CPG Playbook   //   April 3, 2024

As U.S. sake demand rises, new brand SummerFall bets on ready-to-drink cans

The sake category has been hot for some time, and a new brand called SummerFall wants to tap into this demand by introducing a canned, ready-to-drink sparkling sake.

The debut comes at a time when the sake category is booming in the U.S. Japan’s sake exporting more than doubled in volume between 2012 to 2022 — from about 14 million liters a year to nearly 36 million liters, according to the trade group Japanese Sake and Shochu Makers Association. Meanwhile, several startup breweries popped up in California and New York in the past couple of years. As of 2023, the U.S. is the second largest market for Japanese sake exporting behind China.

SummerFall wants to offer an entry point for people interested in sake — also referred to as Japanese rice wine — but not sure where to start. The brand’s first major retail chain is Erewhon, where SummerFall hopes to marry Japanese flavors with a laid back West Coast branding.

SummerFall is owned by Wakaze, a Paris-based sake brewer founded by Takuma Inagawa — who is the CEO of both. Inagawa decided to launch SummerFall as its U.S. brand to capture a new audience that might be more interested in a ready-to-drink offering. Wakaze began importing its French sake to the U.S. about a year ago. To build out the RTD brand in the U.S., its parent company Wakaze raised a $7.6 million Series B round in January 2023 — its funding totaling $10 million to date.

Inagawa said most Americans associate sake with sushi dinners or formal sit-down settings. The idea with SummerFall is to market a sake product “without pretense,” he said. “For the younger generation, sake seems quite complicated for them, that’s why I wanted to make the taste and design stand out,” Inagawa said.

This month, SummerFall is launching on its DTC site and in five Erewhon locations, where the grocery specialist already carries Wakaze. Currently there is a waitlist of 2,100 for the website launch this month, Inagawa said. “We pitched the buyer, and she said the to-go format would have a different positioning from traditional sake bottles,” Inagawa said. Deals with liquor store chains and independent shops are currently in the works to roll out this year.

The canned recipe also hits several growing beverage trends: low-ABV, canned ready-to-drink cocktails and, of course, sake. While Wakaze’s bottled sake is brewed in France, SummerFall sparkling sake is based in California, where it’s made with locally sourced rice using wine fermentation methods. This process also gives SummerFall a higher acidity than traditional sake, making it more comparable to a sparkling wine.

Inagawa said when he began doing Wakaze tastings in the U.S. last year, he found that many customers were already familiar with sake but didn’t find everyday occasions for it. “People love it, but the $30 price per bottle might be too expensive for them,” he said. What’s more, it has to be drunk within days of opening. “So making it a smaller format and bringing it outside Japanese restaurants to adapt it to American tastes.”

Taylor Foxman, founder of The Industry Collective, a spirits industry professionals group, told Modern Retail, “I have been bullish on the wider Asian beverage category over the past few years given the innovation I’ve seen, especially from the emerging brand part of the wider beverage industry.” Examples include Sanzo sparkling water and Nectar Hard Seltzer, which specializes in Asian flavor profiles like yuzu and lychee.

Foxman added that drinkers are increasingly looking for new and innovative brands to try. “People are generally familiar with the product overall,” Foxman said, making it an exciting time for suppliers looking to break into the industry. “Sake is also a super versatile product when it comes to occasion setting,” she said, from intimate dinners to clubs and bars.

For Inagawa, the SummerFall launch is also a crash course in running a CPG startup. “I didn’t know there was a whole CPG industry for emerging brands,” he said. “That doesn’t exist in Japan or France, so it’s all new to me.”

The brand is launching with a direct-to-consumer channel to be able to serve customers nationwide. But SummerFall’s marketing playbook will initially focus on on-premise events and distribution to build industry hype around the brand.

Inagawa said growing DTC alone is not enough to move the needle in this category, so the goal this year is to bring SummerFall to wholesale accounts where canned sake makes sense. These will include event venues and bars and restaurants with big outdoor setups. Other opportunities include selling at establishments that don’t have a full bar set up, but want to be able to serve a premium ready-to-drink beverage beyond spiked seltzer.

“People are used to seeing sake in a formal setting, so styling it as an RTD is helpful in showing it outside of that context,” Inagawa said.