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Dassai: How a Rural Sake Brewery Took On the World

Thirty minutes by car from Iwakuni, deep in the mountains of Yamaguchi Prefecture, is the home of Dassai, a top-quality sake that has been highly acclaimed both at home and abroad. We take a look at how this small brewery rose from unpromising beginnings to become a major player on the international market.

Success in a Declining Industry

Sales and consumption of sake, traditionally regarded as Japan’s national drink, have been in decline for some time. From a peak of 1.675 million kiloliters in 1975, consumption had dropped to just 589,000 kL in 2010. Part of this decline can be attributed to the tendency among younger people to drink less, together with increased sales of alternatives like beer, whisky, and wine. Over this period, the number of sake breweries fell from more than 3,000 to around 1,500.

Dassai Sampler Set

But it’s not all gloom and doom. One sake brewery is enjoying great success. That brewery is Asahi Shuzō, located outside the city of Iwakuni in Yamaguchi prefecture, with Sakurai Hiroshi as president. Asahi Shuzō jettisoned its ordinary sake, Asahi Fuji, which had a history going back more than 200 years, and after a tough struggle, the brewery came up with a junmai daiginjō-shu (pure-rice top-quality sake) called Dassai, launching it in Tokyo in 1990. In 1992, Asahi Shuzō developed Migaki Niwari Sanbu, which has since risen to become its showcase product, and the brewery began its push for market share in earnest.

When Sakurai took over the business from his father in 1984 at the age of 34, the brewery had an annual production of 126 kL (equivalent to 70,000 bottles of 1.8 liter capacity), and sales were ¥97 million for the brewery’s fiscal year ending in September. The business was virtually bankrupt and on the verge of going under.

Recently, however, sales have taken off, expanding rapidly to 776 kL (430,000 bottles, ¥1.3 billion) in 2010; 1,011 kL (560,000 bottles, ¥1.65 billion) in 2011; and 1,447 kL (800,000 bottles, ¥2.5 billion) in 2012. During 2013, the brewery increased its volume of sales even further to 2,052 kL (1.14 million bottles, ¥3.9 billion). What is it about Dassai that is attracting consumers?

Niwari Sanbu: Born Out of Struggle

Although he learned something about sales after working for a major sake manufacturer in Kobe for three and a half years following his graduation from university, Sakurai was still a complete amateur when it came to brewing. After struggling to find a new direction, he decided to focus on brewing ginjō-shu (high-quality sake). Until then, Asahi Shuzō had been trying to sell ordinary sake locally but had not been successful. In trying to figure out why, Sakurai realized that what consumers wanted was high-quality sake with a taste they could truly savor. Sakurai decided that his brewery needed to improve the quality of the sake they produced. That sake was daiginjō-shu (top-quality sake).

Kōji mold is sprinkled onto steamed rice and the rice is then mixed by hand to ensure an even growth of the mold. (Courtesy of Asahi Shuzō)


Yamada-nishiki brown rice grains are milled down to 23% of their original size. (Courtesy of Asahi Shuzō)

Extra care needs to be taken to produce the ginjō-shu type of sake. More than 40% of each grain of rice is milled, leaving less than 60% of the inner white core. Using rice processed this way, fermentation is carried out at a low temperature (5-10 degrees) over a long period of time (more than 30 days). Naturally, this drives up the price. Ginjō-shu also requires much higher levels of brewing expertise than ordinary sake. With daiginjō-shu, more than 50% of the rice grain is milled away. For Asahi Shuzō, this new venture was their first experience with ginjō-shu, and daiginjō-shu seemed beyond their wildest dreams. For the rice, Asahi Shuzō used only Yamada-nishiki, the top brand of rice suited to brewing sake. Until 1990, when Dassai made its appearance, failure followed failure as Asahi Shuzō continued in its quest to brew ginjō-shu.

In 1990, Asahi Shuzō finally succeeded in marketing a junmai daiginjō-shu made with rice milled to 50% and 45% of its original size. In 1992, the brewery launched what has become its flagship product, Dassai, made with rice milled to just 23% of its original size.

Sake to Be Savored

The catalyst for Asahi Shuzō’s breakthrough was its success in finding a new market in Tokyo. Sakurai went door-to-door to retailers and restaurants asking them to carry his brewery’s sake. The reputation of Yamaguchi prefecture’s sake breweries was extremely poor, recalls Sakurai. “People were skeptical about whether it was possible to make good sake west of Hiroshima. Nearly all of the breweries in Yamaguchi are small compared to breweries in Hiroshima Prefecture. Nearly all the sake brewed in Yamaguchi is consumed locally. It wasn’t easy to convince people to stock a sake from Yamaguchi,” he said.

Many breweries are content to subsist on local sales and do not bother to venture as far as Tokyo. Sakurai says, “I didn’t know whether we would make it. But one thing was clear—I knew we absolutely had to make a go of it in Tokyo. There was no way we could survive by staying local.”

Left: The shop before it was pulled down and the new brewery. Right: A conceptual drawing of the main brewery after its planned completion. (Courtesy of Asahi Shuzō)

Asahi Shuzō’s breakthrough into the Tokyo market around 1990 coincided with the height of the bubble economy. When the bubble burst halfway through the decade, izakayas (Japanese-style pubs) began popping up in Ginza and other exclusive areas to replace more expensive bars and clubs that had closed down. Befitting their ritzy locale, many of these Ginza izakayas began to carry more expensive types of sake than conventional pubs. “That’s how we managed to gain new customers for our product.”

“Everyone is looking for something different in sake. Milling Yamada-nishiki as much as 77% creates a daiginjō-shu with a good aroma and a sweet, fruity, and silky smooth flavor. But conventional sake enthusiasts have complained that it’s too easy-drinking. Other people like daiginjō-shu for its pleasant aftertaste. It doesn’t have that smell of rice bran you get with some cheaper kinds of sake.”

Sakurai values quality over quantity. He points out that the social role of sake has changed with time. What people are looking for today is not a cheap intoxicant but a quality product that can be savored for its taste. Sakurai says his key target market is not long-term drinkers but those who may be new to the pleasures of sake. “We are targeting the younger generation, who drink far less than their parents’ generation. Women are another major untapped market,” he says.

  • [2014.01.16]
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