Breaking the rice wine barrier
If you've tried the mass-produced sake that's sold in big bottles at a fairly cheap price, it's hard to imagine the variety and sophistication that individual breweries of sake can achieve. In fact, depending on many factors, such as the type of rice and the water used, the delicate taste of sake can compete with the best of French wines.
The varieties of this very Japanese drink also rely on the way it has been produced - if it is pasteurised or unpasteurised, has water added or not, and the percentage of rice that is polished off each individual seed pre-production.
But despite the depth of the product, the highly traditional industry, which is mostly manned by men, has declined in recent years, as the youngsters of Japan have opted for colourful cocktails and other brews instead. This has necessitated sake to travel to find overseas markets.
Madoka Numata is a sake sommelier who educates and promotes the eponymous beverage in Hong Kong. Her current role is as section manager for the wine cellar and wholesale business of the city'super Group.
But the Japan native had several 'careers', before ending up in sake sales here. 'My parents are very generous, and allowed me to study many things.'
Numata majored in German, a language not widely studied in Japan, and after graduation decided to pursue further studies in Northern Ireland. 'I wanted to go to a place that not many Japanese go to,' she says.
She went on to study photo journalism, and had hoped to make it her career, but realised that competition was tough, and that other photographers of her age were already much more experienced than she.
Returning to Japan, she worked for two years at a small company selling healthy food products, but felt she needed a challenge and, due to the positive experience she had had in Northern Ireland, she decided to leave Japan again.
Numata arrived in Hong Kong without a job, but soon had an interview for a 'mystery' position. The recruitment agents asked her strange questions - such as 'Do you like drinking alcohol?' - but did not divulge the nature of the job.
'Only when I had an interview with the president of the company did I learn that the job was selling sake to restaurants,' she says.
Although Numata was successful in sales, she found the industry quite traditional and a little hard to fit into at first. 'I needed to catch up quickly with the industry terms and the different brands to convince restaurateurs that they should buy from us,' she says.
Today, seven years on, she has become an experienced sake sommelier, and has successfully passed relevant examinations in Tokyo. She still sells to retailers and restaurants, and handles enquiries and requests for events, such as sake pairing dinners.
'Pairing is one of my interests and is quite fun. We ask for the restaurant's menu and try to pair the dishes with sake. Sometimes we ask them to modify the dish a bit,' she explains.
She is also responsible for the selection of sake within city'super's wine cellar, including its selection of sake for seasonal promotions, such as the Chinese New Year, the sake fair in March and the shochu fair in the summertime.
According to her, sake is becoming increasingly popular year-on-year in Hong Kong. People are well informed about the most famous brands, and are very keen on trying out new seasonal products.
'I feel very positive about the market trend, as several new sake bars have opened and new restaurants selling sake are to open this year,' Numata says.
In addition to her work duties in Hong Kong, Numata also travels to Shanghai every couple of months, where she selects sake for the city'super wine cellar there, 'satisfying the requirements of a quite different market', she adds.
Numata says that the Chinese market is years behind that of Hong Kong. People go for the safe choice - the most prominent brands - meaning that the smaller or newer brands have a hard time breaking into the market. 'Breweries are aggressively visiting China to promote their brands,' she says.
Numata, who is single, regularly visits breweries in Japan, and is happy to say that business is improving. 'Apart from some breweries in the area where the tsunami struck, others are expanding,' she says.
She adds that since the tsunami, sake brewers have received strong support from the younger generation, and she hopes that business will be even stronger in the future.