In an industry that’s more or less a thousand years old, and likely more ancient than that, it’s only in the last hundred years or so that significant innovations have taken hold within the sake world.
The latest development? More and more brewers have been switching on the green light for vegan sake. For a trade that takes pride in its highly traditional methods and multigenerational management — in many cases crafting their sake beneath centuries old wooden brewery structures — this feels like something really quite progressive.
But wait, surely all sake is vegan… right?
Wrong. For the most part, paper micro-filters and charcoal are used during filtration in a process call roka (ろ過) to remove unwanted tinges of colour. However, in some cases, animal-based fining agents are employed in much the same way as they are in the wine industry to adjust the tiny impurities.
Outside of this, the recipe for brewing sake, or seishu (清酒) to give its legal name in Japanese, is, on the face of it, pretty simple requiring steamed rice, koji and naturally occurring water sourced from underground reserves, snowmelt or streams.
Koji itself is totally natural, created by propagating koji mold spores onto more of that steamed rice. As Sake Portal notes, premium sake does not contain any additives or preservatives like sulfites, making it one of the cleanest beverage choices in the market. It doesn’t get much purer than that.
So although this diminutive ingredient list by and large naturally categorises sake as inherently vegan, forward-thinking brewers and organisations have latched onto the need for full customer transparency and have taken things to the logical next step to eliminate any uncertainty.
Certifications are now being granted, where deserved, by NPO VegeProject Japan, a non-profit organisation that is working hard to increase the choices for vegetarians and vegans alike. There are now over a dozen sake breweries certified in Japan — and that number is growing.
With domestic sales and active brewery numbers continuing to decline, Japanese producers are looking more and more to international sales and market entries. Using vegan certification as a tool to highlight their portfolio as all-natural, these savvy brewers are becoming the global ambassadors for the purity of sake and meeting the demand for a vegan choice in the West.
For myriad reasons, more and more people are taking the decision to follow a vegan lifestyle. In the UK, a leading vegan market, the numbers have quadrupled from 2014 to 2019. Therefore it comes as no surprise to read that Dojima Sake Brewery, one of only a handful of British sake producers, is now on the country’s Vegan Society certified list, along with four recognised Japanese breweries.
Nanbu Bijin Brewery’s passionate president, Mr Kosuke Kuji, led the successful bid to acquire the very first vegan certification for Sake, both domestically and internationally from Japan’s NPO VegeProject and the UK’s Vegan Society in January 2019. This has played a significant role in securing a buoyant export business across nearly forty markets.
Also armed with Kosher certification from 2013, Kuji-san is committed to bringing sake to as broad an audience as possible: “It is no exaggeration to say that Japanese sake is the safest and purest alcohol in the world,” his press release reveals. The brewery’s motto is to “Brew sake that makes people smile like bright sunshine,” and it surely does.
Further south in the middle of Japan’s Honshu Island, Nagai Sake Brewery in Gunma Prefecture would swiftly follow Nanbu Bijin with initially four accredited vegan sakes. The stunning Mizubasho Artist Series was quickly added to this tally and includes a sparkling sake, a still sake and a dessert sake, all designed to pair with a range of global cuisines and dining occasions.
But there’s a lot more to the wellness story of sake than just this recent vegan impetus.
Continuing on a less-is-more path, as a rice-based drink, sake is naturally gluten-free which makes it a great option for people who are sensitive to or allergic to the grain protein. Just be sure to avoid that beer chaser.
Although stopping short of directly advocating sake as a natural medicine, industry sources are plentiful in their probiotic messaging (sake contains lactic acid which assists food digestion). Stats about peptide levels that can ultimately prevent or reduce the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and high blood pressure are plentiful, as is the wide embrace of sake in beauty elixirs.
Koji’s innate molecular framework also goes a long way to inhibit the activity of melanin, the main culprit of sunspots, age spots, and freckles. There’s a reason why cosmetics producers use sake and sake kasu (the “lees” by-product of the industry) in the face masks and hand lotions that line the shelves of so many Japanese department stores and pharmacies.
Rie Yoshitake is a Sake Samurai, part of a small community of individuals recognised by The Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council for their love and promotion of Japanese sake around the world. She is also a keen advocate of sake’s relationship with skin health:
“Some people have noticed that their skin seems more moisturized after drinking sake. In Japan, sake is used in facial toner, and some even like to pour their leftover sake into the bath for a luxury bathing experience,” she notes on Sake Samurai UK.
Better still, perhaps, for those of us who like to indulge a little over the weekend, an article by SAKE TIMES, a Japan-based dual-language publication dedicated to sake, reports that the calorific content of the liquid is not that high.
Unit-for-unit, you’ll consume just over half the sugar levels compared to beer, and in the neighbourhood of 20% fewer calories. Trouble is, the addictive snacks you’ll be enjoying with your sake might well balance things out, so if that’s a concern, reach for the edamame rather than the reassuring crunch of good chicken karaage late on a Friday night.
The constant improvements in modern medicine and healthcare are a wonder to behold, but it feels like there is some warm comfort to be taken from the epic history of sake brewing. The purity of the process and natural wisdoms that have been passed down through the generations, largely unaffected by external forces, offer tangible wellbeing benefits.
And for once, taking your medicine never tasted so good.
A certified Sake Sommelier, Will Jarvis is the owner and founder of Sake Matters, consulting for a variety of clients in Hong Kong and internationally. Will has spent over 20 years working in the food and beverage industry in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, is a trained chef and holds a diploma in hospitality. For more information please visit www.sakematters.com.
This story first appeared in Prestige Hong Kong.