I fell hard for sake at, of all places, a London wine fair. To be clear, wine, and more specifically, natural wine, is my specialty. But in my circle of food and beverage experts by the early 2010s, I had begun to hear rumors of something transcendent called junmai-shu, or “pure sake,” made using ancient methods of production and without the addition of neutral distilled spirits, common in most modern sake brewing. I had heard whispers about Terada Honke, a sake producer that shared the principles of natural winemaking: brewery-propagated yeast, organic farming, no additives. In 2012, I discovered that very sake would be poured at the annual London Wine Fair.
So I flew to England, paid my fee, grabbed my glass, and rushed past the tables of wines to the back of the hall. There, a tall bespectacled gentleman loomed over bottles emblazoned with the labels of different producers. I looked for his name in my tasting book: He was Dick Stegewerns of the Holland-based Yoigokochi Sake Importers. “The Terada Honke, please,” I said, holding out my glass with a smile. Like a patient teacher, Dick suggested I try some of the more typical junmai-shu before I tasted the sake unicorn I was stalking. First, he poured me a clear, fruity sake. Then came one with age, rich and almost misolike. Both flooded my palate with flavors unfamiliar to me—a language I didn’t yet speak.
Finally, I had earned my taste of the Terada Honke. Dick poured an inch of a slightly yellowish sake into my glass. I took a sniff and my head flew back in surprise. I inhaled again and took a sip: The taste was a deep confection of reishi mushroom tea and tamari flecks, with notes of pine. There was also an acidic quality that was new to me. I took another sip. I’d never had sake like this before. I was hooked.
A resurrection is quietly taking place in Japan, where tradition is steadfast and devotion to keeping the wa (balance) is the rule. The pure sake movement is pushing back on the industrialization that has persisted since the 1940s, and a group of influential brewers is reviving ancient traditions to make pure sake, such as the Terada Honke that opened the door to this world for me.
Dick became my guide after that fateful tasting in London. An associate professor of modern Japanese history, he had lived on and off in Japan since 1987 and first came to love sake in 2001, when visiting Sake Bar Yoramu in Kyoto. There, he had tried aged sakes, as well as sakes made without the addition of sugar or distilled alcohol, each unlike anything he’d ever tasted. That experience sowed the seeds of a lifelong passion. In 2008, Dick started a side gig as an importer, bringing aged and pure sakes first into Europe and then into the United States—and became an evangelist for the pure stuff, which in truth, is the original stuff.
To understand pure sake’s revival, we must scroll back to the precursor to sake, when rice was introduced to Japan around 300 B.C.E. Unlike grapes, grain has no fermentable sugars. Saliva, however, as some unknown soul discovered, contains enzymes that enable rice to ferment. And so, by the time brewers got organized about making a fermented rice product, they turned to communal rice chewings: Villagers would gather around a vat, chew nuts and rice, and spit them into the container. Sake was produced in this way for hundreds of years—until the 7th century C.E., when koji, mold spores that can naturally occur on rice, were introduced as a substitute for oral enzymes.
For centuries after, sake was made with only four ingredients—water, rice, yeast, and koji—and had a natural alcohol content ranging from 15 to 18 percent. And then, in 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War—and later World War II—changed everything.
First, the Japanese army requested that producers boost the alcohol level, to prevent sake from freezing when carried by troops into frigid northeast China. As the wars progressed, a rice shortage worsened, so brewers got creative once more. They scaled back the amount of rice used during fermentation to create a kind of imitation sake product by adding rice powder, glucose, and alcohol.
Following the wars, brewers returned to using regular rice, but all was not well. Most continued to make sake boosted with glucose and alcohol, a high-octane, headache-inducing concoction. Then came the rice-polishing machines. While rice machines had been around for decades, industrial machines that could completely sand down the rice kernel became widespread in the 1960s. Super polished became code for quality—a belief that persists among many sake aficionados today. If you’ve ordered sake recently, you might recognize these terms: Ginjo (premium), which means that 40 percent of the kernel has been polished off, and Daiginjo (super-premium), which has at least 50 percent polished off. The most prized sakes became fragrant, lighter, and more neutral tasting.
A reverance for rice polishing had become the ideal, but there were rumblings of protest. The flavor of rice is found in its shell, said some outraged producers. How, they wondered, was getting rid of the flavor a quality move?
Some of those brewers began to return to the old ways, making sake from the four original ingredients—water, rice, koji, and yeast—with no added alcohol. And these sakes became known as junmai, or junmai-shu. A tax man named Uehara Hiroshi added fuel to the sake fire in the 1960s when, frustrated with the cheapening of his beloved drink, he cried out for the return of sake’s integrity and later wrote an influential book about junmai-shu.
Many Japanese drinkers, however, rebelled against any changes to the prevailing version of the national beverage, and there wasn’t much of a market for junmai-shu inside or outside the country. Junmai-shu makers faced a lonely battle until 2013, shortly after my trip to London. As the natural wine market grew, importers who focused on natural wines also sought out pure sakes, beginning in Europe and Australia.
In 2015, junmai-shu finally had its moment: René Redzepi introduced some at the Tokyo pop-up for his legendary Copenhagen restaurant Noma, pushing pure sake into the international spotlight.
Today, the most elegant of the pure sake makers try to use organic rice; some are growing their own. If they use yeast, they choose one with the most neutral aromatic effect. Some makers polish their rice and retain the categories of Daiginjo and Ginjo on their labels. For junmai-shu warriors, however, quality is based not on how finely they can polish their rice, but on the integrity of the rice farming, the quality of the water, and the process of natural brewing.
After nine years of tasting junmai-shu sake with Dick at various European natural wine fairs, enough was enough—I wanted to experience sake at the source. He and I plotted to go to Japan together. I was ready to visit kura (breweries), talk to toji (master brewers), and finally visit Sake Bar Yoramu. But March 2020, the month I was supposed to travel, coincided with the beginning of lockdown in New York City, where I’m based. Life had another idea for me: meeting those toji over Zoom, my Dutch teacher translating for me from his perch in Leiden.
Toji Kuniko Mukai lives and works in the touristy seaside village of Ine on the northern coast of Kyoto Prefecture. As a young girl growing up with a brewer father, she prayed for a brother to come along so she could be free from her family business. “I preferred work related to the sea. I wanted to marry a fisherman,” she told me.
It didn’t work out that way. At the age of 22, Kuniko became one of the first women toji in the country. Now 46, she says she has no regrets about taking over Mukai Shuzō. An animated woman, she’s in constant motion, sipping on a foamy beer one moment, flashing newspaper articles at the screen the next. As we talked, stories of the past poured out of her, including memories of how her father manipulated her into going to agricultural school.
It was at the Tokyo University of Agriculture that Kuniko met Masahisa Takeda, an influential professor in the field of sake. Masahisa, who also lamented the homogeneity of sake, urged his students to return to pure sake. He encouraged them to embrace sake’s idiosyncrasies and utilize ancient recipes. To Kuniko, he suggested experimenting with a forgotten heirloom red rice and sent her a sake made with it as an example. “It tasted like a dirty dishrag,” she told me. “Then I realized it was up to me to make it taste good.”
She bottled her first Ine Mankai within two years of returning to her family brewery. This particular sake has become so popular, it now makes up half her production and is considered the gold standard for red rice sakes. As we talked, I remembered the first time I tasted it at a modern New York City Japanese restaurant: It carried such a spark, the umami, the grip.
While Kuniko wanted to make 100 percent pure sakes, it was challenging at first. It was just too upsetting to deal with the angry men in the village who didn’t want her to change. But times evolved, and in 2013, after years of effort, she finally converted her brewery, making only junmai-shu. At that time, Kuniko also had her first taste of natural wine, something she thought she wasn’t interested in. She was astonished. “The wines tasted like sake!” she said. They felt good in her body and reinforced for her that using organic rice was essential.
Oku Hirokai, the 66-year-old kuramoto (brewery owner) at Akishika Shuzō, is a charismatic, thoughtful man with a long, complicated relationship to sake. His family, he explained to me, founded the brewery in 1886 in Nose, a town high in the northern mountains and bamboo forests of the Osaka Prefecture. Now the sixth-generation owner, Oku says he is not comfortable calling himself a toji, preferring to include all who work with him in the process. But “I have the final responsibility,” he concedes.
Like Kuniko, Oku had no interest in becoming a brewer. He thought the sake his family made was awful, and he disliked his father’s hangovers. He toyed with the notion of teaching but ended up in the sports clothing business instead. When Oku was 27, his dad wanted to retire and insisted Oku return to the kura. Oku softened. He had seen the sake improve in quality: Akishika had recently converted 10 percent of production to the pure stuff. Sales had increased.
“But really,” I asked, “why did you relent?” He looked up, pulling words from the sky: “I was tired of selling things that I did not make.”
Now, the brewery produces 100 percent junmai-shu. “It is the only real sake,” Oku said, smacking his hand on his desk for emphasis. He not only makes what he sells, but he is known for growing much of it as well—a sake from paddy to glass. He pioneered the vigneron approach for sake: The same person who grows the rice also brews the sake. These days, Oku cultivates local rice varieties on 50 acres—most of which he rents—and farms organically.
He also prefers to keep his sake back, contradicting the conventional wisdom that sake must be drunk young. His five-year-old Black Moheji sake is a terrific example of place and time. Made from rice grown on one of the parcels he owns outright, Black Moheji is a little angular, with a finish that tastes of pastry—like the snap of a cannoli shell—elegant, tamed, and exuberant.
Since the late 1980s, the 351-year-old Terada Honke kura, located 14 miles north of Tokyo’s Narita Airport, has used only organic materials and native yeast, and no added alcohol. Now run by 48-year-old Masaru Terada, this is the brewery most aligned with the natural wine movement—and the brewery responsible for my own love and devotion to pure sake.
When Masaru fell in love with the daughter of a brewery owner and came to work at Terada Honke in 2003, he didn’t even drink much sake. Now that he and his wife are its 24th-generation owners, he waxes romantic about the whoosh of fermentation. If you follow him on Instagram, you’ll experience his pride in growing some of his own rice. You’ll also witness the magic of the winter brewing season and hear the traditional songs brewers sing as they work. The videos are so vivid you can almost feel the heat and humidity of the brewing room.
When Masaru was first introduced to natural wines, he was impressed by their acidity and vitality, as well as the emphasis on how the grapes were farmed. This cemented his vision for natural principles applied to sake. “My focus is very much on how to convey the benefits of nature, from the rice to the drink,” he told me. “That’s my purpose.”
But Masaru also inherited the natural emphasis from his father-in-law, Keisuke Terada, who fell ill in 1985. Up to that point, Keisuke had made sake the way everyone else did. Then, during the sleepless, pain-filled nights of his illness, Keisuke had a revelation: What was fermented did not rot. After he recovered, Keisuke devoted himself to fermented foods and overhauled the kura, changing over to natural fermentations and organic rice, and eliminating added alcohol. He died in 2012, the year I met Dick. The sake I drank in London that first time had been made under his direction.
Keisuke also saw a more symbolic meaning in sake production. He believed that the way he once made his sake, adding alcohol and yeasts, upset the balance of bacteria in the warehouse and degraded both the company and his health. Keisuke Terada healed through fermentations and through finding balance, or the wa. His own healing paralleled the healing of sake throughout the country. While pure sake producers haven’t changed the way mass sake is produced, they have found a clientele. It’s now easy to find pure sakes in restaurants and bottle shops throughout Japan as well as around the world. After years of recovery from the damage done by modern sake makers, the pure balance to the national drink is returning. For, as Keisuke wrote in his book, Hakkodo: The Path of Fermentation, “when the balance is lost, it goes to corruption.”
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