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

In the introduction to her new e book, Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake: Rice, Water, Earth, Nancy Matsumoto writes, “Sake embodies some of the issues I really like most about Japan: the distinction between previous, conventional methods and endlessly imaginative reinvention, and an intense dedication to craft. Sake’s identification is inseparable from the nation’s historical past, tradition, and language.”

A New York- and Toronto-based author and editor (and an occasional Civil Eats contributor), Matsumoto has been writing about sake for round 10 years. In 2019, she and the e book’s coauthor, Michael Tremblay, an professional, instructor, and official Sake Samurai, traveled via the Japanese countryside visiting small-scale breweries and rice farms, consuming, consuming, and studying about a important second in the historical past of sake manufacturing. For Matsumoto, the expertise was about greater than making a snapshot of an trade—it was additionally about the significance of seeing sake as an agricultural product.

women planting rice starts in japan

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

As Matsumoto and Trembley write, sake’s 2,600-year-old historical past is so intertwined with the historical past of Japan (and Shintoism) that it seems in the nation’s foundational myths. Brewing used to happen in non secular temples, and each brewery in the nation nonetheless features a small Shinto shrine. Sake has all the time been inextricably linked to rice farming, however the industrialization of the manufacturing course of starting in the Fifties led many Japanese customers to cease seeing it that means. Now, that’s starting to vary.

Meanwhile, cultures outdoors Japan are slowly embracing sake as a substitute for beer and wine. The U.S. is now the main export marketplace for the spirit, making it an vital alternative to attract a connection between farm and glass.

We spoke with Matsumoto just lately about heirloom rice varieties, the impacts of local weather change on the sake trade, and why she believes the spirit could also be on the verge of a bit of a global renaissance.

One of the brewers you go to says, “post-war industrialized sake relied on petroleum-based vitality and brewing supplies, manufacturing equipment, chemical lactic acid, business use, and usually rice transported from afar, leading to a low-cost standardized brew.” He thought-about this whole system unsustainable and he talked about the return to conventional Edo Era methods, which contain doing practically all the pieces by hand. Can you say a bit about that transition and why you needed to write down about it?

We intentionally put that phrase “craft” in the title as a result of we have been speaking about artisanal, fairly small-scale breweries. Many of them have been as soon as massive breweries when sake was a a lot greater home Japanese trade. And then, with the decline in consumption and the horrible results of World War II, which is such an enormous half of the sake story, so many breweries principally went bankrupt and closed, and a standard method to revive or hold a household brewery going was to scale down manufacturing and make it way more artisanal, as a result of all the pieces was going again to a lot older methods that have been achieved by hand versus the industrialized one.

There are nonetheless big sake makers, and it’s probably not to solid aspersions on the product that they make as a result of they’ve unimaginable technical know-how and could make stunning sakes on a big scale. It’s type of like massive California wine makers—they know what they’re doing, and they do it effectively. But so many of them are going again [to old ways], and it’s a means to return to high quality.

“Japan has the identical downside that each different place in the world has. Farmers are growing old out, and their kids don’t wish to proceed.”

Some actually do care about the carbon footprint and the fossil fuels, however you don’t hear them discuss about organics the means you hear it in the West. It’s extra like, “We realized that if we return to the picket vats, it tastes higher and it’s extra pure,” or “We realized that if we wish a greater high quality of rice and we use fewer pesticides, then we are able to have a habitat for native birds.” The driving pressure is typically a bit bit totally different, nevertheless it’s the identical consequence, which I actually like, as a result of they’re emphasizing high quality over amount. And they’re considering about the setting and the native financial system in a means that’s going to present farmers a greater marketplace for their rice.

Japan has the identical downside that each different place in the world has. Farmers are growing old out, and their kids don’t wish to proceed. So when you might have, say, an heirloom rice being revived [for sake production], individuals need to pay a premium to get farmers to develop this as a result of it’s arduous, and they need to re-learn it. But [those brewers] are supporting the native financial system and native farmers.

Can you clarify why sake consumption has declined in Japan?

It goes again to the financial growth of the ’70s and ’80s when, all of a sudden, Japanese individuals had much more client {dollars} to spend, and they began gaining access to overseas spirits like whiskey and French wine. These issues have been means sexier than sake. At that time, sake had develop into a not-great product, as a result of of all the rice shortages after World War II [when it was diluted with water and imported grain alcohol]. So it had this picture of like, what grandpa drinks when he will get drunk at evening. And it nonetheless suffers from that sort of picture downside.

Another cause is younger individuals throughout the world are consuming much less. There are so many issues competing for his or her consideration like video video games and different screens, in order that they’re probably not socializing as a lot. And COVID was horrible for [Japan’s restaurant and bar] trade.

Can you say extra about these heirloom rice varieties? You discuss about how some are very regional.

People throughout Japan are reviving their prefectural heirloom grains. Omachi is a superb instance, as a result of it grows in a really explicit heat local weather, on this very sheltered valley between the mountains and the Seto Inland Sea, which could be very calm. Many different prefectures develop their very own sake rice, however some varieties like omachi are so good that it overrides any want to be native. It is the most costly sake rice in the nation.

Yamada Nishiki is of course the most well-known [sake rice]. There’s this natural maker in Shiga, which isn’t that far [from where it’s traditionally grown]—they’ve crossed their very own native breed of rice with Yamada Nishiki, to allow them to say, that is our personal area, our personal little native sake, nevertheless it has traits like the Yamada Nishiki.

For a long time [most of the farmers sold their rice] to 1 cooperative, Japan Agricultural Cooperative. And it’s good in the sense that it’s cooperative. But now, you’re seeing extra particular person relationships between brewers and farmers. That additionally is sweet for the farmers, as a result of they’ve a assured purchaser and normally a assured worth. And in the case of a number of tales of heirlooms, the brewer gives to pay an enormous premium simply to get these guys to develop it, as a result of they’re reluctant at first. Then, in some instances, they’ll see that it makes an incredible sake and develop a way of pleasure in it.

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