Saké is known as distinctly Japanese, but American-made saké has existed since the 19th century.
Until the early 2000s, when Japanese exports became readily available, saké that was sold in sushi bars and retail stores nationwide was predominantly made in the U.S. While historically, American saké was crafted by a handful of large companies, today there’s a new generation of domestic brewers in the spotlight.
From just five breweries a decade ago, there are now more than 20 nationwide. Small in production, often hyperlocal and distinctly American, these craft breweries bring unique, well-made saké to Everytown, USA.
A Local Affair
In the grand scheme of American alcoholic beverages, craft saké is a tiny drop in the bucket. Atsuo Sakurai, owner of Arizona Saké, brews just 1,000 gallons per year in Holbrook, Arizona, a desert town of 5,000 residents. Sakurai’s operation “isn’t really a microbrewery,” he says. “It’s more like a pico, a nanobrewery even.”
Even at the larger end of the spectrum, Brooklyn Kura, New York City’s first saké brewery, makes just 2,500 cases each year. Opened commercially in 2018, it’s one of the few independent breweries to have multistate distribution.
While small in production, these local microbreweries are building connections in communities often untapped by larger Japanese or American breweries.
In the last three years, two commercial saké breweries opened in Brooklyn, and a third is now in the works. According to Brian Polen, cofounder and president of Brooklyn Kura, “we live in places where people care about the story of the things they’re consuming, about craftsmanship and quality.”
It’s a paradigm that closely parallels the jizaké, or local saké, movement that recently revitalized the Japanese industry, much like American craft beer.
Andrew Centofante is owner and head brewer at North American Saké Brewery, Virginia’s only saké brewery. Established in 2018 in Charlottesville, Centofante offers fresh saké and brewery tours by a pub that serves ramen and other saké-friendly fare.
In Japan, he says, “they have a ton of saké breweries, and everyone’s got this hometown pride in their local brewery. And we see that in the U.S. with beer. In Charlottesville, we have eight beer breweries. They’re just ‘our’ places, and I think the same kind of thing could translate to local saké breweries in the U.S.”
Often featuring consumer friendly tasting rooms and pubs, these microbreweries introduce saké to many communities that may be unfamiliar with the beverage.
“There’s a certain mystery about saké in the minds of most American consumers, that it’s this esoteric Japanese drink,” says Weston Konishi, president of the trade group Sake Brewers Association of North America. “We’ve all heard that it’s ‘like a rice wine,’ or [styles like] junmai or daiginjo, but we’re not terribly clear about what they mean. All these things make saké a little bit challenging to market.”
Local breweries allow consumers to challenge misconceptions.
“Too many people think saké is a monolithic thing, a single taste,” says Centofante. “Our tasting room and brewery give people the chance to see the process, meet myself or our staff and to dive deep. People love that it’s locally made and they’re willing to give it a try.”
Small but Mighty
Small production models give saké brewers flexibility to experiment and explore styles unavailable elsewhere.
In 2008, Blake Richardson established Moto-I, a saké brewery and izakaya in Minneapolis. Considered the first saké brew pub in the U.S., Moto-I specializes in zingy, intensely fruity and unpasteurized saké meant to be served on draft at the brewery.
At Nashville’s Proper Saké Co, which opened in 2016, founder and brewmaster Byron Stithem makes “premodern, more esoteric styles like yamahai or kimoto,” that he long struggled to source.
“It’s just a little bit more raw and more reliant on natural organisms that exist in the brewery, the rice or yeast, so you end up with a more complex flavor,” he says.
Like beer, craft saké brewing in America often began with fermentation-obsessed hobbyists who churned out home brews in garages, basements and backyards. Like most of his American colleagues, Brandon Doughan, cofounder and head brewer of Brooklyn Kura, is largely self-taught.
“Before I was 21, I was brewing beer and making wine,” he says. His saké-brewing skills were cobbled together via limited English-language resources, YouTube videos and internships with Japanese breweries. He’s grateful for the generosity of brewers who offered guidance, especially Richardson.
“Too many people think saké is a monolithic thing, a single taste.”— Andrew Centofante, owner and head brewer, North American Saké Brewery
More than a decade since he established Moto-I, Richardson is now a veteran amongst a generation of startups. “It’s quite a change from when we started to what it is now,” says Richardson, who began a series of pilgrimages to Japan in 2006 to study technical aspects of saké brewing.
“In the beginning, there was just no knowledge,” he says. “We had to dig for everything. But now there’s a knowledge base out there.”
Saké brewers in Japan have also been eager to educate and encourage their American counterparts.
“There have been a lot of breweries in Japan that have hosted me and allowed me to apprentice or visit,” says Stithem. “A lot of them felt it would be important to make sure that we make good saké, so we don’t ruin the beverage for everyone in America.”
Sakurai, one of a few expatriate Japanese saké brewers in the U.S., had a decade-long career at breweries in Japan, where he earned the highest level of saké-brewing qualifications from the Japanese government.
For years, Sakurai dreamed about building a saké brewery abroad. In 2014, he and his American wife, Heather, settled in Holbrook to be near family. They started Arizona Saké out of their garage in 2017.
“I can make the good saké anywhere in the world,” says Sakurai. “I want to provide excellent saké…that Arizona people and Americans feel proud to introduce [to others] as their local saké.”
Such pride is shared by many of Sakurai’s colleagues.
Finding the Right Rice
While it’s too early to declare the existence of regionality in American saké, says Centofante, the use of rice grown in California and Arkansas along with local water provides “a sense of American terroir.”
Historically, American saké was made with Calrose, a popular table rice with Japanese roots that was developed in California. In recent decades, specialty growers have introduced an array of new options that include American-grown versions of saké rice like Yamadanishiki or Omachi.
Richardson, who once struggled to obtain anything other than Calrose, now sources a variety of specialty rice from Isbell Farms, a fifth-generation family operation in Arkansas.
“Saké brewing traditionally centers on technique and the skill of the people who make it, rather than rice,” says Yoshihiro Sako, cofounder and head brewer of Den Sake Brewery in Oakland, California. “But rice creates character in saké, and regional differences in rice and how they are farmed create differences in saké.”
Den sources Cal-Hikari rice, a table rice with Japanese heritage, from Rue & Forsman Ranch, a family farm in the Sacramento Valley. Its proximity to Oakland and focus on environmentally sustainable farming were key to Sako.
“As opposed to rice that is ‘comingled,’ or sourced from multiple locations, the Cal-Hikari is a rare single-origin rice,” says Lani Sako, Yoshihiro’s wife and partner. “You know exactly what rice field this rice came from.”
Local water can also lend distinctiveness to these craft brews. Den relies on unfiltered Oakland tap water, which is soft. Yoshihiro says this is similar to the water in major saké-producing regions Niigata or Hiroshima. The effect is that “it ferments slowly and gives the saké a rounder quality,” says Yoshihiro.
Centofante uses water sourced from the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I think it’s what gives our saké its bold character,” says Centofante.
For many brewers, there’s a sense of duty to produce saké that can hold its own against those from Japan.
“I compare [my own saké] against it a lot,” says Centofante. “Inherently, [Japanese saké] is different on a lot of levels. They’re just very nuanced and very precise.” As an American brewer, he says, “the dream is to make saké that anyone could bring to Japan and have it appreciated and celebrated.”
At the same time, American brewers are proud to introduce their own ingenuity. “That’s the American way,” says Richardson. “It’s a desire that everyone who’s creative and a craftsman has in their DNA.”
Yoshihiro Sako says while Japanese saké inspires him, he wants to create his own excellence.
“I don’t want to just imitate other good saké,” he says. “I want to make saké to pair well with food here. American food tends to be fattier, richer and higher in protein.” He says he prefers “bold, expressive” brews with “umami to round out flavors, but also higher acidity to cut through richer foods.”
For the most part, says Richardson, Japanese brewers are excited to see the development of American saké. “They tend to see it as a local gateway that will make Americans more familiar.”
“A rising tide raises all ships,” says Centofante. “If someone comes to my brewery and falls in love with saké, hopefully they’re going to go to another brewery and try saké from Japan as well.”
Today, new microbreweries are in motion in Salt Lake City, Medfield, Massachusetts, and more. Hopefully in a few years, “there’s going to be a brewery in every major American city, in Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.,” says Konishi.
Last Updated: May 8, 2023