Atsuo Sakurai introduces Japanese sake to Arizona

Master brewer Atsuo Sakurai analyzes a sample of his Arizona Sake, which is brewed and distributed in Holbrook, and the only sake brewed in Arizona by a first grade Japanese brewer.

By Linda Kor

       The dry and dusty land of northeastern Arizona provides surprising opportunities for enterprising individuals, but probably none more surprising than discovering this area has the ideal climate for brewing traditional Japanese sake.

      When Atsuo Sakurai made the decision to leave Japan to come to America, he had already decided where he wanted to live. As a traditional master sake brewer he knew he would need a climate that was closest to his homeland, and that meant the wet and humid regions of Oregon and Washington State. It was there that he knew he could reproduce the rice wine that had taken him more than eight years to perfect.

When he arrived with his family those plans fell through, so he and his wife Heather instead decided to move to her hometown of Holbrook, where their three children could be near family.

Despite the change in environment, Sakurai set up his equipment to see if he could still brew a product that met his standards. He found the results to be impressive, with the sake having a far superior flavor than what he had anticipated.

“In Japan it is quite humid and there’s a lot of fungus that grows. It’s very difficult to clean, and so the odor is always present and becomes part of the flavor of sake that is brewed,” he explained. When Sakurai began to brew in Holbrook he stumbled upon something that no one had considered, that in the dry arid climate the sake had a purer flavor and no unpleasant aroma.  “I think I am the only one who knows this, because no only else is brewing sake here,” said Sakurai.

This is no hobby for Sakurai. He is a first grade brewer, certified by the Japanese government to brew sake, something only provided to those who have been a brewer for more than seven years. Sakurai is the only first grade sake brewer in Arizona and possibly the U.S. “I don’t know of anyone in the U.S. who is a first grade sake brewer; there was only a second grade brewer in Texas that I have heard of,” Sakurai explained.

Becoming a sake master was not something that he had planned as he grew up in Yokohama, Japan. It wasn’t until he moved to Sendai in northern Japan after graduation that he became interested in the culture of sake brewing.

“First, I just enjoyed drinking sake with friends. In Japan it is very much a part of our culture and tradition,” he said. As he learned how sake was made, he discovered what he called, “the very wonderful and unique process” for brewing. Sakurai began training to make sake, working his way up to leader of a brewery in Niigata, Japan, an area renowned for its sake.

The Japanese rice drink is a very distinct liquor brewed from yeast and rice. While it is really in a category all it’s own, the closest relation to an American drink would be beer due to the yeast used in the brewing process, but that’s where the similarity ends. The process involves making a mixture of steamed rice with yeast and another special rice called koji, which releases enzymes that ferment the rice by decomposing its carbohydrates and proteins.

The mixture is allowed to ferment for two months, then is processed through a press that separates the sake from the rice and yeast before being bottled. Although the process may sound simple enough, Sakurai is a connoisseur and he carefully monitors each batch. Sake can range from 15 to 17 percent alcohol content, but Sakurai strives to keep each batch at 15.5 percent as a testament to his skill.

The sake is produced under the label Arizona Sake with “brewed in Holbrook Arizona” printed below the name. He works alone, creating small quantities of the unique, yet authentic drink. Even though his business is new, his Arizona Sake is quickly coming into demand and is now available both locally and throughout the state in establishments such as the Empty Pockets and Super Fuels in Holbrook, Southside Tavern, Nomads Global Lounge and Tourist Home in Flagstaff, Fujiya Market in Tempe and Nobuo at Teeter House in Phoenix where the owner, the renowned Japanese chef Nobuo Fukuda, has been featured in a recent documentary for his Japanese cuisine.

Sakurai distributes his product himself, allowing him to know his customers and learn of the experiences of those who drink his sake. He can also sell to individuals.

While most new business owners have dreams of expansion and broader marketing, Sakurai’s dream for his business is to benefit others. “My dream is making sake that people will use for their special occasions, like Christmas, weddings and celebrations, or as a summer vacation souvenir,” he said. “I want to be good enough for Holbrook to use my sake to attract tourists and contribute to their businesses,” he said.

To emphasize how important this is to him, he spoke of a visit he had while recently in Flagstaff, noting, “As I was speaking to the manager, a young lady was there nearby us, drinking coffee and listening to us. She asked me if she could buy my sake for her husband’s birthday. I was really happy, because that was exactly my dream come true. So, I want for people to know that is my mission of my business.”

Arizona Sake can be purchased at the establishments mentioned or by emailing Sakurai at arizonasake@gmail.com. He will also host tasting events for groups who would like to meet him and learn more about Arizona Sake.