Why is a renowned Japanese sake company opening a state-of-the-art brewery in (checks notes) Hyde Park, New York? Dassai is an extremely well-regarded sake brand in Japan, but now it’s launching an American product: Dassai Blue, which is being crafted at a just-opened brewery about two hours outside of Manhattan.
Dassai is decidedly a craft sake brand — they make the koji (the “mold” that provides the enzymes that break the starches in rice into sugars to be fermented by yeast cells) by hand and utilize extremely high-quality rice (Yamada Nishiki). The company itself has a deep history in Japan. Its original brewery was founded in the 1700s and is still in the same location in the mountains of Iwakuni in Yamaguchi. The modern brewery, Asahi Shuzo, was established in 1948, and Dassai sake was launched in 1990.
A Comprehensive Guide to Decoding a Sake MenuChicago sake sommelier Daniel Bennett helps us tell our daiginjo from our koshu
And now, they’re unexpectedly just a couple hours away by train. It turns out that Dassai’s NY venture dates back to a long-ago invitation from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), also located in the Hudson Valley. “In 2015, I traveled to Japan for several weeks to study the manufacturing and making of sake,” said Dr. Tim Ryan, president of The Culinary Institute of America, during the ceremony marking the opening of the Dassai brewery a few weeks back. “Our secret mission was we hoped to find a partner, a sake producer that could come back to the U.S. and partner with us and open what we originally conceived as a small sake brewery on our campus just down the road.”
Those initial plans were scuttled, and a bigger idea emerged after Dassai showed interest: instead of a small craft brewery, the sake brand took over an abandoned supermarket and built an $80 million facility that occupies 55,000 square feet, with a capacity of producing 140,000 9-liter cases of sake per year. And they’ll be producing Dassai Blue, which is different from the offerings you may be used to from the sake brand.
“The goal of Dassai Blue is to create the finest sake achievable within the environment of New York,” said President and CEO Kazuhiro Sakurai. Dassai currently produces Dassai 23, 39 and 45 out of Japan, as well as Dassai Sparkling and Dassai Beyond. Blue will be similar but offer something “more aromatic and flavorful than its Japanese counterpart, with the palate of the American consumer in mind.” (The company named it “Dassai Blue” after an old Japanese proverb that says “indigo dye is bluer than the indigo plant from which it is derived.”) The water source is local, while the production equipment was transported from Japan. While the rice is also currently being imported, the long-term plan is to use the same grain, but sourced from Isbell Farms in Arkansas.
A few quick notes on sake. The number on the bottle of sake does not equal age, but it refers to rice polishing or how much of the rice grain is left after milling. So a smaller number is actually considered more of a quality product. The sake that Dassai makes falls exclusively under the Junami Daiginjo category. Junmai means that the sake is brewed using only rice, water, yeast and koji (and no brewer’s alcohol). If 50% or more of rice is polished away, it’s classified as daiginjo.
The CIA plans to continue working with Dassai, offering “curriculum development, certification programs, workshops, special events and tastings to promote Japanese cuisine and culture.” Dassai, in turn, wants to establish the region as a hub for sake brewing — and New York is a fairly great place to start, given the success of local sake brands like Brooklyn Kura and Kato Sake Works. The brewery hopes to attract visitors both to its facilities — tours begin in mid-October — and to the surrounding Hudson Valley.
It’s a beautiful campus, and certainly worth an excursion if you’re in the area. We got a sneak peak at its opening ceremony, which was attended by Hiroshi and Kazuhiro Sakurai, father and son and the third- and fourth-generation Chairman and President of Asahi Shuzo and Dassai. There are multiple windows to view the brewing process, and the buildings themselves are a nice mix of modern and traditional, utilizing some Japanese elements (particularly wood) while still blending with the natural surroundings of Hyde Park.
The company’s long-term plan is to produce 7,000 koku annually, which translates to 1,750,000 bottles of 720ml per year. Dassai Blue’s initial sales are projected at 4,000 bottles per week, with the aim of reaching annual sales of $40 million within the next decade. Dassai also has plans to collaborate with a partner to distill “sake kasu,” aka turning rice lees into shochu.
The Dassai Blue Sake Brewery is located at 5 St Andrew Rd, Hyde Park, NY. Starting October 19th, it will be open Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m. for small group tours and tastings by reservation only through the company’s website. Dassai Blue started distributing in New York State on September 25. The first product, Dassai Blue Type 50 ($34.99), is being sold at Union Square Wines, Sakaya, Sakagura and other retailers and restaurants.
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