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Meet the Japanese Master Brewer Making World-Class Sake Along Route 66

Holbrook, an Arizona town just 5,000 residents call home, firmly clings to its fading past: Classic roadside diners, gas stations advertising Route 66 memorabilia, and abandoned 1940s motor courts line the streets, all eliciting nostalgia for the golden age of American road trips. Streets with names like Bucket of Blood are reminders of the Old West, when shoot-outs between outlaws and cowboys were a more common occurrence. All said, Holbrook might be one of the last places one would expect to find world-renowned spirits being made. But inside a modest concrete building sandwiched between a Days Inn and a Family Dollar along a sleepy stretch of Route 66, Japanese native Atsuo Sakurai is crafting some of the world’s finest sake.

Sakurai, a 44-year-old master sake brewer, is bridging the gap between Japan and the American Southwest by handcrafting traditional sake with locally sourced ingredients, including his now-home state’s naturally soft water, rice, and indigenous herbs. The result is Arizona Sake, the brand the Tokyo transplant brought to market in 2017. Just 18 months after Sakurai made his first batch from the unpasteurized “nama” sake in his garage, his Junmai Ginjo Arizona Sake won a gold medal at the 2018 Tokyo Sake Competition as the best sake produced outside of Japan. The following year, the brewer won a gold medal for best in class at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition.

When I reached out to Sakurai for an interview, he invited me to come sit in his backyard. He greeted me with a homemade beer before showing me the trees he planted, as well as the plants he’s growing in his homemade nursery. Sakurai admits Holbrook was not the ideal place to start a sake company when he moved there in 2014, but now, he can’t imagine it any other way. While Sakurai is a part of a small wave of U.S.-based sake brewers emerging in recent years, he explains that unlike many in the industry, he is not seeking investors or dreaming about expansive growth. His goal is simple: to produce quality, small-batch sake that makes people happy.

1. Why did you leave Japan to make sake?

I had a dream of starting up my own sake business, but in Japan, there are very strict regulations to control new sake brewing licenses. The government will not give any new licenses because they say there are enough sake companies. There is no opportunity to be an entrepreneur. I knew I would have to leave Japan. I happened to fall in love with and marry an American woman, so we moved to America so I could start my business.

2. Why do you make sake?

I started making sake because I like to drink sake and I wanted to have my own business. Now, I make it to make people happy.

My biggest desire is to protect the Earth for our future generations. I am always concentrating on how I can leave a better world. I use sake production to help do this. I am always looking for ways to incorporate nature. I grow trees in my backyard in hopes that they will still be growing and producing fruit and shade in 100 years from now. That is my dream — to leave my mark while protecting the Earth.

3. Why did you start your business in Arizona?

My wife is from the Holbrook area, but Arizona was the last place I wanted to start my sake business. I thought it would be way too dry and just too different from Japan. After I started, I realized that brewing sake in the desert was actually great.

It is important to avoid wild yeast and wild mold when making sake. Yeast and mold are tiny living creatures that can be easily contaminated, but in Arizona, the dry atmosphere means there is less of a chance for contamination. The dry air also provides less of a chance for mold to form during the fermentation process, which can be a common problem in Japan because of the humid climate. It’s about 50 percent humidity throughout the year in Japan. The wet environment encourages microbes to grow, while the super-dry air here makes sake very pure.

I was also concerned with how to make sales way out in the middle of nowhere, but I realized that as long as the quality of sake is good, that sales will follow. I do not have a delivery driver, so I drive all over Arizona to deliver my sake. One of my favorite parts of my job is developing relationships with my customers, like the convenience store owners here in Holbrook or the restaurant owners in Phoenix. I do have to drive a long way to make those sales, though.

4. How did you develop your Navajo Native Tea-Brewed Junmai Ginjo?

There is an herb in this region called Navajo tea, and Native Americans have been using it for a long time to make tea. My wife is Navajo American, and my father-in-law suggested that I use it in my sake to make a unique local drink. I thought it would be a good way to blend my culture with my wife’s culture, so I tried it.

It took some time to figure out how the strong flavor of Navajo tea could be fine-tuned into a more palatable flavor. It tastes a little bit like chamomile. I have a friend who harvests it for me near the Four Corners region. This is a super-unique product in the sake business, so people recognize [our] sake as a product from this region, which I love. They use it as a souvenir or a gift.

5. Did you apply the same concept of using local plants when developing the brand’s Prickly Pear Sake?

Yes, both [products] revolve around the concept of Mother Earth. I wanted to make sake with the flavors of the wild plants around me so people could taste what grows in our soil here. I want people to be able to taste what grows in this part of the Earth, and for these types of sake, we harvest the ingredients not far from here. That is my gift to sake.

6. Is there a difference between American-made sake and Japanese-made sake?

There is essentially no difference between American sake and Japanese sake. However, the American sake industry is learning from scratch. American sake makers are making traditional sake, but they are also making flavored sake— like my Prickly Pear and Navajo Tea sake — which is not established in Japan.

7. What advice would you give to aspiring American sake brewers looking to enter the industry and preserve the craft’s authenticity?

I would say don’t cut corners. Don’t seek luxury. You want to take the time to learn how to make good sake. If you make the people happy first, then you can be happy. You must make people proud first, then you can be proud. I also think it is important to be punctual, respectful, responsible, honest, and humble. Maintain cleanliness and practice good hygiene. Work diligently, but take short breaks to rest. And don’t forget to savor your drinks slowly and enjoy every moment.

8. What is your advice for those looking to develop a deeper appreciation for sake and its nuances?

There is no “best” sake in the world, although people we know call Arizona Sake the best American sake. Each brand should be different. Imagine how the sake you are drinking is made, who makes it, and what history [it holds].

I try to make sake with a balance between the acidity, the sweetness, and the bitterness. If the sake is too sweet or too dry, [I believe] it is off. But that is just my personal preference. For some sake out there, the point is to be very dry or very sweet or very sour. That is their unique point, so I can not judge them for that.

9. Was it hard to make sake in an area where many of the people here don’t drink alcohol because of religious reasons?

No, my neighbors and the people in the town have been really supportive. Even though many of them do not drink my sake or any alcohol, they always have kind words to say. They are also proud to have a product from here.

10. What does the future of sake brewing in America look like?

I can see the sake brewing industry in America is growing. I see it every day on social media. I get more and more phone calls from people wanting my consultation on starting a new sake brewery. It makes me happy. I hope sake breweries in America get to a place where they are making sake that is recognized for its quality 100 years from now.

The article Meet the Japanese Master Brewer Making World-Class Sake Along Route 66 appeared first on VinePair.

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