Japanese sake is experiencing innovation and transformation unlike any other time in the drink’s history. It’s hard to think of what isn’t changing in the sake industry—the demographics of sake consumers and artisans, the variety of sake, its style and its distribution.
These changes, however, are rebuking tradition—a move which will inevitably play out in the food system.
For centuries, sake drinking has been a male endeavor. If you go to the Yurakucho, Kanda and Shinbashi districts in Tokyo, which are frequented by elite Japanese businessman, you’ll find a flood of men wearing suits and ties while balancing glasses of sake at an Izakaya, a small, old sake bar. These men follow the old moto, “If you can’t drink sake, you’re not a man.”
This gender norm doesn’t stop at bars. It’s also observed at the brewery. Even today, female brewers are culturally taboo—first because of an old superstitious bit of folklore that says the brewery itself will become “jealous” if a woman is present and so ruin the sake in it’s envy. Outside of this myth, brewing sake is also a very physically demanding job, which has traditionally barred women from entering the industry. Some artisans wake up every three hours to check the growth of malted rice—the source of sake during the coldest time of winter.
If you go to the rural provinces outside Tokyo, where tradition and code of honor are still strong, men’s ownership of sake is even more notable. Two months ago, I visited several sake breweries in northeast Japan, Tohoku along the coastline affected by the Tsunami in 2011. While interviewing the locals there, I noticed there were almost no women drinking their local sake, called Jizake. Instead, in this region, their style of sake is largely consumed by fishermen. In fact, for many fishermen in Tohoku, their Jizake is like a detachable wife—they often bring it on their boats to drink after a day’s work, and whenever a fisherman buys a new boat, he sprinkles Jizake over it to celebrate. Along with fishermen, I also noticed a group of male carpenters making a sort of sacred communion with sake before building the frames of new houses.
My visit represents the typical image of sake. “Sake is for men,” while women typically think of their grandfathers drinking sake with an ochoko, a traditional cup for sake, which has been used for hundred years.
But today, contrary to what we see in more remote areas and what we saw in Tokyo until just few years ago, young women, in their 20’s, 30’s and even early 40’s make up a new wave of sake fanatics. This includes production as well as consumption. Female sake artisans are growing in larger numbers than ever before.
According to “Bacchante,” a new life-style magazine for female brewers, in the last three years, more than 100 sake Bars were built in Tokyo and 70 % of customers are young women. Now, the old-fashioned Izakaya must co-exist with new establishments that are popular among women.
With the adoption of sake among younger, female consumers, innovations in the sake industry are already happening, and quickly. In marketing alone sake’s image is becoming more feminine. At department stores in Tokyo I’ll find a variety of beautiful sake bottles, decorated in pink and purple packaging. Even anti-aging cream and cosmetics for women are beginning to include sake as an ingredient.
And, at the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, women eagerly attend special sessions such as, “Sake Seminars for Ladies.” Year after year, the popularity of these seminars is growing. They’ve become so popular that participants now have to enter a lottery for a slot in these sessions.
Another fascinating aspect of women participating more avidly in sake, however, is that even with greater demand, the supply chain of sake is suffering.
Despite the quick rate of change, female artisans make up less than 1 % of sake producers. In Japan, currently, there are about 2,350 employed in sake manufacturing—a record low since WWII, and the female sake artisans are only about 30 in number. At its peak about 40 years ago, the workforce in sake breweries was approximately 28,075 people.
This shortage of sake artisans is threatening the production of sake. Many small breweries simply can not produce enough sake. The higher the quality of sake, in fact, the smaller and less-mass produced the brewery tends to be. At Igarashi Shuzo Brewery, with more than 130 years experience, some 4 sake artisans are responsible for making around 120,000 bottle of Sake (1.8 litter) a year with small machinery.
Rice production is also suffering from this demographic and demand shift. Some economists predict that rice, the crucial ingredient of sake, will not meet demand in the near future.
Will this change in consumer demographics and increased pressure on supply present a moment for miraculous innovation? or for failure?