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European Sake Summit 2020

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Sake sales have been extremely depressed both in Japan and overseas as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, to address this situation, an online meeting was convened on 20 June 2020 by international sake industry development icon, UK-based Rie Yoshitake. In this meeting, experts including sake brewers, educators, importers, sommeliers, etc, considered a market overview and discussed how to reverse the fortunes of the industry. Sake Experience Japan was privileged to attend as a media representative among the elite group of industry expert observers, in order to report back to our readers across the world.

Guest speakers are as follows

  1. Kenichiro Kojima (Japan) Owner of Toko Sake Brewery
  2. Takenosuke Yasufuku (Japan) Owner of Fukuju Sake Brewery
  3. Silvan Huet (France) Founder of Salon du sake
  4. Xavier Thuizat (France) Chief Sommelier of Hotel de Crillon
  5. Yoshiko Ueno-Müller (Germany) Owner of Ueno Gourmet
  6. Simon Hofstra (Netherlands) Co-Chairman of IWC sake section
  7. Marco Massarotto (Italy) Organizer of Milan Sake Festival
  8. Roger Ortuno Flamerich (Spain) Founder of ComerJapones.com
  9. Pablo Ajomar Salvioni (Spain) CEO of Salvioni-Alomar.com
  10. Ake Nordgren (Sweden) Co-chairman of IWC sake section
  11. Natsuki Kikuya (UK) WSET Principle Educator for sake course
  12. Asami Tasaka (UK) Managing Director of World Sake Imports London

There are many common experiences among the various countries and speakers:

  • On-premise sake sales generally accounts for at least 80% of total sales in each country
  • Following a lockdown, sales approached zero
  • Online sales were previously very small, but are growing rapidly
  • The situation remains dire
  • Chefs and sommeliers’ enthusiasm for sake hasn’t diminished, despite the uncertain outlook
  • Off-premise sales are showing growth in some countries with the implementation of new SKUs or variants (Italy or Sweden)
  • Webinars are increasingly popular. (Germany, Spain, UK)

According to Marco Massarotto, some Italian companies specializing in online sake sales exceeded last year’s annual sales the month of March 2020 alone. Pablo Ajomar Salvioni said that they had success in selling three sakes and a casual online lecture as a set in Spain. According to Natsuki Kikuya, the online classes for sake have been completed twice so far, with over 200 people from all over the world participating in each class. The recorded video posted on YouTube recorded 11,000 views. In Sweden, a small format of 300 ml was sold to the government monopoly instead of the general 720 ml, with success.

Due to the domination of on-premise, recovery, and growth in off-premise sales has not been sufficient to compensate for lost sales, however, there is a new sense of potential. Many guest speakers emphasized that it is important at this time to convey information about sake products through the back label, website, or other channels. Xavier Thuizat pointed out “Even among French sommeliers, there are people who misunderstand the rice polishing rate and alcohol content described in Japanese. It is even more so for general consumers.”

In the future, of course, we hope for the rapid recovery of on-premise sales, which have been so key in the success of overseas sake marketing. In the meantime, at least a detailed product information sheet for each product will have to be prepared. There may be a limit to the amount of text what can be written on the back label, due to the small size and capacity of the labeler. Considering the future trend of online business growth, detailed back-label information alone is not enough.

It is clear that the sake industry’s conversion to direct-to-consumer sales will not immediately accelerate across international borders, but will accelerate with the entry of e-commerce in each country via importers. In that case, importer websites should focus on content that is of interest to consumers in each country. For that reason, providing precise, useful, and attractive information is essential. For example, as Roger Ortuno Flamerich pointed out, what kind of scent does it have, in addition to general expressions such as aromatic and floral? More detailed information will be needed in some cases.

According to Kenichiro Kojima, the largest liquor store in Tokyo saw a 75.9% decrease in on-premise sales in April, compared to the previous year, but retail and online sales increased. From public sources like Rakuten, it is clear that when compared with the most significant online alcohol sales market, wine, there is relatively little information about sake, even in Japanese. If the proportion of online sales grows from the current 12% of all off-premise sales to an equivalent online: off-premise percentage of wine (17%), this would be an indication that sufficient information has reached Japanese consumers. Changes in overseas sales may also occur.

However, it is not yet clear what information importers and consumers need. To solve this issue, it is necessary to deepen the understanding of consumers’ fundamental insights: why they first try sake and then why do they continue (or not) to do so, both in Japan and overseas. The development of information around these insights will help secure a bright future for the global sake industry.

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