While large Japanese companies have been supplementing their import portfolios with cheaper U.S.-produced saké for years, the craft model is relatively new. The latest example is Brooklyn Kura, which sold its first bottle of saké this January. Their American predecessors include Moto-I in Minneapolis, SakéOne in Portland, Oregon, and Dovetail in Boston; saké breweries are not a regional phenomenon.
Premium Japanese producers see these new breweries as colleagues, not competitors. “Japan has just been so helpful and supportive and excited about what we’ve been doing,” says Brian Polen, one of Brooklyn Kura’s co-founders. Visiting brewers provided feedback during their development stages, and Brooklyn Kura is offering their taproom as a space for Japanese and other U.S. brewers to hold events showcasing their own products in return.
American saké producers have a few advantages over imports. For one, they aren’t beholden to hard-to-understand labels that consumers have trouble distinguishing from one another. Among imported sakés, “A lot of brands are present but there’s not a lot of differentiation,” says Polen. Brooklyn Kura also focuses on unpasteurized, fresh sakés that are difficult for imported brands to provide.
Domestic saké breweries do face some regulatory challenges, operating as a brewery in some capacities and a winery in others. Polen says the city authorities visited because they thought a distilling permit was lacking (saké is not distilled). Another challenge is sourcing ingredients; for example, premium saké is often made with rice strains not used for cooking. “There’s decent rice growing out in California,” says John Gauntner, author of a number of books on saké including Saké Confidential. “But just like the best wine grapes are grown in significantly different ways from the grapes we find in the grocery store, proper saké rice is grown in significantly different ways as well.” Nonetheless, Gauntner is enthusiastic about the quality and potential of craft saké. “This happening here in the U.S. and in other countries as well is really going to help people’s familiarity with saké and that’s going to help the saké industry worldwide.”
Japanese producers are even bringing their premium game stateside. In December, the Culinary Institute of America announced a collaboration with Asahi Shuzo’s Dassai brand to create a brewery adjacent to their Hyde Park campus. The new saké will use all American ingredients, and come in at a lower price than most premium imported saké. “We really
feel it’s important for Americans who are just discovering saké to experience a great saké for a reasonable price,” says Asahi Shuzo Chairman Hiroshi Sakurai.
WHAT’S TO EAT?
The connection with the CIA also means hundreds of culinary students will experience saké in their formative years, hopefully connecting saké with dishes far beyond the usual sushi and ramen. “Until now, the Japanese have come up with dishes that paired with saké, but it’s difficult for them to think outside of the realm of the Japanese palate. We believe that we should be developing new dishes that are more in sync with the American palate.” American saké with American food? Polen agrees. “Saké’s been trying to come to the U.S. for a long time, but it’s just been bottled imports. I think beer bars with hamburgers and things like that: that’s how we’re going to introduce people to saké.” America eats a lot of hamburgers; can our saké brewers keep up? If openings continue, maybe. Says Polen: “We get contacted by someone every week who is thinking of starting a brewery.”