Anna Greenhous: how sake brewing is growing around the world
Having recently detailed the history of sake-brewing in the US, Anna Greenhous now looks at sake-brewing in the rest of the world outside of Japan:
Most of the sake breweries outside of Japan can be found in the US, however there are a growing number of sake breweries popping up across the world. Most have been set up to meet the growing local demand for sake, which has become an increasingly popular global trend alongside that for Japanese cuisine.
With the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, Brazil’s sake brewing started, similarly to the US, to provide sake for Japanese immigrants. The first Japanese immigrants arrived in Sao Paulo in 1908 to meet the demand for workers on Brazil’s coffee plantations. According to the BBC, in 2000 there were around 1.5 million people of Japanese descent in Brazil, with the largest concentrations in Sao Paulo and Puarana.
Brazilian sake brewery Sakeria Thikara says sake as a category “in the last three years has grown on average 40%.” Sometimes referred to as ‘saque’, it has grown in popularity partly in partnership with the trend for sushi, but also due to being seen as low in alcohol, and therefore a healthier alternative to spirits for mixing with fruit juices and using in cocktails.
Tozen sake brewery was established in 1934 in Campinas, Sao Paulo. Tozan initially went through some difficulties in production due to the warm climate and lack of raw materials during the Second World War. In 1975, Japan’s largest beer brewery, Kirin, confident in the potential of the Brazilian market, acquired a portion of the company, providing new expertise and equipment. Now under the name Azuma Kirin, they now produce a range of sake including junmai, ginjo and unpasteurised sake.
Sakeria Thikara was set up seven years ago by Paulo Busch in Sao Paulo with the aim of launching premium sake in Brazil. They make honjozo sake “by Japanese method and process” using local water and imported Japanese rice polished so that 70% of the grain remains. Information about Brazil’s other domestic producers, Sake Fuji of Sao Roque, Sao Paulo, Sake Okinawa and Sake Ryo is hard to find, though they all seem to be aimed at the cocktail market.
Canada’s first sake brewery, Artisan Sake Maker was set up in 2007, in Vancouver, British Columbia (BC). Set up by Masa Shiroki, who originally imported sake from Japan, the brewery unusually grows their own sake rice in BC, with the aim of making a purely Canadian product. This enables a fresher product as the process of shipping rice from Japan can impact on the quality and lead to oxidised flavours. The rice is a form of Ginpu, a sakamai (‘sake rice’), unlike the table rice often used outside of Japan, with a larger starch pocket making it more suitable for brewing.
At a recent trade tasting in London, Artisan Sake Maker’s sake caused quite a stir, it was impressively fresh with pure fruit flavours. Their sakes are all junmai, with some made only from rice grown locally in the breweries’ five acres of paddy fields. Some are unpasteurised, and others unfiltered. They also make a traditional method sparkling sake, a premium product unusual even in sake’s native Japan.
The Ontario Spring Water Company was started up in Toronto’s Distillery District in 2011. The owner, Ken Valvur, had previously been importing sake from Miyasaki a Japanese sake brewery who’ve been making sake since the 1600s, so it was with their help and advice that they got started. Yoshiko Takahashi, from Nagano in Japan, an award-winning brew master and one of the first female toji (head brewers), stayed for the first year and trained up head brewer Greg Newton.
The Ontario Sake Water Company claim to use the softest water in Canada, sourced from Northern Ontario, which produces delicate styles of sake. They use Californian Calrose rice, as the local climate is unsuitable for rice cultivation. Most of their sake is unpasteurised ‘namazake’, filling a gap in the Canadian market where this style is not generally found as it spoils easily during transportation from Japan. All the sake they produce is junmai. They also produce a sake with the use of a high percentage of koji rice.
YK3 is the more recent incarnation of Nipro, a defunct sake brewery originally set up in Richmond, BC with Yoshiaki Kasugai, from Nagano, as head brewer. The company closed after six years, due to financial problems. However, in 2013, Yuki Kobayashi and Yoshihiro Kawamura purchased the company, seeing potential in Kasugai’s sake-making skills and keeping him on as the sole brewer, launching with a new name ‘YK3’. Currently, all their sake are junmai, and their range includes an all-koji and an unpasteurised sake.
Sun Masamune was started in the late 1980s, originally a syndicate of Australian rice growers and Japanese businessmen producing rice in Australia with the intention of exporting it to Japan. With production costs considerably cheaper in Australia, this was a potentially lucrative venture. Convinced of the quality of the rice, Konishi, Japan’s oldest commercial sake producer, bought the company and set up a large, state of the art brewery in Penrith, with their own toji, Imoto-san, at the helm.
Commercial sake production began in 1996. Initially, Sun Masamune produced bulk sake for shipping back to Japan, packaged under an Australian packaging theme as “Go-Shu” (translating as “Australian sake”) or blended with Konishi’s Shirayuki sake brand and shipped to the US. Later, it was sold to the Australian domestic market and other Asian markets.
Sun Masamune produce a number of sake styles using water sourced from the nearby Blue Mountains. The range includes junmai, ginjo, daiginjo, unpasteurised, unfiltered, and an oak-aged sake. They also make an umeshu (a plum and sake based liquor made from Australian-grown Japanese plums), and a sparkling ready-to-drink sake cocktail made with sake blended with spring water, lychee, and muscat grape flavours. Most recently they have developed a sake and beer hybrid, brewing a koji-rice lager in conjunction with the Australian Brewery.
In Grimstad, Norway, the craft beer brewery Nogne started to make sake in 2010, reportedly making it Europe’s first sake brewery. Well-known for their characterful and experimental beers, their sake brewing style is in a similar vein.
Nogne’s sake is made from Ginpu sake rice, imported from Hokkaido, North Japan. Their head brewer, Kjetil Jikiun, uses the traditional yamahai method, a labour-intensive method which creates funky, interesting, full-flavoured styles of sake. Most of their sakes are unpasteurised (namazake) adding lively flavours. They also make a sake with wild yeasts and ‘Red Horizon’ ale using sake yeast #7, a yeast which famously creates premium sake’s distinctively fruity character.
Doragon sake, probably the most widely available sake in the U.K due to being sold by three of the ‘Big Four’ supermarkets (Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco), is made by Toorank Distilleries in Zevenaar, The Netherlands. The company started in 1978, originally concentrating on “value-brands” spirits aimed at markets where people want to drink certain products, but where the price is more the driver than the quality. The company makes around 1000 different products (including gin, whisky and rum) for more than 40 markets around the world. They produce a futsushu made from “fermented rice flour” apparently made by a “secret recipe”… “not shared by our supplier”. According to Toorank, it is the “U.K’s bestselling sake” and is also the cheapest sake currently on the market.
Currently, there are no breweries making sake commercially in the UK. However, this will soon change. In Brighton, England Goodness Sake have been honing their sake-brewing skills making small batches of junmai, unfiltered and unpasteurised sake and are currently looking to secure funding to enable them to find suitable premises for their brewery. Helen Ross of Goodness Sake says: “We’ve had an incredible amount of interest locally, from restaurants and bars. Brighton people tend to be fairly cosmopolitan and open to new ideas, from speaking to people about the product there’s a real buzz about something new coming to the market.”
Arran Brewery, a micro beer brewery on the Isle of Arran in Scotland, has also been experimentally making sake on a small scale, and plans to set up a sake brewery with imported Japanese equipment.
With the growing number of sake breweries outside Japan we are starting to see the development of what Rie Yoshitake, Sake Samurai UK representative, referred to in a recent interview as ‘New World sake’: sake produced outside of Japan, developed to appeal to local palates, often made using local ingredients such as water and rice, brewed by local brewers. Brazilian sake makers have developed sake specifically for cocktails, a Canadian sake brewer is aiming to make a 100% Canadian product and Norwegians have experimented with wild, local yeasts. It will be interesting to see just what style of sake will be brewed for the British palate.
With particular thanks to Paul Graydon-Taylor and Julien Houseman for their insights into Australian sake, and Ana Kanamura and Gordon Heady for their insights into Brazilian sake.