If you go to a nice Japanese restaurant in New York, you are sure to find dasai on the sake menu. Its manufacturer Asahi Shuzo exports premium sake products to more than 35 countries and accounted for 17% of total sake exports from Japan in 2021—and the company is only one of about 1,000 sake brewers in the country.
Why is Dassai so popular?
There are two main reasons:
1. Quality that comes from an innovative production system without toji (brewmaster) – an idea that was unimaginable in the 2,000-year history of Japanese sake.
2. The company’s agility that it gained during the multiple critical crises in the past forty years.
Revival from Bottom Rock
Founded in 1948 and until third generation Hiroshi Sakurai became president in 1984, Asahishuzo was a small, medium-quality, affordable sake producer in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
In fact, Sakurai joined the company to work for his father eight years ago, but they disagreed about the future direction of the company. So he quit. It was his father’s sudden death that put him back into the family business, even though he had a successful business of his own outside of the sake industry.
He decides to succeed in the failed business in response to the desperate calls of the surviving employees. The timing couldn’t have been worse: Sake consumption was in sharp decline, and shōcho, another traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage, was rapidly replacing the popularity of sake that peaked in 1973. The company’s books directly reflected the challenging environment.
“Why don’t we sell for our own good?” When Sakurai looked into it, he noticed that a small portion of the work was doing well. The sake class was excellent. He decided to shift the company’s focus to refined sake and change the brand name to Dassai. Accordingly, the business started going in the right direction, but in 1992, Sakurai also started a craft beer business to solidify the company’s financial base—a big mistake. He ended up taking on $1.5 million in debt from the failure. The workers of the brewery left for him, including the brewer, for fear that they would not be paid.
A firm belief in the sake industry was that you could not make sake without a drink maker. But he was not able to hire someone new.
However, it was the moment when Dassai’s current success kicked in. That was in 1998.
Brewmaster’s intuition has been scientifically revealed
With no choice, Sakurai decided to abolish the position of a brewer in operations and rely entirely on science. He and his remaining workers divided Tuji’s tasks and analyzed each step to back them up with data. “We made all elements of the sake production process visible so we could immediately identify places to improve,” says Sakurai.
The benefits of the new system far exceeded what they initially expected.
In the brewer’s absence, the brewery team is free to pursue their ideal interest without worrying about stepping on someone’s toes. Also, year-round sake fermentation became possible, because traditional tōji was a seasonal factor assigned only to the period of sake production during the winter season.
Science and tradition sound like oil and water, but the company has been able to benefit from both. “Some people say Dassai will be made by artificial intelligence,” laughs Sakurai. But data are not recipes. We need to be as representative as in the traditional system.”
For example, managing the temperature of the mash during fermentation seems easy using high-tech sensors and a computer. But the machines cannot handle the slight differences in rice quality that come from different fields or the viability of the yeast used in the batch. This is why brewery employees constantly smell and sometimes taste the mash to check the condition.
If you don’t sell, discover the potential
In the 1990s, Sakurai was able to produce superior quality products that were ready for sale, but the local market was very small with a population of about 300. By expanding to nearby major cities such as Hiroshima, the company would face fierce competition with larger breweries and the prospect was very dismal.
Instead, he entered the capital, Tokyo, where there was more room for new players. Without any connections, Sakurai personally visited retailers and restaurants and asked to be carried for him. Fortunately, people from Yamaguchi Prefecture subsidized sake from their homeland and dasai sales are booming.
But he didn’t stop there. He saw that the aging Japanese society would not provide a bright future for his company. It started exporting abroad in 2003. It skipped the tasting trade events because it is hard to stand out among many brands. Just as he did in Tokyo, he, his son and now fourth-generation head of the company Kazuhiro visited local retailers and restaurants in big cities like New York, Paris and Milan and gradually convinced them that their interest was worth selling.
A major breakthrough occurred when top French chefs, such as Alain Ducasse, Michel Troagros and Joel Robuchon, introduced Dassai to their drink menus and its global reputation skyrocketed. (Eventually, Robuchon invited the company to open a gastronomic complex together and Dassa Joël Robuchon in Paris in 2018.)
How did French chefs love Dassai so much?
Because the company put dasai out of the context of Japanese cuisine and changed its concept of sake.
“Selling sake as part of Japanese cuisine was limiting the future growth of our brand. So we decided to market Dassai as a drink that has global appeal like champagne,” says Sakurai.
Obsessed with innovation and failure is a fan
In order to prove that Dassai is as elegant as champagne, all of the Dassai labels are junmai daiginjo, the most refined type of sake. The company uses only Yamadanishiki, the king of the rice varieties used to make sake.
To classify rice as gunmai daijingo, the rice must be milled at least 50%. By removing the outer layer of the grain, sake is delicately scented to maximize the pure flavors of the rice itself. But the company went much further than that. Its main mark is Dassai 23. The number “23” represents the percentage of rice remaining after milling. When launched in 1992, it had the highest grind rate before any other breweries. In 2013 the company released Dassai Beyond which has a milling rate of 16-17% depending on the rice for the batch.
The resulting thing has a “toumeikan” or a sense of transparency, which is the perfect flavor characteristic of Dassai.
In 2000, the company introduced a centrifuge for the first time in the industry. Traditionally, the process of separating the mash into a liquid and cove the sake is done by pressing, which can transfer unwanted flavor elements into the liquid. The centrifuge eliminates this problem and increases the lush and delicate aroma of the perfume. The cost of centrifuges is enormous and the yield is lower than the traditional method. But it is worth the investment. “We need to get to where we want to be,” Kazuhiro says.
The company’s latest label is Dassai Hayata, which is made using a new technology that can reduce the loss of freshness through the heat-free pasteurization process.
Father and son seem obsessed with innovation. “Dad and I go to work every day unless we travel. On Friday, we and our team might decide what we’re going to try on Monday, but the decision might turn in a completely different direction over the weekend through a discussion between me and my dad. We feel sorry,” says Kazuhiro. towards our employees.
Innovation often carries a lot of risks.
“One of the biggest lessons from my father is that it is okay to fail. It is much better than doing nothing and facing a bigger failure later as he learned so painfully in the past. We encourage our employees to try new things and, if they fail, to analyze the cause and learn from it.”
Is Dasai a black sheep in the sake industry?
Sake is gaining increasing popularity globally and in 2021 the largest number of sake exports in terms of value and quantity; The value has increased by 560% and quantity by 268% since 2009. As mentioned earlier, Dassai accounted for 17% of the total exports by value.
Despite Dassai’s notable contribution to the growth of the sake industry overseas, some consider Asahi Shuzo an exception.
Some breweries are not sure of the company’s scientific production system. Some distributors hate the company because they feel excluded from the company’s sales network. Dassai is only sold through nearly 400 retailers and 700 supermarkets and department stores across Japan. “We see them as our partners who can build and solidify our brand value together,” Kazuhiro says. Sake is very sensitive to light and temperature, and if it goes through multiple charges, the quality deteriorates. We have to make sure that the quality of the Dassai is maintained until it gets to where it is consumed and those distributors are on the same page with us.”
However, others are grateful for what the Dassai brand has done for the entire sake industry. “We thank Dassai for expanding global opportunities for the industry by offering a high-quality sake drink,” says Yosuke Sato, 8th Generation President of Aramasa Shōzo in Akita Prefecture, in a Japanese interview.
The company doesn’t care how you understand it. “We don’t think we are leading the industry at all. The industry needs diversity to thrive and we are just one of the players.”
So, what’s next for Dassai?
Asahi Shozu will open a brewery in Hyde Park, New York, later in 2022.
The project began when the Culinary Institute of America, the highest culinary school in the United States, approached Asahi Shōzu. As Japanese food becomes more and more popular, sake is also gaining attention. The CIA needed to educate its students with the in-depth knowledge and experience of a reliable partner.
“New York is a city of creativity. It can break the current mold for anything. The CIA is a great collaborator to make Japanese sake a world-class drink,” says Kazuhiro.
The sake made at the new brewery will be called Dassai Blue. In Japanese, the name implies that it can transcend Dassai. “We are deliberately creating a strong competitor who can beat the parents in Japan,” he says. “We believe healthy competition will keep us motivated to do the best of it.”