I owe a lot to Sakurai san at Dassai, since my participation to a Dassai tasting event when there were so few for foreigners in Japan, was a defining moment in the development of my passion for sake… and therefore my life. For the first time, I actually tasted a series of high quality nihonshu from the same brewer, easy to understand, and heard the story behind, the heritage, visualizing the small kura in Yamaguchi embarking on a great challenge: conquer the world.
I certainly see Asahi Shuzou (Dassai) as an innovative kura in the Japanese landscape. It created sort of a disruption, under the inspiration of its leader. In 1999 Sakurai san found out that his toji (master brewer) would not come back the next season. This had started to be an issue in other places as well, as a whole generation of toji (master brewers) was getting past the retirement age, and the economic crisis in sake was not encouraging younger people to join the sector. The job is really hard physically and mentally, Sakurai san decided to take responsibility for production. I understand he was one of the first kuramoto to become kuramoto-toji. Not only did he take over production, but he decided to brew Junmai Daiginjo only, the highest sake grade, mostly from Yamadanishiki sake rice, and he developed what I see as a new production and marketing approach for that premium sake. The production method is quite “systematic”, employees at Asahi Shuzou are precisely repeating all the steps of a very detailed, fully documented production process that includes all the “what if?”. The aim is to get the same sake quality and features in every bottle obviously. That is where all the data accumulated by science about sake brewing, all the charts, can be useful. While most medium size kura (breweries) tend to release a large number of references every year, Sakurai san simplified the line-up to a handful of references only, easily understandable: the rice polishing ratio (seimaibuai) makes the name of the product: 50, 39 … and 23 a few years later, which looked like an amazingly low number when it was announced, back 7 years ago. By the way Dassai reports that it takes about 7 days to polish the rice to 23% seimaibuai. Sakurai san changed the way his sake was marketed in Japan, but the big challenge he decided to take on, is the export market. He created an internship program for international trainees, whom he asked to translate his website and brochures to (I was invited to that tasting by a French student working at Dassai for a few months), and targeted a number of countries including France, which remains a difficult market for nihonshu despite the buzz in Paris. He pushed his sake on the wine lists of a number of high end restaurants, and it was recently announced he would partner with Joel Robuchon for a new restaurant in Paris. I do not know the numbers at all therefore I cannot judge the economics, however I can say that if a Parisian knows a few brands of sake, it is likely that Dassai is one of them, and I am quite sure that it has a positive impact on brand recognition here in Japan. Dassai has introduced a number of other interesting innovations, such as the use of centrifuge machines at the time of pressing the mash (moromi), this internship program for foreign students, or the Kosher certification of the sake, as early as 2011.
Thank you and Kanpai Mr. Sakurai.