American Sake Takes Off: What Role Should Japanese Sake Play in the Future? (Part 1)



American Sake Takes Off: What Role Should Japanese Sake Play in the Future? (Part 1)

Saki Kimura  |  New Trends in the Sake Industry

Today, the number of craft sake breweries is increasing outside of Japan. Among these, the United States boasts the largest number of breweries. The numbers are constantly changing, as some breweries are under construction and others will be out of business within a few years. Nevertheless, it can be said that the U.S. is leading the craft sake boom internationally.

In this series, to explore the future possibilities of the industry, sake journalist Saki Kimura interviews players involved in American Sake. For this first issue, she interviewed Tsuneo Kita, President of Kita Sangyo, a leading figure who knows the history of American sake best.

Encountering American sake

– When I learned of local sake in the U.S., Kita Sangyo's information was of great help to me, as no matter how much research I did, I could not find any information about the breweries. Why did you start researching sake in the U.S.?

Kita: We are a manufacturer of sake caps, but we have also been importing craft beer and wine equipment for decades. When we went there to do business, we came across locally produced sake at a Japanese restaurant and started documenting it. Our company makes materials for about 770 sake companies, more than half of Japan's sake breweries, and the information was in demand by them as well, so we began compiling records and reporting on them, and here we are today.

– So the information on overseas sake brewing was interesting for Japanese brewers.

Kita: It is a little known fact that sake has been made in the United States since Japanese immigration to America began. I was not a particular history buff, but I started researching such things and publishing them in the Brewers Association magazine. Eventually, in the late 2000s, craft sake breweries began to appear, and I became interested in researching them as well.

– I was thinking that you often receive information from the local breweries because of the wholesale supply of materials to them.

Kita: We distribute materials to Gekkeikan and Ozeki in the U.S., Azuma Kirin in Brazil, Sakecul in Mexico, and Dojima Sake Brewery in England, but basically we do not receive many inquiries from local breweries. It is not economical to import materials from Japan. We also provide some machinery, but most of them procure it locally or do it themselves.

As for our company's involvement with overseas sake, we import and sell sake through a website called Epicurean. Seda Liquida from Spain, Tahoma Fuji from Seattle, Artisan Sake Maker from Vancouver, and Sequoia Sake from San Francisco, are some of the breweries that I found to be delicious and they are particular about their rice. Seda Liquida is brewed with Spanish Gohyakumangoku rice.

– Artisan Sake Maker produces its own rice with its roots in Hokkaido's Ginpu, and Sequoia Sake is working with UC Davis to develop rice.

Three phases of local sake in the U.S.

– There is a long history of sake breweries being built in the United States. However, it's a slightly different movement than the increase in craft breweries nowadays.

Kita: The first phase of local sake brewing was for Japanese immigrants to the United States. It is often said that the Honolulu Brewery in Hawaii was the first, but in fact the first was the Japan Brewing Co. in San Francisco in 1901.

– You wrote a paper (*Japanese) about how the Japanese immigrants to Hawaii were drinking sake exclusively, which led to protests from the California wine industry and increased tariffs on sake imports. Lawsuits were also filed against the tariffs in the U.S. mainland, and this led to a movement to produce sake locally.

Kita: The second phase began around 1980 with the establishment of local subsidiaries by Ozeki, Takara Shuzo, Yaegaki, and Gekkeikan. There was a market for a certain amount of sake, and it was probably calculated that it would be profitable to produce sake locally. At the time, 80% of the sake was consumed by Japanese-Americans, but they anticipated that the local people would also drink the sake in the future.

– And after 2000, craft sake breweries were born one after another.

Kita: The third phase. This is quite different from the previous local brewing for Japanese Americans and stems from the American craft culture. The United States has the largest number of beer breweries in the world, and it exceeded 8,000 in 2019. As an extension of the "craft" philosophy, sake is being made like craft beer and craft gin. Unlike wine, sake has a lot of opportunity for hands-on production, and I think that is what attracted many people to start making sake.

Rice and Craft Spirit, supporting local brewing

– The number of local sake breweries around the world is increasing, and about 60% of the small breweries outside of Japan are located in the United States. The reason may be due to the fact that sake has historically been made in the U.S., and rice is readily available there, correct?

Kita: The rice is probably a big factor. Outside of Japan, it is difficult to obtain rice suitable for sake brewing, and special machinery is needed for rice milling. The advantage of the U.S. is that there are rice mills in the U.S. due to the environment that has been developed by major manufacturers. Rice used to be produced only in California, but now it is also produced in other regions.

– There are a few rice milling companies in the U.S., moto-i in Minnesota, SakeOne in Oregon, and Ozeki USA in California also mill their own rice. It is a blessing for small breweries to have access to rice that has been milled to ginjo class.

Kita: Also, perhaps it is also a national trait. Whether it is agricultural products or artisanal crafts, there is a sense of valuing handmade products. The government is also trying to protect small breweries.

– The government's preferential treatment is also a result of the large economic contribution of small breweries. What do you think makes local sake makers in the U.S. unique compared to other countries?

Kita: They have a flair for business. Even if they make craft sake, they have the foundation to sell it to some extent. For example, Brooklyn Kura in New York is in a good location, and the brewers have studied hard to make good sake, and I felt that they have a good way of selling it.

– Indeed, local American sake breweries not only have unique product ideas, but also strategically incorporate membership systems and events. There are many areas where Japanese sake breweries can learn from them.

The importance of many options

– In recent years, while the number of Japanese drinkers has been decreasing, the number of American drinkers has been increasing. How is the role of local sake breweries changing?

Kita: Originally, major Japanese companies such as Takara and Gekkeikan offered only inexpensive sake, which is like futsu-shu in Japan. No brewer's alcohol is added though (author's note: under U.S. law, adding brewer's alcohol is no longer considered sake, so local brewing is based on junmai). I've been drinking American sake since the 90's, and I've noticed that the quality of the major players' products has improved as well.

– What role will local small breweries play as the big players move in the direction of premium?

Kita: Small breweries are not premium, but rather brewers who give their own added value to their brews. For consumers, the concept of craft has a different value than taste or price. Whether it is wine or beer, factors such as cultural context and location are important motivators for consumption. Alcoholic beverages have a cultural dimension to them.

– It reminds me that, in Steve Hindy's "The Craft Beer Revolution," in response to the lack of influence of non-local beers in the craft beer market, J. B. Schleeman of Newbergian said that the appeal of a brand was deeper and more emotional than just liking the taste.

Kita: It is important to have a wide variety. There are more than 1,000 sake breweries in Japan today, but if the number is reduced to a few hundred, the appeal will diminish. For wine, there are many Bordeaux wines alone, and although it may be difficult as a business, for consumers, the value of collecting a large number of wines is important. If there were fewer, it would be a hobby only for the rich.

– So many choices lead to spiritual enrichment.

Kita: The sake market will gradually grow in line with the spread of Japanese cuisine. In this context, premium sake, non-premium sake, and craft sake will be given their own roles and will be needed.

– Exports from Japan are also growing year by year. What do you think will be the relationship with Japanese sake produced in Japan?

Kita: Currently, only about 30% of the sake consumed outside of Japan is exported from Japan, while 70% is produced in the U.S. and other foreign countries. Without this 70%, the global sake market cannot be sustained. Also, in the long run, when sake is drunk around the world, people who are looking for premium products should come back to Japanese products.

The name Champagne can only be applied to products made in the Champagne region, but there are Moët & Chandon breweries in Australia and Napa. They think it is good for people around the world to make their own method, and they know that as sparkling wine spreads around the world, some people will come back to the original Champagne, wanting the authentic one.

– The more sake is made around the world, the more Japanese sake will be appreciated.

Kita: The question is whether or not people will come back to Japanese sake then. If we only make cheap sake with added alcohol because it is easier to sell, Japan can't protect the sake that sake lovers around the world would want to drink. As for export sake, if sake with poor storage conditions or out of date is being distributed, it will affect the reputation of sake produced in Japan.

Establishing a world standard for sake

– As small breweries abroad continue to develop, what are the future prospects and challenges you envision?

Kita: The difficulty lies in the fact that there are people who create products that are not really sake. In the 1990s, when craft beer was first being made in Japan, there was a Japanese brewer who was criticized by German brewers who said "This is not a beer,” and he countered, "This is my taste." With wine and beer, there are established global standards, educational institutions around the world, and research on quality and brewing methods, so there is a common global standard of good taste. In the case of sake, people are still making it in their own style.

– Establishing a standard like wine is also important for exporting sake overseas. If it is systematized as a discipline, the range of drinkers who will accept it will expand.

Kita: I believe that an institution with a solid backbone in Japan should be able to disseminate the standard of sake. We could start an institution like UC Davis, which is famous for its wine studies, or offer English courses at the National Institute of Brewing and Sake Research.

– Currently, Niigata University is trying to establish a Sakeology like wineology, through agreements with UC Davis and the University of Bordeaux. They are also collaborating with the National Institute of Sake Research.

Kita: In any case, I believe that the number of craft sake makers will more than double in 10 years. Maybe even five years from now.

Kita has been exposed to the local sake culture even before the craft sake boom in the U.S. What do local brewers think of the challenges and future prospects for "global standards" as he described?

In the next issue, we interview Weston Konishi, president of the Sake Brewers Association of North America. You will directly hear the voice of the local sake brewing community in the U.S.

*Translation support: Sake Brewers Association of North America

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