Arizona Sake Brewer Discovers Perfect Formula For Desert-Made Drink

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - 8:44am
Updated: Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - 6:14pm

Audio icon Download mp3 (8.95 MB)

Arizona’s low humidity makes for good hair days, good preservation qualities and, as it turns out, good sake. An uprooted entrepreneur has found a perfect formula for making an award-winning, Arizona brew.

Atsuo Sakurai won an award for having the best-tasting sake brewed outside of Japan
Casey Kuhn/KJZZ
Atsuo Sakurai won an award for having the best-tasting sake brewed outside of Japan.

It’s usually dry in Arizona, except for the rainy August day I met Atsuo Sakurai up in Holbrook, 90 miles east of Flagstaff.

It’s here the Japanese-native has made his home with his wife, Heather Sakurai, and their three children.

“We came here to start, establish my own business," Sakurai said. "That was my dream. That is my dream.”

His business is Arizona Sake, a drink that can be found in some Japanese restaurants and wine shops in the Valley.

Heather, his wife, spent her teenage years in Holbrook. She said the idea of planting a home-grown sake brewery in the middle of the desert left some skeptical.

“People were like, ‘Oh, are you going to make it out of cactus or aloe verde?’ and I was like … no,” Heather said, laughing.

Sake is an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice, produced in a style similar to beer.

Atsuo spent a decade in Japan working at a sake brewery. When they moved here three and half years ago, he got his own 50-gallon ferment vats online, and made the rice press needed to filter the drink himself.

The Brewing Process

Sake fermentation happens when yeast and mold, break down the starches in milled rice
Casey Kuhn/KJZZ
Sake fermentation happens when yeast and mold, called koji, break down the starches in milled rice.

The brewing chamber, decorated with letters from Atsuo's children, is a specially made part of a free-standing garage. The sealed-off room has its own air-conditioning unit to keep it a cool 48 degrees Fahrenheit.

Walking in, you’re blasted with a smell like musty sulfur.

“This smell turns into the super fruity, aromatic smell,” Atsuo said. "It's a good sign early in the [fermentation] process."

He showed me the two batches he had going, one almost ready to be pressed and bottled, the other just a few days into the fermenting process.

The young brew bubbled much more than the older one, as the yeast goes to town, breaking down the starch and releasing air bubbles.

Atsuo walked me through the process of his sake fermentation. First the California, milled rice gets steamed, then mixed with a type of mold called koji that helps break down the starch. Then, yeast is added before it all gets mixed with water. That sits in a vat for about three weeks before it gets pressed and filtered.

He let me stir the mixture with a large aluminum paddle, a task he does twice a day.

Atsuo uses water from the Coconino Aquifer.

“I heard the water from Coconino Aquifer, the city water, is the best water in Arizona,” he said.

Hydrologically speaking, the aquifer has relatively low amounts of dissolved solids in it. If you’ve ever had well water in Flagstaff, you’ve likely drank Coconino Aquifer water.

Atsuo said he was surprised by the clean, high-quality tasting sake he ended up with from the combination of the quality water and dry air.

“Nobody knew about that, I guess," Atsuo said. "Arizona people, you guys are really lucky.”

The Right Conditions

Atsuo Sakurai keeps a corner of memoribilia
Casey Kuhn/KJZZ
Atsuo Sakurai keeps a corner of memoribilia, newspaper articles and the awards he's won for his sake by his brewing room.

Japan, an island country, is the opposite of Arizona when it comes to humidity.

Yuji Aso, a fermentation engineer at Kyoto Technological Institute, explained to me the science of using two microorganisms in the sake fermentation process.

“So for sake, we have to use two kinds of microorganisms, yeast and mold,” he said.

Yeast and mold are two tiny living creatures that can easily be contaminated by other, outside creatures which could ruin the sake's taste.

In Arizona, that dry air makes for less chance of contamination, because a wet environment encourages microbes to grow, like germs.

“This leads to easy microbe contamination," Aso said. "In other words, it’s hard to control the microbe growing.”

Aso said in Japan, it’s about 50 percent humidity throughout the year. In Arizona, it’s easier to control for outside microbes at around 10 percent humidity. And in Arizona Sake's case, it's also easy because Atsuo brews in such small batches.

“The small batch scale is very reasonable to control the ferment,” Aso said.

Aso visited Arizona State University to study in a lab here for a year. He tried Arizona Sake, and he thinks it's better than most sake — even in Japan.

"It's really authentic and excellent sake," Aso said.

Aso said he drinks sake every day. Atsuo also drinks sake everyday to make sure his batches taste right.


Atsuo Sakurai (right) and Heather Sakurai
Casey Kuhn/KJZZ
Atsuo Sakurai (right) and Heather Sakurai met in Japan before moving to Holbrook, Arizona.

Back in the workspace, the meticulously organized, delicate glass tools and tubes almost seemed like something you’d find in a science laboratory.

To his wife, it’s reminiscent of where they met. She was in Japan teaching English and took a sake brewery tour — he was her tour guide.

“My sister was there, she can vouch for our meeting," Heather said. "If you don’t believe in love at first sight, I don’t know what to tell you.”

Their first date was at a karaoke place.

Heather, from here, is now one of the reasons Arizona has its first local sake. Atsuo's drink has won a gold medal for best non-Japanese sake back in Atsuo’s home country.

When I visited, he was completely sold out, but pressed some fresh for me to try. He carefully poured some out of a glass graduated cylinder into a paper cup for us to taste.

I sipped.

“It tastes super clean," I said, my first reaction. "Like really good water. Like if water was alcoholic somehow?”

We laughed.

I told them I know one Japanese word: kanpai! Which basically means cheers! We toasted as Atsuo explained his dream to keep making American sake here in the desert.

Atsuo Sakurai began his business at home
Casey Kuhn/KJZZ
Atsuo Sakurai began his business at home, and started selling his drinks by going door-to-door at businesses in Tempe, Arizona.

BusinessThe Show