Bring out the traditionalists: In the last two decades, the sake sector has exploded, with millions of Americans discovering the fermented rice beverage and its appeal to a range of palates.

[My childhood] was spent in the countryside of coastal Japan, where the agricultural richness was as varied as the geography. Saké is the pinnacle of our agricultural history there, and the foundations of the culture are built upon the drink.

When you think of saké, you probably think of a thick, smoky liquid that comes in an inky bottle. But there’s more to the Japanese beverage than meets the eye. The word “saké” translates to “three leaves.” This means that before distillation, sake (the word for first-pressing wine) is made up of three main components: a neutral grain spirit called “koji,” a sweet-tasting “muroka,” and an acidic rice paste called “nuka.” The neutral grain spirit and muroka are distilled together, and the nuka is added to the mixture after distillation.

Saké is thought to be uniquely Japanese, although it has been produced in the United States since the 19th century.  

Until the early 2000s, when Japanese exports became more widely accessible, the majority of saké sold in sushi restaurants and retail shops throughout the country was produced in the United States. While traditionally, American saké was produced by a small number of big corporations, a new generation of domestic brewers is gaining traction.  

There are now more than 20 breweries throughout the country, up from only five a decade ago. These artisan brewers offer distinctive, well-made saké to Everytown, USA. They are small in production, frequently hyperlocal, and uniquely American. 

A Matter of Convenience 

Craft saké is a drop in the bucket when it comes to American alcoholic drinks. In Holbrook, Arizona, a desert hamlet of 5,000 people, Atsuo Sakurai, the proprietor of Arizona Saké, produces just 1,000 liters each year. Sakurai’s business “isn’t actually a microbrewery,” he claims. “It’s more like a micro, even a nanobrewery.”  

Even at the higher end of the scale, Brooklyn Kura, the city’s first saké brewery, produces just 2,500 cases per year. It’s one of the few independent brewers with multistate distribution, having opened for business in 2018. 

Despite their modest size, local microbreweries are forging relationships in areas that are typically overlooked by bigger Japanese or American brewers. 

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Two commercial saké breweries have established in Brooklyn in the past three years, with a third on the way. “We live in areas where people care about the narrative of the products they’re consuming, about workmanship and quality,” says Brian Polen, cofounder and president of Brooklyn Kura. 

It’s a paradigm that, like American craft beer, is closely related to the jizaké, or local saké, movement that has lately revived the Japanese sector. 

North American Saké Brewery is Virginia’s sole saké brewery, and Andrew Centofante is the owner and chief brewer. Centofante, which opened in Charlottesville in 2018, provides fresh saké and brewery tours in addition to ramen and other saké-friendly food. 

“They have a ton of saké breweries in Japan,” he adds, “and everyone has this hometown pride in their own brewery.” In the United States, we see this with beer. There are eight breweries in Charlottesville. They’re simply ‘our’ locations, and I believe the same could be said of local saké brewers in the United States.” 

These microbreweries, which often include consumer-friendly tasting rooms and pubs, expose saké to many populations who may not be acquainted with the beverage. 

sake spreadTom Arena took the photo.

According to Weston Konishi, president of the Sake Brewers Association of North America, “there is a certain mystique about saké in the eyes of most American customers, that it is this esoteric Japanese drink.” “We’ve all heard it’s ‘like rice wine,’ or [styles like] junmai or daiginjo, but we’re not sure what those terms imply. All of this makes saké a little more difficult to market.”  

Consumers may test their assumptions at local brewers.  

“Too many people believe saké is a one-taste experience,” Centofante adds. “People may come to our tasting room and brewery to observe the process, meet me or our team, and dig deep. People like that it’s produced locally, and they’re ready to try it.”  

Small but powerful 

Saké brewers with small production models have more freedom to experiment and develop styles that aren’t accessible anywhere else.  

Blake Richardson opened Moto-I, a saké brewery and izakaya in Minneapolis, in 2008. Moto-I is known as the first saké brew pub in the United States, specializing in zingy, highly fruity, and unpasteurized saké that is offered on tap at the brewery.  

Byron Stithem, the founder and brewmaster of Nashville’s Proper Saké Co, produces “premodern, more obscure types like yamahai or kimoto,” which he has long tried to find.  

“It’s simply a little bit more raw and dependent on natural organisms that present in the brewery, such as rice or yeast, so you end up with a more nuanced flavor,” he explains.  

Craft saké brewing in America started with fermentation-obsessed amateurs churning out home brews in garages, basements, and backyards, much like craft beer. Brandon Doughan, cofounder and chief brewer of Brooklyn Kura, is mainly self-taught, like the majority of his American colleagues.  

“I was brewing beer and producing wine before I was 21,” he adds. Limited English-language materials, YouTube tutorials, and internships with Japanese brewers helped him hone his saké-brewing abilities. He appreciates the kindness of the brewers who helped him, particularly Richardson.

“Too many people believe saké is a one-taste experience.” ― Andrew Centofante, North American Saké Brewery’s owner and chief brewer

More than a decade since he established Moto-I, Richardson is now a veteran amongst a generation of startups. “It’s quite a change from when we started to what it is now,” says Richardson, who began a series of pilgrimages to Japan in 2006 to study technical aspects of saké brewing.  

“There was simply no information in the beginning,” he adds. “Everything had to be dug up. However, there is now a knowledge base available.”  

Saké brewers in Japan have been keen to teach and encourage their colleagues in the United States.  

Stithem adds, “There have been a number of breweries in Japan that have welcomed me and enabled me to apprentice or visit.” “A lot of them thought it was essential to produce excellent saké so we didn’t spoil the beverage for everyone in America,” says one.  

Sakurai, one of just a few expatriate Japanese saké brewers in the United States, spent a decade working at breweries in Japan, where he obtained the Japanese government’s highest level of saké-brewing credentials.  

Sakurai has long fantasized of establishing a saké brewery outside of Japan. He and his American wife, Heather, moved to Holbrook in 2014 to be closer to family. In 2017, they launched Arizona Saké in their garage. 

Sakurai claims, “I can brew excellent saké anyplace in the globe.” “I want to offer outstanding saké…that Arizonans and Americans can proudly present as their native saké to others.”  

Many of Sakurai’s coworkers share his sense of pride.  

Choosing the Best Rice  

While it’s too soon to proclaim regionality in American saké, Centofante believes the inclusion of rice produced in California and Arkansas, as well as local water, gives the drink “a feeling of American terroir.”  

Calrose, a popular table rice with Japanese origins that was created in California, was traditionally used to make American saké. Specialty farmers have developed a variety of new choices in recent decades, including American-grown saké rice varieties like Yamadanishiki and Omachi.  

Richardson, who previously struggled to find anything other than Calrose, now buys a variety of speciality rice from Isbell Farms, an Arkansas-based fifth-generation family business.  

Yoshihiro Sako, cofounder and chief brewer of Den Sake Brewery in Oakland, California, states, “Saké brewing typically focuses on technique and the expertise of the people who produce it, rather than rice.” “However, rice gives saké character, and geographical variations in rice and how it is cultivated provide saké character.”  

Den sources Cal-Hikari rice, a table rice with Japanese heritage, from Rue & Forsman Ranch, a family farm in the Sacramento Valley. Its proximity to Oakland and focus on environmentally sustainable farming were key to Sako.  

sake bonus pictureTom Arena took the photo.

“The Cal-Hikari is a unique single-origin rice, as opposed to rice that is ‘combined,’ or obtained from several locations,” explains Lani Sako, Yoshihiro’s wife and partner. “You know precisely which rice farm this rice comes from,” says the narrator.  

These artisan beers may also benefit from the use of local water. Den drinks soft Oakland tap water that hasn’t been filtered. This, according to Yoshihiro, is comparable to the water in the main saké-producing areas of Niigata and Hiroshima. According to Yoshihiro, the effect is that “it ferments slowly and gives the saké a rounder quality.”  

Water from the Blue Ridge Mountains is used by Centofante. Centofante adds, “I believe it’s what gives our saké its strong flavor.”  

Many brewers feel a feeling of obligation to create saké that can compete with Japanese saké.  

“I often compare [my own saké] to it,” Centofante adds. “On a number of ways, [Japanese saké] is distinct. They’re simply extremely exact and nuanced.” “The goal is to produce saké that anybody could bring to Japan and have it accepted and celebrated,” he says as an American brewer. 

Simultaneously, American brewers are keen to showcase their own innovation. Richardson replies, “That’s the American way.” “Everyone who is creative and a craftsman has this drive in their DNA.”  

While Japanese saké inspires Yoshihiro Sako, he aspires to achieve his own level of perfection. 

He adds, “I don’t want to simply copy other excellent saké.” “I’d want to create saké that goes nicely with the cuisine here. Food in the United States is often fattier, richer, and higher in protein.” He like “strong, expressive” beers with “umami to balance out tastes, but also greater acidity to cut through richer meals,” according to him.  

According to Richardson, Japanese brewers are generally enthusiastic about the growth of American saké. “They view it as a local gateway that will acquaint Americans with the country.”  

Centofante says, “A rising tide lifts all ships.” “Hopefully, if someone falls in love with saké at my brewery, they will go to another brewery and experience saké from Japan as well.” 

Today, new microbreweries are in motion in Salt Lake City, Medfield, Massachusetts, and more. Hopefully in a few years, “there’s going to be a brewery in every major American city, in Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.,” says Konishi.  

Bottles to consider: 

The Premium Arizona Sake Ginjo Junmai 

BYx Yamahai Brooklyn Kura  

Den Blanc is a fictional character created by Den Blanc  

Nama Kato Sake Works 

Moto-I Omachi Tokubetsu 

Serenity Now!, a North American Sake Brewery Junmai Daiginjo  

The Diplomat Junmai by Proper Saké Co.  

Coastal Ginjo Junmai Ginjo Sequoia Sake  

Much of the United States’ production of premium saké is concentrated in California. But in 2011, the New York Times wrote about a new wave of saké bars that have opened up across the country to bring the traditional beverage-maker’s history to life in a more modern way.. Read more about sake one and let us know what you think.

This article broadly covered the following related topics:

  • american sake
  • texas sake company
  • craft sake
  • north american sake brewery
  • sake brewery usa
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