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Something new brewing for sake

Why is the next generation of sake makers causing a stir by breaking with tradition?

by Melinda Joe

When Kenji Ichishima, the sixth-generation head of Ichishima Shuzo in Niigata Prefecture, took over his family’s sake brewery eight years ago at the age of 34, he immediately started making changes. First, he drastically reduced the number of products. Next, he revamped the brand to project a more artisanal image. Then, he did the unthinkable: He directed his master brewer to change the style of their sake. At first, some of his ideas met with resistance, but Ichishima says that everyone on his staff has come to see the wisdom of his decisions.

“It’s only taken eight years,” he says with a laugh.

For the first time in a long time, big changes are afoot in the sake world, as the next generation of brewery owners brings new ideas and youthful energy to the industry. In a field marked by tradition and long dominated by older men, radical change has not always been welcome. But as sake continues to lose 4-5 five percent of the domestic alcohol market share per year, the industry can’t afford to sit back and do nothing.

“The older generation doesn’t really want to change,” observes Ichishima. “Change is painful, and they want to keep doing things the way they’ve always done them. Also, they’re close to or even over the age of retirement, so for them it’s OK. But we (in the younger generation) have so many years left in our future, so it’s very, very scary to be in this shrinking industry.”

Like Ichishima, who lived in the United States for four years as a graduate student, many of the young people preparing to take over the reigns of a family sake business have spent time outside of Japan. As a result, they have a more worldly perspective and recognize the potential for new markets abroad. While domestic consumption continues to decline, global sake sales have increased. Exports rose 37 percent between 2001 and 2006, and have continued to see steady, gradual growth.

Ichishima was among the first to start actively promoting the drink overseas. As chairman of the Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council, he acts as the liaison to the International Wine Challenge, one of the world’s largest and most prestigious wine fairs. The JSBAJC was instrumental in persuading the organizers of the event to add a sake division in 2007.

Focusing on foreign markets alone, however, won’t save the industry. Exports still account for only a tiny fraction of sales. Ichishima believes that sake is in serious need of an image change. Although the brew carries a trendy cachet in major cities such as New York and London, here in Japan it’s regarded as dowdy and old-fashioned — an older person’s drink.

The most important thing is to attract younger imbibers, and Ichishima and other producers are working to develop new products that will appeal to a younger audience. At his brewery, they’ve launched a line aimed at the international market, a fruity, low-alcohol sake called Silk that can be enjoyed on its own or mixed into cocktails.

“If young people like the low-alcohol sake, they might start to drink more traditional sake later,” he explains.

The predilections of the young are never far from the mind of Toshifumi Imai, the executive director of Kamenoi Shuzo in Yamagata Prefecture. At 27, he has an intimate understanding of their tastes. Imai began working at the brewery two and a half years ago after studying business in New York. His father is still the president, but Imai is poised to take over in the next few years. As the executive director, he’s in charge of the day-to-day operations of things — everything from setting up tasting events, to negotiating sales and even brewing the sake.

Imai studied sake brewing at Tokyo University of Agriculture and is set to join the recent wave of brewery owners who make the sake themselves instead of relying on a toji, or master brewer, to oversee production.

Imai says that he’s trying to make sake for the new generation.

“My advantage is that I’m young, with the imagination to create sake that’s a little pop, a little shocking to the conservative people who drink sake now. Our tastes are totally different,” he says.

At the moment, he’s developing highly fragrant brews with slightly more pronounced sweetness. New products like his explosively aromatic “Super” Kudoki Jozu Junmai Daiginjo are “just the first step.”

Imai speaks English with a hip-hop-inflected Brooklyn swagger and, as he discusses his plans for the future, a boyish excitement comes though in his voice.

“Sake with carbonation is what I want to make next,” he explains. “I want it to be super-fizzy, fizzier than Perrier. I’m experimenting now and it’s going well.”

Nobuyuki Komai’s family has been producing Mutsuhassen sake at Hachinohe Shuzo, Ltd., in Aomori Prefecture since 1775. Like Toshifumi Imai, he’s learning to handle every aspect of the business. The 27-year-old Komai joined the company in 2008 and has been studying up on rice, yeast and the ancient art of fermentation. Last October, he tried his hand at brewing for the first time.

Soon, Komai may also start learning how to cultivate rice. Traditionally, sake makers have purchased rice from contract farmers. But for the last six years, Hachinohe Shuzo has been taking over nearby fallow fields and growing the rice used to brew their sake.

Komai acknowledges the need to get young people excited about sake and says that he’s constantly trying to think of new products and marketing strategies. It’s a challenge, but he remains optimistic.

“If we sit back and do nothing, sake will simply fade away,” he says. “But we still have a chance. Sake could become a drink enjoyed all over the world, just like wine and beer.”