Gekkeikan begins its roots in Fushimi, Kyoto in 1637. It was in 1902 that the third largest producer of sake in Japan began exporting to the United States, crossing the Pacific. Initially, most of it was consumed by Japanese Americans.
However, with the drama adaptation of James Clavell’s book “SHOGUN” in 1980, interest in Japanese culture rapidly grew, with sake also sharing the spotlight. In response to this trend, in 1989, Gekkeikan establishes a local subsidiary, Gekkeikan Sake USA (“Gekkeikan USA”), in Folsom, California. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, as ‘sushi’, ‘ramen’, and ‘Toyota’ made it into the daily lingos of the American youths, the company played a role in firmly planting sake in the locality.
Water, Water, Water
Folsom is located approximately 190km from San Francisco and approximately 30km from Sacramento. Water is the first and foremost reason why Gekkeikan USA was established here, with a lake and a backdrop of mountains.
Headquartered in Kyoto, Fushimi is home to medium-hard water, renown for making “Fushimi no Onna Sake”. Gekkeikan, upon conducting a field survey in the States was immediately drawn to the meltwater of the Sierra Nevada mountains that collects as an even softer water in Folsom.
“I hear that other companies with local subsidiaries in the States have a hard time removing minerals, but our water only needs to pass through a coarse filter,” says the Brewmaster Mr. Yosuke Kawase. “Folsom’s water is soft, slowing fermentation, thereby creating a sake plentiful in rice extract. It may be said that it is quite fitting to the taste of Americans.”
On the other hand, when asked if they are changing the way they make and flavor sake to suit American consumers, Mr. Koichi Murakami, Vice President of Gekkeikan USA responds, “I don’t think the Americans and the Japanese taste differently.”
“The only difference is that we use water from here, rice from here, and our members work here. We do not intentionally make it with a mind for American taste.”
The young toji of an age-old brand
Mr. Kawase, who currently heads the brewery of Gekkeikan USA, is very young at only 31 years old (as of December 2019).
Mr. Kawase transferred from the Kyoto headquarters to the States in 2015. At that time, a project was underway to revamp the products at Gekkeikan USA, for a budget of approximately 100 million yen. However, upon arriving, Mr. Kawase who only entered the project midway was able to complete the project with one small tweak, without spending a dime. With no additional capex, he succeeded in increasing production without sacrificing any of the taste.
“It would appear that quality and cost are at opposite ends of each other, when in fact both enhance customer satisfaction. If you can make the same thing at a lower cost, you are effectively giving back to the customer.”
Despite his stellar track record, Mr. Kawase is incredibly humble, laughing it off as him being “just lucky.”
“Gekkeikan has been on a challenge for 380 years. The road that the predecessors have paved has allowed the product to improve throughout time. I merely am doing my best to carry the baton that has been handed down to me.”
The common denominator in the diverse lineup
Their flagship product is “Traditional,” a junmaishu with a polish rate of 70%. It is often served hot, but even served chilled, it has a wholesome scent of grains, a deep sake indeed. The one that has demanded the most time from Mr. Kawase is “Haiku”, a special junmaishu with a vibrant aroma. He tweaks the recipe each time according to the stages of fermentation and its finished state.
The “Black & Gold”, presented in an eye-catching stout bottle, blends the Traditional and Haiku. A fruity scent that reminds one of apples and pears contrasting with a wholesome richness, creates a perfectly balanced harmony.
Additionally, Gekkeikan USA has a more crisp type “Silver” and a namazake (unpasteurized) “Draft”, and they are ambitious in their product development. While the taste varies, each bottle shares a distinct soft texture, the same foundation – courtesy of the Folsom water that first drew Gekkeikan all those years ago.
America’s “now” seen through the lens of Gekkeikan USA
Imports of Japanese sake are on a straight upward trajectory, and recently many local breweries have cropped up, as the sake scene in the US changes rapidly. Yet the market size of it is merely but 1% compared to that of wine.
An issue for such a market, Mr. Murakami points is “regional differences”. It is a fact that Japanese sake and sake consumption is concentrated on the east and west coasts such as California and New York and across the entire country, there are many places that sake has yet to reach.
While major Japanese breweries in the US, such as Takara and Ozeki, partner with Japanese distributors, Gekkeikan USA is affiliated with American distributors. These distributors hold sales channels in areas such as South Dakota and Nebraska where Japanese companies currently do not have a footprint thereby making Gekkeikan synonymous with sake in many such states.
Gekkeikan USA has had a long and far-reaching history of sake in America. The two gentlemen both share a positive outlook on the US market that can be said to be at a crossroad.
Mr. Kawase chimes favorably, “People entering the world of sake be it from craft brewery or microbrewery products may eventually discover Gekkeikan’s sake. I am very welcoming of such newcomers in that they all contribute to increasing the size of the sake market.”
“The fun with craft breweries and microbreweries is in the ideas hitherto unimaginable,” says Mr. Murakami. “We would never belittle others. That is why when I hear others snub sake that is drank as a steamy hot sake, I am a little disappointed. It will be much better if we could respect and support each other.”
Local breweries, Japanese imports and local microbreweries… To expand the market that stands at 1% of wine’s and to create a promising future for sake, it can be said that each has their own role to play.
To know what shall be, consider what has been
Gekkeikan USA has nurtured an almost century-long, far-reaching relationship covering more of the US sake market than any other brewery. Supporting their development of sake in the States is a perceptive eye honed over many years and a readiness to graciously accept the trends of the time.