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Expanding the horizon of sake—Dassai and Kazuhiro Sakurai

| Mitsue Islas-Hosokawa

A number of Tippsy customers are sure to agree with us that drinking Dassai makes any dining experience magical. Dassai is produced at Asahi Shuzo Company in Yamaguchi and this spotlight features its fourth generation brewery president, Kazuhiro Sakurai. During the interview, Kazuhiro shared their journey of becoming a leading sake brand in the world and their exciting ongoing project to build a new sake brewery in New York!

Dassai’s path to go global from local

Mimi: Dassai is widely enjoyed all over the world today! What were some challenges when you started selling sake outside Japan?

Kazuhiro: The U.S. was the first country that we started selling Dassai outside Japan, and I was actually in charge of New York which was the location we wanted to focus on at the time. To be completely honest, I did not think we could sell sake overseas at first. I wasn’t sure if sake would be truly understood by people in this country.

However, eventually, I started to see things differently. Where you are doesn’t matter when it comes to enjoying good drinks. Regardless of the country or culture that you grew up in, food and drink that is absolutely delicious will make you happy. Ever since I realized that fact, we started putting more effort into sharing Dassai with the rest of the world.

Mimi: What made you change your mind?

Kazuhiro: When we had a tasting party in the US, we were very anxious as our sake might be the guests’ very first sake experience. However, seeing people beam as soon as they took their first sip made me realize that sake is something that can be used to make people smile and happy.

The team at Asahi Shuzo Company, makes sake for the happiness of their customers.

Mimi: Wow, that sounds like a wonderful experience!

Kazuhiro: The global marketing for our Dassai is something cultivated by our fellow customers in the US. I cannot appreciate our customers enough for taking us this far!

Mimi: What is your approach to sharing Dassai in other countries? Do you change flavors of sake to match each country’s cuisine?

Kazuhiro: We do not make Dassai’s taste any different depending on the country we try to sell our sake to. Instead, we value providing the best that we can with hopes that our new customers simply enjoy our sake. The true quality of sake does not shine if it is treated like wine or vodka. Thus, we put efforts into education, seminars and events in any country we go to. We try to focus on what we strive to be good at which is sake making and stick to it. Our hope is that the care we take in producing the best that we can speaks to people through our sake.

The story behind Asahi Shuzo Company’s nontraditional brewery system

Mimi: Your brewery is known for employing a very unique brewery system by removing the tradition of holding a toji (brew master) as in charge of sake making. What was the turning point for Asahi Shuzo Company?

Kazuhiro: The sake-making system without toji had already been established when my father was the third-generation brewery president of Asahi Shuzo Company. My father and toji had a difficult time being on the same page in terms of the direction of the brewery business. There were many things happening back then such as a hand in making craft beers, which made our business unstable. Our toji got anxious about the business situation and he decided to leave. We also wanted to do this dynamic shift from making mass-produced futsushu, to creating only quality ginjo sake.

However, our toji at the time was not very comfortable with this direction as he was more experienced in futsushu. I guess there already was disharmony between them.

Fermentation room of the brewery. All the sake-making processes are controlled and monitored by the employees.

Mimi: What happened after the toji left the brewery?

Kazuhiro: We started establishing our own expertise within the company. One of the benefits of having a toji is that they can help us produce sake with stable and reliable quality. However, their know-how does not stay in the brewery when they leave. On the other hand, when we make sake on our own (by employees), we can start accumulating skills and knowledge within the company. We started to feel more comfortable in challenging various things as we experienced successes and failures. It was not intentional to create a brewery system like this, but it eventually evolved into this form as a result.

Mimi: So it is like turning a seemingly negative situation into something positive!

Kazuhiro: Yeah. Well, it was difficult to do what we are doing right now with the previous system. We aim to consistently advance and we change our direction little by little almost every week to challenge ourselves. I feel this has been working with us and the quality of the products are improving.

New sake brewery in New York

Mimi: We have a question from our private Facebook group, Tippsy Sake Club members. We heard that you are building a new sake brewery facility in New York! Do you have any updates on this exciting project?

Kazuhiro: The facility will be located in Hyde Park, NY in partnership with the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Right now, we have been putting a pause on the construction of the brewery due to COVID-19. However, we are ready to send appliances that are necessary for sake making anytime we can resume the process. When the facility is good to go, my father, a chairperson of the brewery plan to be there for a year or so along with one of our most experienced team members.

The mockup photo of the new sake brewery in New York.

Mimi: How exciting! How would the Dassai sake you are going to make in New York be different from the one made in Japan?

Kazuhiro: The conditions such as water quality and rice available are different in the US. Rather than trying to reproduce the exact same sake in the US, we want to bring the best out of the sake produced in the US. It would be a little different from the Dassai that you know.

Mimi: That is very interesting. That Dassai would be something very special to the US!

Kazuhiro: This US-made Dassai brand will be called Dassai Blue. It is named after a Japanese proverb, “From the indigo, an even deeper blue” (青は藍より出でて藍より青し)—meaning disciples aim to surpass their mentors. We want to create Dassai that exceeds the original Dassai. The original Dassai will also continue to challenge itself to go even further. That’s what I picture with these two brands.

The logo for the new Dassai brand, Dassai Blue, which will be made in the US.

Mimi: What does sake mean to you?

Kazuhiro: As a company, we want our customers to be happy. In our case, our communication is sake. I am grateful when I think of our customers enjoying our sake that we also think is delicious. Sake is something like a tool that connects the world and me! I like this tool a lot and that is why I need to constantly improve it. My wish is that we make our customers happy as we advance without stopping.

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