It’s almost shameful to be seen drinking whiskey (or beer or gin) from a big, ubiquitous brand these days. An artisanal and craft spirits revolution is in full swing and small distilleries are popping up across the country proclaiming a return to “handcrafted” products and small-batch production.
But these trendsetters are merely jumping on the bandwagon of an incredibly old industry that has been doing things the artisanal way for a very, very long time—two millennia to be precise.
Saké, despite the efforts of some extremely dedicated and passionate brewers and ambassadors, is still relatively unknown and misunderstood around the world. Almost more serious, it’s under-appreciated in the country that created it.
But a new documentary premiering Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival may help to bring saké to its rightful place in the pantheon of spirits.
The Birth of Saké presents the moving story of one six-month brewing season at the Tedorigawa Brewery in northern Japan.
It follows the brewery’s nine employees as they live, breathe, and drink saké around the clock (although, they keep the saké drinking to celebratory moments).
The process is so labor-intensive and precise that the men must leave their friends and families from October to mid-April and move into the brewery to create the next season’s supply.
Likening the process to raising a child, the Tedorigawa’s Toji, or head brewmaster, 68-year-old Teruyuki Yamamoto, guides his men through the unending hours of grueling, hands-on work—steaming rice, mixing it with Koji, a special mold that converts the starch into sugar, and managing vats of the brew that will eventually become saké.
“They always compare saké-making to this sort of finicky child, this child that you have to constantly tend to, like a newborn child that you have to wake up in the middle of the night, feed it, check its temperature,” director Erik Shirai says, noting that the film’s title came out of this idea.
Beautifully shot by Shirai, the documentary shows the passion, artistry, and patience of the Tedorigawa team.
Workers bend over a table, kneading Koji mold into the rice in a heated room in scene after scene, their sweat literally dripping into the mixture (a process that subtly influences the flavor of the saké through the addition of alkaline from the sweat, according to Beau Timken, saké expert and owner of True Sake in San Francisco).
Yamamoto smells and tastes and touches everything along the way, burying his nose in a handful of rice to check to see if it’s ready to move on to the next step, grains sticking to his face as he looks up from his sample.
His governing principle after 53 years in the industry is that making saké is all about intuition.
Shirai, who is Japanese-American, doesn’t like comparisons to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the 2011 blockbuster documentary that followed Japanese sushi master Jiro Ono and his 3-Michelin-starred Tokyo restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro.
But it’s hard to avoid. Both movies take a detailed look inside Japanese traditions that are just as much art as profession and that are fundamentally tied to the history and culture of the country.
But whereas Shirai feels that Jiro Dreams of Sushi gives the perspective of an outsider looking in on the tradition of sushi making, he hopes his film shows an insider’s view of what it’s like to create saké.
“For me, I’ve always wanted to show that these are my people, these are my roots,” Shirai says. “I want not just people outside of Japan to appreciate this, but I want my own people, Japanese people, to look at themselves and say, ‘Oh we are these kind of people, and we should be proud of this.’”
It’s impossible not to be awed by the reverence the brewers seem to have for their work, the sheer difficulty of what they do, and the closeness that develops among a group that lives and works together for half a year, becoming more like a family than coworkers (a fact highlighted in a tragic turn during the second half of the movie).
But The Birth of Saké also paints a somewhat dire portrait of an industry trying to stay above water in changing times.
Saké-making—at least at the level of the jizake, the small, handmade breweries like Tedorigawa (as opposed to the large, machine-driven corporations brewing mostly the cheap stuff saké bombs are made of)—is a graying industry.
The workforce is aging, and no one seems to have figured out how to convince a new generation to dedicate their lives to the breweries.
Traditionally, saké makers have worked half the year in the fields cultivating saké rice, and the other half in the breweries.
But with more and more young people moving to the cities in search of high-paying jobs, there are fewer workers willing to put in the time to learn the painstaking—and not so lucrative—craft.
Those that do give up flirting and friends to sequester themselves in a brewery during the winter months often have a tough time finding employment for the other half of the year. Shirai says this is “the biggest challenge” facing the industry.
Throughout The Birth of Saké, Yamamoto teaches 28-year-old Yachan, the sixth-generation heir to Tedorigawa, the art of his craft—both how to make saké and how to inspire the team that the entire process depends on.
Yachan, who says he was “literally born and raised in this brewery,” seems to passionately embrace the challenge of moving Tedorigawa into a new era.
Working a grueling schedule, he spends six months out of the year brewing as one of the seasonal employees, and the other six traveling throughout Japan and the rest of the world, relentlessly promoting the gospel of saké.
“As the younger generation, [Yachan] understand that we need to get this out there to people worldwide,” Shirai says. “People need to see it…he wants to keep the traditional way of making [saké], but the way you have to market it has to be adapted.”
And finding new ways of marketing is imperative to tackling the second major problem facing saké: getting people to actually drink it.
The stakes are high. It’s not just about preserving a 2,000-year-old craft, but also about fostering a continued appreciation for a tradition that has been an important part of Japanese culture.
“It may sound conservative, but saké is our national liquor. It’s part of our history and culture and should be cherished,” a Japanese buyer tells Yachan in the documentary.
While its popularity is slowly growing internationally, particularly in the U.S., it is falling quickly in Japan, where saké is more often seen as the beverage of the grandparents’ generation and not as cool as libations like whiskey or wine.
“To be honest, nobody cares about the rice polishing percentage or how it was made—it simply needs to be delicious,” another Japanese buyer tells Yachan. “That’s all that matters in the end.”
Barring the intrepid workers who spend six months elbows deep in Koji rice, there may be no one more passionate about saké than Timken, a self-proclaimed “saké sort of savant” and saké "warrior.”
Born and raised in the U.S., Timken was introduced to saké while attending business school in South Africa, and he’s become a crusader trying to spread the spirit across America ever since.
“I just love saké. I love what it is, and when people taste saké, it sells itself,” Timken says. He ticks off the selling points: It has a third of the acidity of wine (a good quality for people with reflux issues), it’s generally pasteurized so it doesn’t contain sulfites, it’s low in histamines, not to mention much kinder to its drinkers the next day.
He blames part of the struggle on “immature customers” who aren’t always as willing to take the time to try different varieties of saké and understand them as they are with other spirits like tequila.
Still, popularity is growing in the U.S. Timken is opening his first saké bar in July and is planning to expand the True Sake experience to other cities after that.
In addition, there have been several craft saké breweries popping up in places like Berkeley, Portland, and Texas. While not yet at the level of Tedorigawa, a brewery that’s been in business since 1870, they are making better products every year, according to Timken.
Timken’s goals befit his passion for the drink. He says when he opened True Sake in 2003, the first dedicated saké store outside of Japan, he told the head of the Japanese Brewers Association, “One day, I want to make saké so popular in the West that it will boomerang back in Japan, and young Japanese will say, ‘Oh God, this is our beverage. We want to love this and cherish this too.’”
He says he “can’t die until there’s a saké on every wine menu at a restaurant.”
While Timken acknowledges it’s not quite there yet, slow strides are being made. And given the quickly growing popularity of small-batch craft spirits and the revival in artisanal production processes, it’s hard to imagine that saké doesn’t have a chance to join the Rye Whiskeys of the world.
In all its quiet beauty, The Birth of Saké will leave you in awe of the men who have dedicated their lives to coaxing the best product out of their rice. (Women also work in the breweries and serve as Tojis, although none worked on the Tedorigawa team during this season.)
It will also leave you with a sense of hopeful urgency for the survival of the small saké brewers—not to mention an immediate need to run out for a glass of the good stuff.
As Yamamoto says, “The next generation will not be able to survive unless we continue to make great saké.”
The Birth of Saké shows tonight, Friday, Saturday, Thursday 4/23, and Sunday 4/26. Screening details here.