On Value and Price in Sake

I have recently been thinking so much about sake pricing, I almost confuse myself. It’s a very big topic, and one that many people in the industry (particularly non-Japanese) seem to have strong opinions about. The primary reason, of course, is that within Japan most sake is very, very cheap, while outside Japan it is very, very expensive. For many brewers this is a huge problem, because they simply don’t make very much money, even when their sake is sold overseas at enormous markup.

Some brewers and sake sales companies have approached this in the most straightforward way possible: by making some sake that is very, very expensive, and hoping that this will result in that devoutly-to-be-wished premium wine effect that causes the whole industry to be able to charge more. Maybe it will!

At any rate, I am not here to argue the need for change, nor to debate the value of sake and such. Here, I just want to look at all the various elements that can go into making sake more expensive, so as to help consumers better judge the value of what they’re buying. If, in so doing, I stumble into value judgments, well, so be it.

So, what are the elements that can influence sake pricing? Well, in no particular order, the basics are:

Rice – This is the first step, of course. Sake brewing rice is more expensive than table rice, and some brewing rice is more expensive than others. Yamada Nishiki tends to go for the most. According to a 2015 government report, a tawara (a standard measure of raw rice in Japan, equaling 60 kilos) of Yamada Nishiki was 25-40,000 yen depending on grade, while Gohyakumangoku was 16,000 yen. A name-brand table rice averages around 15,000 yen, while non-brand is much cheaper. A brewery must buy raw, unpolished rice from farmers or the Japanese agricultural cooperative, and then that rice must be made ready for fermentation, so that means another important element is…

Washed rice ready for steaming.

Seimaibuai – The rice must be polished before it is used in brewing. Polishing takes time and money, and it also influences how much rice must be bought. For example, let’s say a kura wants to brew a fairly standard 1,000 kg batch of 60% seimaibuai ginjo. The brewery must buy 1,670 kilos of unpolished rice for that. Now, imagine they want to go super premium, and brew a 33% daiginjo. That means they have to pay for 3,000 kilos of rice! Obviously, this will drive the price of the sake up.

Process – This is a more complex issue. There are many ways to brew sake, and some of them take more time and effort, which is money. The ginjo brewing process is slow, and careful, and needs strict temperature control. This is more expensive than, say, futsushu. Some pressing processes, like shizuku/tobindori not only require more labor, but also severely limit production output so they also drive up the price for commercial reasons.

The brewmaster filling bottles from a glass tank
Bottles being filled directly from a tobin, the glass tank on the right, for immediate sale.

Packaging – It should be obvious, but the more ornate and complicated a package used for sake, the more it costs. Those wooden boxes aren’t free to the brewery, you know!

Those are all pretty straightforward, but other, more complex issues can also come into play. Things like:

Aging – Aging sake takes time, of course, but also effort. Sake isn’t simply left to mature on its own. It is monitored, adjusted, and sometimes moved from one place to another, from tanks to bottles, etc. The cost may not be all that high for a sake aged for just a year or two, but what about 20 years? Or 40? It’s almost impossible to figure up the true cost of decades of aging for the brewery. Thus, if a brewery wants to charge several hundred thousand yen for a bottle of sake that’s several decades old, who’s to tell them it’s not worth it? Not I. And if the customer also think it’s worth it, well, then, that brings us to…

My birth-year sake!

Value Perception – This is, of course, what is guiding the current trend in super premium sake. There are certain defined elements that cost money, and thus drive up price, but undefined things can also do so. If you can create a feeling that a sake is special, rare, or otherwise worth a price that you don’t normally see, and customers then pay for it, well, there you go. Fear of missing out on something special, status, bragging/Instagram rights… They can all contribute to “premium feeling,” and premium prices.

A concrete example of this is Hawkeye/鷹の目. This is a sake brewed by Hatsumomiji Shuzo, but sold by Forbul, a marketing company based in Tokyo. It is sold only online, from 9 pm every Wednesday evening. The sale stops when the current batch (a couple of hundred bottles, I understand) is sold. According to the website, they usually sell out in about five minutes. These bottles run 12,000 yen for a 720ml bottle, tax and shipping included. Since a junmai daiginjo tobindori is usually around 5,000 or 6,000, that’s around twice the price of a typical top-grade, super premium sake. But Hawkeye is not telling anyone what’s actually in the bottle, except that it is a junmai made by Hatsumomiji from Yamada Nishiki grown in Yamaguchi.

Of course, all of Hatsumomiji’s sake is junmai, and they only use rice grown in Yamaguchi prefecture, much of it Yamada Nishiki (all of their rice koji is Yamada Nishiki). The water is also the same as all their other sake. So, we cannot know if anything about this sake is unusual at all. It could be shizuku daiginjo, it could be something else, we don’t know. But, we do know that 200 people a week think it is special enough to spend 12,000 yen on, and none of them are complaining on social media, as far as I can tell. To be fair, Hatsumomiji doesn’t make any bad sake, and so whatever is in there is going to be good drinking. And the customers are getting to join in on the buzz around the sake, so there’s no reason for them not to be happy.

Does that justify the price? I don’t know. It is successful, though, and in the current market, that might be the most important thing.

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