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

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

Nancy Matsumoto and the cover of her new book on japanese craft sake

In the introduction to her new book, Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake: Rice, Water, Earth, Nancy Matsumoto writes, “Sake embodies some of the things I love most about Japan: the contrast between old, traditional ways and endlessly imaginative reinvention, and an intense dedication to craft. Sake’s identity is inseparable from the country’s history, culture, and language.”

A New York- and Toronto-based writer and editor (and an occasional Civil Eats contributor), Matsumoto has been writing about sake for around 10 years. In 2019, she and the book’s coauthor, Michael Tremblay, an expert, teacher, and official Sake Samurai, traveled through the Japanese countryside visiting small-scale breweries and rice farms, eating, drinking, and learning about a critical moment in the history of sake production. For Matsumoto, the experience was about more than creating a snapshot of an industry—it was also about the importance of seeing sake as an agricultural product.

As Matsumoto and Trembley write, sake’s 2,600-year-old history is so intertwined with the history of Japan (and Shintoism) that it appears in the country’s foundational myths. Brewing used to occur in religious temples, and every brewery in the country still includes a small Shinto shrine. Sake has always been inextricably linked to rice farming, but the industrialization of the production process beginning in the 1950s led many Japanese consumers to stop seeing it that way. Now, that’s beginning to change.

Meanwhile, cultures outside Japan are slowly embracing sake as an alternative to beer and wine. The U.S. is now the leading export market for the beverage, making it an important opportunity to draw a connection between farm and glass.

We spoke with Matsumoto recently about heirloom rice varieties, the impacts of climate change on the sake industry, and why she believes the drink may be on the verge of a bit of an international renaissance.

One of the brewers you visit says, “post-war industrialized sake relied on petroleum-based energy and brewing materials, production machinery, chemical lactic acid, commercial use, and often rice transported from afar, resulting in a low-cost standardized brew.” He considered this entire system unsustainable and he talked about the return to traditional Edo Era techniques, which involve doing nearly everything by hand. Can you say a little about that transition and why you wanted to write about it?

We deliberately put that word “craft” in the title because we were talking about artisanal, pretty small-scale breweries. Many of them were once big breweries when sake was a much bigger domestic Japanese industry. And then, with the decline in consumption and the horrible effects of World War II, which is such a big part of the sake story, so many breweries basically went bankrupt and closed, and a common way to revive or keep a family brewery going was to scale down production and make it much more artisanal, because everything was going back to much older techniques that were done by hand as opposed to the industrialized one.

There are still huge sake makers, and it’s not really to cast aspersions on the product that they make because they have incredible technical know-how and can make beautiful sakes on a large scale. It’s sort of like large California wine makers—they know what they’re doing, and they do it well. But so many of them are going back [to old ways], and it’s a way to go back to quality.

Some really do care about the carbon footprint and the fossil fuels, but you don’t hear them talk about organics the way you hear it in the West. It’s more like, “We realized that if we go back to the wooden vats, it tastes better and it’s more natural,” or “We realized that if we want a better quality of rice and we use fewer pesticides, then we can have a habitat for native birds.” The driving force is sometimes a little bit different, but it’s the same outcome, which I really like, because they’re emphasizing quality over quantity. And they are thinking about the environment and the local economy in a way that’s going to give farmers a better market for their rice.

Japan has the same problem that every other place in the world has. Farmers are aging out, and their children don’t want to continue. So when you have, say, an heirloom rice being revived [for sake production], people have to pay a premium to get farmers to grow this because it’s hard, and they have to re-learn it. But [those brewers] are supporting the local economy and local farmers.

Can you explain why sake consumption has declined in Japan?

It goes back to the economic boom of the ’70s and ’80s when, all of a sudden, Japanese people had a lot more consumer dollars to spend, and they started getting access to foreign spirits like whiskey and French wine. These things were way sexier than sake. At that point, sake had become a not-great product, because of all the rice shortages after World War II [when it was diluted with water, distilled alcohol, glucose syrup, and other additives]. So it had this image of like, what grandpa drinks when he gets drunk at night. And it still suffers from that kind of image problem.

Another reason is young people all over the world are drinking less. There are so many things competing for their attention like video games and other screens, so they’re not really socializing as much. And COVID was horrible for [Japan’s restaurant and bar] industry.

Can you say more about those heirloom rice varieties? You talk about how some are very regional.

People all over Japan are reviving their prefectural heirloom grains. Omachi is a great example, because it grows in a very particular warm climate, in this very sheltered valley between the mountains and the Seto Inland Sea, which is very calm. Many other prefectures grow their own sake rice, but some varieties like omachi are so good that it overrides any desire to be local. It is the most expensive sake rice in the country.

Yamada Nishiki is of course the most famous [sake rice]. There’s this organic maker in Shiga, which is not that far [from where it’s traditionally grown]—they have crossed their own local breed of rice with Yamada Nishiki, so they can say, this is our own domain, our own little local sake, but it has traits like the Yamada Nishiki.

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For decades [most of the farmers sold their rice] to one cooperative, Japan Agricultural Cooperative. And it is good in the sense that it’s cooperative. But now, you’re seeing more individual relationships between brewers and farmers. That also is good for the farmers, because they have a guaranteed buyer and usually a guaranteed price. And in the case of several stories of heirlooms, the brewer offers to pay a huge premium just to get these guys to grow it, because they’re reluctant at first. Then, in some cases, they’ll see that it makes an amazing sake and develop a sense of pride in it.

There’s a real difference between table rice and sake rice; sake rice usually has a much bigger, starchy heart because that’s where all the smooth aromatics come from. But you’re seeing more and more sake brewers—and it’s a really a testament to their skill—taking a very humble table rice and making amazing sake.

One of my favorite quotes was from a brewer in Nara at Yucho Shuzo. His goal is to support the local farmers that are growing this very typical table rice, but he wants to make sake so good that he elevates the price of it to be like what people would pay for Yamada Nishiki. He’s building that local economy through his brewing technical innovation and his skill. It was really thrilling to see that combination of technical expertise and people wanting to put [their skill] to work helping to revive the local farming economy.

And you are seeing some cases where the [farmers’] kids are like, “Oh, yeah, I want to do this.” It’s happening in the U.S. too. I’ve written about this farmer in Arkansas, Chris Isbell. He kind of became a celebrity in Japan because he could grow Yamada Nishiki. And omachi is so hard to grow but apparently he’s growing that, too. In some ways, he’s ahead of demand, but he’s anticipating it, because all these new breweries are opening across the U.S.

You educate your readers about how the number on a sake bottle corresponds to the rice polishing ratio, or the percent of each rice grain that has been milled away. How are brewers disrupting the typical assumptions about what makes “good” sake and working on more savory sakes with more of the grain intact?

For a long time, Daiginjo and Ginjo [premium sake styles that use a high percentages of polished rice] were the kings, and everyone was in this arms race to polish rice more and more, which was so wasteful. If you’re bragging about the fact you have a “0 percent” sake, that means like, basically over 99 percent of the rice has been milled away. What’s left might be used for animal feed or some other very low-cost purpose. These newer brewers, like the ones at Terada Honke and other people on the front end of change, are saying, “We’re only polishing 10 percent of it off, and it’s going to be really savory.”

This is sort of like the way Westerners discovered natural wine and the value of keeping the skins on the grapes and not wasting as much. The wine has a funkiness that some people couldn’t stand at first. And yet now, our tastes are shifting. To a degree, it is happening with sake, because these kinds of kimoto and yamahai brews that are old fashioned, they take a lot longer, they have natural lactic acid instead of commercial. They’re polishing it less. At Terada Honke, they’re just using brown rice, so you’ll get a cider-like, lactic, very different taste.

We talk about how we have to kind of recalibrate our notions of deliciousness. Zatsumi means “off-flavor” or “odd taste,” and in one example, brewery owner/master brewer Yoshihiko Yamamoto of Yucho Brewery in Nara, Japan—who I mentioned earlier is trying to elevate the price of his local table rice—wants us to recalibrate our brains so that we perceive certain aromas and tastes we might have described as having zatsumi instead as having fukuzatsumi, a play on the word fukuzatsu, meaning “complex” or “complicated.”

You mentioned that many of the farmers in Japan are struggling, and the next generation in many cases doesn’t see a future in farming. How is the Japanese government helping them stay afloat—considering how central rice is to Japan’s culture?

There actually is a lot of government support for research into rice varieties, creating hybrids, experimenting with growing practices, and creating new yeast varieties [for sake], because it is in their vested interest to keep this industry going. Traditionally, there have been very close ties between government and the sake industry.

When I wrote about the African farmers growing rice in the Hudson Valley, I talked to Erik Andrus, who is one of two or three people in the U.S. Northeast growing rice. He spoke enviously about Japan and how farmers there have this incredible network of knowledgeable people and government support for research. And you have all of this specialized equipment. Andrus made a connection with a farm in Hokkaido, because it’s the exact same latitude as Vermont, and he was overjoyed, because whenever he has a problem, he communicates with this rice farmer in Hokkaido, and he has learned a lot.

In Japan, [growing rice and brewing sake] is just much more of a community effort. And we really saw that when we visited the researcher who created a number of modern yeast varieties. He was working for a prefectural research institute, and he was on call for every brewer in his prefecture with questions like, “This is what’s happening to my mash—what should I do now?” So, there’s this sort of close relationship and coaching going on.

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How is the climate crisis impacting the growing and brewing processes?

It’s very scary. With every farmer and every brewery that we visited, I would ask that question, and they all voiced concern about it. One of the co-op agents said, “We think about it all the time.” There’s a lot of focus on developing more heat-resistant varieties. And just like in wine production, you’re going to see more breweries farther north [where it’s cooler].

However, one brewer, who really has embraced the idea of farming as part of his practice and started a separate company to grow his own rice, talked about how in the far north, the extremes in weather are so violent that storm patterns that are more typical of Southeast Asia are becoming more and more routine. They get these really harsh rains that can wipe out crops.

There are also more of those off-the-charts heat waves, so there’s also often a need for more refrigeration because [when it’s very hot] you need to put ice in the sake mash, and invest more in refrigeration, and that’s a big drain on energy. I’ve seen a few stories about craft breweries putting in solar panels and trying to access alternative energy sources, but I think people are really going to have to think more about that, too.

Is there anything else you want to say about the future of the craft sake industry?

As someone who really has come to love these brewers and the farmers and thinks of sake as a really valuable, traditional craft to preserve, I love the idea of growing it through an international market and helping to preserve an amazing cultural tradition, but also keeping farmers working and creating a really viable agricultural product for Japan. I mean, [craft sake] is very, very niche right now. But the bigger it gets abroad, I think, the better it is for Japanese makers.

We’re seeing really interesting [cross-cultural] collaboration. For example, there’s very large brewery called Hakkaisan, and it has started a business partnership with Brooklyn Kura, which is a well-respected New York City brewery. And then there’s this other brewery called Asahi Shuzo. They make a really well-known sake brand called Dassai, and they’re opening a huge brewery right near the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. They’re going to start a sake program at the CIA, and they’ll have CIA students come and work at the brewery so that they learn how to brew sake.

My hope is that internationally, people in Spain or France or California will soon be sitting down to dinner and say, “Should we have beer, wine, or sake tonight?”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Twilight Greenaway is the former managing editor and executive editor of Civil Eats. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times, NPR.org, The Guardian, Food and Wine, Gastronomica, and Grist, among other. See more at TwilightGreenaway.com. Follow her on Twitter. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Beer Snobs
    I love beer, but I've been pretty curious about sake. I see it every where together with soju on our grocery aisles, and I might just pick up a bottle this weekend.
  2. David Georgi
    My grandson is a sommelier and is studying to become proficient in wine and spirits. I will share this article with him and look forward to his response.

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