Sake is so central to life in these islands that the name of the fermented rice drink is also the Japanese word for all alcoholic drinks.
Now, though, the venerable world of sake-brewing faces a critical challenge. Though there’s no chance of it dropping out of the drinkers’ lexicon, for decades now, less sake has been consumed every year. With the relentless attrition among kura (breweries) that this is causing, at best the industry could be said to be in the throes of a major shake-out.
Ironically, this same industry is now making by far the best sake that’s ever been sipped.
Just how long the drink’s been around is hard to pinpoint precisely. It was likely stumbled upon not long after wet-rice cultivation was brought to Japan around A.D. 300, when some of the grain was left unattended in water for a few days. By the seventh century, records point to standardized production methods being used in the imperial palace in Nara.
After centuries of being primarily produced for the court, and at large temples and shrines to help their festivals go with a swing, a major change came about 1,000 years ago. Then, cultivated (rather than naturally occurring) koji mold began to be used in fermentation. Also about the same time, brewing became far more widespread, and brewers began to use a small yeast starter for each batch. However, it wasn’t until the 16th century that they began using exclusively white rice, and the now-standard three-step mashing process.
Through all those centuries, the industry continued to grow, with major brewing areas developing around good sources of water (Nada in Kobe, and Fushimi in Kyoto) and rice (Niigata, Akita), and in regions with a distribution infrastructure.
The last two factors are what eventually made the Nada district of Kobe the sake-brewing giant it remains to this day. From there, great sake brewed with great local water was loaded in wooden casks onto purpose-built taru-fune (cask ships) and dispatched to Edo.
A new kid on the block, weird fizzy stuff called biiru (beer), came on the scene in the late 1800s. Few paid it much attention, though, and sake breweries continued to flourish. Their numbers peaked in the 1920s, when Japan’s rapidly growing population was served sake from almost 10,000 breweries, most of them very small and catering only to local needs.
Then, as in most other areas of Japanese life, World War II inflicted immense damage on the national drink. As there were great rice shortages, the government could not let breweries continue to squander it on brewing sake. Yet, naturally, they did not want to totally cripple the industry, and so breweries were forced to close or merge, and many were never able to recover.
Postwar profits drive
Also during the war, sake brewers were forced to adopt new methods, in which pure distilled alcohol was added in copious quantities to increase yields and use less rice. For the first time, sugars and acids were also then added to make the concoction taste more like traditionally brewed sake. Up until that time, all sake had been brewed with only rice.
When the war ended, brewers were no longer forced to use these methods, but as they proved to be highly profitable, no one went back to rice-only brewing. Consequently, a great blow was dealt to the quality of sake, a blow that kept the brewing world reeling for decades. In fact, even today, most inexpensive sake is still made using these yield-enhancing methods and additives to some degree.
It wasn’t until the early 1960s that anyone tried to brew sake with no added alcohol, sugar or acids. Tama no Hikari, a well-known Fushimi brewer, claims to have been the first. Those who followed suit struggled, as this “new” rice-only sake was naturally more expensive. But as it was the original brewing method, and as rice-only sake was clearly better than sake dosed with alcohol, most brewers eventually came around and reverted to making at least some rice-only brew.
Meanwhile, in the marketplace tastes were beginning to change. That brat called beer eventually started taking more yen than sake in the 1960s, even though sake production somehow continued rising till 1973. Since then, however, sake’s sales curve has only been going one way: down. In 2000, annual consumption per head, at 8.2 liters, was almost half the 15.4 liters per capita downed in 1970.
It’s not only the wider availability of beer that’s to blame, but of wine and spirits as well. As drinkers became exposed to all these new and different options, sake’s image began to be that of an old codger — hardly hip and trendy.
While the large breweries have been able to weather the stormwere stable, many smaller ones have gone under — sometimes because a family enterprise had no one willing to take over the arduous business.
Also, as Japan’s domestic infrastructure improved, smaller brewers have faced tough competition as very cheap sake from large brewers became available all over the country. Since many people naturally gravitate toward the cheapest stuff on the shelf, this led to many local breweries beginning to lose their main market.
But there was, at the same time, another intriguing trend: Sake was becoming noticeably better and better. Technology was improving, research was making advances — and brewers were becoming a bit more willing to experiment.
In particular, technical advances in rice-milling and charcoal-filtering began to help brewers come out with much cleaner, more refined sake. Improved milling also allowed sake to become more fragrant, especially when combined with newly isolated yeast strains.
New rice strains have also been developed over the last three decades. Through cross-breeding, strains with better genetic makeup for sake-brewing were produced, and these now constitute a large part of the market. Several rice strains that had not been grown for decades were revived. Both developments improved and diversified sake.
Also key to the drink’s improving quality was the “jizake boom” of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The nebulous term jizake means “local sake,” or “sake from the countryside.” What it implies is sake not from a large, established maker. Until this boom began, sake from the large brewers was considered superior — jizake was viewed as more of an oddity whose quality was suspect. Slowly, this mindset has changed as more and more consumers became interested in smaller breweries’ sake.
All of this ferments into the situation we have today. Sake production and consumption overall are down, and have been every year for almost 30 years. Yet, better sake is being made now then ever before. And, production of this premium sake is in fact increasing each year, albeit slowly.
Where will this lead us? There are many theories, and most are fairly bleak. The number of breweries will continue to fall. In 1988, there were about 2,500 in all — now there are about 1,600. With sales down, more kura throwing in the o-shibori seems unavoidable. Some think this shake-out will continue until there are but several hundred breweries left; others see the number stabilizing at around 1,000.
What can be done? This is a tough call. Proper marketing is obviously important, but sake poses a number of challenges.
In some ways, when image counts for so much, it is the venerability of sake that is one of its chief problems. Having been around for so long, and being so familiar to people in Japan, it is tough to sell sake to those for whom “new” or “trendy” are keywords to their consumption choices. Its image as something old-fashioned, hot and hangover-inducing is a bit too deeply embedded in the minds of many, especially younger people.
The industry does not seem to be all that proficient in marketing. Perversely, most such efforts seem focused on the wonderful, tradition-laden aspects of sake — which only strengthens the feeling that it’s an “old-fashioned” drink. Meanwhile, many breweries have tried creating prettily packaged low-alcohol sake in a lame attempt to appeal to women. Rarely, if ever, are these new products as tasty as the real thing, and as a result the approach does not really seem to be working either.
Despite all this, there are some signs of life: Good sake is rapidly gaining popularity overseas.
It used to be that outside of Japan, sake was confined to Japanese restaurants. This has changed quite a bit in the last few years, and it now appears on menus in all types of restaurants, especially of the “fusion” genre. This is a positive sign, but it’s not yet enough to turn the tide.
Looking beyond image, though, sake’s problems are seriously compounded by the lingo surrounding it. Even in Japan, many people are put off by the arcane terms used to define the various sake grades, though there are still respected palates promoting sake for the world-class beverage it can be and doggedly doing their best to learn about it as well.
Wine writer Robert Parker has had plenty of good things to say about sake. In 1998, while in Japan on a wine-related visit, he tasted 225 selected premium sake for an article in The Wine Advocate. Of these, 52 received scores between 87 and 92 out of 100, and Parker commented that not only did he enjoy the tasting, but he had “developed a considerable respect for the producers of high-quality sake.”
All this seems indicative of a fairly bright future for sake — at least overseas. Perhaps what the industry can best hope for here is that if and when sake reaches appreciable heights of connoisseurship in markets like Europe and North America, young people in Japan will notice, and perhaps take the time to rediscover their own national drink.
In truth, fine sake can compete with just about anything, not only in flavor and fragrance, but also in history, culture . . . and conversation.
But no matter how good, will it ever be Japan’s flavor of the month again?