The Japanese saké industry is at a dramatic crossroads.
A heightened craft saké movement, augmented by ever-evolving technology, means saké is arguably better than it ever has been. And as exports hit record highs annually, the U.S. market has unprecedented access to Japan’s best bottlings.
Simultaneously, however, younger generations of Japanese drinkers have become detached from the beverage. Instead, they opt for beer, spirits, wine or to simply drink less. As Japan’s traditional saké demographic ages at a rapid pace, domestic sales have plummeted by one-third since the mid 1970s. There are now approximately 1,400 breweries in Japan, a 35% reduction from just 25 years ago.
The future of saké depends on new consumers discovering the category and a new generation of brewers. Bold, entrepreneurial and globally focused, these Japanese producers aim to make saké innovative, regionally distinct and sustainable.
Takahiro Nagayama | Nagayama Honke Shuzo
Notions of terroir and regional identity are rarely clear cut when it comes to saké. It’s something that Nagayama, the fifth-generation kuramoto (president) and toji (master brewer) of his namesake Taka brand, is intent to change.
It’s often surprising to consumers, Nagayama says, that most producers don’t grow rice, the key ingredient to saké. Rice, unlike grapes, can be distributed easily over long distances to brewers. Most contemporary saké producers contract a variety of rice from farmers throughout Japan.
A globetrotter with a deep appreciation for wine, Nagayama spent years seeking out small natural-wine producers in France, particularly Burgundy. He felt a kinship with winemakers like Philippe Pacalet, who’s dedicated to the pursuit of distinctive terroir and low-intervention winemaking.
“Agriculture is at the heart of saké making,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to produce saké with rice from faraway places when talented rice growers are right here.”
Determined to make saké from local ingredients, Nagayama contracted neighboring farmers to grow specialized saké rice. Eventually, he established his own seven-acre field in his hometown of Ube. The superpremium Yamadanishiki rice he grows is reserved for his flagship Domaine Taka brand.
“I wanted to hone into the personality of saké that can only be produced here,” he says.
The area’s water supply also lends character to the flavor profile. Groundwaters drawn from deep below Nagayama’s brewery are rich in calcium, filtered through the region’s vast network of limestone caves. This minerality, he says, lends a bracing dry edge to his saké.
Unlike most contemporary producers, Nagayama produces only junmai styles of sake, fermented from rice and water with no fortification by distilled alcohol.
“Distilled alcohol for fortifying saké is typically made from sugarcane,” he says. “It removes a sense of place or purity from saké. At Taka, we’re rediscovering our traditions. We’re peeling back the layers to reveal their true essence of things, and then refining them.”
Miho Imada | Imada Shuzo
As both kuramoto and toji of Fukucho, Imada is among just a handful of women who head a saké brewery. In an industry dominated by men, her gender often takes top billing in the flurry of media coverage she’s inspired.
For Imada, however, being a woman isn’t really the story. Especially in Hiroshima, where her family brewery has existed since 1868, “there’s a real sense of meritocracy in the saké industry,” she says. “Anyone who works in this industry knows how difficult it is to make saké, and whether you’re a man or woman, you gain respect based on your ability.”
It’s ingenuity as both a brewer and entrepreneur that has elevated her company’s brand, Fukucho, within Hiroshima’s renowned saké industry.
Imada’s hometown, Akitsu, is the birthplace of the highly refined ginjo style of saké that developed in the late 19th century. In the early 1990s, however, Fukucho was in deep crisis.
“Our business was dominated by inexpensive futsu-shu [table saké], and the brewery was crippled with debt,” she says. “If we were going to survive, we had to improve our brewing skills, focus on quality ginjo production and embrace the kind of research and experimentation that Hiroshima was known for.”
Through trial and error, Imada spearheaded an array of innovative projects. One of the most prominent initiatives was incorporating a nearly forgotten rice.
After she obtained seeds of Hattanso, a historic regional variety that had all but disappeared more than a century ago, she spent about a decade learning to grow the grain and then use it to brew high-quality saké. Imada Shuzo is the only producer in Japan known to make saké from this flavorful, umami-rich rice.
In recent years, she also developed a hybrid yeast starter that merges ancient fermentation techniques that rely on ambient lactic-acid bacteria with the speed and efficiency of modern yeast starters.
Norimasa Yamamoto | Heiwa Shuzo
“Most of my friends in their 20s and 30s aren’t drinking saké,” says Yamamoto, the fourth-generation kuramoto of Heiwa Shuzo, his family brewery.
Younger Japanese are skeptical about whether the beverage is cool, he says. “Saké seems like something drab that old men drink, or something you get drunk on in an izakaya.”
But Yamamoto had always planned on leading the family business. After studying economics in university, he took a brief detour in the startup world as a management consultant. The experience proved invaluable, and would ultimately help transform Heiwa Shuzo into one of the most dynamic breweries in Japan.
When Yamamoto returned to the brewery, the saké industry was in rapid descent. “Our company was almost entirely dependent on selling mass-produced, cheap saké sold in paper cartons,” he says.
As large producers set benchmarks on prices, small and medium-sized producers like his were caught in a deflationary spiral.
To survive, the company needed to change course completely, he says, with a focus on small-volume craft production. Yamamoto was intent on “creating something distinct to Wakayama and Heiwa Shuzo.”
He wanted to rebuild and reinvigorate the brewery’s corporate culture. The goal was to inspire employees to take pride in their work and encourage them to communicate and exchange ideas.
The flagship brand he launched is Kid, which reads “Ki-do” in Japanese. Buoyantly fruity and easy-drinking, Kid offers an accessibility he hopes will engage younger generations. The name combines two words: kishu, a historic name for Wakayama, and fudo, a word akin to terroir.
Last year, Yamamoto cosponsored an ethanol-fueled rocket launch into space, powered in part by Kid saké. A special-edition saké, called Sora He, which means “to space,” was released to crowdsource the launch.
The rocket climbed 42,000 feet before it plummeted back to earth. “It wasn’t a complete success,” says Yamamoto cheerfully, “but a dream we realized collaboratively.”
Rumiko Obata | Obata Shuzo
Whether in Japan or oceans away, “our saké tells the story of Sado,” says Obata, the fifth-generation kuramoto of Obata Shuzo. Sado is a hauntingly beautiful, isolated island off the coast of Japan’s Niigata prefecture. Its remoteness has served the isle well historically, establishing it as a place of exile.
With big dreams to see the world, Obata left Sado to study law at a top Tokyo university. After graduation, she started a globetrotting career promoting Hollywood blockbusters. But back on the island, the way of life she knew was increasingly upended.
While Japanese saké consumption was in the midst of its dramatic downswing, Sado itself, with a rapidly aging and dwindling population, also seemed to be diminishing.
Obata was struck by how both the brewery and Sado were in such peril. When her father fell ill, she returned to the family brewery in 1995 with her husband, Takeshi Hirashima.
“Through saké making, I wanted to connect the world to Sado,” she says. The couple committed themselves to reinvent Manotsuru, their brand, as a premium saké that paid homage to the culture, terroir and history of the island.
Sado is as famous for its outstanding oysters as it is for its rice production, so the brewery sources much of its rice from a local farmer whose fields are fertilized with local oyster shells and water drawn through oyster-shell filters.
“The oyster shells add mineral content to the fields and purify the water,” says Obata. These farming practices also reduce chemical fertilizers and pesticides that endanger the Japanese crested ibis, a near-extinct wading bird that once flourished on the island.
In recent years, the couple developed a rare 10-year-old koshu, or aged saké, matured in inky depths of Sado’s historic gold mines. They also converted a shuttered local elementary school into a second brewery in 2014. The Gakko Gura (school brewery) now hosts groups of apprentices who come to Sado to learn about saké making, but also the unique terroir, culture and history of the island.
Yasuhiko Niida | Niida Honke
Brand: Niida Honke
In 2011, to commemorate Niida Honke’s 300-year anniversary, Yasuhiko Niida, the brewery’s 18th-generation kuramoto and toji, made a long-awaited announcement.
“From 2011, Niida Honke would produce only shizenshu [natural saké],” he says.
As with natural wine, there’s no legal definition for the term shizenshu, and it’s increasingly applied to a range of saké. But Niida Honke uses the classification to emphasize that it uses only organic rice grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. It is the first brewery in Japan to produce all of its sake this way.
The brewery also only uses water sourced from local mountain springs or well water collected from its own land. Roughly 70% of its saké is fermented via ambient yeasts, a bold departure from most modern breweries that rely on highly selected cultured yeasts.
For Niida, though, memories of this proud milestone are marred by unimaginable disaster. On March 11, 2011, northeast Japan was pummeled by a deadly magnitude-9.1 earthquake. In Fukushima, a subsequent tsunami triggered a catastrophic meltdown of a nuclear powerplant.
Located outside the nuclear exclusion zone, the brewery was spared loss of life or substantial damage. Regardless, the disaster devastated the area’s saké industry. Fukushima brewers struggled to convince consumers that their saké was safe, despite painstaking radioactivity testing.
This was a time of deep reflection for Niida. “With a legacy of 300 years behind me, I considered what I was leaving for the next hundred years,” he says.
His commitment to shizenshu was reinforced by a vision of sustainability. Since the disaster, he ceased the brewery’s reliance on nonrenewable energy and resources, and set out to protect his village’s rice fields. As aging farmers were forced to abandon their fields, Niida has been determined to maintain them.
Today, the brewery farms 16 acres of certified organic rice fields cultivated without pesticides or fertilizers. His goal is to become fully sustainable by 2025.