National

Maker of premium sake Dassai to build brewery in New York, its first outside Japan

by Justin Maki

Kyodo

Asahi Shuzo Co., the Yamaguchi Prefecture-based maker of Dassai premium sake, has announced plans to build a brewery in New York, making it the first Japanese producer to establish itself in the region at a time when local craft sake breweries are on the rise.

The planned brewery, which will be the company’s first outside Japan, is projected to cost $28 million and open in early 2019 at a site near the Culinary Institute of America campus in Hyde Park, about 120 km north of New York City.

“We are very excited to be able to bring this facility here,” Kazuhiro Sakurai, the company’s president, said at a recent event at the campus, expressing hope that his company’s partnership with the school will help create a “new sake culture” involving people in the community and surrounding areas.

“(We want) to explore the possibilities of sake with American cuisine and all kinds of different foods” so as to “bring the best possible sake to the attention of the world in a way it hasn’t been up until now,” he said.

Once brewing begins at the new facility, whose design team is headed by Japanese architect Jun Mitsui, visitors will be allowed to tour the nearly 5,000-sq.-meter building. Cherry blossom trees will be planted in a meadow along one side and the building will include retail and sake-tasting areas.

“The upside (for sake in the U.S. market) is tremendous if the American public is introduced to the right quality sake and in the right way,” said Tim Ryan, the culinary school’s president. “What we hope to do is to help the educational process.”

The institute’s forthcoming sake-related curriculum is likely to see students apprenticing in the brewery, while a national sake certification is in the works for those who sell the beverage as distributors or directly to U.S. consumers.

Meanwhile, the first sake brewery in New York City opened to the public in March.

Brandon Doughan and Brian Polen, co-founders of Brooklyn Kura, met in 2013 at a mutual friend’s wedding in Japan. Inspired by a two-week trip in which they visited a number of sake breweries, they spent the next several years back in the United States honing their skills to make authentic junmai sake — a type brewed from only rice, water and kōji (yeast), without the addition of distilled alcohol.

“We brew our sake with traditional methods but hope to integrate an element of experimentation coming from the perspective of American craft brewers,” the founders wrote in an email.

The labor-intensive brewing process lasts about 30 days and requires attention to many variables, including rice polishing ratio, or the percent of the starch-rich inner grain left intact when the outer portion is milled away.

At present, Kura bottles two varieties of its sake for outside sale, while a handful of additional ginjō brews, made using 50 to 60 percent of the rice grain, are available only at its Brooklyn taproom.

The founders hope the location can serve as an “educational space” in their effort to show the city’s craft beer and wine enthusiasts that sake also has “a range of quality and flavor profiles that are accessible and pair incredibly well with food.”

“We love introducing folks to the intricacies of the beverage,” they said.

While sake consumption in Japan has been in decline, the growth of interest abroad has coincided with rising awareness of Japanese food culture, which was inscribed in 2013 into UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

The culinary institute has aided the trend with an advanced course in Japanese cuisine launched in 2016, and sake in particular has received a boost from Erik Shirai’s award-winning documentary, “The Birth of Sake.”

“That movie has done more than any other promotion or activity by anybody to raise the awareness (in the United States) of sake, and specifically of premium sake,” said Rick Smith of Sakaya, a pioneering sake retail shop in Manhattan.

Since the film’s festival debut in 2015, Smith has welcomed an increasing number of new visitors who cite it by name and mention having their interest piqued by its look into the rigors of traditional sake-brewing at the Yoshida brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture.

While U.S. breweries may not operate with the same depth of tradition as those represented at Sakaya, which opened a little over a decade ago with a focus on premium sakes from Japan, Smith praised the “good fundamental sake” of U.S. makers joining the domestic market.

“We encourage any and all comers to the craft,” he said.

Asahi Shuzo’s upcoming brewery in New York will continue the Dassai brand’s exclusive focus on junmai-style sakes with the premium designation of daiginjo, indicating higher degrees of rice milling, though the product for the U.S. market will not completely replicate the original from Japan.

Similarly, the founders of Brooklyn Kura see themselves working in a tradition that U.S. brewers may increasingly make their own.

“We believe an American style, or styles, will develop over time, but it isn’t clear yet what that is or will be,” they said.

The recent uptick in sake breweries on the U.S. East Coast includes makers like Blue Current Brewery in Maine and Dovetail Sake in Massachusetts, as well as a company called SakeBrooklyn, which plans to launch soon in the New York borough.

Although the total number of U.S. sake facilities remains under 20, makers such as SakeOne, which has been brewing in Oregon since the late 1990s, and moto-i of Minnesota, founded in 2008 as the country’s first sake-brewing gastropub, have qualified in recent years for the U.S. National Sake Appraisal.

The tasting competition takes place annually in Hawaii among hundreds of brewers, almost all of which are based in Japan, with the entries later showcased for the public at The Joy of Sake events held in four world cities including New York.