Sake On Air

Sake On Air

The State of Sake Amidst COVID 19: Part 1


This week, we’re bringing you a double episode exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the sake industry here in Japan, and how that impact is beginning to reverberate through the international market.

The entire nation of Japan, while never undergoing a formal lockdown, was officially placed on State of Emergency status as of April 7th, a state which continued until May 31st, with the country gradually easing restrictions in phases over the several weeks that followed, leading to a complete reopening on June 19th.

During this period, restaurants and izakaya were requested to limit their hours of operation from 5am to 8pm, while closing all alcohol service by 7pm. This, combined with the request for the entire population to refrain from unnecessary travel, as well as shift to teleworking in all instances possible, transformed how people shopped, dined, and of course, accessed and consumed sake and shochu. As you might have guessed, for many breweries, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants, sake and shochu stocks became largely idle for months on end.

While sales numbers have been gradually recovering since June, the number of people testing positive for COVID 19 have also been on the rise as of late, with Japan now experiencing what at this stage might be considered a “mild second wave.” As a result, dining establishments have again been asked to curtail their hours of operation for the month of August, closing by 10pm, with particularly dense dining and entertainment districts in parts of Osaka being asked to cut back their hours of operation even further.

These front-line sales tend to get a lot of attention, however it’s the beverage’s deep agriculture ties, along with the particular timing of the pandemic which might result in a truly devastating fallout down the road. We discuss this as well.

To be honest, there’s still a lot that we don’t know. The impact from the past 6 months isn’t truly going to manifest itself for some time to come, and how the pandemic will develop both in Japan and internationally is, at this point, still anybody’s guess.

However, we do feel a responsibility to sake lovers around the world to share what it is we do know, which is why over the past couple of months we’ve been conducting a series of short interviews, as well as discussing this reality amongst ourselves, in order to help paint at least somewhat of a picture as to where we stand as of the end of August 2020.

For Part 1, we’ve edited together a series of excerpts from five different interviews that we conducted with individuals here in Japan who are in a position to offer particular insight into the impact COVID-19 on certain pockets or channels of the sake and shochu industries. Our guest include:

・Yoshiro Okamoto – Vice President of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association
・Koichi Saura – President of Saura Co. Ltd. (makers of Urakasumi) and co-chairman of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association
・Takahiro Ibaragi – Head of the International Sales Division at Nihon Shurui Hanbai
・Sam Mitsuya – Owner of Mitsuya Liquors
・Shinnosuke Hiramatsu – Retail Sales Office at Imadeya

When you’re done with this episode, Part 2 is already live, so you can jump over and continue this exploration whenever you’re ready. For Part 2 we bring your regular hosts Christopher Pellegrini, John Gauntner, Sebastien Lemoine, and Justin Potts together to anecdotally discuss the experience of the past six months. We hope you’ll find it to be an interesting supplement to the first-hand perspective provided in this episode.

Between this and Part 2, we’ve left you with a lot to digest over the next couple of weeks. There’s still a long road ahead, but we’ll be in it for the long haul. We hope you’ll stick with us. If you’re looking for a great way to support, there’s always one:

Keep kampai-ing.

Part 2 is here.
We’ll see you in two weeks.

0:00:21 Introduction
0:05:17 Yoshiro Okamoto – Vice President of JSS
0:12:47 Koichi Saura – President of Saura Co. Ltd. (Urakasumi), Co-chairman of JSS
0:29:00 Takahiro Ibaragi – Head of International Department at Nihon Shurui Hanbai
0:41:48 Sam Mitsuya – Owner of Mitsuya Liquors
0:57:15 Shinnosuke Hiramatsu – Retail Sales Office at Imadeya
1:16:27 Closing

Sake On Air is made possible with the generous support of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association and is broadcast from the Japan Sake & Shochu Information Center in Tokyo. The show is a co-production between Export Japan and Potts.K Productions, with audio production by Frank Walter.

Our theme, “Younger Today Than Tomorrow” is composed by forSomethingNew for Sake On Air.

Zenkuro – New Zealand Craft Sake


Article by: Sebastien Lemoine (French translation below)

This post is based on my personal notes about Zenkuro, taken during an interview with David Joll and Matt Shaw from Melbourne Sake, together with the Sake On Air team in January 2020. I completed these notes with publicly available information. Watch out for the relevant Sake On Air episode and get inspired!

For those who do not speak Japanese, let’s translate straight away: “Zenkuro” (全黒) means “All Black”. Could we really expect any other name from a Kiwi, rugby lover, big fan of Japan?

The Zenkuro brewery is based Queenstown, in the southern part of South Island, New Zealand. At the same latitude in the Northern hemisphere, one finds places such as Montreal, Bordeaux, Venice or Shiretoko, the North Eastern tip of Hokkaido, Japan.

Surrounded by mountains and great nature, the city is a very popular tourist destination “down under”. Pristine soft water and a cool to cold climate make the place truly appropriate for sake brewing, although this was not the driver for the brewery’s location.

Zenkuro was created by David Joll, together with a local community of japanophiles and outdoor specialists, running tours for Japanese visitors. Craig McLachlan and Richard Ryall are contributors to the Japan Lonely Planet guidebook, and authors of the Hiking in Japan guidebook (Lonely Planet as well), one of my favorite books! Another key stakeholder is originally from Japan: Yoshi Kawamura, co-owner of the small YK3 sake brewery in Canada (with Yoshiaki Kasugai, the Toji – master brewer – there; they have launched in Richmond near Vancouver in 2013 ).

David is managing the brewery and is the Toji. He came to Japan as high school student for the first time, then university exchange student, before getting married and working locally. Soon the years added up to 25 and David chose to get back to his home country with his wife and 4 children.

There was no plan to get involved in sake brewing initially, however the desire to offer a bit of the Japanese culture to visitors in Queenstown and the support of family gave birth to the the project.

What do you do from there when you decide to start a Kura overseas ?

David & team constructed the brewery in the shade to keep it cool, then designed a fermentation room with temperature control.

To learn about the sake brewing process, David made an internship at a friendly Kura (Yoshikubo Shuzou in Mito City, Ibaraki; sake branded Ippin) and perfected his knowledge of sake culture with John Gauntner (my own Sensei).

One has to have David’s DIY spirit and skills to succeed without spending precious capital in equipment from Japan: beside some of the tools available for beer or wine brewers locally, the Kura started with bedsheets as linen for the rice steaming unit, and a locally made metal fune (press) in the shape of a bathtub. Pillow covers played the role of filter for the moromi fermentation mash in such fune.

Administratively, creating a new alcoholic beverage category for tax and license purposes seems to have been a bit of a challenge. Matt from Melbourne Sake was still dealing with the issue in his own context!

David Joll of Zenkuro (center), Matt Kingsley-Shaw of Melbourne Sake (rear right)

Sourcing good ingredients and agents was a challenge in New Zealand as well, and David recalls they would buy table rice from supermarkets and experience with wine and beer yeast.

A key business partner, Urban Hippie supplied rice koji to Zenkuro at the beginning. The company is owned by Takehito (and Mie) Maeda, former chef, and seems to be the only commercial miso maker in NZ.

Very hard work and passion then made the magic happen.

Trial and error cannot be avoided as a process at the beginning, but David surprised us when he shared he received thumbs up to market batch number 3 only! There have been 49 other batches since, over about 4+ years, including some brewed with Marie Nagata, one of our Sake On Air regular hosts.

On recording day for Sake On Air we enjoyed a bottle named “Untouched”, an appropriate translation for Muroka Nama Genshu, i.e. unpasteurized, unfiltered, undiluted sake. Thanks to David, we paired it with a NZ smoked cheddar. The acidity in the sake, its rich flavor on the palate made the pairing truly successful, and very savory. The sake itself reveals grassy aromas, cucumber as well as green melon … a Zenkuro trademark.

In the process to get there, i.e. a consistent, high quality product, some improvements from the original process have been introduced. From friendly Kura, David received Japanese specialized linen with a looser mesh to replace sheets. The Kura is now able to source Kyokai Kobo yeast #701, the foamless version of #7, the most widely used yeast in Japan.  Iida Group, a Kansai based trading company involved in the sake industry (owner of the Nakano brand of rice polishing machines as well), is now supplying dried frozen Koji from Japan, arguably more suitable for sake brewing than the one sourced in NZ (would the Koji produced by Urban Hippie be too rich in protease and not enough in amylase?). Last but not least, the company reinforced its rice supply.

This ”Untouched” sake was not my first sip of sake branded Zenkuro. For the recent 2019 Rugby World Cup, a sport dear to David’s heart, Kanhokuto Shuzou (Fukuoka; sake branded Kiku Tamanoi) and Kumazawa Shuzou (Chigasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture; sake branded Tensei) “co-released” a Zenkuro special edition made together with David and distributed in Japan during the World Cup. The fragrant green notes were there!

Whereas the initial goal of a brewery starting business is make the best of what they have, Zenkuro is now able to offer product variation. In about 5 years, the results are impressive, and the industry says it: Zenkuro received gold and silver medals at the International Wine Challenge in London for some of their batches (Umeshu, drip press Shizuku, White Cloud Nigori).

Interestingly enough, Zenkuro’s main market today is not Japanese restaurants but chefs serving New Zealand or Western gastronomy. The pairing with the smoked cheddar was convincing enough.  Of course the Zenkuro team still needs to invest a lot of time in sake education, to explain the product and culture to professionals as well as the general public. The brewery is open for visits.

Zenkuro owner & master brewer David Joll hovers over the mic, and his sake.

Zenkuro will not be able to call their sake “Nihonshu” (a beverage made in Japan from Japanese rice and Japanese water) and will have to stick to “Sake” as a product type (“Sake” means “alcohol” generically). In their part of the world, David and Matt do not seem to be too worried that other producers release under a similar category an alcoholic beverage far from the fermented drink made from rice and water that they have been educating the market about. By contrast in Europe, certain stakeholders in the nascent sake industry are already working toward defining an “appellation” to protect their product, a direct inspiration from what Japanese brewers have been releasing for centuries, from the rest.

You have heard me praise the generosity and humility of the Sake Brewers’ big family. David fits in that category so well. He has been sharing his experience with other aspiring brewers, and invites them into his brewery. Matt from Melbourne Sake who brewed with David for a few months was our witness. David is the Father of sake brewing down under.

Zenkuro – Pilier du Saké “Down Under”

Ce billet résume mes notes personnelles sur Zenkuro, prises lors d’une interview de David Joll et Matt Shaw de Melbourne Sake, en collaboration avec l’équipe Sake On Air en janvier 2020. Je les ai complétées avec les informations disponibles sur le net. Suivez l’actualité de notre podcast Sake On Air pour écouter l’enregistrement lorsque disponible, et laissez-vous inspirer !!

Pour ceux qui ne parlent pas japonais, traduisons tout de go: “Zenkuro” “全 黒” signifie “All Blacks”. Pouvions-nous vraiment nous attendre à un autre nom de la part d’un Kiwi, amateur de rugby, grand fan du Japon?

La Maison Zenkuro est basée à Queenstown, dans la partie sud de l’Ile du Sud, en Nouvelle-Zélande. À la même latitude de l’hémisphère Nord, on trouve des villes comme Montréal, Bordeaux, Venise ou bien encore Shiretoko, la pointe nord-est d’Hokkaido, au Japon.

Entourée de montagnes et de belle nature, la ville est une destination touristique très populaire “Down Under”. Une eau pure et douce, un climat frais à froid, rendent l’endroit tout à fait approprié pour la production de saké. Ce ne sont cependant pas ces paramètres qui ont déterminé le lieu d’établissement de la Maison à l’origine.

Zenkuro a été fondée par David Joll, en collaboration avec un groupe de japanophiles de la ville, spécialistes de l’Outdoor, organisant des randonnées pour les visiteurs japonais. Craig McLachlan et Richard Ryall sont des contributeurs clés au guide de voyage Lonely Planet sur le Japon, et les auteurs du guide de randonnée Hiking in Japan (Lonely Planet aussi), l’un de mes livres préférés J ! Un autre acteur-clé pour la Maison est originaire du Japon: Yoshi Kawamura, copropriétaire de la petite Kura (Maison de saké) YK3 au Canada (avec Yoshiaki Kasugai, le Toji – responsable de la production; ils se sont lancés à Richmond, près de Vancouver en 2013).

David dirige la Maison Zenkuro et en est le Toji. Il est venu au Japon comme lycéen en échange une première fois, puis revenu comme étudiant universitaire, avant de se marier et de travailler localement. Les années se sont ajoutées les unes aux autres. Au bout de 25 ans, David a choisi de retourner dans son pays d’origine, à Queenstown, avec sa femme (japonaise) et ses 4 enfants.

Il n’avait semble-t-il pas prévu de se lancer dans la production de saké à l’origine, mais le désir d’offrir un peu de la culture japonaise aux visiteurs de Queenstown, et le soutien de son entourage, ont donné naissance au projet.

Que fait-on lorsqu’on a décidé de fonder une Kura à l’étranger?

David et son équipe ont construit la Kura à l’ombre des montagnes pour la garder au frais, puis ont équipé la salle de fermentation d’installations de contrôle de la température.

Pour en savoir plus sur le processus de production du saké, David a effectué un stage dans une Kura accueillante (Yoshikubo Shuzou dans la ville de Mito, Ibaragi; saké de marque Ippin) et perfectionné sa connaissance de la culture du saké avec John Gauntner (mon propre Sensei).

Il faut avoir l’esprit et les compétences de David en matière de bricolage pour réussir, sans dépenser son précieux capital en équipements en provenance du Japon: en sus de certains outils disponibles pour les brasseurs de bière ou les vinificateurs localement, la Kura a démarré avec des draps utilisés comme linge pour l’unité de cuisson du riz à la vapeur, ainsi qu’une presse de type Fune fabriquée en métal localement, sorte de baignoire. Des taies d’oreiller jouaient le rôle de sacs filtrants pour le moût de fermentation (Moromi) dans cette presse.

Sur le plan administratif, la création d’une nouvelle catégorie de boissons alcoolisées à des fins fiscales et de licence semble avoir été un peu difficile. Matt de Melbourne Sake traitait toujours ce problème dans son contexte Australien au moment de l’interview !

Trouver de bons ingrédients et agents biologiques fut également un défi en Nouvelle-Zélande, et David se souvient avoir acheté tout ce qu’il trouvait comme riz de table de type japanica dans les supermarchés pour commencer, et tenté l’expérience des levures de vin de bière.

Un partenaire commercial clé, Urban Hippie a fourni du riz Koji à Zenkuro à ses débuts. La société appartient à Takehito (et Mie) Maeda, ancien chef, et semble être le seul fabricant de Miso ayant pignon sur rue en Nouvelle Zélande.

Un dur labeur et la passion ont fait le reste, jusqu’à ce que la magie se produise.

On ne peut éviter une approche par itération et retours d’expérience sur des cuvées successives au début, mais David nous a surpris quand il a partagé qu’il avait reçu un feu vert de son entourage pour commercialiser la cuvée numéro 3 seulement, jugée suffisamment bonne !! Il y a eu 49 autres cuvées depuis, en un peu plus de 4 ans, dont certaines réalisées avec Marie Nagata, camarade de Sake On Air.

Le jour de l’enregistrement, nous avons pu déguster une bouteille nommée «Untouched» (« Intact »), une traduction appropriée pour Muroka Nama Genshu, c’est-à-dire un saké non pasteurisé, non (finement) filtré et non dilué (d’eau). David nous avait aussi apporté un cheddar fumé de Nouvelle Zélande pour un accord. L’acidité du saké, sa riche saveur en bouche ont assuré le succès du mariage. Ce saké révèle aussi des arômes herbacés, de concombre et de melon vert… une marque Zenkuro.

Pour avancer, et produire de manière cohérente et fiable un produit de haute qualité, certaines améliorations du processus ont été progressivement introduites. De la part d’une généreuse Kura japonaise, David a reçu des toiles, avec une maille plus large, pour remplacer les draps de l’unité de cuisson. En outre, la Kura est désormais en mesure de se procurer la levure Kyokai Kobo # 701, version non-moussante de la levure # 7, la levure la plus utilisée au Japon. Iida Group, une société commerciale basée dans le Kansai et impliquée dans l’industrie du saké (propriétaire de la marque Nakano de machines de polissage du riz également), fournit maintenant du Koji congelé en provenance du Japon, sans doute plus approprié pour la production du saké que celui en provenance de leur partenaire néo-zélandais. le Koji de Urban Hippie serait-il trop riche en protéase et pas assez en amylase?. Enfin, l’entreprise a renforcé son approvisionnement en riz.

Ce saké «Untouched» n’était pas ma première gorgée de saké de marque Zenkuro. Pour la récente Coupe du monde de rugby 2019, un sport cher à David, Kanhokuto Shuzou (Fukuoka; saké sous la marque Kiku Tamanoi) et Kumazawa Shuzou (Chigasaki City, préfecture de Kanagawa; saké Tensei) ont «co-produit» une édition spéciale Zenkuro avec David, fermentée et distribuée au Japon pendant la Coupe. Les notes vertes étaient bien présentes!

Tandis qu’au départ une Kura en phase démarrage cherche avant tout à tirer le meilleur produit de de ce qu’elle possède, Zenkuro est désormais en mesure de proposer une gamme de références. En environ 5 ans donc, les résultats sont impressionnants, et l’industrie le dit: Zenkuro a reçu des médailles d’or et d’argent au concours International Wine Challenge de Londres pour certains de leurs sakés : liqueur de prune Umeshu, saké de presse goutte à goutte Shizuku, saké White Cloud Nigori.

Fait intéressant, le principal marché de Zenkuro aujourd’hui n’est pas constitué des restaurants japonais, mais de chefs servant de la gastronomie néo-zélandaise ou occidentale. L’association avec le cheddar fumé fut suffisamment convaincante. Bien sûr, l’équipe de Zenkuro doit encore investir beaucoup de temps dans l’éducation de leur marché, l’explication du produit et de sa culture auprès des professionnels et du grand public. La Maison est ouverte aux visites.

Zenkuro ne pourra pas nommer leur saké «Nihonshu» (une boisson fabriquée au Japon à partir de riz japonais et d’eau japonaise) et devra s’en tenir au mot «saké» comme classe de produit, ce qui signifie « Alcool » en japonais. Dans leur région, David et Matt ne semblent pas trop inquiets que d’autres producteurs ne mettent sur le marché sous une même « appellation » une boisson alcoolisée loin de la boisson fermentée à base de riz et d’eau, à propos de laquelle ils éduquent le marché. En Europe en revanche, certains acteurs de l’industrie naissante du saké travaillent déjà à définir une appellation protégée pour ancrer leur produit, inspiré directement du savoir-faire des Kura japonaises depuis des siècles.

Vous m’avez sans doute entendu louer la générosité et l’humilité de la grande famille des producteurs de saké. David a bien sa place dans celle-ci. Il partage son expérience avec d’autres brasseurs en herbe, les invitant chez Zenkuro. Matt de Melbourne Sake, qui a travaillé avec David pendant quelques mois, en a été le témoin. David est le Père du saké « Down Under ».

PRESS RELEASE – Sake On Air 1-year Anniversary Celebration



World’s 1st Sake & Shochu-dedicated Podcast

“Sake On Air” Celebrates 1 Year Anniversary

TOKYO – Sake On Air – the world’s number one podcast dedicated to Japan’s iconic beverages, sake and shochu – is commemorating the first year of shows by hosting its first ever live audience Q&A episode with the hosts at the Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center to be streamed via the show’s official Facebook page.

A Year of Sake On Air

Since its first broadcast one year ago, Sake On Air has amassed regular listeners in over 50 countries across the globe and is downloaded thousands of times every single month by an ever-growing population of sake and shochu fans. Over the past year Sake On Air has completely revamped its website, making it easy to find and enjoy new and past episodes, gather event info and insight from the hosts, and get to know the team behind Sake On Air providing unprecedented access to the sake and shochu industries. Originally starting with 5 rotating hosts, industry veteran and insider Rebekah Wilson-Lye, and sake world trailblazer Marie Nagata also joined the team as regular hosts this past Spring.

After making regular appearances at some of Tokyo’s most exciting sake events, sharing the voices of some of the industry’s pioneering breweries, and incorporating insight from industry leaders spearheading the international sake movement across the globe, the Sake On Air team is thrilled to look back on a year of sake and shochu podcasting, as well as look ahead to what’s coming down the pipe in year two of Sake On Air together with the show’s dedicated listeners.

Send us your Questions and Tune in

To commemorate a year of sake-infused podcasting, Sake On Air will be hosting a small private event on November 25th (Mon) beginning at 7:00 pm (Japan time) at the Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center in Tokyo, recapping a year of Sake On Air, looking ahead to year two, and hosting a live Q&A. A presentation portion of the show, as well as the Q&A will be broadcast live on the Sake On Air Facebook page, with snippets from the after party and host comments popping up throughout the evening on official Instagram feed. Those interested in taking part from afar are encouraged to send their questions and comments to the team via Instagram, Twiiter, Facebook, or to between November 18th (Mon) and 23rd (Sat), and your questions may be addressed on air.

Media inquiries and interview requests to:

Download images and press materials here:

(*Photos and images are the property of Sake On Air and are to be used solely for informative purposes.)

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About Sake On Air

Sake On Air began in October 2018 as the world’s first podcast dedicated to Japan’s most inspiring beverages: sake and shochu. Hosted by a rotating team of industry professionals, the bi-weekly show brings the stories from the front lines of the industry, serving as an informative, educational and inspiring resource for a world of sake and shochu fans, food and beverage specialists, and sake-curious. Sake On Air is broadcast from the Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center in Tokyo, Japan, and is made possible with the support of the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association.


Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association

Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center

Export Japan Inc. (link in Japanese)

Potts.K Productions