Holbrook, Arizona - a post town on the old Route 66 that crosses the Americas. It is here, in a small town nestled in a desert valley with a population of just 5,000 that a small micro-brewery by the name of “Arizona Sake” stands.
It was started in 2017 by Atsuo Sakurai who has a decade of sake brewing experience in Japan, and his wife Heather who originates from this town. In a town, far remote from the up and coming sake culture - the likes that can be found in New York or California - and with hardly any access to imported sake, they are the single source delivering local sake.
Atsuo first began to think about making sake overseas when he was studying at the Faculty of Agriculture at Tohoku University, before embarking on a job search. Upon discovering that he could not build any new breweries in Japan, he dreamed of building a brewery overseas and started work at a sake brewery to learn the skills.
While working as a toji(brewmaster) at the brewery, with his dream unforgotten, he started learning English in preparation. And on one fateful day, he met his wife Heather, who had come from the US as an Assistant Language Teacher. After roughly ten years since joining the brewery, Atsuo and his wife, along with their three children, packed up and moved to Heather’s hometown in Arizona.
That said, they never intended to build a brewery in Arizona, an undeniably small market for sake and with a climate vastly different from Japan’s. His original plan involved slightly more urban locations. However, while looking for the ideal place like Seattle or Portland, he ran into difficulties with starting up and attaining the license for a brewery. Heading back to Arizona at a loss for how to proceed, it was while walking at a park in Holbrook that a passerby said to him, “Why not try here?”
There is the Japanese saying, “there is fortune in leftovers”. I feel like it refers to the ultimate ‘leftover’, the choice one would never want to take but when worst comes to worst can settle for. To get there, one must eliminate all the other choices. At that time, I was at the brink of thinking, “Whatever will do.” I toyed with hitting a few more states like New York and Florida but decided “I’m sure it is all the same.”
A garage brewery where alcohol is taboo
Sake brewing in Holbrook first began within the garage of the Atsuo’s family household.
“People are surprised when I tell them that I obtained a brewing business license for my garage. It might be a perk of being in Arizona state since I have been told that would never happen in Seattle. And also considering it is run by an ‘outsider’ like myself.”
This was hardly the only problem. A large part of Holbrook’s residents don’t drink alcohol for a religious reason and have a negative image of alcohol. They were concerned that their property values may take a hit if a brewery were constructed in their neighborhood, and that it would be a bad influence on their children. Receiving these complaints from the residents, he decided to hold an information session.
“We are not opening a bar”, he explained. “We will simply brew alcohol and ship it so you will not see any drunks roaming the streets or anything of the sort.” He thinks that the residents were partly won over by that explanation, but he laughs and adds that it probably also helped that he looked nice and friendly that won their final approval in the end.
With the understanding of his neighbors, Atsuo begins to prepare the equipment for sake brewing alongside the papers to be submitted to the authorities. “Most home garages are bursting with numerous things,” says Atsuo as he reminisces about tidying and repairing his garage. Unable to procure specialized equipment from Japan, he made do with what he could get his hands on in the US and constructed “My own brewery”. In January 2017, two years after moving to the US, the business was finally up and running.
Then, in the fall of 2019, Arizona Sake outgrew its garage. Purchasing an empty plot of land roughly 3,600m2 in size in a commercial zone slightly outside of the residential area, a new brewery was built.
“The neighbors were really supportive and despite not drinking any alcohol they always had kind words to say. So, I really did not want to be of any trouble to them. Of course, our garage brewery never caused any, but I decided that I did not even want to risk the chance."
On a slightly elevated location overlooking the town of Holbrook stands the new Arizona Sake. From the entrance of the brewery and facing the town, amidst the big sky and desert land that stretches as far as the eye can see, stands the billboards of McDonald’s and Taco Bell.
“Here you can be shoulder to shoulder with the super big brands” he laughs. “Only in Holbrook.”
“I can brew, whatever the water is”
The current line-up includes nama-zake (unpasteurized sake) and hi-ire (pasteurized sake) and also a sparkling cloudy sake “Desert Snow” that is only available at local restaurants. They all use Californian Calrose rice, and draw water from the springs of the Coconino aquifer which is said to contain the least materials and be the best in all of Arizona state.
When asked about the water quality, Atsuo explains, “The taste varies by season. There are about four water sources with different depths and depending on the precipitation level, we switch between drawing from a shallower or deeper spring.” When asked whether the water affects the brew, he slightly burrows his brows before continuing, “In a desert, water is from the gods. Who am I to judge that this drinking water is good or bad? If it is drinkable, be it hard water or soft, I don’t care. I can brew, whatever the water is.”
The room for fermentation and brewing are well equipped with air conditioning. “In summer, nothing can start without air conditioning, but as long as you have that everything is fine. For everyday life, outside of mid-summer you actually do not even need it all that much. Despite being a desert area, due to its high altitude, Holbrook records temperatures close to 40°C in the summer whilst plummeting below freezing in the winter.”
In the room there are small tanks used for preparing wine, and an impressive vat that is hard to miss, lining the wall. Atsuo says that he did not even know where to begin to procure equipment of the kind used in Japan, naturally making these handmade.
“The most primitive form that applies pressure from above the bag. It is a simple structure, so I thought it would be cheap, but iron is surprisingly expensive.”
Upon close inspection of the joints on the equipment, one can see the markings of his laborious toil.
“A drill is used to create a hole, but it takes about 45 minutes to drill just one hole because the material is so hard. The two holes must line up perfectly, with even a 2mm difference equaling failure. I would love to use a precision instrument but of course I did not own any. So, I had to rely on a pencil and ruler.”
It is finally time to taste the nama-zake which he calls “My Sake”. From the glass wafts a fruity fragrance, hinting at green apples and blueberries. The texture is light and the taste that is in perfect harmony with the aroma has a clean finish. With all the right attributes of a typical nama-zake and also a delicate bitterness, it leans slightly towards a hard sake. Over dinner with his family, Atsuo boldly places his sake into the microwave and heats it up. Gouda cheese makes an excellent companion, with the sake complementing the cheese and the cheese heightening the sake even more.
When asked why he decided on this particular taste, he answers, “I enjoy a lot of different kinds of sake, so it was hard for me to pick one taste that I like. I wanted to create a sake that others will enjoy drinking and one of the answers that this led me to is this taste. I do not necessarily believe this is the ultimate best, but fortunately, people seem to enjoy it right now, so I am continuing with it.”
The local sake loved by the Arizonians
Every fortnight, Atsuo drives to Flagstaff, one of the historical R66 towns, where many people visit as a base camp of touring Grand Canyon from all over the world. A passenger car is loaded with cases – “The very first thing I did when I arrived in America was to repair this second-hand car by replacing its engine” – and so begins the 90 minutes’ drive on a desert road.
“Once I visited a sushi restaurant in an effort to make a sale and was told that sake cannot possibly be drank and that he hates it. At a sushi restaurant, can you believe it? But after tasting my sake he was surprised and has included it at his restaurant ever since.” Atsuo says that it is interaction like these during his sales visit that also adds to the fun of brewing.
“When it comes to the natural choice of drink for people in this area, it is usually Budweiser, Coors and Miller, the big beer brands and there is no ostentatious wine scene. I feel like for my sake too, it is perceived less as a “Japanese sake” but more in a class of its own as “Arizona Sake."
“Our customers love the local area and have a strong desire to support local products. In that sense, Arizona Sake is an easy sell,” comments Ed who works at “Karma”, a sushi restaurant with 14-year history where everyone in Flagstaff visits at least once. “We also have imported sake but the quality is no different.”
At first we actually offered a lot more variety of sake but they did not sell very well and were also difficult to store so we narrowed it to just the popular ones. One is Arizona Sake. Our customers genuinely love it,” says Ginnie of “Lotus Lounge”, an Asian multicuisine restaurant in Hotel Monte Vista, a historic hotel established in 1927 where many celebrities such as Michael J. Fox spent nights. “Our customers also know that Atsuo drives 90 minutes on the I-40 to deliver his sake. He is always smiling and positive, happily chatting with our customers. They all love him. Arizona Sake is a flagship product of Arizona state and north Arizona!”
An Asian man from a far-off island, making a hitherto unfamiliar drink in a desert town. It might sound like a somewhat peculiar story but listening to the local people, it feels like it is precisely this peculiarity that they have come to love. And when this Atsuo was awarded gold in the category of “Oversea Brewed sake” at the sake COMPETITION 2018 in Japan, the Arizona governor presented him with a Governor’s Award.
“It is apparently a first in history that a Japanese person has been awarded the Arizona Governor’s Award. They valued the uniqueness, saying that I have done really well despite all the obstacles.”
Arizona Sake which adds new dimensions to the Arizonian culture is literally like an oasis in a desert. Atsuo’s sake is loved by the people of the state, earning its label as a local sake.