Although it’s one of the country’s most traditional beverages, sake’s popularity is waning in Japan. Between 1989 and 2018, sales declined 53 percent, and younger drinkers now have a bevy of options to choose from, whether it’s beer, whisky, cocktails, or even wine. Sake, seen as an old person’s drink, doesn’t have the same cachet. Breweries are also closing at a rapid rate, as the elder generation of producers either passes away without interested heirs or a lack of demand shutters production.
In the U.S., however, it’s a different story. According to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association 2022 sake export report, the U.S. continued to rank first in total volume of exports at 9 million liters (a 102.9 percent increase year-over-year) and second in total value (114 percent increase year-over-year).
According to Mintel, the U.S. wine industry was valued at $79.1 billion in 2022. By comparison, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association says the value of exported sake to the U.S. was $76.4 million the same year. Overall, sake may be just one small slice of the alcohol industry pie in the U.S., but for sake producers — and sake lovers — these numbers represent the vast opportunities ahead.
And exports are only one part of the story; much of what’s fueling sake’s ascent are initatives within the 50 states themselves, from the rise of domestic breweries to Japanese investment and enhanced education.
The Cultural Zeitgeist and a Local Brewery Boom
For years, sake proponents have pointed to the many ways in which sake dovetails with several of the values in American drinks culture. For starters, it’s a beverage made with only four ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and koji (a type of mold used to produce common food products, such as soy sauce). Sake is inherently gluten-free, which aligns with the rise in popularity of “clean” beverages. And one can’t help but draw parallels between yamahai and kimoto styles, which rely on native lactic bacteria and ancient fermentation starter methods, and the ascent of natural wines.
One of the easiest entry points to understanding sake is through food — and not just as a sushi pairing. “The whole fermentation craze is also something that’s fed into this,” says Weston Konishi, president of the Sake Brewers Association of North America (SBANA). From Noma in Copenhagen to Covid-era home projects to books dedicated to koji, fermentation and pickling have entered the mainstream culinary diaspora.
Tourism has also played a big part in the rising interest in Japanese culture and, by extension, sake. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, approximately 45,500 visitors from the U.S. visited Japan in February 2013. Fast-forward 10 years to 2023 and that number jumped to nearly 87,000 (and Japan only recently reopened its doors from its pandemic lockdown to tourists). “I’m meeting a lot more people who are taking their trip [to Japan] and coming back with real interest,” says Brian Polen, co-founder of sake brewery Brooklyn Kura. “They are coming to visit us and tell us about their sake experience.”
And, of course, sake is all about artisanship. “So many consumers are … passionate about craft, and want a personal connection with makers to help them be better informed about whatever they’re consuming,” Polen says.
Who better to tie together and present these values than domestic producers? Founded in 2019, SBANA is a 20-member strong nonprofit that focuses on brewery development and consumer outreach. Members are as far-flung as Massachusetts, California, North Carolina — even Utah.
Konishi says the mid-2010s gave rise to several new sake breweries and attributes some of the growth to the craft beer movement at the time. “If you’re really a brewing geek, sake makes a lot of sense,” he says. “It’s a whole lot more complicated than beer brewing. It’s much more complex, much more hands-on, and it’s much more labor intensive. It’s a balance of art and science.”
The rise in domestic labels and the formation of SBANA itself shows America has a thirst for the rice-based beverage and is indicative of the upward trajectory of sake as a category.
What also sets domestic breweries apart is their ability to foster familiarity with American consumers.“We have an advantage over a lot of Japanese producers in that we don’t have that kind of cultural barrier, and that’s where I feel we can make a lot of inroads,” Konishi says.
The Napa Valley of Sake
A production heartland could firmly establish a robust sake industry in America and one state in particular is poised to become the epicenter.
Arkansas produces 50.1 percent of the rice grown in the U.S., and outside of California, is the only state to cultivate varieties needed for sake. Furthermore, “the water profile is ideal for sake,” says Matt Bell, co-founder of Origami Sake in Hot Springs, Ark., which had its grand opening on May 20 of this year. The water lacks iron and manganese, two chemical compounds that would result in discoloration, off flavors, and unpleasant aromas, but contains high mineral content, which aids fermentation. It makes a pretty compelling case for Arkansas to become what Bell calls “the Napa Valley of sake.”
Origami pulled out all the stops in its creation, bringing over a Toji Master (a master brewer) from renowned Nanbu Bijin brewery in the Iwate Prefecture as a consultant for its 22,000 square-foot facility. It also partners with Isbell Farms, an organically farmed, solar-powered rice grower that has been cultivating sake rice varieties since 1987.
Another game changer is the producer’s rice polisher. As it stands, most of the sake rice grown in the U.S. needs to be sent to Minnesota, home to one of the only polishing mills in the country. (Polishing is an essential step in sake production as the milling rate determines different styles of sake). Rice is then shipped back to a brewery for production. But Origami, in partnership with Isbell Farms, purchased two polishers (one new, one used) and will treat rice a mere 12 miles from the farm, dramatically reducing the supply chain footprint.
With this new infrastructure in place, not only will milled rice be more accessible and affordable for breweries across the U.S., but it lays the groundwork for an entire industry, from a potential increase in sake rice farms to more breweries and tourism.
“It’s a sense of place that we’re trying to create and we hope others come along and do the same,” Bell says.
Making Japanese Sake More Inclusive
Sake has long been a male-dominated industry; there are fewer than 50 female brewers out of approximately 1,500 breweries in Japan. As American drinkers seek to discover the “who” behind their drinks, L.A.-based Moon Bloom Sake sees an opportunity to help more people identify with sake, while at the same time showing a different side to the category.
Founded in 2020 by fashion entrepreneur Ruriko Yamada and her former colleague Shana Atwood, Moon Bloom works with Mami Wakabayashi of her eponymous family sake brewery in Nagano, Japan. Like Yamada, Wakabayashi had a career in fashion before returning home to take over her family’s failing operation. Without any prior experience making sake, she threw herself into the process and studied sake production extensively.
Feeling a kinship with Wakabayashi — Yamada had also recently returned home to Japan for work after living for 20 years in the U.S. — the trio created a product exclusively for the U.S market that could promote Japanese culture during Yamada’s frequent trips back to the States.
But more than just introducing U.S. drinkers to sake, this trifecta of women hopes to break down barriers by promoting women who make — and enjoy — sake.
Labels constitute a big part of the messaging. “Japanese sake is really, really manly. It’s usually Japanese characters and, boom, that’s it,” Yamada says. Bottles of the brand’s Junmai Ginjo feature a female character reclining on a crescent moon while she carries a sword on the Yamahai. Information is conveyed in English, which has led some Japanese restaurants to refuse to carry the sake, saying the labels weren’t “Japanese” enough. But for Moon Bloom’s founders, it doesn’t matter; their success relies on staying true to themselves.
“Mami always says, ‘I just want to make sake that I want to drink,’” Atwood says. “She’s really just making sake that speaks to her. And I think that is something really powerful, something that a lot of people can relate to, and makes it more versatile.”
For Japanese breweries, it hasn’t always been solely about exports in terms of entering the U.S. market; Ozeki established the first Japanese-owned American brewery in 1979 in Hollister, Calif., and Takara opened a Berkeley, Calif.-based operation in 1983, to name a few. But new forms of investments and projects open up avenues for a Japanese shuzo (brewery) seeking an American audience.
Last year, Hakkaisan, one of Japan’s preeminent breweries, located in the Niigata Prefecture of Japan, announced a new partnership with five-year-old Brooklyn Kura. The support is mainly financial, and Hakkaisan is taking a hands-off approach so Brooklyn Kura remains an independent operation. To Hakkaisan, Brooklyn Kura could be the conduit into a new market, especially given the New York brewery’s successful track record.
“I think that we’ve benefited from a combination of factors, both being kind of able to produce sake of a quality that’s comparable to what’s being made in Japan, but also having a vision for how to kind of grow the market in the U.S.,” Polen says. Market expansion not only entails higher-volume production, but also “how we present what we do to new consumers and new distributors and new sales folks.”
That flush of (undisclosed) capital helps Brooklyn Kura grow in several ways. First, there’s the new, expanded production facility in the brewery’s home in Industry City in Sunset Park. Polen says the brand will also launch a Sake Study Center, where educators will offer various curricula about sake to both trade and consumers. A larger taproom, set to open in the coming months, will welcome more visitors and a provide a more personalized experience, tying back to the idea of understanding the “who” and “how” behind the product.
Both Hakkaisan and Brooklyn Kura have remained fairly quiet about their partnership, with the intention of letting Brooklyn Kura continue to build its brand independently. But a much larger — and public — partnership is underway elsewhere in New York.
Dassai, one of Japan’s largest premium sake breweries, is opening up a new facility at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y. Although no one from the CIA was available for comment for this article, the original announcement said the CIA will implement a sake curriculum including certifications, workshops, tastings, and more. The program clearly speaks to a growing curiosity about the rice beverage from the student body.
Creating a Common Language
Another telling sign of the evolving interest in sake comes from one of the world’s foremost wine authorities. In 2013, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), a global education provider, launched a Level 3 Sake Certification in four countries, the U.S. among them. According to curriculum co-creator Natsuki Kikuya, the course came about based on ever-growing questions by beverage professionals. The intention was to bridge cultures and bring transparency to a traditional process that normally was shrouded in a veil of “this has been the way it’s been done for ages and generations,” as Kikuya puts it. Education focuses on systematic tasting, evaluation, and a common vocabulary, much like WSET’s wine courses.
At that level, the curriculum was geared toward knowledgable trade members, such as sommeliers, distributors, and retailers (and, one suspects, wannabe domestic brewers, considering the timing). Two years later, Level 1 commenced in three countries (again the U.S. was one of the inaugural markets) to meet the demand of interested sake novices. “These days I think we’re getting lots of consumers, just a lot of sake lovers. I think compared to wine, we have quite diverse students from different backgrounds,” Kikuya says.
Creating a common language around sake only helps fuel growth. “Our goal is to make the education match with how Western consumers and professionals understand the drink,” Kikuya says. In what could be the next marker indicating growth, Kikuya is about to launch a Level 2 in February, creating another stepping stone for the growing cadre of sake enthusiasts.
Ready for Its Moment?
While the factors are all in place to help sake go mainstream, it may not be as turnkey as it seems. Brooklyn Kura’s Polen says the brand pulled away from working with an importer, which served as a fourth tier and used direct relationships with distributors to sell the product, because of the pricing impact. The brand is now slowly regrowing its footprint through direct distribution partners. ”Sake is already relatively expensive and it’s hard to go mainstream unless you’re kind of affordable,” he says.
Another big obstacle is that a large portion of American consumers still know little about sake, according to Konishi of SBANA. “It remains pretty mysterious, which can be a double-edged sword,” he says. For some, it’s the mysticism that makes sake attractive, but also “makes it a little bit beyond reach for a lot of people.” And if a consumer’s first experience with sake was negative, whether as cheap warm sake in a restaurant or sake bombs in college, as it can be for many Americans, there’s a resistance to trying sake again. “That’s what we’re kind of up against,”he says.
Konishi also notes that given the size of most breweries, there’s very little financial or time currency available for advertising or marketing.
But all feel the tipping point is imminent. “We in the sake industry all know that we have this incredible world-class product that is relatively undiscovered,” Konishi says. “And we just haven’t had that moment. And we think that once we do, it will not be a temporary, flash-in-the-pan kind of thing, but something that’s permanent.”