Kanpai! Sake needs new markets, in Japan and out

Kanpai!  Meros joined the discussion on NHK World’s current BizBuzz episode on the Japanese sake industry.  The episode can be seen streaming on NHK World for the next few weeks.

Sake, also called nihonshu, is an alcoholic beverage brewed from rice, water and the critical ingredient koji mold which helps convert the starch in rice into sugar to be fermented. Although sake is often called “rice wine” in English, this is a bit of a misnomer, as the production process is closer to beer brewing than to wine.

Within Japan, sake consumption has decreased to a minor share of the alcohol market (6%).  Sake began to be thought of as an “old man’s drink”, with younger Japanese consumers preferring beer, wine, shochu (Japanese distilled spirits) or other drinks.  With Japan’s shrinking population, Japan’s venerable sake breweries have needed to think strategically about how to maintain their industry – growing share within Japan as well as finding new markets overseas.

Japan has been seeing  growth both in younger brewers and new business models, such as Asahi Shuzo’s Dassai sake who marketed directly to Tokyo restaurants or and  start-up  Nihonshu Oendan which supports the sale and marketing of craft sakes from several breweries.  Sake brewery tours, like wine tours in California, are growing in popularity among both Japanese and international tourists.

Overseas too there has been increased interest in sake, both because of the increase in sushi and Japanese restaurants, as well as the inclusion of a sake category in major wine competitions.  For example, in Japanese sake’s top export market, the US, most Americans who have tried sake say their first experience was in a Japanese restaurant. Still, sake is a negligible share of even the US market.   To really have an impact in overseas markets, sake will need additional consumer education and will ultimately need to break out of the limited Japanese restaurant market.  Organizations like the Sake Samurai Program, Sake Education Council and WSET Sake Certification as well as direct-to-consumers sales models like Kanematsu’s Sake Network for the EU are looking to address these issues.

In this episode, Meros’ Lucia Vancura, sake expert Rebekah Wilson-Lye and host Jon Kabira discusses the changing sake market, the rise of sake sommeliers, pairing sake with non-Japanese cuisine challenges and opportunities for the sake market to grow overseas.

Meros shares green tea industry insights on NHK’s Biz Buzz Japan

Meros is back on this season’s Biz Buzz Japan on NHK World. This time Meros’ Global Markets director Lucia Vancura discusses the Japanese green tea industry and export marketing challenges with tea expert and certified tea instructor Oscar Brekell, and host Jon Kabira.

Green tea exports from Japan have doubled over the past decade to over 4000 MT, a bright spot for an industry whose domestic production has been falling.  The domestic Japanese green tea industry faces an aging and shrinking population of tea farmers, as well as Japanese consumers who have endless choices of beverages

Exports of Japanese green tea were driven initially by the growth in sushi and Japanese restaurants overseas over the past decade. The healthy image of green tea with its high anti-oxidants also boosted its popularity. Top tea export markets for Japan are the US, Taiwan and the EU-tea processing hub, Germany. Not only green tea leaves and bottled tea, but matcha (green tea powder) also has  become increasingly popular as a flavoring for desserts, from ice cream to cakes.  Now fruit-flavored green tea beverages and green tea lattes can be seen in cafes and convenience stores across the world.

Green tea and black tea both come from the leaves of the same plant (camellia sinensis), but then undergo different processing.  For Japanese green tea, the leaves are harvested three times a year, then quickly steamed, crushed and dried, retaining the green color and original fragrance.  Many other countries, including China, Vietnam and Taiwan also produce green tea, but through a slightly different process that usually includes panfiring, rather than steaming the leaves. Due to the differences in processing, as well as the different climates and cultivars, tea leaves from different areas have distinctive flavors. Japanese green teas are often described as “grassy” and “mellow”.

Japanese green tea exporters face various challenges in international markets for various reasons, including low consumer familiarity with Japanese green tea, regulatory barriers related to agrochemical registration, as well as the high price and relatively low volumes available for export. In overseas markets, although green tea itself is increasingly common, there is often no reason for a bottled tea manufacturer or a lemon-flavored green tea product to use expensive Japanese green tea as a raw material. These manufacturers need large volumes of affordable green tea leaves. Cheaper tea leaves from China, South America or elsewhere are usually substituted.

The key for Japanese green tea producers, who are typically small family farms, is understanding the needs and interests of overseas consumers. What kind of packaging is attractive – dry leaves, bottles, or ready-to-drink tea bags?  Do people buy tea at cafés or supermarkets? Inspiring people to become interested in the characteristic flavor of Japanese green tea, compared to other green teas, may be the best way to convince consumers to pay the higher prices that Japanese green tea requires.

This NHK BizBuzz episode discusses issues in the green tea industry and highlights some creative ventures in the domestic market to attract younger and new consumers. These include cold-brewed green tea packaged and served like high-end wine and flavored Japanese green tea.

The episode is broadcast on NHK World throughout June and is available online on demand until July 21st.  NHK World is available around the world on cable as well as streaming online.

Meros talks wagyu beef industry on NHK’s Biz Buzz Japan

Meros Global Markets Director Lucia Vancura will be appearing on this season’s Biz Buzz Japan (NHK World) episode Wagyu: The Business of Japanese Beef, joined by chef and food blogger Marc Matsumoto and hosted by Jon Kabira.

Meros talks wagyu on NHK Biz Buzz Japan

The term wagyu is increasingly known in international markets as a type of beef developed in Japan.  Wagyu, a Japanese word meaning “Japanese cattle”, are breeds developed in Japan, mainly over the past 100 years, originating from hybrids of domestic working cattle and beef cattle introduced from overseas. They are characterized by heavily marbled meat and fat, careful care and breeding – resulting in extremely high meat prices.

Today in modern Japan, wagyu is defined as beef from one of four breeds of cattle, though in reality the majority is from just one breed, the so called “black” wagyu (kuroge washu). Cattle raised in Japan of other breeds, including Angus, Holstein or other locally developed breeds, are not considered wagyu. Wagyu production in certain geographic areas, such as Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture, Matsuzaka in Mie Prefecture and Ohmi in Shiga Prefecture have developed particular renown and this beef is often called by its region – Kobe Beef, Matsuzaka Beef or Ohmi Beef.

The wagyu business in Japan faces both domestic industry challenges and international market hurdles as it pushed to expand. Domestically, wagyu producers face shrinking numbers of active farmers and a scarcity of wagyu calves. Internationally, wagyu produced in Japan struggles to differentiate itself from beef products called wagyu that are produced in the US and Australia. These are usually hybrid cattle with some wagyu,

The delicate marbling of the meat is what differentiates wagyu from other beef varieties

Angus and other genetic heritage. These may be high quality beef, but are fundamentally a different product, with usually different texture and marbling than wagyu raised in Japan. Another reason for the different appearance of the domestically produced wagyu beef and the overseas varieties is the breeding method: while Japanese cattle is grain fed, wagyu cattle overseas is usually grass fed which gives the different texture and marbling.

In overseas markets, there is little to no regulation, especially in restaurants, as to what can be labeled as “wagyu”, leading to further confusion as to what wagyu from Japan really is. With extremely small volumes of Japanese wagyu available in the overseas markets – in the US, for example, there are less than 10 restaurants serving wagyu imported from Japan – the high prices and low availability limit overseas consumers’ exposure.

The episode discusses the dynamics in the wagyu economy, differences in beef consumption culture and also features Marc’s wagyu recipe ideas, as well as global food culture insights.

The episode will first be broadcast on NHK World, May 26 2017 and then available on demand throughout May and early June.