The Japanese sak\u00e9 industry is at a dramatic crossroads.\r\n\r\nA heightened craft sak\u00e9 movement, augmented by ever-evolving technology, means sak\u00e9 is arguably better than it ever has been. And as exports hit record highs annually, the U.S. market has unprecedented access to Japan\u2019s best bottlings.\r\n\r\nSimultaneously, 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\u2019s traditional sak\u00e9 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.\r\n\r\nThe future of sak\u00e9 depends on new consumers discovering the category and a new generation of brewers. Bold, entrepreneurial and globally focused, these Japanese producers aim to make sak\u00e9 innovative, regionally distinct and sustainable.\r\n\r\n\r\nTakahiro Nagayama | Nagayama Honke Shuzo\r\nBrand: Taka\r\nRegion: Yamaguchi\r\nNotions of terroir and regional identity are rarely clear cut when it comes to sak\u00e9. It\u2019s something that Nagayama, the fifth-generation kuramoto (president) and toji (master brewer) of his namesake Taka brand, is intent to change.\r\n\r\nIt\u2019s often surprising to consumers, Nagayama says, that most producers don\u2019t grow rice, the key ingredient to sak\u00e9. Rice, unlike grapes, can be distributed easily over long distances to brewers. Most contemporary sak\u00e9 producers contract a variety of rice from farmers throughout Japan.\r\n\r\nA 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\u2019s dedicated to the pursuit of distinctive terroir and low-intervention winemaking.\r\n\r\n\u201cAgriculture is at the heart of sak\u00e9 making,\u201d he says. \u201cIt doesn\u2019t make sense to produce sak\u00e9 with rice from faraway places when talented rice growers are right here.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nDetermined to make sak\u00e9 from local ingredients, Nagayama contracted neighboring farmers to grow specialized sak\u00e9 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cI wanted to hone into the personality of sak\u00e9 that can only be produced here,\u201d he says.\r\n\r\nThe area\u2019s water supply also lends character to the flavor profile. Groundwaters drawn from deep below Nagayama\u2019s brewery are rich in calcium, filtered through the region\u2019s vast network of limestone caves. This minerality, he says, lends a bracing dry edge to his sak\u00e9.\r\n\r\nUnlike most contemporary producers, Nagayama produces only junmai styles of sake, fermented from rice and water with no fortification by distilled alcohol.\r\n\r\n\u201cDistilled alcohol for fortifying sak\u00e9 is typically made from sugarcane,\u201d he says. \u201cIt removes a sense of place or purity from sak\u00e9. At Taka, we\u2019re rediscovering our traditions. We\u2019re peeling back the layers to reveal their true essence of things, and then refining them.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\nMiho Imada | Imada Shuzo\r\nBrand: Fukucho\r\nRegion: Hiroshima\r\nAs both kuramoto and toji of Fukucho, Imada is among just a handful of women who head a sak\u00e9 brewery. In an industry dominated by men, her gender often takes top billing in the flurry of media coverage she\u2019s inspired.\r\n\r\nFor Imada, however, being a woman isn\u2019t really the story. Especially in Hiroshima, where her family brewery has existed since 1868, \u201cthere\u2019s a real sense of meritocracy in the sak\u00e9 industry,\u201d she says. \u201cAnyone who works in this industry knows how difficult it is to make sak\u00e9, and whether you\u2019re a man or woman, you gain respect based on your ability.\u201d\r\n\r\nIt\u2019s ingenuity as both a brewer and entrepreneur that has elevated her company\u2019s brand, Fukucho, within Hiroshima\u2019s renowned sak\u00e9 industry.\r\n\r\nImada\u2019s hometown, Akitsu, is the birthplace of the highly refined ginjo style of sak\u00e9 that developed in the late 19th century. In the early 1990s, however, Fukucho was in deep crisis.\r\n\r\n\u201cOur business was dominated by inexpensive futsu-shu [table sak\u00e9], and the brewery was crippled with debt,\u201d she says. \u201cIf 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.\u201d\r\n\r\nThrough trial and error, Imada spearheaded an array of innovative projects. One of the most prominent initiatives was incorporating a nearly forgotten rice.\r\n\r\nAfter 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 sak\u00e9. Imada Shuzo is the only producer in Japan known to make sak\u00e9 from this flavorful, umami-rich rice.\r\n\r\nIn 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.\r\n\r\n\r\nNorimasa Yamamoto | Heiwa Shuzo\r\nBrand: Kid\r\nRegion: Wakayama\r\n\u201cMost of my friends in their 20s and 30s aren\u2019t drinking sak\u00e9,\u201d says Yamamoto, the fourth-generation kuramoto of Heiwa Shuzo, his family brewery.\r\n\r\nYounger Japanese are skeptical about whether the beverage is cool, he says. \u201cSak\u00e9 seems like something drab that old men drink, or something you get drunk on in an izakaya.\u201d\r\n\r\nBut 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.\r\n\r\nWhen Yamamoto returned to the brewery, the sak\u00e9 industry was in rapid descent. \u201cOur company was almost entirely dependent on selling mass-produced, cheap sak\u00e9 sold in paper cartons,\u201d he says.\r\n\r\nAs large producers set benchmarks on prices, small and medium-sized producers like his were caught in a deflationary spiral.\r\n\r\nTo survive, the company needed to change course completely, he says, with a focus on small-volume craft production. Yamamoto was intent on \u201ccreating something distinct to Wakayama and Heiwa Shuzo.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nHe wanted to rebuild and reinvigorate the brewery\u2019s corporate culture. The goal was to inspire employees to take pride in their work and encourage them to communicate and exchange ideas.\r\n\r\nThe flagship brand he launched is Kid, which reads \u201cKi-do\u201d 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.\r\n\r\nLast year, Yamamoto cosponsored an ethanol-fueled rocket launch into space, powered in part by Kid sak\u00e9. A special-edition sak\u00e9, called Sora He, which means \u201cto space,\u201d was released to crowdsource the launch.\r\n\r\nThe rocket climbed 42,000 feet before it plummeted back to earth. \u201cIt wasn\u2019t a complete success,\u201d says Yamamoto cheerfully, \u201cbut a dream we realized collaboratively.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\nRumiko Obata | Obata Shuzo\r\nBrand: Manotsuru\r\nRegion: Niigata\r\nWhether in Japan or oceans away, \u201cour sak\u00e9 tells the story of Sado,\u201d says Obata, the fifth-generation kuramoto of Obata Shuzo. Sado is a hauntingly beautiful, isolated island off the coast of Japan\u2019s Niigata prefecture. Its remoteness has served the isle well historically, establishing it as a place of exile.\r\n\r\nWith 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.\r\n\r\nWhile Japanese sak\u00e9 consumption was in the midst of its dramatic downswing, Sado itself, with a rapidly aging and dwindling population, also seemed to be diminishing.\r\n\r\nObata 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cThrough sak\u00e9 making, I wanted to connect the world to Sado,\u201d she says. The couple committed themselves to reinvent Manotsuru, their brand, as a premium sak\u00e9 that paid homage to the culture, terroir and history of the island.\r\n\r\nSado 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe oyster shells add mineral content to the fields and purify the water,\u201d 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.\r\n\r\nIn recent years, the couple developed a rare 10-year-old koshu, or aged sak\u00e9, matured in inky depths of Sado\u2019s 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 sak\u00e9 making, but also the unique terroir, culture and history of the island.\r\n\r\n\r\nYasuhiko Niida | Niida Honke\r\nBrand: Niida Honke\r\nRegion: Fukushima\r\nIn 2011, to commemorate Niida Honke's\u00a0300-year anniversary, Yasuhiko Niida, the brewery\u2019s 18th-generation kuramoto and toji, made a long-awaited announcement.\r\n\r\n\u201cFrom 2011, Niida Honke would produce only shizenshu [natural sak\u00e9],\u201d he says.\r\n\r\nAs with natural wine, there\u2019s no legal definition for the term shizenshu, and it\u2019s increasingly applied to a range of sak\u00e9. 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.\r\n\r\nThe brewery also only uses water sourced from local mountain springs or well water collected from its own land. Roughly 70% of its sak\u00e9 is fermented via ambient yeasts, a bold departure from most modern breweries that rely on highly selected cultured yeasts.\r\n\r\nFor 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.\r\n\r\nLocated outside the nuclear exclusion zone, the brewery was spared loss of life or substantial damage. Regardless, the disaster devastated the area\u2019s sak\u00e9 industry. Fukushima brewers struggled to convince consumers that their sak\u00e9 was safe, despite painstaking radioactivity testing.\r\n\r\nThis was a time of deep reflection for Niida. \u201cWith a legacy of 300 years behind me, I considered what I was leaving for the next hundred years,\u201d he says.\r\n\r\nHis commitment to shizenshu was reinforced by a vision of sustainability. Since the disaster, he ceased the brewery\u2019s reliance on nonrenewable energy and resources, and set out to protect his village\u2019s rice fields. As aging farmers were forced to abandon their fields, Niida has been determined to maintain them.\r\n\r\nToday, the brewery farms 16 acres of certified organic rice fields cultivated without pesticides or fertilizers. His goal is to become fully sustainable by 2025.