Photo/IllutrationAtsuo Sakurai prepares for brewing sake in Holbrook, Ariz., on Feb. 10. (Hironobu Yamashita)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

HOLBROOK, Ariz.--This small town with a large population of teetotaling Mormons is not the most obvious place to start a sake brewery--but it is where Atsuo Sakurai followed his dream to do just that.

The Yokohama native, 38, went it alone to realize his ambition, sourcing the kinds of water and rice he needed to create “Arizona Sake,” the first batch of which he produced here one year ago.

“I hope to make my sake into a specialty product of this area one day,” Sakurai said, working away on his rice wine as he does every day.

Holbrook is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive northeast of Phoenix, the state capital.

“I use California rice,” Sakurai said. “The seed malt is sent here from Japan. My sake is of the ‘junmai ginjo’ variety, because I have always wanted to make one without odd flavors.”

He succeeded in that aim, and the product has a refreshing and faintly sweet taste.

HOME BREW

Sakurai’s brewery is in a garage next to his home. Bottles and tanks line a space the size of only two passenger cars.

The room temperature is air-conditioned to 10 degrees. Froths swell and burst on the surface of the sake being fermented in an approximately 100-liter tank that he ordered from Kentucky, the birthplace of bourbon whiskey. The fragrance that fills the air in the garage is reminiscent of Muscat grapes.

Sakurai developed his ambition to be a sake brewer while he was attending Tohoku University, where he would enjoy whiling away hours drinking and chatting with friends in a student dormitory.

After graduation, he landed a job with a sake brewing company based in Saitama Prefecture. He trained under a master brewer at a sake brewery in Akita Prefecture. He also passed an exam for the government-certified title of a “first-grade sake brewer.”

Sakurai said he thought that, if he were ever to start his own business, he would do so only overseas.

“Going into business on my own in Japan was not an option for me, given the shrinking sake consumption there,” he said.

In 2009, Sakurai married an American woman who was teaching English in Odate, Akita Prefecture. She was part of the reason he decided to be an entrepreneur in the United States.

Sakurai cut down on his living expenses to save 10 million yen ($90,700) in startup capital and went over to the United States in 2014. He considered Seattle and Portland as potential venues for his business but finally settled on Holbrook, his wife’s hometown.

“The summer heat here is not as humid as in Japan,” he said. “And groundwater of fine quality is available in abundance here. There were a number of favorable conditions.”

Holbrook, however, has a large population of Mormons, who are not allowed to drink alcohol.

“Initially, people apparently got it wrong and believed I was going to open a bar in a residential area,” Sakurai said. But after explaining his passion for brewing sake at a public hearing, he was granted a license in January 2017.

Sakurai also got help from others, including Takahisa Fujita, the 58-year-old operator of a supermarket in Tempe. The Arizonan city is known as a camp site for the Los Angeles Angels, the Major League Baseball team for which Shohei Ohtani plays.

Fujita connected Sakurai to potential buyers, such as Japanese restaurants, after Sakurai paid him an unsolicited sales visit.

“Sakurai is a good brewer, but he is less good at doing business,” Fujita said.

INTERNATIONAL APPEAL

The popularity of Japanese sake overseas is rising from year to year. The Finance Ministry’s “Trade Statistics of Japan” show the export value of the drink last year was about 18.7 billion yen, up 19.9 percent year on year, with a volume of 23,482 kiloliters, up 19 percent from the previous year. Both figures set new records for the eighth consecutive year.

The export of sake to the United States last year was worth about 6 billion yen, up 16.2 percent year on year.

First-year sales of Arizona Sake were worth about 5 million yen. With raw materials, transportation and other expenses subtracted, that left Sakurai with only a meager profit.

“As President Donald Trump is saying, manufacturing industries have declined in U.S. states, so there is little in the way of what we would call local specialty products,” Sakurai said. “I hope to develop my product until ‘sake’ becomes the byword for Arizona and Holbrook.”

Sake remains the leitmotif of his life in this small town of only 5,000 residents.