The Japanese sake market is nuance upon nuanced levels of varying degrees of a polished kernel of brewed rice, *yawn.* That is as exciting as the days of the big American lagers, so I set out to find sake breweries breaking from the norm (I found just that in Colorado to North Carolina, and they will have you drinking more sake).
Not too long ago, the choices for most American beer drinkers were Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light, Miller, Miller Lite, Michelob, Busch, Busch Light, and for “yokels,” Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Most Americans want to dump soy or teriyaki sauce on their plain bowl of rice (sacrilegious to do if you are Japanese), which I liken to the appeal of sake, it is that plain bowl of rice.I think most could care less about the subtleties and nuanced flavors of a kernel of rice, corn, or a potato (that’s why we have mixed drinks from an old fashioned to an apple martini).
They are all lagers (pilsners), and they were often joked about as “piss water,” and I feel, to some extent, the sake market is languishing in the same realm. Well, till now. Now we have these standouts that are taking sake to new levels even without an industry icon like Spuds McKenzie.
The American Standards: Wine, Spirits, and Beer
For us casual/heavy drinkers, we have the option of wine to give off an aura of being a sophisticated drinker/drunk, even if the bottle or box is $5. Then there is the alcoholic’s goto of spirits, especially vodka and whisky (mixed or neat), while the standard for most is beer.I am not a wine guy although I do appreciate it (it gives me a headache).
I have no data to back this up (so I am sharing my feelings), but I guess that most first-time or casual sake drinkers are probably drinking sake while eating out, specifically sushi. I say that because we Americans tend to be very theme-oriented drinkers, from bloody Mary’s for breakfast, mimosa’s for brunch, and tequila and Corona’s/Dos Equis with tacos.
So if you are a sake producer hoping to expand your market share, you better know your designated theme because sake is not a standard option for the majority of us Americans (yes, more of my feelings).
Rice is Life, Especially When it Contains Alcohol
Sake is not the only rice based alcohol, and here are a few more that are brewed or distilled:
|Rice Lagers||Brewed with rice in addition to barley in the grain mix.|
|Rice Whisky||Distilled rice (shōchū) and aged in an oak cask.|
|Sake||Brewed with rice, water, yeast and koji mold|
Do Not Mind the Japanese (They Are Busy Doing the Same Ole Thing)
There are approximately *1,000-1,600 sake (sa-keh) breweries in Japan. 1,600 with licenses, 1,200 selling product, and 1,000 actually brewing.Yea, it’s not “saw-key.” *SakeWorld.com, Sake Industry Snapshot.
The Japanese are not big into adaptation or innovation or what a market wants (for that, you need to leave that to us Americans because that is what we do). Although when you want the best of something, this is where the Japanese excel in refining and crafting the best of the best sake.
Branding in the Sake Market
Out of the two decades I have spent building brands, the vast majority of companies think branding is graphic design, which is why their branding is non-existent and the messaging sucks (example, Disney, they let a creative/director dictate the Star Wars brand and what a mess).All creatives have to work with creative restrictions.
Branding is non-existent with most companies and brands and is typically marketing companies ruled by creatives producing a lot of superficialness (fufu graphics/packaging design to flood social media with and store shelves). So this is why I have my doubts about American companies being able to properly build a brand, although they will not have a problem with marketing.
American Branded Sake
From Oakland, CA to Charlottesville, NC, there are your American craft sake producers to marketing companies marketing Japanese sake to Americans under their umbrella.Regardless if it’s a craft brewery or marketing company, these brands will turn laundry day and day drinking into happy fun days (plural).
Like with any endeavor, you have to ask the right question, and the question that most companies never even bother asking is: “will a domestic marketing company be able to grow the sake market in the US?” Well, here are a few examples of how that endeavor is going:
Website and Instagram Stats
I have added a social media channel, Instagram (IG) to gauge their impressions/engagements because fewer and fewer people are visiting websites for information. The IG data is the “number of followers,” along with the “average amount of likes” per post. I do this because the marketing companies have fake/artificial followers to give their brands more followers than they have organically. So the only way you will know how popular they are is through their engagement (the most credible numbers are #1 Brooklyn Kura, #2 Den Sake, and #3 North American Sake Brewery). The website data is the estimated monthly visitors to guesstimates of how many paid ads they run .
|The North |
New York, NY
The obvious standouts are the local sake producers from Brooklyn Kura, NYC, Den Sake, Oakland, CA, to the North American Sake Brewery, Charlottesville, VA (there are a whole lot more, and I will be updating this post).
I remember being contacted by one brand of Japanese sake about their new product that utilized California-grown rice, and they were pitching it as a product for Americans. Since I am a loud-mouthed and outspoken American, I expressed that I thought it sounded like a big fat failure.
Those reasons are because most Japanese producers are solely basing all their product marketing on their misguided idea of what they think Americans want. In most cases, they are wrong, and they are doing what they would find personally appealing as a Japanese person or that it is logistically simply in their favor.
“HEAVENSAKE is sulfite and gluten free. It has acidity lower than white wine and no added sugars. It’s so pure that almost any allergy can still be satisfied.”– Heavensake
Soju, the Koreans Get It
“Lemon drop soju.” Just saying that brings back a lot of college memories. Well, not my junior college days, but my visits to my girlfriend at the time at Cal (Berkeley). It was the drink of most college girls who were noobs at drinking (for a reason, it’s tasty AF and crushable).
Soju, like Japanese shochu, are on par with each other. They are not the same as sake because soju is fermented, and the popularity is because they offer up a ton of fruit flavorings from grape, grapefruit, to plum.
You will constantly see sake marketed as only having four ingredients which is 1). rice, 2). koji, 3). yeast, and 4). water. Except I won’t open a rice bowl restaurant and brag of only containing one ingredient, rice.Even whisky is a clear/white spirit prior to being added to a cask/barrel where it gets its distinctive color and taste.
Standout Rice Based (Shochu) Products in Japan
If you remember the other question I mentioned that never gets asked, that is just the tip, and the question should be: “is the existing market potential already saturated?” My answer: “yes, it is,” and what the sake market has a problem with is with their product. There needs to be more product innovation and not more subtle variation upon variation of a kernel of rice (or fufu packaging design).
In my low-level of knowledge open (only speaking as a drinker), these are the products and companies that I believe are doing great rice based products.
The Murican Infused Sake Brands Sprucing Up that Plain Bowl of Rice
This is just a shortlist because for the most part, it takes a lot of time to put in the research although I hope to continually update this page.
- Ben’s American Sake, Asheville, NC, bensamericansake.com
- Colorado Sake Co, Denver, CO, coloradosakeco.com
- Hapē Sake Spritz, Los Angeles, CA, hapesake.com
- Tsuki Sake, Salt Lake City, UT, tsukisake.com
- Wetlands Sake, New Orleans, LA, wetlandssake.com
- The Void Sake, Lexington, KY, thevoidsake.com
Harvest Moon white peach nigori by Tsuki Sake, Yu-Tang Sake Spritzer by Ben’s American Sake, coffee nigori by The Void Sake, or real fruit and real tea (grapefruit with elderflower and ginger) sake by Hapē Sake Spritz are just a few examples of infused sake.I really want to try the Hapē product, and I am going to seek it out.
The Full Menu of Infused American Sake by Colorado Sake Co
I was very content with my beer or whisky regiment, but one day I decided to check out Colorado Sake Co. Afterwards, I am glad I did because whoever the people are behind the operation, they can throw down on an interior like no other. They also do not stop with just a fufu interior, and their menu made up of California rice, koji, yeast, and Rocky Mountain water are the bee’s knees:
|Infused with fresh lime juice, ginger, cilantro and serrano peppers|
|Horchata||Infused with cinnamon and vanilla|
|Infused with local honey and fresh lavender flowers|
|A splash of pear with your lemonade|
|Infused with fresh blackberries, mint and lime juice.|
|Infused with fresh lemon juice and ginger.|
|Our junmai ginjo Infused with pink guava.|
|Infused with fresh blueberries and hibiscus flowers.|
Tsuki Sake adds fresh white peach purée to their sake which is then pasteurized.Even larger brands like TYKU offer up a cucumber infused sake.
With this blog post, I wanted to focus on infused sake, yet I also wanted to mention that sparkling sake is another option.
A popular sparkling sake is Shirakabegura “Mio”.
You can find out more via this article by Matcha.jp “Sparkling Sake – Japanese Champagne That Can Be Enjoyed By Everyone.”
Sake Brewers Association of North America
The Sake Brewers Association of North America (SBANA) is a 501(c)(6) trade association for the sake industry in North America, headquartered in Washington DC. Founded in 2019, we are the first and only sake industry trade association outside of Japan.– Sake Brewers Association of North America (this is a cool organization with cool people).
Yup, there is an organization, and they have “brought together sake breweries across the United States, Canada, Mexico (and beyond), distributors, retailers, rice farmers, governments, enthusiasts, and a wide array of the allied trade to form one of the strongest sake organizations in the world.” You can read more about them or find more American-made sake at sakeassociation.org.
In Conclusion About Sake in the United States
I love plain rice, drink my whisky neat, and now live in the 2nd largest craft beer state. Yet, I rarely drink sake unless I run out of alcohol, then I turn to my cooking sake, Ozeki and Sho Chiku Bai. Except after trying Colorado Sake Co, I will not be turning to them as a last resort, and I am adding them to my drink roster (you should too).Try them you drunkard, here’s a link of where to buy sake online to make it easier for you to do that..