Brewing In The Desert: Sake Finds An Unlikely Home In Arizona With the popularity of sake declining in Japan, makers have been looking to America for new markets. Now, a Japanese sake master has brought his recipe to Arizona and is winning international awards.

Brewing In The Desert: Sake Finds An Unlikely Home In Arizona

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You might not think sake is brewed in America. But there is a brewery in Holbrook, Ariz., where a master brewer from Japan set up his business. From member station KNAU, here's Aaron Granillo.

AARON GRANILLO, BYLINE: Holbrook, Ariz., is like a snapshot of a bygone era. Kitschy diners, vintage motels and mostly mom-and-pop shops line the main drag through the city. Population 5,000 - zero Japanese restaurants. It wasn't the ideal place for Atsuo Sakurai to set up a sake brewery.

ATSUO SAKURAI: Arizona is, you know, last place to locate for me because it is really severe condition to live here and with business, I thought.

GRANILLO: But four years ago, Sakurai came here from Japan with his wife, a Holbrook native, to be closer to her family. That's when Sakurai established his company, Arizona Sake.


GRANILLO: His brewing space is tiny - about the size of a cubicle - sealed off behind a door in his two-car garage.

You can already smell...


GRANILLO: ...The sake.

SAKURIA: Sake, right?

GRANILLO: Sakurai learned to make the rice-based alcohol in his home country. He spent a decade working at factories in Japan, learning the ancient brewing methods.

SAKURIA: Smell like apple and pear and melon, like, very fruity. This is the original sake flavor.

GRANILLO: This is the original sake flavor?

SAKURIA: So I tried to save this flavor in my premium sake.

GRANILLO: Sakurai has passed a rigorous Japanese government exam, earning the highest title of first-grade sake brewer. When he ended up in Holbrook, he found brewing in the desert was a blessing in disguise.

SAKURIA: When I did a test batch, I figure out, oh, the Arizona condition is really good to make sake.

GRANILLO: That's because the dry air provides less chance for molds to form during fermentation, a common problem in Japan's humid climate. Plus, the Holbrook tap water Sakurai uses comes from one of the best sources of groundwater in Arizona.

SAKURIA: That sake tasted, like, clear and pure and fantastic. Like, oh, here's really good.

GRANILLO: So good, he thought, Sakurai submitted a bottle to last year's international Sake Competition in Tokyo. He won first place in the overseas category. Kenya Hashimoto was one of the judges.

KENYA HASHIMOTO: (Through interpreter) Arizona Sake was well-harmonized and excellently balanced with the aroma and taste. I thought the sake was made using high skills.

GRANILLO: Sakurai says after he won the competition, orders started to pour in. He sells his sake to about 50 liquor stores and restaurants around the states (ph), including Karma Sushi in Flagstaff. Rebekah Kaufman just ordered a cup during happy hour. One sip, and her palate goes wild.

REBEKAH KAUFMAN: I'm getting almost like a little bit of pear. But it's really smooth. It's definitely not overly sweet. It's perfect. This is good.

GRANILLO: Atsuo Sakurai says he hopes one day people in all 50 states will enjoy Arizona Sake. And he insists it's not all about making money.

SAKURIA: My business is to get friendship or, you know, love or peace - like that I'm seeking.

GRANILLO: Sakurai knows he'll need to move out of his garage to grow. And he plans to do so. He just broke ground on a new commercial property a few blocks away from his home. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Granillo in Holbrook, Ariz.


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