Sake Makers Creating New Brews to Boost Market Share in U.S.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Ben Bell, left, and Matt Bell of Origami Sake in Arkansas

NEW YORK — Americans are increasingly raising a glass of sake. Exports of the drink to the country reached ¥10.9 billion last year, three times the figure from 10 years ago.

Major breweries are beginning to make sake in the United States, and new kinds are expected to cater to the palate of the people there.

The south-central state of Arkansas is known for producing rice and is rich in spring water. In the city of Hot Springs in the state, sake brewery Origami Sake is scheduled to start operations this month.

The brewery plans to produce high-quality junmai sake and other beverages at a 2,200-square-meter facility. Origami Sake aims to start with annual sales of 500,000 liters, valued at $10 million (¥1.4 billion).

Origami Sake Vice President Ben Bell, 41, learned about sake after becoming fascinated by the taste about 15 years ago while working at a local liquor store. He puts sake on a par with top-quality wine. Bell then studied Japanese in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, a sister city of Hot Springs, and sake brewing at Nanbu Bijin Co., a sake brewery in Ninohe in the prefecture.

Bell had a strong desire to build a sake brewery in his hometown and decided to establish Origami Sake together with Matt Bell — unrelated — whom he met through an acquaintance. Matt Bell, 50, now the company’s president, sold his solar power generation-related business in the state to raise $7 million to invest in the sake firm.

Origami Sake will soon launch A Thousand Cranes, a junmai sake characterized by a fruity and refreshing taste. A 750-milliliter bottle costs about $30.

The company writes on its website: “Like the art form of origami, we consider our sake to be an expression created from equal parts passion, expertise, and the abundant gifts of our local soils.”

Ben Bell said they want to make Arkansas into a world-leading sake-producing area.

Efforts are growing to start large-scale sake breweries in the United States. Having completed construction of a new brewery in New York State, Yamaguchi Prefecture-based Asahi Shuzo Co., known for its popular Dassai sake brand, will start selling locally made sake as early as this summer.

According to the Sake Brewers Association of North America, there are more than 20 sake breweries in the United States. Producers have collaborated with Japanese brewers, and the quality of their sake is said to be improving.

Beer and wine have the largest share of revenue in the alcoholic beverage market in the United States, and sake’s market share is estimated to be less than 1%.

“It would be effective [for the breweries] to develop products that meet the tastes of people in the United States, such as sake with fruit juice or sparkling sake in cans that are easily picked up by consumers,” said Hideyuki Takahashi, a senior official at the New York office of the Japan External Trade Organization.