Sake in Japan is undergoing an image makeover. It’s desperately trying to become one of the cool kids again. Currently the second-lowest consumed alcoholic beverage in the country — whiskey and brandy being the lowest — sake only has a 6.8 percent market share according to a National Tax Agency Report in 2013.
A new generation of sake brewers are hoping to turn things around. But it’s not going to be easy as the aging drinkers of traditional sake are literally dying — and taking the market with them. Young toji (professional brewers) are hoping to captivate younger generations of drinkers by creating new flavors with ancient techniques, and their unconventional attempts at making a comeback seem to be working.
Sake was alive and well at Craft Sake Week held in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills last month. During the 10-day event, 100 domestic breweries presented their to a young, enthusiastic crowd. The scene was far removed from stuffy standard sake tastings. A live DJ spun pop and electronic music, gourmet food trucks served international cuisines and craft sake was poured from the hands of the very toji who labored over it.
“This is sake for my generation,” said 30-year-old Katsuhiko Miyasaka, a brewer at Nagano’s Miyasaka Brewing Co., which has been in his family for more than 350 years. And what is Miyasaka doing differently to his forefathers to secure the future of his brewery’s sake? Increasing acidity and reducing alcohol content.
“Sake should be enjoyed with food,” he said. “Japanese people are now enjoying such a vast array of foreign cuisines, sake needs to evolve to be paired with not only Japanese food.”
By increasing the acidity and lowering the alcohol content, sake can be matched more easily with a wide range of food, much like wine.
Similarly, at Senkin Shuzo, the oldest sake brewery in Tochigi Prefecture, two brothers are making their mark on modern sake by treating it more like a wine. Eldest brother Kazuki Usui is a former wine sommelier and is imparting his wine knowledge to the process of making sake. He firmly believes that sake can exude terroir — that the characteristics of the local environment can be reflected in the drink. Senkin now cultivates its own rice, which grows in the fields surrounding the brewery, and makes sake with the same water used to grow the crops. These are all contributing factors to Senkin’s progressive, new wave of sake that displays a perfect balance between sweet and sour with juicy acidity. Though it may taste new, the techniques used to produce it are ancient. Senkin’s sake is brewed in wooden barrels as opposed to the now common enamel tanks, and it has added a “natural” range to its lineup, made using spontaneous yeast and the old kimoto technique for creating the yeast starter mash — a labor intensive method of hand mashing the rice and other ingredients with poles, which produces a sweeter and more acidic sake with richer flavors.
In Ishikawa Prefecture, 29-year-old brewer Yasuyuki Yoshida has used the power of film to raise his brewery’s profile. “The Birth of Sake” is a feature documentary that reveals the story of his family’s Yoshida Brewery, which has been operating for more than 140 years. He is the sixth generation heir to the brewery and said he wants to “step up and make sake more fashionable.”
These young men are collectively hoping to changing the face of sake not only in Japan but internationally. Craft sake has a story to tell and a unique flavor to impart, one that is as individual as the brewers who make it.