If you go to a good Japanese restaurant in New York, you will most certainly find Dassai on the sake menu. Its maker Asahi Shuzo exports premium sake to more than 35 countries and recorded 17% of Japan’s total sake exports in 2021, and the company is just one of around 1,000 sake breweries in the country. .
Why is Dassai so popular?
There are two main reasons:
1. The quality that comes from an innovative production system without a toji (master brewer) – the idea that has been unthinkable in the 2000 year history of Japanese sake.
2. The business agility gained through multiple critical crises over the past 40 years.
A rebirth from the bottom of the rock
Asahishuzo was founded in 1948 and until the third generation of Hiroshi Sakurai became president in 1984, it was a small producer of moderate quality, reasonably priced sake in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
In fact, Sakurai joined the company to work for his father eight years earlier, but they disagreed on the future direction of the company. So he quit. It was the sudden death of his father that brought him back to the family business, although he had his own successful business outside of the sake industry.
He decided to take over the failing company in response to desperate pleas from surviving employees. The timing couldn’t have been worse: sake consumption had fallen sharply, and shochu, another traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage, was rapidly replacing the popularity of sake that had peaked in 1973. The company’s books directly reflected the challenging environment.
“Why isn’t our sake selling?” As Sakurai examined him, he noticed that a small segment of the company was doing well. This was the premium sake category. He decided to redirect the business towards fine sake and changed the brand name to Dassai. As a result, the company started to move 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 carrying a debt of $1.5 million from the failure. His sake brewery workers, including the master brewer, left for fear of not getting paid.
The well-established belief within the sake industry was that you couldn’t make sake without a master brewer. But he couldn’t hire a new one.
Yet this is when Dassai’s current success began. It was in 1998.
The brewmaster’s intuitions revealed scientifically
Left with no choice, Sakurai decided to eliminate the position of Brewmaster in Operations and rely entirely on science. He and his other workers broke down the toji’s tasks and analyzed each step to back it up with data. “We made all the elements of the sake production process visible so that we could immediately spot areas for improvement,” says Sakurai.
The benefits of the new system exceeded what they initially expected.
In the absence of the master brewer, the brewery team became free to pursue their ideal sake without worrying about stepping on anyone’s toes. Additionally, year-round sake brewing became possible, as a traditional toji was a seasonal worker hired only for the sake production period during the winter.
Science and tradition are like oil and water, but the company has managed to leverage both. “Some people say Dassai is going to be created by AI,” laughs Sakurai. “But data is not revenue. We have to be as analog as in the traditional system.
For example, managing wort temperature during fermentation seems easy with high-tech sensors and a computer. But the machines cannot handle the slight variations in rice quality that come from different paddy fields or the vitality of the yeast used for the batch. This is why brewery staff constantly smell and sometimes taste the mash to check its condition.
If it’s not selling, spot the potential
In the 1990s, Sakurai managed to produce premium products ready for sale, but the local market was extremely small with around 300 residents. By expanding to nearby major cities like Hiroshima, the business would face stiff competition from larger breweries and the outlook was quite bleak.
Instead, it entered the metropolis of Tokyo where there was more room for new players. With no connections, Sakurai personally visited retailers and restaurants and asked to carry his sake. Fortunately, the people of Yamaguchi Prefecture supported their home country’s sake, and sales of Dassai took off.
But he didn’t stop there. He saw that the aging Japanese society would not offer a bright future for his business. He started exporting overseas in 2003. He skipped professional tastings because it’s hard to stand out among many brands. Just as he did in Tokyo, he and his son and now the company’s fourth-generation president Kazuhiro visited local retailers and restaurants in major cities like New York, Paris and Milan and gradually convinced them that their sake was worth selling.
A breakthrough came when top French chefs, such as Alain Ducasse, Michel Troisgros and Joel Robuchon, introduced Dassai to their drink lists and its worldwide reputation skyrocketed. (Eventually, Robuchon invited the company to jointly open a gastronomic and Dassai Joel Robuchon in Paris in 2018.)
How come French chefs loved Dassai so much?
Because the company positioned Dassai outside the context of Japanese cuisine and changed its perception 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 universal appeal like champagne,” says Sakurai.
Obsessed with innovation, failures encouraged
In order to prove that Dassai is as elegant as champagne, all Dassai labels are junmai daiginjo, the finest style of sake; the company only uses Yamadanishiki, the king of rice varieties used to make sake.
To be classified as junmai daiginjo, the rice must be milled to at least 50%. By removing the outer layer of the grains, the sake becomes delicately flavored to maximize the pure flavors of the rice itself. But the company went much further. Its flagship label is Dassai 23. “23” represents the percentage of rice remaining after grinding. When launched in 1992, it was the highest grind rate ahead of all other breweries. In 2013, the company launched Dassai Beyond which grind rate is 16-17% depending on the rice in the batch.
The resulting sake has the “toumeikan” or translucent feel, the epitome of Dassai’s signature flavor.
In 2000, the company introduced a centrifuge for the first time to the industry. Traditionally, the process of separating mash into liquid and sake lees has been done by compression, which can impart unwanted flavor elements to the liquid. Centrifuge eliminates this problem and maximizes its lush, delicate scent. The cost of the centrifuge is huge and the yields are lower than the traditional method. “But it’s worth the investment. We have to get where we want to be,” says Kazuhiro.
The company’s newest label is Dassai Hayata, which is made using a new technology that can minimize the loss of freshness through a heatless pasteurization process.
Father and son seem obsessed with innovation. “My father and I go to work every day, unless we are traveling. On a Friday, we and our team can decide what we’re going to try on Monday, but the decision can swing in a completely different direction over the weekend thanks to a discussion between my dad and me. We are sorry for our staff,” says Kazuhiro.
Innovation often involves a lot of risk.
“One of my dad’s biggest lessons is that it’s okay to fail. It’s so much better than doing nothing and facing a bigger failure later, as he has painfully learned in the past. We encourage our employees to try new things and if they fail, analyze the cause and learn from it.
Is Dassai a black sheep in the sake industry?
Sake is increasingly popular around the world and 2021 saw the highest number of sake exports, both in value and quantity; the value has increased by 560% and the quantity by 268% since 2009. And as mentioned before, Dassai accounted for 17% of total exports by value.
Despite Dassai’s notable contribution to the growth of the overseas sake industry, some consider Asahi Shuzo an outlier.
Some breweries are not sure about the company’s scientific production system. Some distributors don’t like the company because they feel left out of the company’s sales network. Dassai is only sold through approximately 400 retailers and 700 high-end supermarkets and department stores across Japan. “We see them as our partners who can build and solidify our brand value together,” says Kazuhiro. “Sake is very sensitive to light and temperature and if it goes through multiple shipments, the quality deteriorates. We need to make sure the quality of Dassai is maintained until it reaches where it is consumed and those distributors agree with us.
However, others are grateful for what the Dassai brand has done for the sake industry as a whole. “We thank Dassai for expanding the industry’s global opportunities by providing high-quality sake,” said Yusuke Sato, the eighth-generation president of Aramasa Shuzo in Akita Prefecture, in an article. Japanese interview.
The company doesn’t care how they are perceived. “We don’t think we’re 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 Shuzo will open a brewery in Hyde Park, New York later in 2022.
The project began when the Culinary Institute of America, the top culinary school in the United States, approached Asahi Shuzo. As Japanese cuisine becomes increasingly popular, sake is also gaining attention. ICA needed to educate its students with the deep knowledge and experience of a reliable partner.
“New York is the city of creativity. It can break the existing mold of anything. The CIA is a wonderful collaborator in making Japanese sake a global drink,” says Kazuhiro.
The sake made in the new brewery will be called Dassai Blue. In Japanese, the name connotes that he can surpass Dassai. He says, “We intentionally make a strong competitor that can beat the parent in Japan. We believe healthy competition will keep us motivated to produce the best sake possible.