The popularity of Japanese culture is booming, and it’s not just sushi, anime, and pop music. Interest in sake is on the rise, which is why premium sake brewer Asahi Shuzo decided to open Dassai Blue Sake Brewery (its first brewery outside of Japan) in Hyde Park in September. Just down the road from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), it’s the largest artisanal sake brewery in the U.S.
The proximity is deliberate. The CIA approached Asahi Shuzo to work together “to raise awareness and educate people about sake and its versatility with various foods and cuisines,” says Mark Erickson, certified master chef and provost of the CIA. In 2015, Dr. Tim Ryan, the CIA’s president, had traveled to Japan to learn more about the art and science of sake production and discuss the prospect of a brewery. The CIA even helped find the Hyde Park location and worked with local officials to gain approvals.
Having the brewery nearby will make the CIA a perfect place to learn about sake and how to pair it with food. Beyond recreational classes, the college also offers a sake certification, part of its Japanese cuisine concentration and master’s program in wine and beverage management.
The 55,000-square-foot brewery will produce a Japanese American version of Dassai sake called “Dassai Blue” in three styles: Dassai Blue 23, 35, and 50, referring to the percentage the rice is polished. “The more you polish the rice, the more you isolate the starch, and the cleaner and fruitier the sake will be,” explains Dassai USA chief operating officer Henry Sidel. A sparkling nigori (a sweet sake) is also in the works. Production capacity is 140,000 nine-liter cases a year.
Dassai products are next level because they produce the highest grade of sake—called junmai daiginjo. Unlike other brands, they’re made with 100 percent Yamada Nishiki rice, “the gold standard of [sake] rice,” says Sidel. For now, the company will import rice from Japan; they hope to transition to Yamada Nishiki rice grown by a private farmer in Arkansas.
In November, the brewery will open a tasting room offering cheese plates and Japanese bar food. You can see the brewing process through large windows and the on-site museum will detail the company’s history in sake making. Outdoor seating and a stage for performances are set among 20 cherry blossom trees on the spacious property. (Make plans to visit again in April for the full in-bloom effect.)
The interior was designed by a Japanese architect and features many Japanese motifs. Sake is usually poured into ochoko (sake cups, similar to shot glasses) but at Dassai Blue, it’s served in wine glasses because it presents “the most flavor and aroma,” says Sidel.
With both native brewers and a highly-trained American staff, the goal is to make Dassai Blue even better than its Japanese counterpart.
Asahi Shuzo is known for its artisan methods, technological advancements, and innovative approach to brewing—they use a team rather than appointing a traditional toji (brewmaster). With both native brewers and a highly-trained American staff, the goal is to make Dassai Blue even better than its Japanese counterpart. The concept of the blue, referencing the country’s signature shade, comes from a Japanese proverb, “Although blue dye comes from the indigo plant, it is bluer than indigo,” says Sidel, “We want our Dassai Blue to be even more dassai, more rich, more meaningful, and higher quality than the original.”