NEW YORK – Major Japanese sake brewers are stepping up U.S. production and considering further expanding capacity as their local units introduce new varieties that meet American tastes and complement Japanese cuisine.
For Japanese brewers, U.S. production offers lower costs than exporting the drink and quicker delivery to consumers, with the beverage best drank fresh within one year.
Locally produced sake has become a key menu item at restaurants as Japanese cuisine, or washoku, recognized as an intangible cultural asset by UNESCO, remains popular especially in metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles.
Sake is also found on the shelves of a wide range of liquor shops. A New York retailer said, “Many customers are happy with the taste of local sake and become repeat customers.”
President Yoshihiro Naka of Takara Sake USA Inc., known for such brands as Sho Chiku Bai, said, “With U.S.-grown rice, starch doesn’t break down into glucose with koji (a mold used in the brewing process) as fast as Japanese-grown grains, so we usually let rice soak in water several hours longer than in Japan.”
The California unit of Takara Shuzo Co. currently has an annual capacity of 7,500 kiloliters of draft sake, using lines of containers to steam rice at its factory. The volume is nearly seven times up from 1,100 kiloliters in 1983, when the company started selling the Sho Chiku Bai brand made in the United States.
“We will need further expansion in the future,” Naka said.
In June, Takara Sake started shipments of Yuki Nigori, an unfiltered sake drink available in white peach, lychee and coffee flavors, as part of its efforts to reach out to a broader range of drinkers. The company is aiming at annual sales of 120,000 375-milliliter bottles in 2015.
Gekkeikan Sake (USA) Inc. has also expanded its production capacity to 7,500 kiloliters per year at its factory in California, an eight-fold increase from 900 kiloliters at the 1990 launch, with an eye to pushing output to 10,000 kiloliters by 2025.
The U.S. arm of Gekkeikan Sake Co. said sales are strong of its mainline naturally brewed junmai-shu products, with a 750 ml bottle selling for around $6.
“We are planning to expand the lineup to meet growing demand,” a company official said.
Sales promotion centers on the Midwest and other focus areas in the United States, the company said, adding that exports will also be stepped up to Canada and Latin America.
Ozeki Corp. has also been enjoying rising shipments each year from its California plant.
Deliveries in 2016 are projected to grow 3 percent to 3,430 kiloliters, representing just over 12-fold growth from 280 kiloliters in the first year of shipments in 1980.
Sales have remained strong, especially for small and midsize bottles. In July, it added a 300 milliliter junmai-shu line for around $5.
Based in Oregon, SakeOne Corp. traces its history to a company jointly established in 1992 by Japan’s Momokawa Brewing Inc. and a U.S. company and has an American sake master. It is known for the Momokawa brand launched in 1998 under the guidance of Japanese brewery professionals.
Momokawa, an organic junmai-shu drink in a 750 ml bottle, sells for around $14. Moonstone, a fruit-flavored liquor including raspberries and plums, goes for around $13, also in 750 ml bottles.