DASSAI SAKE: KANPAI / 乾杯

Melinda Joe talked to two generations of the Sakurai family who together run the esteemed Asahi Shuzo brewery, known globally for their celebrated Dassai sake, to discuss how their craft continues to evolve this historic drink and expand its borders — with exclusive imagery by Motohiko Hasui.


The road that leads to Asahi Shuzo winds deep into the mountains 30 minutes outside of the sleepy town of Iwakuni, a former castle village, in the western prefecture of Yamaguchi. The sake brewery is an impressive complex that comprises multiple production facilities, a massive building housing rice-milling machines, and a sleek, modern tasting room that overlooks a river.

Its history traces back to humble beginnings more than 200 years ago, but in the early 1990s, owner and chairman Hiroshi Sakurai started a sake revolution with the launch of the company’s flagship label, Dassai. Asahi Shuzo has excelled by breaking with convention, employing cutting-edge techniques, and maintaining exacting standards. Today, the name Dassai is synonymous with quality and innovation, and the brews have become a global sensation, exported to more than 20 countries.

Dassai sake by Asahi Shuzo Dassai sake by Asahi Shuzo

“The most important thing for us at Asahi Shuzo is to make delicious sake. Naturally, we have to make our customers happy. This is part of our development as a business, always striving to improve our sake. We do everything we can toward this aim – to make the product a little faster, a little better, for example,” says company president Kazuhiro Sakurai, when we meet at the stylish Dassai sake boutique in Tokyo’s Ginza district.



The fourth-generation head of the brewery, Sakurai is a soft-spoken 42-year-old dressed in a three-piece blue suit, with a few strands of silver hair interspersed through a modest black pompadour. As a child, he watched his grandfather and father make sake, helping to mix the steamed rice and pack the bottles into boxes. Although his father never pushed him to follow in his footsteps, Sakurai entered the family business after moving back to Yamaguchi from Tokyo, where he studied social science at university.



It was a different story, however, for his father, Hiroshi Sakurai:

Growing up as the eldest son in a sake brewery is a peculiar thing. Of course, my father – along with our relatives and the employees – was always scrutinizing my suitability as the brewery’s next owner, and I grew up under that pressure.

After university, he trained for three and a half years at Nihonsakari, a large brewery in Hyogo Prefecture, before going to work for his father. However, he left after the two fell out over management issues and only returned to Asahi Shuzo following his father’s death in 1984.



When Hiroshi Sakurai took over the reins, the industry was in turmoil. Thanks to increased competition from alternative beverages such as beer and wine, sake sales nationwide had declined sharply since the peak in 1975. Asahi Shuzo, which produced mainly cheap futsuu-shu (ordinary sake) for the local market, was struggling to stay afloat. He realized that the brewery needed to change direction and made the bold decision to focus solely on brewing daiginjo, the highest grade of sake. He called the new brand Dassai, which translates literally as, “otter festival” – a reference to both the playful critters who once frolicked in the nearby streams, as well as the haiku poet Masaoka Shiki, who pioneered a new movement in Japanese literature.

Dassai sake by Asahi Shuzo

The grades of premium sake are determined by the degree of milling the rice undergoes before brewing. Ginjo sake must be made with rice polished to at least 60 percent -- meaning that 40 percent of the outer layers are removed -- while top-grade daiginjo must be made with rice polished to at least 50 percent of its original size. Milling is a time-consuming and costly procedure, but the process is necessary to get closer to the starchy white heart at the center of the rice grain, the source of the fruity and floral aromas that characterize super-premium styles. Frequently, daiginjo-grade varieties are made with rice polished to below the legal requirements – an extravagance that yields elegant brews that fetch fittingly luxurious price tags.



In 1990, Hiroshi Sakurai learned of a producer making sake with rice polished to the then-unprecedented level of 25 percent and decided that Dassai could do better: “At the time, the concept of ‘the best in Japan’ was a trendy idea, so I figured we’d make a splash if we could make sake with the lowest seimaibuai (rice polishing ration),” he explains.

DASSAI JUNMAI DAIGINJO "BEYOND" SAKE


Although the elder Sakurai says that the proposal was initially “criticized by technical experts and industry professionals,” he remained determined to create the world’s most refined sake, from premium Yamada Nishiki rice – a variety commonly referred to as, “the king of rice.” The result was Dassai 23, which was released in 1992 to great acclaim and remains one of Asahi Shuzo’s most popular products. The company has since surpassed its previous milling feats with Dassai Beyond, an ultra-luxe brew made with rice polished to a ratio in the single digits.



The firm’s embrace of technology has been one the keys to its success. The brewery was the first to use a centrifuge to replace the typical methods of separating sake from the lees. Similarly, it was among the earliest to produce sake all year round. Since ancient times, sake had been brewed only in the winter, when the cold temperatures created the best environment for the low-and-slow fermentation needed to make premium sake. To solve for this, Asahi Shuzo invested in a data management system of cloud technology and sensors to monitor temperature, humidity, and pH levels in order to maintain ideal brewing conditions at all times.



When asked how Asahi Shuzo balances its high-tech approach with traditional techniques, Kazuhiro Sakurai explains that, while technology is an important tool, every decision is informed by the spirit of craftsmanship: “There are things that must be done by hand, and some that are best done with the help of machines. We are constantly adjusting and tasting, using the five senses to determine outcomes,” he says.



While the brewery no longer grows its own rice – opting to source directly from around 13 producers of top-quality Yamada Nishiki – Asahi Shuzo has collaborated with farmers to enhance cultivation. In 2014, the brewery introduced sensor networks linked to Fujitsu’s Akisai cloud management system to growers of Yamada Nishiki in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

KAZUHIRO SAKURAI, PRESIDENT OF ASAHI SHUZO


Among the most important innovations, however, are changes to the business structure. In the past, production was overseen by a toji (master brewer) and made by itinerant farmers in the off-season. Dassai founder Hiroshi Sakurai did away with this system in 1998, taking charge of the brewing himself and hiring a staff of full-time workers.



“90 percent of our employees are full-time,” the younger Sakurai says. “Working with the same members all the time has several advantages: for instance, each person has different skills, so our workers can learn from each other, and all that know-how remains inside the company.”



Asahi Shuzo’s business-savvy, out-of-the-box thinking pushed them to enter the global market early on, and the enterprise is committed to fostering an international sake culture by setting up shops and bars overseas and participating in collaborations.

We want sake to become a beverage that is enjoyed regularly all over the world, in the same way that wine is drunk today.

Kazuhiro Sakurai goes on, “The image that sake is an exotic or rare drink is still strong overseas. We’re trying to create an environment where people who aren’t necessarily interested in Japan or Japanese culture can experience delicious sake. To that end, we have collaborated with chef Joel Robuchon on a restaurant project in Paris to show how French culture and food can be a natural match for Japanese sake.”



In April, the company also revealed plans to partner with the Culinary Institute of America to open a brewery in New York. The facility will use local water and Calrose rice, and chairman Hiroshi Sakurai will stay on site to manage the project for a year. The idea is to develop a high-quality, accessible sake that reflects both the values of Asahi Shuzo as well as the terroir and culture of the new location.



Kazuhiro Sakurai sees all of this as part of the brewery’s larger mission: “Great sake can play a role in enhancing well-being – by connecting people and bringing pleasure through deliciousness. We aim to create that flavor of delight, something that makes life just a little more fun. It’s similar to the way that, by designing fashionable eyewear, DITA is helping to make people happier. As brewers, making sake is all we can do, but what we really want is for people to be happy. Life is pointless without joy.”



Text: Melinda Joe @melindarjoe
Photos: Motohiko Hasui @motohiko_hasui





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