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Sake to me, baby

Master brewer Masato Usui of Senkin Brewery, Tochigi Prefecture; Matsumoto, and co-writer Michael Tremblay.

Nancy Matsumoto readily admits she’s a lightweight when drinking alcohol. “It’s ironic, that I wrote this,” she says.

Matsumoto co-wrote Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake: Rice, Water, Earth with Michael Tremblay (Tuttle). It’s the latest in a number of book collaborations, including Displaced: Manzanar 1942–1945—The Incarceration of Japanese Americans and an upcoming book, By the Shore of Lake Michigan, in which she served as editor for a translation of a collection of her grandparents’ Japanese tanka poetry. Matsumoto is a prolific freelance writer for publications, and it grew out of her appreciation not just for the drink itself, but for the centuries of culture and tradition behind it. 

It’s a book that non-sake drinkers can appreciate, because of all the cultural context she provides. There are recipes, and the photography throughout is beautiful and the layout for the text and images, including amazing infographics by Tremblay, who is a renowned sake expert and sommelier, make the book look and feel like a bound volume of a high-quality magazine.

“Exploring the World of Craft Sake” is a lovely introduction to the pleasure of sake, with an encyclopedic grasp of its subject, but presented both visually and in words in a friendly and conversational tone. It’s not an academic tome at all. In fact, if anything, it’s a very readable, approachable collection of human-interest stories. Matsumoto is a fine feature writer with an ear for dialogue and for sensing the significant facts and emotions that make up a good story. The book abounds with stories—of inspiring pioneers, breweries run by multiple generations of a family, businesses that have literally been operated for centuries. And, it goes without saying, all infused with a deep passion for sake, the brewed rice beverage that has become a quintessential Japanese alcoholic drink.

Matsumoto, who is Sansei, began writing about sake a decade ago because she was assigned a story about Japan’s national drink when she was living in New York City. She describes New York as “a wonderful hub for sake exploration, with great sake bars. There were knowledgeable people importing, there was more and more premium craft sake coming in. So I did a story about the rise of sake culture in New York City.”

That assignment gave her access to the movers and shakers in the sake community including the craft movement’s pioneers.

She wrote stories about sake bars in the Big Apple and built a network of sake experts. “I became friendly with all these different people,” she says, and then she got her introduction to craft sake at its source. “I was on this fellowship trip to Japan. And you know, the sake people knowing that I was writing about sake said, Hey, ‘there's this sake tour of Fukuoka, would you like to go,’ so I sort of jumped on a few days into the trip and had an amazing time.”

That’s when she met John Gauntner, the world’s best-known non-Japanese sake expert. Upon her return to the states, Matsumoto took a class from Gauntner in Las Vegas. “Meanwhile, I'm still writing articles about sake and getting more and more into it. I mean, I don't have a huge tolerance, but I love the taste of really good sake,” she says.

Imada Brewery master brewer Miho Imada and Matsumoto.

Next, she added to her sake education by traveling to Tokyo for a sake professional class. In 2016, Matsumoto moved to Toronto. The day she arrived, Gauntner happened to be hosting a seminar so she joined a reunion of sake alumni. “It was on the patio of this restaurant ki modern Japanese + bar. And I met the guy who was head of the beverage program there, who ended up being my co-writer Michael Tremblay.”

It was as if karma had led to Exploring the World of Craft Sake. Matsumoto and Tremblay confided to each other that they’d been thinking about how writing a book on sake would be fun so they decided to work together. They got the green light from Tuttle Publishing, the venerable house for books about Japanese history and culture. John Gauntner provided the foreword, adding his stamp of approval.

Matsumoto, eleventh-generation president Sotaro Kinoshita of Amabuki Brewery (Saga Prefecture), and Tremblay.

The book is chock-full of fascinating facts and information about the history and making of sake, what is sake, and what makes sake great. But it’s not academic—Tremblay provides amazing, thorough insights that are easy to understand even for non-sake acolytes. He even includes a “periodic table” (which every high school chemistry class has displayed on the wall) of types of sake rice and where in Japan they come from. Tremblay also added recommended sake flights that close out every chapter.

Matsumoto added her strength as a journalist and approached the project as storytelling, not just about sake but about the people of sake. “Because I like reporting and writing,” she says, “and because I also am very interested in Japanese history and culture, I wanted it to tell the story of these people. I didn't want it to be a dry, technical book. I wanted to talk about the history of Japan and how the history of sake is the history of Japanese culture.”

In the text, she connects the historical dots to show how everything from the monks of Nara, to the tax system of postwar Japan, shaped the kinds of sake that are available today.

Ultimately, her writing is a tribute to the brewers’ passion for sake. “It’s about the people who have been making sake for generations, and their dedication to their craft. I love reporting in Japan, and being able to tell their stories. And I guess that's a long-winded answer to how it is that a lightweight who can’t drink a lot of alcohol ends up co-writing a book like this.”


© 2022 Gil Asakawa

Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake Nancy Matsumoto Sake