The February 2023 edition of Nikkei Trendy magazine features yet another “sake ranking” – but this time the criterium is innovation. Featuring everything from breweries taking their cue from brewing’s ancient past to those chasing the title of first or best, it sets out to showcase an up and coming group of sake makers. Sakagura all over the country are trying to attract a new set of fans, and throwing conventional wisdom to the wind as they do so.
The article opens with a sobering statistic from the National Tax Agency, official overseer of all things alcohol-related in Japan. Domestic sake production volume has dropped by 27% over the last 4 years. [Although I wonder how much high-volume mass-produced or non-premium sake is being replaced by high-value premium sake, which would make the drop in volume less dangerous when it comes to value.] There are also reports of the industry’s uncertain future leading some breweries to go dormant. [休眠酒蔵, きゅうみんさかぐら, kyūmin sakagura, dormant breweries/distilleries] Jun Koike, editor of the online sake news site SAKETIMES, notes that sake has seen rises in popularity many times since the end of WWII but that now – particularly in the domestic market – there is little growth.
This has led to an intense battle for survival for breweries all over the country, driven mainly by younger owners or tōji. Sake journalist and consultant Haruo Matsuzaki comments that as well as these younger owners and tōji stepping up to run breweries, businesses that were family-owned have transferred their management to companies in other industries, and there is an increasing number of initiatives where new ideas are being put to use to revive sake brewing.
One example is Kankiku Meijo in Chiba Prefecture, where 25 year old tōji Yusuke Yagishita, a former aircraft mechanic, produces sake that gathers critical acclaim. Keita Akaboshi [who is described as “the sake sommelier who tastes 70 sake every week”! The same ones? Different ones??] comments that the way the sake in their Ocean 99 series reflects the nature of the changing seasons as seen from the coast at nearby Kujukiri beach is revolutionary.
There are new moves to revive breweries even in areas less associated with sake, such as Hokkaido, Kyushu and Kanagawa. For example, Kamikawa Taisetsu Shuzō is a Mie brewery that moved to Hokkaido in 2016 and now makes a daiginjō that can only be bought locally. These bold moves provided the stimulus for the Hakodate Jogura to be founded in the town of Nanae north of Hakodate. And there are also plans to revive sake breweries in other cities, such as Chitose.
The area that has attracted the most attention in Kyushu. Nishi Shuzō in Kagoshima Prefecture, makers of popular shōchū Tomino Bōzan, acquired a license to make sake and have started to brew. Omoya Shuzō on Iki island in Nagasaki Prefecture, famous for its barley shōchū, also used a dormant license to revive a sake brewery in 2018. Their Yokoyama 50 emphasises the high mineral content of the local water (which is low in iron).
With similar developments happening all over the industry, old tried-and-true approaches to choosing a sake, such as “you’re always safe with a well-established brand” or “a junmai daiginjō is always good”, no longer hold. So six highly experienced experts picked out the most innovative breweries that we can expect even more from. Asahi Shuzō (Dassai, Yamaguchi Prefecture) topped the ranking, followed by Niizawa Shuzō (Hakurakusei, Miyagi Prefecture) and Yucho Shuzō (Kaze no Mori, Nara Prefecture).
1. Asahi Shuzō (Dassai, Yamaguchi Prefecture) – 57 points
Opening a brewery in the US, due to start operating in 2023. Attempting to raise the profile of sake on a global level, for example by partnering with famous chefs.
2. Niizawa Shuzō (Hakurakusei, Miyagi Prefecture) – 40 points
Using new technology to aim for the most refined daiginjō, including purchasing several rice polishing machines and reaching the world’s most extreme polishing ratio.
3. Yucho Shuzō (Kaze no Mori, Nara Prefecture) – 35 points
Focused on reviving traditional brewing techniques from the Nara area, and evolving their brewing process as they move away from modern brewing philosophies
4. Aramasa Shuzo (No. 6, Akita Prefecture) – 33 points
Switched to using wooden kioke brewing tanks, which is rare, and set up a new department for making their own supply.
5. Nanbu Bijin (Iwate Prefecture) – 25 points
Actively developed overseas markets from an early stage, devised a method of rapidly chilling namasake to preserve its flavour.
5. Senkin (Tochigi Prefecture) – 25 points
Fully committed to a “domaine” concept, using only ambient yeast and not pasteurising, and pursuing a natural approach such as using organic rice
5. Fujii Shuzo (Ryusei, Hiroshima Prefecture) – 25 points
Moving to all-kimoto production, which is rare.
8. Abe Shuzo (Abe, Niigata Prefecture) – 24 points
Their strength is their with-food sake Ristorante, which can be drunk from the beginning of a meal to the very end.
9. Choshu Shuzo (Tenbi, Yamaguchi Prefecture) – 21 points
An old brewery taken over by an energy company, which is now developing new brands.
10. RiceWine (Hinemos, Kanagawa Prefecture) – 20 points
Developed a series of sake based on the concept of different times of day, sold direct to consumer.
11. haccoba (Hanauta Hops, Fukushima Prefecture) – 18 points
Developing craft sake from “hanamoto”, doburoku with Japanese-grown hops.
12. Kitanishi Shuzo (Bunraku, Saitama Prefecture) – 17 points
Their 32 year old company president came from the financial industry to revitalise their brand.
12. Kankiku Shuzo (Fusano Kankiku, Chiba Prefecture) – 17 points
Their 25 year old tōji is creating new expressions in sake based on the Kujukiri coast.
The six experts:
- Keita Akaboshi, sake sommelier
- Jun Koike, editor of online sake news site SAKETIMES
- Kaori Haishi, sake journalist
- Haruo Matsuzaki, sake journalist and consultant
- Soichiro Matsumoto, owner of Tsukiji Choseian
- Shinya Mizuhashi, owner of sake shop Mizuhashi
Agreed that there is no easy way to choose sake, so picking out a list of “ones to watch” is one way to narrow the field. Although there’s no guarantee you’ll like the taste of innovation…
- Original news article (Yahoo News, 24 January 2023, Japanese)
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