Japan launches sake app to identify varieties

Sakefan World developers Kazuto Tsuchida (left) and Kenichiro Oka with bottles of sake listed in their app.
Sakefan World developers Kazuto Tsuchida (left) and Kenichiro Oka with bottles of sake listed in their app.ST PHOTO: SHERWIN LOH

Fans of Japanese food culture here often puzzle over the complex labels of sake, the popular fermented rice tipple. It is hard, for instance, to tell the difference between Junmai Daiginjo-shu (pure rice, very special brew) and Junmai Ginjo-shu (pure rice, special brew).

An app from the Japanese government called sakefan World, which made its debut in Singapore last week, makes it easy to do so now.

Commissioned by Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the free English-language Apple iOS app was launched at the Oishii Japan food and beverage trade fair at Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre. It uses image-recognition techniques to identify the unique label of each bottle via the phone's camera, so that it can identify even the variation of sake produced by the same brewery.

Sakefan World currently lists 80 sake varieties from 19 breweries. It is targeting 200 breweries that export the rice wine, and aims to have 40 breweries listed by early next year. It has a long way to go, as there are an estimated 1,800 to 2,000 breweries in Japan churning out close to 100,000 sake varieties.

The app is developed by Mr Kazuto Tsuchida, the sales manager of printing company Takakuwa Art Printing, and Mr Kenichiro Oka, manager of app developer Biglobe.

Takakuwa is a 103-year-old company that prints over 80 per cent of all the sake labels used by the breweries.

Speaking with The Straits Times, Mr Tsuchida said that one major hurdle was in developing the photo-recognition technology that can identify the labels by the unique calligraphy and design that breweries use to visualise the flavour within each bottle.

To use the app, users simply snap a photo of the sake label. The software will search for a match within its database, and provide information such as the type of sake, alcohol content, serving temperature, food-pairing recommendations and even information about the prefecture that the brewery is from.

"We are going to focus on the breweries that export sake to make it easier for non-Japanese speakers to appreciate sake," said Mr Tsuchida, who estimates that this itself will take two years to complete.

According to Japan's National Tax Agency, the value of Japanese sake exports increased to 11.5 billion yen (S$133 million) last year, setting a record for the fifth consecutive year.

Some 16,316 kilolitres of sake were sent overseas last year.

And yes, said Mr Oka, the app will eventually record details from the remaining breweries.

When asked how long that would take, he poured himself a cup of sake, smiled and simply said: "Kanpai (cheers in Japanese)."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2015, with the headline 'Japan launches sake app to identify varieties'. Print Edition | Subscribe