Nihonshu doesn’t really get much mainstream media publicity outside of Japan. Sure, you might hear it fleetingly mentioned in a travel show or something, as it recently was during Joanna Lumley’s fantastic BBC travel documentary across Japan, but never prominently. I have often pondered the potential for a more focussed production on sake if it was given the limelight it deserves. Imagine something along the lines of Oz Clark and James May’s Sake Adventures... Unfortunately though, Sake simply doesn’t have the fan-base yet for it to be the main attraction in a series such as that. However, in 2015 I heard about a documentary being made called The Birth of Sake which would shadow the men of a brewery in Northern Japan throughout the harsh winter brewing season. After repeatedly watching the trailer before its release, I quickly got a sense that this was going to be a high quality production that would more than likely attract the attention of a wider audience than just existing Sake fans. I hoped that it would really showcase the hard-work and craftsmanship that goes into making sake, perhaps even over-glamorise it a little, and therefore act as a starting point for many others to take an interest in this often misunderstood beverage. Now that I have watched it (several times) I’m delighted to say my hopes and predictions have been realised.
In brief, The Birth of Sake is a beautifully filmed documentary that gets up close and personal with the brewery workers (kurabito, 蔵人) of Yoshida Shuzo in Ishikawa Prefecture, makers of the Tedorigawa (手取川) brand. They are notable for the fact that they are one of the few remaining breweries in Japan that still follows the traditional system of workers living on site away from friends and family for the entire duration of the brewing season. However, this blog is not a review of the documentary, so all I will say is that whether or not you have an interest in sake, give it a watch. I doubt you will be disappointed, and just maybe you will catch the sake bug as I have. Instead, what I will discuss in this blog is, in my own opinion of course, the vital role that a company such as Yoshida Shuzo plays in helping make sake more popular, both abroad and domestically.
It is no secret that, in recent years, the sake industry has faced a pretty serious generational problem. Many of the key figures in the industry, such as the Master Brewers (Toji, 杜氏), were aging rapidly, often without younger sucessors coming up through the ranks. A company can have the best product in the world, however, it means nothing if there is nobody to continue to make it. As I was informed during my visit, in the case of Yoshida Shuzo, the Toji there is fast approaching his seventies. Fortunately for Tedorigawa they have such a successor waiting in the wings.
If before reading this you have watched the documentary, you will no doubt know that the brewery owner’s son, dare I say the star of the documentary, is ready to take over the day that the Toji decides he has finally made his last batch. At the time of filming, 6th generation heir Yoshida Yasuyuki, was only 27 years old. However, having been literally raised in the brewery, it is evident that he is already very experienced and is said to have decided early on that what he wanted to do was make sake rather than just fulfil the role of company president. I was lucky that for my visit Yasuyuki-san was on hand to give me a personal tour along with a brilliantly paced explanation of the sake making process. Being completely honest, if I try and imagine myself in his position, with some sake geek turning up during the peak of the brewing season, taking pictures and asking lots of silly questions in broken Japanese, I would probably not have been half as patient and accommodating as he was. However, this is just one of the reasons why I believe the future of the industry relies on people such as him.
As industry legends such as John Gauntner and Philip Harper have both eluded to in the past, sake has previously suffered from having an image of being a bit of an old man’s drink. Some industry commentators have also highlighted Japan’s ageing population as being a potentially serious problem in the future when that particular generation is no longer with us. However, looking at recent developments within segments of the industry, sake nowadays is anything but suffering from a image problem. In fact, these same people now talk of how cool it has become. I believe that at the heart of this are people like Yasayuki-san, who represent a new generation of brewers who can inject fresh ideas into the industry and better embrace modern media channels. For example, I couldn’t help but notice that on more than one occasion during my visit he referenced wine making when talking about the brewing process. His appreciation and knowledge of wine is also evident during the documentary, not to mention on his personal Facebook timeline. At the time I wrote my dissertation, I was convinced that the more the sake industry latches on to the wine industry, the more popular it will become abroad. Perhaps since then, I have become a bit more optimistic about sake's prospects of making its own mark on foreign markets, without having to piggyback on another industry. However, it’s great to see first-hand part of the new generation looking where perhaps those before them didn’t.
The lasting impression of my visit to Tedorigawa is that they seems to have achieved a healthy balance between modernity and tradition. The current Toji has over 55 years of brewing experience to share with Yasuyuki-san. However, nearly everyone with an interest in the industry agrees that the future of these companies now relies on the younger generation to graciously and appreciatively take the reins in the very near future. Having now tasted Tedorigawa, I am happy to report that it is certainly a fantastic brand that they are toiling to make each year. However, I will be as bold as to say that adding a face to the business, a front-man if you will, could equally be as important for the future, of not just Yoshida Shuzo, but of the industry as a whole.
Nihonshu is still just dipping its toes into the water of the global drinks market. It seems that nowadays, alcoholic drinks nead to be more than enjoyable, they also need to have a narrative or lifestyle to accompany them. Therefore, Yasuyuki-san and his fellow next generation brewers could serve to personalise their respective company’s products and make them stand out abroad. Philip Harper once said that he hopes that if sake takes off overseas, it will have “a boomerang effect” domestically. I would say that the fantastic back-story provided in The Birth of Sake will only help it find a wider audience overseas and help it on its way to doing just that.