While many Western wine, beer and spirits producers have fervently ramped up sustainability practices in recent years, don’t overlook Japan’s sake. The traditional practices used to make the fermented rice drink make it inherently compatible with sustainability, experts say.
“Sake has always been produced with energy conservation in mind,” says Daniel Bennett, sake sommelier at Chicago’s Sushi-san and The Omakase Room. “Sake breweries are practicing methods that preserve the natural world, so that more than tradition is passed from generation to generation.”
Specifically, those practices range from using organic and/or biodynamic methods to farm rice; reducing and upcycling waste; finding ways to protect and improve the quality of water supply; and reducing energy consumption, including use of solar panels.
“Japanese culture in general believes in no waste, as they are always conscious of what they use and how it is used,” explains Jessica Joly, marketing director for NYC-based Sake Discoveries. “From the idea of Shintoism, you respect nature, people, any type of living or non-living organism… These types of traditions have lived for many generations amongst Japanese culture, but more than ever, sustainability is important to conserve energy, eliminate unwanted waste and to help the environment.”
Of course, that that doesn’t mean things have always been perfect. After World War II, severe rice shortages took a toll on the sake industry, explains Nancy Matsumoto, co-author of Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake: Rice, Water, Earth. To make the limited amount of rice go further, sake producers had to dilute sake with significant amounts of water and/or brewer’s alcohol. Additives such as sugar or acidulants were used as well. The sake of the postwar years was “rough stuff,” Matsumoto observes.
Yet, that period marked a relatively brief interlude in sake’s long and distinguished history, and gradually gave way to more polished premium sake categories, including Junmai—a pure rice sake made with just rice, water, yeast and koji, without additives or brewer’s alcohol.
Today, many sake producers have returned to traditional techniques to grow rice, including many organic and biodynamic practices, as well as seeking out heirloom grains. Others have turned to high-tech options in the interest of supporting the environment. The latter ranges from solar-powered facilities to Roomba-like “weeding robots, ” which mimic the movement of webbed duck feet to agitate the water in rice paddies. This helps keep weeds from growing, instead of using pesticides.
“It’s nice to see that doing the right thing environmentally can create beautiful sakes,” Matsumoto concludes. Here’s a selection of environmentally-conscious sake breweries, recommended by the pros.
Sustainability-Minded Sake Breweries
“They were the first brewery to develop the super flat rice-polishing machine, which is highly efficient for rice milling,” Joly notes. The polishing process makes the grains less prone to cracks and splits, which in turn increases efficiency. Further, the Fukushima brewery only brews kimoto-style sake, which uses organic rice and eschews the introduction of harmful substances. Daishichi also has changed its packaging from Styrofoam to recycled cardboard.
“Since they grow their own rice, they have so much control over how they eliminate non-waste from [the processes of] growing the rice, milling the rice and using the remaining rice bran to maintain sustainability,” Joly says. Since the facility has its own rice-polishing machine, it can separate the outer husk from the core of the rice—meaning it can isolate the outer husk to use for fertilizer in rice paddies, and the core to upcycle at local bakeries, school cafeterias or even to repurpose as bird feed.
A particularly intriguing innovation at this Nigata-based brewery: a snow storage facility, filled with about 1,000 tons of snow each winter to naturally refrigerate certain styles of sake. “This eliminates the use of [electrical] power and is great for aging sake, as the low temperature allows [for] more gentle and complex styles,” Joly explains. In addition, the brewery uses sake lees to make pickles, while the rice bran is repurposed at bakeries.
“Reuse and zero-waste practices are a virtue at Heiwa Shuzo,” Bennett says. “They aim to make the most out of what they borrow from nature.” That means kasu (spent rice, a byproduct of sake production) is extensively repurposed: it’s distributed to local cosmetic producers, who use it in all-natural cleansers, and food production companies making kasu cakes. Meanwhile, the spent hulls from milling are used for rice crackers, animal feed for local farmers or even as material for building and construction.
Those “weeding robots” mentioned earlier are the brainchild of this Yamagata brewery—it’s named after the Aigamo breed of duck that once paddled around the rice fields, eating insects and stirring up the water, preventing weeds from growing. “It’s part of their organic philosophy: let nature do the work,” Matsumoto explains. “They’re very environmentally minded, going completely green, with sustainable energy, including this little robot in the fields.”
(Hot Springs, Arkansas)
This is a relatively new American sake brewery, located in Hot Springs, Arkansas. “It’s very ambitious in its renewable energy goals,” says Matsumoto. “They’re committed to solar energy, zero waste. It’s about being stewards of the environment.”
“Master brewer and owner Taka Nagayama is driven by his reverence of natural French winemaking,” Bennett says. As an estate producer—a rarity in Japan—the brewery is surrounded by its own Yamadanishiki rice fields (known as the “king” of sake rice), and traditional brewing methods and equipment are preferred over mechanized modes for the company’s Domaine Taka brand.
Brewery owner Yasunobu Tomita partners with local farmers to grow Tamazakae rice, an indigenous varietal, and collaborates with the farmers to develop new rice strains. “Instead of fertilizers they use soy beans, nuka (rice powder from polishing) and dried rice stalks,” Bennett says. “Hay has a lot of nutrients, so it’s been used as fertilizer for a long time.”
Last Updated: June 12, 2023