, which was originally formed to export U.S. wines to Asia-Pacific, and now imports sakes. Vice President Richard Bischoff says that they decided to bring this sake in during the pandemic and provides us with a little background: "Sasanokawa is also the Tohoku Region’s first whisky distillery, getting its license in 1946. We sometimes refer to this sake as the 'sake for spirits lovers,' if only because of the layers that it brings to the palate." We noticed layers of burnt sugar, kasutori shochu, and walnuts with a long finish that would tickle spirits lovers. The brewer recommends this on-the-rocks but we prefer it chilled and undiluted. Go big with the food pairing and try this sake with a burger or grilled lamb
Column: Sake Gumi News
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