The national drink of Japan is losing popularity in its home country. Sake sales have steadily declined for years, as more young Japanese turn to beer and cocktails. Now, sake makers are looking West, hoping to tap into new markets, including Arizona. One brewer even set up shop in the old route 66 town of Holbrook, where he produces some of the finest sake on the planet. KNAU’s Aaron Granillo reports customers can’t get enough of Arizona Sake.
Rebekah Kaufman just sat down for happy hour at Karma Sushi in downtown Flagstaff. She scans the drink menu before ordering a cup of homegrown sake she’s never heard of before.
“You get to try some Arizona made sake today,” says Kaufman’s server.
Kaufman lifts the cup to her nose, breathes in aromas of sweet fruit. She takes a small sip. Her palate goes wild.
“Oh, that’s good,” says Kaufman. “I’m getting almost like a little bit of pear, but it’s definitely not overly sweet. It’s perfect. This is good.”
Ed Grant is food and beverage director at Karma, and a certified sake adviser. He says Arizona Sake is top shelf.
“It’s light, it’s fruity, and aromatic,” says Grant. “One thing that I also like about it is that it’s the nama style, meaning that its unpasteurized.”
Grant says the sake made it to Karma’s menu about two years ago. That’s when the man behind the rice-based alcohol showed up with a sales pitch.
“We hadn’t heard about it before. He thought we would be a good fit for him, and I think it has been a good relationship,” says Grant. “We’re really honored to have his product around.”
The product, Arizona Sake, comes from Atsuo Sakurai, a Japanese native and master brewer. He makes it at his home in Holbrook. His brewing space is tiny - about the size of a cubicle - sealed off behind a door in his two car garage.
“It smells like apple, and pear and melon. Like very fruity. This is the original sake flavor,” says Sakurai. "So, I try to save this flavor in my premium sake.”
His recipe is simple; tap water, yeast, California rice, and koji, a type of fungus that converts starch into glucose.
Sakurai’s first batch came about 15 years ago, when he was still in college. He made it in his dorm room – illegally – and it was awful.
“Tastes like more acidity and smell like glue,” says Sakurai. “So, yeah it didn’t taste good. I couldn’t drink the sake I made.”
He spent the next ten years developing his craft, working at factories in Japan, and learning ancient brewing methods. Eventually, he passed a rigorous government exam, and earned the highest title of “first grade sake brewer.” That’s also around the same time he met his wife, an Arizona native, who taught English in Japan. They moved to Holbrook about four years ago so they could be closer to her family.
“Arizona is the last place to locate for me because it is too dry,” says Sakurai. “And then, around Holbrook, the big market is super far away. It’s really severe condition to live here with business I thought.”
But as it turns out, brewing in the desert was a blessing in disguise. The arid conditions means there’s less chance for mold to form during fermentation, a common problem in Japan’s humid climate. Plus, the Holbrook water Sakurai uses comes from the Coconino Aquifer, one of the best sources of groundwater in Arizona.
“When I did a test batch, I figured out this condition is really good to make sake,” says Sakurai. “The sake tasted like clear and pure. And like, oh, here is really good.”
So good, he thought, Sakurai submitted a bottle to last year’s international Sake Competition in Tokyo. Kenya Hashimoto was one of the judges in the overseas category.
"Arizona Sake has a good balance of sourness, sweetness, and flavor. These three tastes mixed well as one.” says Hashimoto. "The characteristic was far beyond other sake in the overseas category."
The other judges agreed, and gave Arizona Sake a gold medal - first place.
"Arizona Sake was well harmonized and excellently balanced with the aroma and taste," says Hashimoto. "Thus, I thought the sake was made using high skills.”
Sakurai says after he received his gold medal, orders started to pour in. He has about 50 clients in Arizona, and ships out of state to high-end sushi restaurants in Hawaii.
“Business is not just making money or expansion,” says Sakurai. “So, my business is to get friendship, or love, or peace. Like that I am seeking.”
Sakurai knows he’ll need to move out of his garage to grow, and he plans to do so. He just broke ground on a new commercial property a few blocks away from his home.