Among Japan’s sake makers, a delicious revolution is brewing.

By Betsy Andrews
April 22, 2020
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Manaturu Brewery, Fukui Prefecture/Monica Samuels

Rain swept across the winter-gold rice fields of Japan's Kanto plain 100 miles north of Tokyo. It was right after the Lunar New Year, an auspicious time for ceremonies, and we huddled under umbrellas as a Shinto priest intoned before a shrine laden with offerings: carrots, oranges, rice cakes, a whole fish. He was asking for success in the endeavor ahead here at Tentaka Brewery. That endeavor was sake making.

Of Japan’s approximately 1,200 sake breweries, Tentaka is one of less than five that produces sake that is certified organic by the USDA, the European Union, and Japan. Munenori Ozaki, its third-generation president, puts great care into the rice, which is milled on-site. He showed me the machine, inside of which a whirring stone polished the protein and fat off rice kernels, leaving translucent pearls of starch that would be washed, steamed, and fermented to make the mash that is pressed, filtered, and blended to become sake.

Recently, Ozaki had helped introduce a new rice, Yumesasara, bred for the climate and soil of the Tochigi prefecture, where his brewery sits in a river delta fed by spring runoff from nearby Mount Nasu. Twenty-seven of the region’s brewers had each made a sake with the rice. Ozaki poured his. It had a lush, sweet-tart finish reminiscent of strawberries and cream.

It was entirely unlike the Tentaka sake I had tried back home in New York. That earthy bottle, named Hawk in the Heavens, tasted of shiitake mushrooms and walnuts. The difference between the two reminded me of the range of beers an American craft brewer might produce for their adventurous fans.

Yasuhisa Kato / Getty Images

Indeed, Ozaki told me, though the trend has been toward lighter, drier sakes, younger Japanese drinkers are starting to embrace new styles. “There’s more diversity in sake than ever,” he said. “I think it will continue to expand.”

That was happy news, for I had come to Japan to explore sake’s wilder side. My quest had started months before at a Manhattan festival called The Joy of Sake. There, at tables crowded with premium bottles, I remained unmoved. Most of the sakes on offer were daiginjo. Made from rice polished to at least 50% of its original size (nearly all of it the delicate-tasting Yamada Nishiki variety) and with a touch of distilled alcohol blended in, daiginjo is considered sake at its finest. I found it boring. There was little in its smooth character to grab this wine lover’s palate. The acid of a cold-climate white wine, the earthiness of a Burgundy—where could I find such panache in sake?

Someone directed me to a table near the front. There, I discovered the oddballs: richer, more rustic junmai sakes made without added alcohol and with rice milled to only 70%; sakes resulting from ancient techniques that accentuate umami notes; sherry-like aged sakes; sakes made with different types of rice and yeast to achieve fuller textures and gutsier flavors. Reveling in this funky panoply, I got hooked. When the winter brewing season came around, I set off to visit the producers of the bottles I had fallen in love with.

I quickly discovered that many of them are wine aficionados. “I love Auslese Riesling and Chablis,” Shunichi Sato told me. “I like to age sake like wine.”

Sato is the fifth-generation owner at Kaetsu Brewery, which he runs with his wife, Yoshiko, in the rice-growing Niigata prefecture, wedged between white-capped mountains and the Sea of Japan. There, snow was piled on rooftops. Inside the brewery, I could see my breath.

Tentaka Brewery, Tochigi Prefecture / Monica Samuels

“This region is good for sake because the cold winters slow down fermentation,” said Sato. The yeast has time to develop complex aromas. The area is also noted for its soft water, ideal for the subtleties of sake making. “Niigata sake is famous for being clean, light, and dry,” he said. “But for the person who likes more umami and fragrance, we make Kanbara.”

Kanbara is the junmai sake that Sato ages at room temperature in the brewery. He can do it because it is unusually high in acid, made by going heavy on a key ingredient: the koji. Aspergillus oryzae, the mold called koji, contains the enzymes to convert rice starch to the sugar that yeast eats to make alcohol.

Sato led me to a cedar-lined room where rice sprinkled with koji was turning opaque with ferment. Warm and humid, the room was suffused with a chestnutty aroma that signaled the presence of amino acids, the protein elements that impart umami. Wrapped in cloth, the rice would rest for 55 hours, its temperature rising with the heat of koji fermentation to nearly 108°F.

For most sakes, koji rice is 20% of all the rice in the brew. But because it is more acidic than plain steamed rice, Sato’s mash bill calls for 99% koji rice. And there’s more: To begin the main fermentation, brewers mix water, koji rice and steamed rice, and yeast culture to create a small batch of starter. To protect the starter from bacteria while the yeast reproduces, modern brewers add lactic acid. But Sato uses a century-old method called yamahai, heating the water in the starter to kick-start lactic acid growth naturally. The process results in a slower fermentation with naturally derived lactic acid, plus stray bacteria that add intriguing feral notes before dying off.

Sato set out an array of vintages for me to taste. The 2018 smelled butterscotch-y, like a banded cheddar. A 12-year-old blend called Ancient Treasure had taken on a caramelized mushroom aroma and a Madeira-like richness. At 18 years old, the sake smacked of dark chocolate, strawberries, and nuts. It was aging like a fortified wine.

“Amino acid ... ” Sato said. “Soy, steak, miso, dashi, salmon—the flavors in Japanese food are very good for this sake.”

I’ll say. We dined that evening at my ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. The server brought whole salt-grilled cherry salmon threaded on iron skewers. In New York, I had enjoyed Ancient Treasure with desserts. But alongside the rustic fish, this sake showed its saline, umami side, a revelatory pairing.

THE NEXT DAY, I found myself singing to Nina Simone on the car stereo as I cruised with new friends down the Noto Peninsula along the Sea of Japan. Toshiaki Yokomichi was driving. He’s the master brewer at Mioya Brewery, owned by Miho Fujita, who was in the back seat. We had just toured their sake works and were on our way to an izakaya to feast on spider crab, cod milt, a parade of pickles—funky foods to go with Mioya’s pungent sakes.

The brewery’s location, Hakui, is famed for UFO sightings, and like her town, Fujita’s vision is out of the ordinary. A former Mattel executive, she inherited the brewery from her father, who had bought it later in life. She never expected to be a sake maker, and she’s a woman in a male industry. She doesn’t feel bound by norms: “Tokyo people like clean, fruit-forward, chilled sake,” she said. “But I want my sakes served at red wine temperature to highlight their umami, which is better with food.”

Mioya Brewery, Ishikawa Prefecture/Monica Samuels

To maximize savoriness, Yokomichi lets the koji work for nearly 60 hours, and the rice varietals he uses bring out umami, too. Fujita oversees a yeast starter method that is even more ancient than yamahai. Called kimoto, it entails beating the starter with a pole to encourage the formation of lactic acid. Historically, brewers sang to keep a rhythm, but Fujita beats to pop music, and sometimes she hacks the process with a handheld cement mixer. Grassy herbs, blonde miso, a tannin-like finish—her aged junmai Yuho Rhythm of the Centuries is complex stuff.

Others of her sakes are just as exuberant, tasting like pickled melon or fresh-picked peas. Yuho Eternal Embers has the sweet umami flavor of enoki mushrooms. Even Yuho daiginjo exhibits a gamy brightness. Yokomichi had me taste the mash from the tank, where it had sat for 22 days. “For contests, this much acidity isn’t good,” he said. “But for aging it’s good, and we don’t care about contests.”

It was a sentiment seconded by Keisuke Izumi. The fifth-generation owner of tiny Manaturu Brewery in Ono, inland from the central west coast, Izumi brews one tank a week and bottles it without blending, filtering, or diluting. It’s the sake equivalent of single-barrel whiskey, of which Izumi is a fan.

“Part of the charm is the variance from tank to tank,” he says. Like a good whiskey drinker, Izumi has built a library of aged sakes. A 22-year-old sake was the color of toasted sesame oil and tasted deliciously of candied chestnuts and smoke.

With his new releases, Izumi is a restless experimenter. He makes sherry-cask sake; strawberry-tart sake with white koji, rather than the typical yellow; peachy, chewy sake brewed with malic acid; sake fermented with rose-scented local yeast. And many of his starters are yamahai to boost umami. Packed with amino acids, his Mana 1751 True Vision is yogurt-y and meaty, full of peppery charisma. It has little in common with those mild daiginjos I had sipped at The Joy of Sake. For Izumi, that was precisely the point.

“When I started brewing, everyone liked sake that was fresh and elegant but tasted like water. Those bore me,” the brewer declared. “I don’t want to be the best at making sake like everyone else. I want to make sake like no one else makes.”

The Sakes to Sip

Unless otherwise noted, prices are for 720-milliliter bottles. Order from Drizly, Tippsy Sake, or find a retailer near you through Vine Connections.

Choryo Yoshinosugi No Taru Sake

This cedar-aged beauty offers a black pepper nose and musky, woodsy flavor. From $20 at drizly.com

Tengumai Yamahai Junmai

Fermentation using a traditional method called yamahai and two years of aging yield salted caramel and banded cheddar notes. Bold but with plenty of acid, it’s great with grilled fish. $28 at tippsysake.com

Yuho Eternal Embers

Subtle notes of enoki mushroom and a lush texture characterize this junmai from Mioya Brewery. It’s versatile enough for every course. $33 at tippsysake.com

Mantensei Star-Filled Sky

When the director’s business card reads “enjoys fungi investigation,” you know the sake will be rich in umami. This one from Suwa Brewery balances funk with a clean, dry finish. $43 at tippsysake.com

Tentaka Hawk In The Heavens

From its pickled mushroom aroma to its walnutty and grassy flavors, this junmai from Tentaka Brewery offers lots of rootsy charisma. From $30 at drizzly.com

Yuho Rhythm Of The Centuries

Well-beaten and long-aged, this kimoto junmai delivers yeasty, vanilla flavors and a grippy, compelling finish. $30 at tippsysake.com

Mana 1751 True Vision

Fermented with unusual yeast, Manaturu Brewery’s super-lactic sake packs a punch with sweet-tart yogurt and black pepper flavors. $42 at tippsysake.com

Kanbara Ancient Treasure

Made with 99% koji rice and aged 12 years, Kaetsu Brewery’s apricot-hued sake has a caramelized allium nose, braised black mushroom flavor, and a sherry-like finish. $95 at tippsysake.com