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Dassai Blue Brewery’s Opening Signifies Growing American Appetite for Japanese Sake

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Asahi Shizuo recently opened a sake brewery in upstate New York, indicating the United States’ growing appetite for the Japanese alcoholic beverage.

After five years of construction and delays since the announcement of the facility, Asahi Shizuo celebrated the opening of their $80 million sake brewery with a rice-polishing section, wastewater center, and tasting room in Hyde Park, New York. To coincide with the ceremony, the company revealed they will be brewing a new brand of junmai daiginjo – a type of premium sake – called Dassai Blue at the brewery, starting from September 2023. This new type of sake will only be at the brewery and taproom in the immediate future, but eventually restaurants both locally and in New York City are expected to carry it.

Asahi Shizuo also emphasized they will be collaborating with the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) – an American culinary school located in Hyde Park – to educate people about sake in the United States. As part of this partnership, public classes, workshops, and various programs involving this facility have been developed. A goal for the state is that these initiatives will attract food industry professionals, students, enthusiasts, and other visitors, helping generate an economic impact from tourism which surpasses the $123 billion in total impact from 2022.

New York’s Booming Breweries and the American Sake Sensation

The craft beverage industry has grown exponentially in New York, highlighted by how in-state breweries grew from 95 a decade ago to 495 in 2021. Per the Empire State Development Department, New York is now number two in the nation with the number of breweries it houses, topped only by California. Much of this change can be attributed to the Farm Brewery Bill, which the state passed in 2012, and various other regulatory reforms. In this legal context, coupled with accounts of individuals in North America with craft brewing expertise venturing into sake production, Asahi Shizuo chose Hyde Park as the location of their first US-based operation.

Along with this, the facility was completed during a boom in American interest for sake. Exports of sake to the United States per year doubled in little over a decade, rising from four million liters in 2012 to more than nine million liters in 2022. The export value corresponded with this change, reaching $73 million compared to around $26 million ten years ago.

Japanese companies noticed this growing interest and economic value, entrenching themselves further in the American market. For example, Takara Holdings invested $3.8 million in a start-up with unique methods for creating flavors that can help their sake brewing in the United States. Brooklyn Kura – one of the largest American-owned sake producers in the country – partnered with Japan-based Hakkaisan Brewery in 2021. Likewise, the newly established Origami Sake in Arkansas employed master brewers from Nanbu Bijin as advisors.

Origami Sake is one of the most intriguing establishments, for both Japanese businesses and domestic entrepreneurs, because of its goals and production strategies. Their facility is the largest US-owned brewery in its initial form, with a production capacity of 800,000 liters per day that is planned to eventually expand to 2 million liters per day. It takes advantage of Arkansas as the leading producer of rice – the primary ingredient of sake – in the United States and utilizes freshwater in the nearby Hot Springs.

One of the main challenges of sake breweries can be sourcing ingredients. The ideal rice for sake brewing isn't just any typical variety. Types like the esteemed Yamada Nishiki are often larger in size and usually have a lower protein content than more common varieties. This has traditionally meant that many international sake producers have shipped their main ingredients from thousands of miles away in Japan, driving production costs up. Some have used substitutes such as Calrose rice, but the goal of sake brewers is to maintain a similar production quality and cost as in Japan. Innovation is welcome, but too much variation breeds uncertainty.

The success of Origami Sake with its locally sourced ingredients could assuage any fears of a quality drop. Indeed, the new brewery in Hyde Park has become interested in experimenting with local sourcing, as it has hopes to grow the Yamada Nishiki rice in Arkansas while importing from Japan in the meantime. Considering that sake produced in the United States still accounts for a small fraction of the sake sold domestically, a more successful local sourcing of ingredients could drive down costs for Japanese companies and ramp up sake production in the United States.

Internationalizing Sake Production and Consumption

Ensuring the ability to produce sake abroad at a premium quality with low cost has become increasingly important for many Japanese businesses, as the market in Japan for the alcoholic beverage has decreased dramatically. Between 1973 and 2020, annual domestic sales fell by 75%. The home market demand has also shrunk by 30% over the past decade. Many Japanese executives have acknowledged that international demand, and particularly the market in the United States, is where sake producers are counting on for continued business. Kazuhiro Sakurai, CEO of Asahi Shizuo, indicated this in a Kyodo interview about the facility in Hyde Park, saying that he hopes “90 percent of our sales will come from overseas in the future”.

To ramp up sales, Japanese sake producers aim to persuade Americans to think of the beverage as a pairing with all foods, not just Japanese cuisine. This has been a challenge, as in 2020, sake bottles in the US alcoholic drink market comprised only 0.2% of the total share as opposed to beer, wine, and whisky making up 60%.

The hope of some of these companies is that with more large facilities, local breweries, and rising demand, major restaurants with a variety of cuisines will become more interested in serving it alongside other alcoholic products. This will, in turn, create a positive cycle of reinforcement, where interest for sake in restaurants will stimulate a greater demand. Such a result would help dispel the perception that sake is only a drink served alongside Japanese food.

Despite the challenges, there is no doubt that sake has captured the attention of New Yorkers and Americans more broadly. This is evident from a recent tasting session held by the Japan Society in New York, where an astonishing 90% of the 230 attendees were non-Japanese. Asahi Shizuo’s new complex in Hyde Park is also emblematic of that interest, as in the upcoming years, Dassai Blue seems primed to fly off the shelves.

Matthew Willis is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in International Relations, Economics, Government, and East Asian Studies.