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Food & Beverage

Japanese sake Kubota takes on sparkling wine

Brewer Asahi-Shuzo updates its main brand for pandemic-era drinkers

Kubota Sparkling comes in a sleek designer bottle with a Champagne gold label to show off the new direction sake is taking. (Photo by Shinichi Hashimoto) 

NIIGATA, Japan -- The maker of Kubota sake is attempting to attract some of the sparkling wine market's 20- and 30-something fans with its first effervescent sake, one it is marketing as going well with Western cuisine.

Asahi-Shuzo Sake Brewing, based in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, spent more than a year developing Kubota Sparkling as the pandemic kept people at home and stimulated demand for more adventurous refreshments.

The first shipment of 12,000 bottles went out on April 19. They sold out within a few days in some stores. Another batch is coming in June, with additional shipments following every other month.

Asahi-Shuzo has cottoned on to the growing market for sparkling wines in recent years, with people in their 20s to 40s being the main customers. With the at-home consumption of alcoholic beverages increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company concluded that bubbly drinks would be even more popular as a way to break up the monotony, Asahi-Shuzo representatives said.

Kubota Sparkling features fine bubbles and a muscat-like flavor. It is based on junmai-shu, sake made using only rice, koji malted rice and water. The junmai-shu flavor is uninhibited by the beverage's 12% alcohol content, which is similar to many sparkling drinks.

The aerated sake pairs well with bruschetta, uncured ham, cheese ahijo, and other foods, according to Akira Hirasawa, an Asahi-Shuzo director.

Asahi-Shuzo released the Kubota brand In May 1985. At the time, consumers were switching from sake, moving on to other drinks such as beer and wine. Price competition in the sake segment was also fierce. The company decided to create a high-quality brand that was priced appropriately, instead of racing to the bottom. Kubota Senju, meant to pair with ordinary meals, and Kubota Manju, designed for special occasions, have since made it onto Asahi-Shuzo's long sellers' list.

A store in Niigata, northern Japan. Here, Kubota's sparkling sake sold out in a few days. (Photo by Shinichi Hashimoto)

During the decades since, Kubota has attracted many habitual drinkers, but they're aging.

With the release of Kubota Sparkling, Hirasawa said, "we hope to create new demand and connect generations."

In October 2019, before Asahi-Shuzo's 100th anniversary and the Kubota brand's 35th, the brewery embarked on a series of major reforms. It adopted a low-temperature, high-precision fermentation technique to further improve the clean taste of Senju and heighten the accuracy of koji production to better harmonize the body and flavor of Manju.

In addition, the hiire heat-treatment process for Manju was adjusted, raising the temperature of brewed sake, and the storage temperature was lowered by 5 C.

Kubota Sparkling is part of a repositioning of the brand meant to reflect a new direction that sake is taking. It comes in a sleek designer bottle with a Champagne gold label.

The brewery has authorized only certain retailers to carry it, but it is also available at the company's online shop. Kubota Sparkling's suggested tax-inclusive retail price is 1,320 yen ($12).

Hirasawa said Kubota Sparkling also goes well with grapes, peaches and other juicy fruits, and that "we will develop it into a year-round product."

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