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Sake boom lands in Southeast Asia

Midsize makers follow major brewers as Japan's traditional alcoholic drink gets popular

Akana Sake Brewing features its Kinu no Mine brand at a promotional event on May 24 in Bangkok.

BANGKOK/YANGON -- Japanese sake is increasingly going global, and it is now catching on in Southeast Asia, prompting one midsize brewer to launch a new operation base in Thailand's capital. 

Akana Sake Brewing, based in the town of Iinan in the western prefecture of Shimane, is planning to step up sales of its flagship brand Kinu no Mine, which is produced from only rice, rice malt and water, across the region. 

The company has set a goal of selling 1,000 bottles in Thailand in 2017, up 30% on the year.

As part of its sales push, the brewery will open an office in Bangkok by the end of the year so it can respond more rapidly to local demand. The office will also be used to pitch products in Vietnam and Malaysia. 

The company is also set to begin major renovation of its brewery in July so that it can increase supply and expand exports. 

Equipment that will cool steamed rice, the most important ingredient for making sake, will be introduced in the new facility. Production capacity is expected to nearly double from the current level to 30,000 liters a year.

Kinu no Mine is characterized by its full-bodied taste.

Akana Sake Brewing President Takaaki Mishima said, "People tend to either love or hate the sake's robust flavor, but it goes very well with spicy Thai dishes."

A 300-milliliter bottle of Kinu no Mine is sold to Japanese restaurants and other clients in Thailand for about 600 baht ($17.61). In May, the brewery began marketing its latest brand, Kurakiji. The 720-ml size goes for 1,100 baht to 1,200 baht.

To drum up business, Akana Sake Brewing promoted the brand to local restaurants during business negotiations late last month in Bangkok. 

Bottoms up

Famous Japanese sake brands led the vanguard and have become increasingly entrenched in Thailand. Now, the midsize brewers are following in their wake and making deeper inroads into the country. 

The numbers back this up. According to trade statistics from Japan's Ministry of Finance, the value of sake exports to Thailand in 2016 totaled about 240 million yen ($2.15 million), a 2.5-fold increase from five years ago.

A Bangkok branch of liquor shop and bar Orihara Shoten carries more than 80 kinds of sake. The store's manager, Yoshito Suzuki, said, "Our sales are growing every year, and sake is gradually getting more popular."

Suzuki said 45% of the people who visit the store are Thais, and "brands with a high acidity level and sugar content as well as a pronounced taste" are their favorite. 

As part of the company's efforts to stir up interest, it will hold a sake and cheese party in June, promoting a unique way to enjoy the beverage. 

According to an official of Thai liquor wholesaler Italasia Trading, the highest selling sake in the country is Dassai, brewed by Asahishuzo in western Yamaguchi Prefecture. Zaku by Shimizu Seizaburo Shoten in the western prefecture of Mie and Born by Katoukichibee Shouten in the central prefecture of Fukui are also popular. Products with a strong brand profile, such as those served during meetings held by world leaders, tend to be popular, the official said.  

Branching out

The Japan External Trade Organization together with the Sake Export Association organized last month the first trade event for Japanese sake in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city. Held on May 16 and 17 at a restaurant, 10 Japanese breweries took part. More than 100 people, including representatives from restaurants and hotels as well as Japanese people living in the country, gathered to talk with brewery officials while sampling their products. 

Sake brewers exhibit their products and offer samples of the traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage at a trade event in Yangon on May 17.

Yangon has seen a sharp increase in the number of Japanese restaurants over the past two to three years.

Japanese food is riding an international wave on the back of a beauty-enhancing image for being both delicious and nutritional, and the number of young women especially who eat sashimi with sake is growing. 

However, exporting the drink is difficult due to Myanmar's import regulations on alcohol. The rules ban sake, which has a high alcohol content, but there are exceptions, such as for hotels and other businesses that want to serve the drink. 

The aim of the two-day event was to increase the local sake fan base and urge the country's authorities to loosen regulations, allowing even more people to enjoy Japan's traditional alcoholic beverage.

Nikkei staff writers Yuichi Nitta and Thurein Hla Htway contributed to this report

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