When I first seriously started learning about sake seven years ago, I would have never thought that Arkansas would be a part of my journey. But here I was this winter, now a certified sake sommelier, at the American Craft Sake Fest, an event devoted to American-made sake, in Hot Springs, a small city in the state’s Ouachita Mountains, tasting rice-based beverages from a roster of passionate brewers.

Kanpai, y’all!” said a fellow festivalgoer as he raised his glass of sake to us, invoking a traditional Japanese toast. With every sip, it was clear: a movement was afoot.

Sake in the United States

Sake production in Japan dates back to the Yayoi period (300 B.C.E. to 300 C.E.) “Archaeological finds have shown that in some way, shape or form it goes back to the third century,” says sake expert and educator John Gauntner. It is an intrinsic part of Japanese culture, so much so that Japan applied in 2022 to make sake brewing a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. (Whether or not it will be inscribed as a living tradition in need of safeguarding will be decided this year.)

An American-Made Sake Movement Is Underway
At the American Craft Sake Fest in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a roster of passionate brewers served up rice-based beverages. American Craft Sake Fest

Brewing is both maddeningly simple and extremely complicated at the same time. You only need four ingredients: water, rice, yeast and koji (a type of mold used to produce foods such as soy sauce and miso). However, it’s produced through a unique process called double parallel fermentation, where starches in rice are broken down into sugars, while yeast simultaneously converts the glucose to alcohol. It requires a lot of precision and control.

Despite the pride around sake brewing, the beverage has had a bit of a rough go in Japan over the past few decades. It’s seen as an old person’s drink, and consumption has precipitously dropped since the 1970s. “Sake production peaked in 1972 and has been in decline ever since for a myriad of reasons,” says Gauntner. “The growth of beer in particular, and the unique nature of the sake industry in that it was mostly small, family-owned businesses that did not have the foresight or capital to market sake on an scale effective enough to maintain its position,” are just a few of the factors leading to its fall from grace, he adds.

A bright spot for sake is in America. In 2022, according to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, the U.S. was the No. 1 export market in terms of volume and second market in value for sake.

This stateside interest extends not just to Japanese sake, but also to domestic sake production. Around the turn of the 20th century, Japanese companies set up outposts in California and Hawaii, but Prohibition canceled any inroads those businesses made. Another wave came in the late 1970s and 1980s, with companies such as Ozeki, Takara and Gekkeikan establishing facilities in California. In the 1990s, sake importer SakeOne started producing its own line in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But it’s only been within the last decade that a truly homegrown effort has bubbled up.

An American-Made Sake Movement Is Underway
Stateside interest extends not just to Japanese sake, but also to domestic sake production.  American Craft Sake Fest

The beginnings of a movement

Moto-i in Minneapolis is largely considered to be one of the first, if not the first, domestic craft sake breweries, according to Weston Konishi, president of the Sake Brewers Association of North America, a 20-member-strong nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and promoting this continent’s sake brewers. “There is obviously no hard definition, but ‘craft’ is essentially relatively small-batch [production],” says Konishi. “These are smaller operations that were started here without large corporate backing. And they are owner-producers or owner-brewers.” In 2008, Moto-i owner Blake Richardson and his team started producing sake from American-grown premium Japanese eating rice varieties, such as Koshihikari—and, later, varieties that are used exclusively for sake production, like Yamada Nishiki—at various milling rates. Semaibuai, or the percentage of rice remaining after brown rice is polished to remove the outer layers of each grain, is vital in sake making, as it affects the final style. Moto-i also laid the groundwork for future craft brewers with the purchase of a rice milling machine, which made available domestically cultivated sake rice varieties milled to specification.

But the real acceleration of openings occurred around the mid-2010s, thanks to a confluence of factors. This was the era of craft beer brewing, so for those who liked getting deep into the technicalities of fermentation, sake was the next logical step. “It’s hard for me to imagine our industry being where it is if it weren’t for the headway made by micro-beer breweries,” says Konishi. Such was the case for Andrew Centofante, co-owner and head brewer at North American Sake Brewery in Charlottesville, Virginia, which opened in 2018.

An American-Made Sake Movement Is Underway
A former auto body shop now serves as home to one of the country’s more established breweries, Ben's American Sake in Asheville, North Carolina. Ben's American Sake

“I was at a small izakaya [a Japanese pub], and this guy explained regionality, flavor profile and rice, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is just like all the craft beer and wine that I love,’” he said as he poured me a taste of his Serenity Now! junmai daiginjo craft sake. “They had all this nuance and variation. So I came back from Japan with just the seeds of an idea that sake needs to be thought of a little bit differently.”

Japanese cuisine and techniques were making major inroads in the U.S. at this time. In New York City, 15 out of 71 restaurants awarded Michelin stars in 2018 were Japanese—almost a quarter.

Tourism to Japan also played a major role in raising awareness and interest in sake: According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, U.S. visitors to Japan increased 146 percent from 2009 to 2019. All in all, sake was primed for its breakout moment.

“There’s a bit of a Japanese culture boom going on just more generally, with manga and Japanese cuisine, for example, being so popular,” says Konishi. “We, to some degree, ride on those coattails.”

Waves of experimentation

Tasting through the festival, several trends emerged. Every brewery produces classic styles of sakes, such as a junmai ginjo or daiginjo (“junmai” means alcohol was not added, and “ginjo” and “daiginjo” are terms to describe different milling ratios of rice). But as a nascent industry, there’s a lot of room for experimentation within the confines of traditional brewing processes. Much as winemakers need to understand their terroir in order to make good wine, sake producers continually tinker with polishing ratios, pasteurized versus unpasteurized sakes, fermentation techniques, and more.

An American-Made Sake Movement Is Underway
Proper Sake Co. in Nashville uses its own version of koji, a type of mold essential to sake production. Alex Crawford

The unknown leaves room for plenty of out-of-the-box thinking as well. Fruit infusions are one popular invention. At Islander Sake Brewery in Honolulu, the toji (master brewer) Chiaki Takahashi adds pineapple, passionfruit and even Kona coffee into some of her sakes. The Void Sake Company out of Lexington, Kentucky, makes a banana pudding-flavored nigori (cloudy) sake. “By creating flavors familiar to American palates, we can showcase more traditional styles and gather new interest in sake,” says co-owner and brewer Justin LeVaughn.

Other creations play into the rising trend of ready-to-drink cocktails. I was tempted to follow directions and slip one of the single-serve Pocket Sake spritzes from Utah’s Tsuki Sake into my purse. Meanwhile, North American Sake Company’s “Saiko” yuzu and mint lemonade sparkling sake was the sessionable summer drink of my dreams. And Yu-Tang cider seltzer from Ben’s American Sake in Asheville, North Carolina, with yuzu and mandarin, was aptly described to me as a “citrus bomb.” Did I mention these were all in cans?

Big investments, big future

The past couple of years have brought big investments, and potentially big changes, to the domestic sake industry. In 2021, Hakkaisan Brewery in Niigata, Japan entered into a partnership with Brooklyn Kura. The capital allowed the New York brewery to expand to a 20,000-square-foot facility—double the size of the original—and renovate the taproom, plus open a Sake Studies Center that offers classes for both consumers and professionals.

“[Both Hakkaisan and us] have this broad ambition of making sake an everyday beverage, a global beverage, but it’s everyday work,” says Brian Polen, co-founder and president of Brooklyn Kura. “How can we combine efforts to be better at selling our sakes? How can we combine efforts to educate people about the industry? How can we combine efforts to create new and interesting products? How can we expand our capacity with greater confidence?”

Last year, Dassai from Yamaguchi, Japan, opened an American outpost, called Dassai Blue, at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. In addition to creating a new line of Dassai sakes, the brewery is in discussion with the culinary school about a sake curriculum.

And then there’s Origami Sake, the host of this year’s American Craft Sake Fest. The sleek and modern brewery, which released its first sakes less than a year ago, is banking big on the potential of Arkansas as an epicenter of domestic sake production.

An American-Made Sake Movement Is Underway
Sake is produced through a unique process called double parallel fermentation, where starches in rice are broken down into sugars, while yeast simultaneously converts the glucose to alcohol. It requires a lot of precision and control. Molly Tavoletti

Arkansas produces 50 percent of all the rice grown in the U.S., and one place in particular, Isbell Farms, located 85 miles east of Hot Springs, is one of the few farms in the country producing varieties needed for sake production. They were the ones providing rice to Moto-i’s milling operation. Last year, Isbell Farms purchased the rice mill from Moto-i and a second machine from Japan. While this may not sound like a big deal, it will have an outsize impact, reducing the entire effort’s carbon footprint. Previously, all sake rice would go from Arkansas to Minnesota, then off to the respective breweries. But with the machines now mere miles from the farm, producing brewing-ready rice will be much more efficient. Access to quality rice, combined with good water for sake production (devoid of manganese and iron, which produce undesired flavors and colors in sake), is an equation that Origami Sake thinks could turn Arkansas into the Napa Valley of sake. “We hope to be the center of sake culture in the U.S. by [people] being able to see the farm, see the polisher, see a brewery, go to Hot Springs and taste the water,” says Origami Sake president and CEO Matt Bell. Sure sounds like a wine trail to me.

As I sipped (and sipped, and sipped) my way through the festival, I was impressed with the ingenuity and sheer passion of the brewers. Who knows: Perhaps sake could soon be as American as apple pie.

Kanpai, y’all, indeed.

Breweries to visit

Brooklyn Kura, New York City

New York water makes damn good bagels, but it is also ideal for sake production. It’s one of the reasons why a lot of energy is concentrated in the state. Brooklyn Kura, New York’s first sake brewery, is considered the current leader of domestic sake. Its newly renovated and expanded taproom in Industry City is an ideal place to geek out on sake. It offers many tasting room-exclusive sakes on tap; a food menu of small plates, such as amazake corned beef tongue with sake-braised kraut and octopus salad lettuce cups; as well as cocktails like the Natalia, which incorporates sake rice into the tipple.

North American Sake Brewery, Charlottesville, Virginia

It’s fortunate for Charlottesville residents that North American Sake Brewery opened Bad Luck Ramen Bar in January 2023. Now visitors can pair sake flights from Virginia’s first sake brewery with noodles, dumplings and rice bowls.

Proper Sake Co., Nashville

Koji (a type of mold) is essential to sake production, and Byron Stithem of Proper Sake Co. takes it one step further by developing his own version. Beyond its own production, Proper Sake also sells its koji to restaurants throughout the South for their fermentation programs. Grab a drink at Proper Sake’s full-service bar, Rice Vice, which is connected to the brewery. A second Rice Vice location is expected to open in New Orleans this summer.

Kato Sake Works, New York City

In a quest to find affordable, high-quality sake like he used to enjoy in his hometown of Tokyo, Shinobu Kato started making sake himself. Living in Nashville opened his eyes to the beer home-brewing scene and inspired him to try home-brewing sake. In 2016, he moved up to New York, where sake already had a vibrant presence, thanks to imports, and eventually opened his Brooklyn brewery and taproom in 2020. He only works with one type of rice, but he plays around with different brewing processes to create a line of six sakes. Vinyl nights and live music regularly appear on the event calendar.

Moto-i, Minneapolis

The rooftop patio of the tri-level space gives off serious beer garden vibes at this pioneering domestic sake brewery. Pair flights or bottles of sakes, or cleverly named cocktails like Whiskey Business and Hometown Hiro, with ramen and steamed buns at the izakaya-inspired restaurant.

Islander Sake Brewery, Hawaii

Former medical researcher and lecturer at Okayama University of Science’s brewing department Chiaki Takahashi brings back the tradition of sake brewing to Hawaii at Islander Sake Brewery. Using farmed rice from Japan and California, all free of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, she crafts her sakes without pasteurization or filtration, processes she believes strip the drink of its personality. Taste flights at the brewery, located at the Mauna Kea Resort Hapuna Golf Course in Kamuela, or book a seat at its intimate restaurant, Hanale, in Honolulu’s Chinatown.

Dassai Blue, Hyde Park, New York

The newest addition to the North American sake brewing scene, Dassai’s 55,000-square-foot facility is a beaut. Slow and steady is the motto for now; it released just one sake, Dassai 50, when it first opened in 2023, using rice from Japan. However, Dassai 23 joined the lineup a couple of months ago, and moving forward, the company will source rice from both Isbell Farms and Japan. Book a guided tour, or pop in for a glass and a bento box.

Ben’s American Sake and Ben’s Tune-Up, Asheville, North Carolina

A former auto body shop now serves as home to one of the country’s more established breweries. Most of Ben’s sakes are unpasteurized, or nama, which they say offers a unique style that you don’t get from imported bottles. (Pasteurization is a common practice in sake production to keep a product stable, especially when being shipped overseas.) But Ben’s has also made a name for itself with fruit-fusion sakes, served at the onsite restaurant.

Origami Sake, Hot Springs, Arkansas

One of the newest breweries to open in the U.S., Origami has big aspirations for both itself and the domestic sake scene. Founders Ben Bell, a brewer, and Matt Bell, who previously worked in green building construction, brought over the toji (a master brewer) from sake company Nanbu Bijin in Japan, where Ben honed his craft, to consult. With Arkansas rice in its backyard and high-tech, modern equipment in the facility, Origami is already making a splash.

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