The Man Who Brought Sushi to America, Part V

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  • Thursday, 16 October 2014 22:00
The Man Who Brought Sushi to America, Part V Photos courtesy of avex group Holdings, Inc.

The Man Who Brought Sushi to America, Part IV

Introducing Sake to America

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with Noritoshi Kanai, chairman of Mutual Trading Co., Inc. and the man who coined the phrase “sushi bar.”

TJ: You’ve told us about how you brought sushi to America. Can you tell us about the history of sake in the U.S.?
KANAI: One of the earliest sake breweries was the Honolulu Sake Brewery and Ice Co., which opened in 1908 in Hawaii. On the mainland, importers were shipping sake over from Japan and the cargoes of brew would lie under the scorching heat of the sun and ferment further, sometimes even turning into vinegar. Japanese sake brews at this time were also poor quality due to an industrywide practice of watering down the sake or by adding sub-standard alcohol to increase volume in order to bypass the country’s alcohol tax collection. Little Tokyo had known only bad sake. So when I tried introducing my sake products, my clients said, “No, sake tastes bad. We don’t want any.” I turned to Takara Shuzo Co. in Kyoto to supply me with their quality junmai pure rice sake. I named this mix, Shochikubai Deluxe Sake, with Mutual Trading rolling out the first junmai sake in America in 1970. Overnight, this product reversed the misconception of the ill reputed, hangover-inducing liquor. “New Discovery: Sake is Delicious!” My timing was wonderful because it coincided with the ever increasing popularity of sushi with American consumers. In the 1980s, we jumped another hurdle by introducing jizake, a micro-brewed artisan sake. It’s a category that includes junmai daiginjo super premium and junmai ginjo premium sake. Today, we have the finest jizake assortment in America.

TJ: Who leads the sake market in the U.S.?
KANAI: Takara Sake USA Inc. is the largest producing sake brewery in America. In Japan, they rank third but are climbing. With their domestic and overseas production combined, Takara is number one in the world. In 1983, I was instrumental in helping Takara establish their American brewery. There was a sake brewery in Berkeley, California, owned by Numano Sake Co., which was the first sake brewery on the mainland. One day, their rice supplier tipped me off: “Numano is no longer buying rice from me. I think they’re closing.” The next day, I flew to Tokyo to meet with Takara executives. In the lounge of the airport hotel, our companies agreed to a corroboration: Takara would brew and Mutual Trading would sell.

TJ: Why is Takara the leading sake in the U.S.?
KANAI: Their 170-years plus experience in brewmanship and their technological leadership created a solid base for their Shochikubai flagship brand to get a smooth start. In addition, the Takara brewery is blessed with other conditions that enable them to heighten the quality of their brew. The plant is close to the rice-growing regions in the Sacramento Valley, making it quick to procure rice. An abundance of the ideal soft water from the Sierra Nevadas flows into the plant. The outdoor stainless steel tanks for storing brewed sake catch the natural ocean breeze blowing off the Bay for the perpetual and natural refrigeration that creates a perfect condition for aging. And since there are railroad tracks next to the plant and the Oakland bay is nearby, Takara’s channel of distribution allows the fresh brew to quickly reach faraway places in the U.S.

TJ: Have there been any major advances in how sake is made?
KANAI: Similar to wine grapes grown for wine brewing, special strains of sake rice are grown specifically for brewing into sake. In Japan, rice used for food would traditionally not be used as an ingredient for sake. But now all five of the large-scale sake breweries in the U.S. are using American-grown rice, mostly Calrose, which is the staple medium grain rice used in most Japanese restaurants and homes. What this U.S.-grown rice lacks in quality; technology fills in the gaps to create quality brews. Now sake breweries in America are producing standard grade sake to ginjo and all the way up to the super premium daiginjos. After a decade of trial and error, this year Takara marked a milestone by harvesting a small quantity of yamadanishiki sake rice grown on American soil and brewing it into the first fully American junmai daiginjo sake in history!

TJ: Will this development affect the price of sake?
KANAI: Of course. Rice grown in Japan now costs four times more than rice grown in the U.S. Americans can look forward to high quality sake that is brewed locally using domestically grown quality sake rice, all at a lower price.

TJ: Do you think consumers will accept sake made in the U.S.?
KANAI: Yes. I predict that premium sake production in the U.S. will someday overtake Japanese imports. Some consumers may be skeptical and say, “I don’t ever want to drink sake from the United States.” But look at what’s happened to the California wine industry. A quarter of a century ago, not many Americans took a serious look at California wines. European wines still have that snobbish appeal compared to California wines. But in terms of consumption, Americans now drink more California wines than European. This is due to the improved quality of California wines as well as the abundant availability and appealing price. I’m predicting that this pattern will repeat with sake. U.S. brewed junmai daiginjos will continue to improve, grow in popularity and someday outsell Japanese imports. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #275 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.

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