The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The portly Japanese bar owner knows his stuff. He holds the tumbler of pale liquid up against the harsh lights of the exhibition center and swirls it around. Satisfied, he inhales the scent deeply—although he’s not quite ready to pass judgement. The final test is yet to come.

Taking a sip, he lets the golden spirit linger on his tongue. Looking on are Erika Degens, owner of Portland-based Stone Barn Brandyworks, and her husband. They smile as the connoisseur’s eyebrows rise sharply. It’s clearly not the first time the Oregon Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey has had that effect on someone. Trying this 94-proof dram for the first time almost always elicits such a reaction.

The bourbon, made from Oregon-grown wheat, rye, and corn—and aged nearly four years in a charred American-oak barrel—she explains modestly, is primarily the work of the man standing next to her, Sebastian Degens.

“Your husband is a genius,” the bar owner proclaims, leaning in conspiratorially.

Erika Degens, owner of Portland-based Stone Barn Brandyworks


Stone Barn Brandyworks is a relative newcomer. Set up in 2009, the company initially made fruit brandy and liqueurs based on traditional European recipes, but over the past decade the Degens have expanded their range. This year, they told The ACCJ Journal, is the first time they are taking part in the annual Foodex trade show, which was held March 5–8 at the Makuhari Messe convention center.

With the brand’s bourbon attracting admiring glances, alongside their Cherry Matsutake Brandy and Nocino Green Walnut Liqueur, Erika Degens said she was “delighted” at the positive response.

“We source everything that we use in our products from the Pacific Northwest, make small batches, and make sure that everything comes from scratch,” she said. “And the people we have been talking to here seem to know at least a little bit about Oregon. They like to hear the story behind the brand, and we are very hopeful that something positive might come out of the show.”

As the operators of a small business with limited resources and reach, the Degens are aware that the key to cracking the Japanese market—even in a limited way—lies in identifying a local partner and distributor.

“We know that the Japanese have an appreciation for whiskey, and they have also been really interested in our brandy, which is made with Rainier cherries and matsutake mushrooms,” she said. Similarly, the Haskap Liqueur—a blend of brandy, organic cane sugar, and haskap berries that are native to Hokkaido— was also finding a firm following.

“We think the Japanese elements of the drinks give us a unique connection to this market, and we’re really hopeful,” she added.

Craig Harris, Guittard branding and business development manager


While those components—an impressive product, a res­pectable track record of reliability, and an intriguing backstory—are important, Japanese companies are renowned for being dis­cerning and choosy about the foreign companies with which they partner. And with a vast pool of vendors to choose from, buyers here are arguably becoming even more selective.

“If you want to be a success in the Japanese market, you have to have the best ingredients and the best products; there is no other way,” said Craig Harris, branding and business development manager for the Guittard Chocolate Company.

The chocolatier was founded by Étienne Guittard, a French immigrant who lost his savings in the mid-1800s in the California Gold Rush. But, during that experience, he dis­covered how much the wealthy miners treasured the chocolates he had brought from France and returned home to refine his sweet-making skills. In 1868, he returned to San Francisco and the company was born.

Today, Guittard produces cocoa, chocolate syrup, milk chocolate balls, baking chips, mints, and mint wafers. Fully 85 percent of its clients are other companies in the food industry, including such household names as Baskin-Robbins, the Kellogg Company, and Garrison Confections. The remaining 15 percent are chefs.

Guittard has allied with a Japanese distributor and has started work on a local marketing and strategy plan, Harris said.

“Guittard makes sure that it gets the very best chocolate beans in the world, and we use recipes that are 150 years old and are just as good today as they were back then,” he said. “We also pride ourselves on working closely with farmers to ensure the sustainability of their operations, and we help with training so they can make their crops and our products even better.”

The potential of Japan, Harris believes, is huge.

“Chocolate is in so many products here. We make the best chocolate in the world, and we plan to be here for the next 150 years; so we will be working towards that aim.”

As well as being notoriously sweet-toothed, Japanese have become fans of high-end coffee. This kept Ralph Gaston extremely busy brewing up fresh batches of Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee in the section of the US pavilion set aside for food and drink from the Aloha State.

And the brand proudly displays the Hawaii Seal of Quality, singling it out as the cream of the crop among the state’s agricultural producers.

“We’ve been in the Japanese market in a very limited way for about three years, focusing on higher-end restaurants and hotels. We are hoping to be able to move into more retail outlets that are also at the upper end of the spectrum here,” said Gaston, who is originally from Baltimore but has been living in Hawaii for eight years.

“It takes a lot of hard work to make really good coffee—all the way through from the growing to the harvesting and the production process—but it is through taking good care of the crop and making a really good coffee that we make our value,” he said.

Rusty’s Hawaiian is a boutique coffee producer that operates on a mere six acres of land in the Ka’u district on the southernmost side of the island of Hawaii. Still run by members of two families, including the widow of founder Rusty Obra, the brand has won numerous accolades for its brew, including the top spot in the 2012 Roasters Guild Coffees of the Year Competition.

While the quality of Rusty’s Hawaiian coffee is not in doubt, tariffs and stiff competition in the sector have pushed the price up to a point at which it is slightly too costly for the market, Gaston said. One solution being explored is to import beans that are still green—which are not subject to import taxes—and have them roasted in Japan. The company is looking into the possibility of a tie-up in that area, although Gaston emphasizes that quality assurance is of paramount importance.

“We like coming to the food show because we believe that repeated exposure to the market is eventually going to translate into increased trust with our partners and our customers—and that is how we are going to grow here,” he said.

“We want to get to the point at which the Japanese tourists arrive in Hawaii and recognize our coffee brand, because they have already seen it here.”

Among the high-end companies taking part in Asia’s largest food exhibition were a number that were also keen to underline the health benefits of their selections.

Donna Bimbo, vice president for international operations of Worcester, MA-based Ginseng Up Corp., said interest in the company’s premium ginseng energy drink had been “fabulous” throughout the four days of the show.

“This is the first time we have exhibited in Japan, and the response has been just great—so good, in fact, that we are almost sure that we have been able to find a distributor for the drinks, which was the prime objective of coming.”

On top of that, Bimbo said she had also forged important connections with potential distributors in South Korea, Taiwan, and China.

As the name indicates, Ginseng Up’s drinks are heavy in extracts of the plant’s root, which has been proven to help fight fatigue and soothe stress. They also come in 16 fruit flavors.

Already in 37 countries, the company now has its sights set on the Asia–Pacific region. “We are very strong in South America and have launched in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, so Asia–Pacific was the obvious next target for us,” Bimbo said.

However, as she pointed out, they will face some different challenges as they try to get a foot in the door of Japan. One is packaging. Ginseng Up favors glass bottles, but these aren’t ideal for a market heavily driven by vending machines. But the company is “flexible and agile enough” to make changes to meet local needs, she said, such as switching to cans or PET bottles.

“Whatever we decide, we know that the most important thing is going to be making sure that we deliver quality products, and that we build a good working relationship with the company that is here,” she said. “We have done our homework and we know that is the only way to succeed here.”

🇺🇸 Foodex 2019 US Pavilion

Allied International of Virginia
Barrel Snacks (Cheese Balls, Cheese Curls, Party Mix), Forrelli Pasta Sauce, Forrelli Yellow Mustard, Gourmet Nuts, Multigrain Chips, Veggie Straws, Jalapeno Poppers

Aloha Farms Grow
100% Hawaiian Gourmet Volcanic Sea Salt, 100% Kona Hawaiian Coffee (Roasted), 40% Kona HAPA Hawaiian Blend Coffee, Hawaiian Honey Infused with Coffee, Kona Coffee Chocolate Hawaiian Macadamia Nuts, Natural Hawaiian Honey with Honey Comb, Natural Hawaiian Honey Tropical Blossom Blend

Bitchin’ Sauce
Heat Bitchin’ Sauce

Blue River Trading
American Spice Trading Company Garlic Powder, Bar Harbor Lobster Bisque, Bar Harbor New England Clam Chowder, Hammons Black Walnut Oil, Maddy’s Sweet Shop Shortbread Cookies, Shullsburg Creamery Blueberry Cheddar Cheese, Shullsburg Creamery Garlic and Herb Gournay Cheese, Shullsburg Creamery Gouda Cheese Snack Pack, Shullsburg Creamery Port Wine Cheese Spread, Shullsburg Creamery White Cheddar Cheese Curds

Fusion Jerky
Fusion Jerky Lemon Pepper Chicken Jerky, Fusion Jerky Island Teriyaki Pork Jerky, Fusion Jerky Garlic Jalapeno Pork Jerky

Mission Foods
Press Flour Tortilla

Premium Blend
Cannavinus (moscato, elderberry, and mint wine), El Guitarron Agave Wine, El Guitarron Especial, Klir Red, Rhumbero Coconut, Rhumbero Superior 24%

Red Dirt Trading Post
Sutler’s Craft Gin

Sacramento Packing
California Dried Prunes, California Prune Juice Concentrate, California Shelled Walnuts, California In-Shell Walnuts

Stone Barn Brandyworks
Cherry Matsutake Brandy, Haskap Liqueur

Valley Fig Growers
Blue Ribbon Orchard Choice California Figs
and Fig Products

West 45
Scrappy’s Bitters

Julian Ryall is Japan correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.