In the introduction to his new book, Explore the world of Japanese artisanal 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, as well as an intense dedication to craftsmanship. The identity of sake is inseparable from the history, culture and language of the country.

A New York and Toronto-based writer and editor (and occasional contributor to Civil Eats), Matsumoto has been writing about sake for about 10 years. In 2019, she and the co-author of the book, Michael Tremblay, expert, teacher and civil servant Samurai Sake, traveled the Japanese countryside visiting small breweries and rice paddies, eating, drinking and learning about a critical moment in the history of sake production. For Matsumoto, the experience wasn’t just about creating a snapshot of an industry, it was also about the importance of viewing sake as an agricultural product.

Women in traditional dress planting rice by hand in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Tuttle Publishing)

As Matsumoto and Trembley write, the 2,600-year-old history of sake is so tied to the history of Japan (and Shintoism) that it appears in the country’s founding myths. Brewing took place in religious temples, and every brewery in the country still includes a small Shinto shrine. Sake has always been inextricably linked to rice cultivation, but the industrialization of the production process from the 1950s led many Japanese consumers to no longer view it as such. Now that is starting to change.

Meanwhile, cultures outside of Japan are slowly embracing sake as an alternative to beer and wine. The United States is now the number one export market for spirits, making it an important opportunity to connect the farm to the glass.

We recently spoke with Matsumoto about ancient rice varieties, the impacts of climate change on the sake industry, and why she thinks the spirit might be on the verge of an international renaissance.

One of the brewers you visit said, “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 standardized brew at low cost. ” He considered this whole system unsustainable and he spoke of the return to tradition Edo era techniques, which consist of doing almost everything by hand. Can you tell us a bit more about this transition and why you wanted to write about it?

We deliberately put this word “craft” in the title because we were talking about craft breweries, which are quite small. Many of them were once large breweries while sake was a much bigger industry in Japan. And then with the drop in consumption and the horrific effects of World War II, which is such a big part of the history of sake, so many breweries went bankrupt and closed, and a common way to revive or maintaining a family brewery was to reduce production and make it much more artisanal, as everything reverted to much older techniques which were handmade as opposed to the industrialized one.

There are still huge sake makers out there, and it’s not really to denigrate the product they make because they have incredible technical know-how and can make beautiful sake on a large scale. It’s a bit like the great Californian winegrowers: they know what they’re doing and they do it well. But many of them come back [to old ways]and it’s a way to get back to quality.

“Japan has the same problem as anywhere else in the world. Farmers are getting old and their children don’t want to continue.

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

Japan has the same problem as anywhere else in the world. Farmers are getting old and their children don’t want to continue. So when you have, say, an ancient rice being revived [for sake production], people have to pay a premium for farmers to grow this because it’s hard, and they have to relearn it. But [those brewers] support 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 the Japanese had a lot more consumer dollars to spend, and they started having access to foreign spirits like French whiskey and wine. Those things were way sexier than sake. By then, sake had become a not-so-good product, because of all the rice shortages after World War II. [when it was diluted with water and imported grain alcohol]. So he had this image of what Grandpa drinks when he gets drunk at night. And he still suffers from this kind of image problem.

Another reason is that young people around the world are drinking less. There are so many things vying for their attention like video games and other screens so they don’t really socialize as much. And COVID was horrible for [Japan’s restaurant and bar] industry.

Can you say more about these ancestral rice varieties? You say that some are very regional.

Across Japan, locals are reviving their ancestral prefectural grains. Omachi is a good example of this, because it grows in a very special 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 they outweigh any desire to be local. It is the most expensive sake rice in the country.

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

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