We, at least in London, are becoming more familiar with Japan’s iconic national beverage. We are tempted to take our first sips in the increasingly numerous Japanese restaurants in the capital. Sake is new to us but it’s been around for a couple of thousand years in some form or other, and there are families that have been dedicated to brewing sake for generations – in some cases more than a dozen generations, and those are dynasties that have endured longer than most Royal houses.
I met Mr Koichi Saura of the celebrated Urakasumi Brewery on one of his frequent visits to London, which has become over the past few years a hub of international sake promotion. Saura-san was, in fact, the founding chairman of the Sake Samurai organisation in Japan which was set up to counter the decline of the sake industry.
I asked Mr Saura about his family history and his home. ‘My ancestors set up the brewery around 290 years ago during the Edo Period (The Tokugawa or Edo period lasted from 1603-1868). My home has a long history and people have written poems about its beauty. It’s in the north of Honshu Island and about 300km from Tokyo, facing the Pacific Ocean. There is a famous shrine there called Shiogama Jinja which is more than 1000 years old. We have always had many visitors and we needed sake to welcome them and also sake to dedicate to the shrine.
‘I am the 13th generation and the only son so I always thought I would go into the family business. In Japan we own the brewery but we contract Master Brewers to actually make the sake. These days young brewers are making it themselves. We make sake during the winter time, it’s the traditional way. It’s been the best time as the master brewers were usually agricultural workers and there would be little for them to do at home during those months. Also the cold temperatures help us to regulate the fermentation process. These ways are changing though, as now people can find work all year round in other industries.
‘Urakasumi (the name means ‘misty bay’) produces a wide range of Sake products. We use different varieties of rice and different polishing ratios to create a wide range of sake – 20 different styles – and sometimes it’s difficult to keep to the production schedule. Sake production in Japan is around 40% of what it was at its peak. People have more choice of what to drink these days. 40 years ago we didn’t have such a wide selection. People want to try something new from abroad. Older people are trying to reduce consumption as they consider their health more. There is increasing interest now, though.
‘Young people in Japan are not drinking as much alcohol – not just sake but any alcoholic beverages. There has been a change in mentality. Sake is still a cornerstone of culinary culture in Japan. These days there are around 1300 sake breweries spread around the country. Each brewery is a centre for culinary culture and sake is still a drink to dedicate to the gods in Shinto religion. Owners of breweries have played an important part in local society. It’s said that sake brewing is one of the oldest industries in Japan and it still remains an important part of everyday life with sake and food pairing, which I want to continue to promote.’
What was the reason for creating Sake Samurai? ‘A group of young sake brewers wanted to find a way to promote sake to the domestic market. Consumption was decreasing so we had to elevate the profile and change its image. For young people, sake was considered as a drink for grandfathers – old-fashioned. However, when I went abroad people were more interested and were surprised when I informed them that I was the 13th generation of a brewery-owning family, with such a long history. By promoting sake overseas and giving feedback to the domestic market we have found an effective way of elevating the sake profile.’
I asked Koichi Saura who exactly were the Sake Samurai. ‘We confer the title of Sake Samurai on those people who work hard to promote sake in Japan or overseas. We expect those people to continue to support sake in the future. We started 10 years ago and there are now around 40 Samurai who help to promote sake. We chose the name Samurai as there was the popular movie ‘The Last Samurai’ and we realised that the name was very attractive to foreigners. Samurai has a good image as a person that protects our beautiful traditions so we think it’s appropriate.’
So what of the future of sake? Younger Japanese are taking more interest in their own culture and sake is very much part of that. The international enthusiasm for sake is lagging behind that for Japanese food so there is surely a great opportunity for continued momentum of popularity for this delicious and complex drink.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018