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What the Rise of Craft Sake Says about Farming, Climate, and Culture


In the introduction to her new book, Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake: Rice, Water, Earth, Nancy Matsumoto writes, “Sake embodies some of the things I love most about Japan: the contrast between old, traditional ways and endlessly imaginative reinvention, and an intense dedication to craft. Sake’s identity is inseparable from the country’s history, culture, and language.”

A New York- and Toronto-based writer and editor (and an occasional Civil Eats contributor), Matsumoto has been writing about sake for around 10 years. In 2019, she and the book’s coauthor, Michael Tremblay, an expert, teacher, and official Sake Samurai, traveled through the Japanese countryside visiting small-scale breweries and rice farms, eating, drinking, and learning about a critical moment in the history of sake production. For Matsumoto, the experience was about more than creating a snapshot of an industry—it was also about the importance of seeing sake as an agricultural product.

Women in traditional garb hand-planting rice in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Tuttle Publishing)

As Matsumoto and Trembley write, sake’s 2,600-year-old history is so intertwined with the history of Japan (and Shintoism) that it appears in the country’s foundational myths. Brewing used to occur in religious temples, and every brewery in the country still includes a small Shinto shrine. Sake has always been inextricably linked to rice farming, but the industrialization of the production process beginning in the 1950s led many Japanese consumers to stop seeing it that way. Now, that’s beginning to change.

Meanwhile, cultures outside Japan are slowly embracing sake as an alternative to beer and wine. The U.S. is now the leading export market for the beverage, making it an important opportunity to draw a connection between farm and glass.

We spoke with Matsumoto recently about heirloom rice varieties, the impacts of climate change on the sake industry, and why she believes the drink may be on the verge of a bit of an international renaissance.

One of the brewers you visit says, “post-war industrialized sake relied on petroleum-based energy and brewing materials, production machinery, chemical lactic acid, commercial use, and often rice transported from afar, resulting in a low-cost standardized brew.” He considered this entire system unsustainable and he talked about the return to traditional Edo Era techniques, which involve doing nearly everything by hand. Can you say a little about that transition and why you wanted to write about it?

We deliberately put that word “craft” in the title because we were talking about artisanal, pretty small-scale breweries. Many of them were once big breweries when sake was a much bigger domestic Japanese industry. And then, with the decline in consumption and the horrible effects of World War II, which is such a big part of the sake story, so many breweries basically went bankrupt and closed, and a common way to revive or keep a family brewery going was to scale down production and make it much more artisanal, because everything was going back to much older techniques that were done by hand as opposed to the industrialized one.

There are still huge sake makers, and it’s not really to cast aspersions on the product that they make because they have incredible technical know-how and can make beautiful sakes on a large scale. It’s sort of like large California wine makers—they know what they’re doing, and they do it well. But so many of them are going back [to old ways], and it’s a way to go back to quality.

“Japan has the same problem that every other place in the world has. Farmers are aging out, and their children don’t want to continue.”

Some really do care about the carbon footprint and the fossil fuels, but you don’t hear them talk about organics the way you hear it in the West. It’s more like, “We realized that if we go back to the wooden vats, it tastes better and it’s more natural,” or “We realized that if we want a better quality of rice and we use fewer pesticides, then we can have a habitat for native birds.” The driving force is sometimes a little bit different, but it’s the same outcome, which I really like, because they’re emphasizing quality over quantity. And they are thinking about the environment and the local economy in a way that’s going to give farmers a better market for their rice.

Japan has the same problem that every other place in the world has. Farmers are aging out, and their children don’t want to continue. So when you have, say, an heirloom rice being revived [for sake production], people have to pay a premium to get farmers to grow this because it’s hard, and they have to re-learn it. But [those brewers] are supporting the local economy and local farmers.

Can you explain why sake consumption has declined in Japan?

It goes back to the economic boom of the ’70s and ’80s when, all of a sudden, Japanese people had a lot more consumer dollars to spend, and they started getting access to foreign spirits like whiskey and French wine. These things were way sexier than sake. At that point, sake had become a not-great product, because of all the rice shortages after World War II [when it was diluted with water, distilled alcohol, glucose syrup, and other additives]. So it had this image of like, what grandpa drinks when he gets drunk at night. And it still suffers from that kind of image problem.

Another reason is young people all over the world are drinking less. There are so many things competing for their attention like video games and other screens, so they’re not really socializing as much. And COVID was horrible for [Japan’s restaurant and bar] industry.

Can you say more about those heirloom rice varieties? You talk about how some are very regional.

There are many instances across Japan of the revival of local heritage grains. Omachi is a great example, because it grows in a very particular warm climate, in this very sheltered valley between the mountains and the Seto Inland Sea, which is very calm. Many other prefectures grow their own sake rice, but some varieties like omachi are so good that it overrides any desire to be local. It is the most expensive sake rice in the country.

Yamada Nishiki is of course the most famous [sake rice]. There’s this organic maker in Shiga, which is not that far [from where it’s traditionally grown]—they have crossed their own local breed of rice with Yamada Nishiki, so they can say, this is our own domain, our own little local sake, but it has traits like the Yamada Nishiki.





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