Everyone enjoys a story of defeat turning into victory, but this often requires the protagonist’s tremendous efforts. Like Dassai is world-famous now, but they have also gone through lots of challenges and reforms. Thanks to their determination and continuous efforts, Dassai is now a sake brand that is well-loved by many.
The “Dassai” brand that belongs to Asahi Shuzo does not have a long history. Hiroshi Sakurai founded the brand in 1990, but before that, the signature brand of the Shuzo has always been “Asahi Fuji” with a focus on mass-produced sake. In the 1980s, the Japanese sake industry experienced a downturn, coupled with a decreasing population where Asahi Shuzo was located, the situation was even worse, making Asahi Shuzo ranked last within the four breweries in the city.
The story begins in 1984, when Hiroshi Sakurai’s father, the then president of Asahi Shuzo, passed away. Hiroshi took over the business and made every attempt to keep the company afloat amidst the difficult environment, like price war, giving away gifts, and new packaging, etc. However, all these measures have only brought about a short-term increase in sales and have negatively impacted the brand. The president even had to use his personal funds to invest in the business. The ending seems near. As it became evident that a short-lived trend cannot save the business, he decided to focus on brewing high quality “Junmai Daiginjo”, and a rice polishing ratio of 23% (the lowest in the industry at that time) as the new selling point of the brewery – crafting exceptionally high-quality sake.
To change the brand’s deeply rooted perception, the president decided that it is essential to have a new name. He then combined the first character “Otter” in the Japanese name of where the brewery is located “Osogoe”, with the word “Festival” in Japanese to represent how otters would lay out on the shores fishes they caught, almost as if they are showing them off as one would do in a festival. Moreover, the president deeply respects a poet who has revolutionized Japanese literature during the Meiji era, a.k.a. “Master of Dassai”. This also became an inspiration for him to come up with the brand name “Dassai”, with a vision to bring about a quality revolution in the Japanese sake industry.
Break Away from the Norm by Going Upstream
The road to success is never easy. The challenge of achieving a rice polishing ratio of 23% was not even the most challenging part, president Sakurai has weathered many storms and shattered many norms in the industry.
After experiencing a business failure, the president made up his mind to break away from the industry norm of duo masters – “management by the president, brewing by the toji”. At that time, the toji (sake master) left with his apprentices, leaving the president to take on the challenge of brewing sake with a group of inexperienced staff. Without the toji to depend on, president Sakurai began digitalizing the crucial data concerning a sake brewing environment, like temperature, humidity, degree of fermentation. By converting one person’s experience to data and refining the process, the production of large quantities of consistent and high-quality sake is made possible nowadays.
Also, a traditional brewery would only hire a toji and his team during autumn and winter due to environment and manpower factors, which left the brewery unproductive during the seasons without a toji. As president Sakurai is well versed in technology, he then created a stable brewing and storage environment for the brewery with air-conditioning and digitalized the sake brewing process. Asahi Shuzo was then able to produce consistently high-quality sake year-round in a stable environment without wastage of human resources, which was extremely rare in the industry at that time.
Traditionally a brewery will need to go through a wholesaler for their sake to become available to customers in retail shops and department stores. However, president Sakurai felt that Dassai did not get the attention it deserved from the wholesalers and even got underrated. Thus he made a bold move again to break away from the norm and made direct dealings with retailers who value high-quality products. Thanks to the vision and fearlessness of president Sakurai, more customers, both local and international, could find out the amazing quality of Dassai.
President Sakurai foresees that sake will go global even back in 2006 and has advised his son Kazuhiro Sakurai to go to New York to develop the overseas market. After a thorough study, Dassai’s overseas representative office, “Dassai France”, was set up in Paris in 2013. What’s more? Joël Robuchon, the Michelin chef, hailed as the Godfather of French cuisine, fell in love with Dassai sake and approached them for collaboration to open a restaurant in Paris. The “Dassai‧Joël Robuchon” has been popular amongst food and wine lovers since its opening in 2018.
Innovation and Tradition Go Hand in Hand
While the innovative style of Dassai may have shaken up the sake industry in Japan, they have not forgotten their roots. They place great importance on the determination and tradition of sake brewing and are innovating based on this solid foundation.
Many breweries are using machines to wash rice but Dassai insists on the traditional method of washing rice by hand, which means investing an extra three times the manpower and six times the time to the process. This is the only way to control the water content of the rice to less than 0.3% error, which is a vital step for brewing high quality sake. And to achieve the purest of taste, president Sakurai is the first person in Japan to bring in a centrifuge machine for commercial purposes. With the help of the centrifuge machine, the sake can be separated from the mash without applying pressure, the aroma and flavour of the sake can avoid being damaged by any external force during the filtering process. The cost of this is high, but it is worthwhile for elevating the quality of the sake.
For brewing high-quality sake, the quality of sake rice is of the utmost importance. Dassai insists on using the king of sake rice – Yamada Nishiki rice for its sake; it also communicates and purchases directly from the rice farmers, who would even share with the brewery data of rice farming. It is a new level of closely-knitted relationship between breweries and rice farmers for both to succeed. Asahi Shuzo has started an annual contest named “Yamada Nishiki Project” since 2019 where Judges will evaluate the quality of Yamada Nishi rice grown by each rice farmer. In the 2019 project, Asahi Shuzo purchased 50 bales of the winning rice with 25 million yen, which is 50 times higher than the market price. This act serves to encourage rice farmers to improve their sake rice, and in turn, would produce premium raw ingredients for breweries. President Sakurai took six bottles of “Dassai Beyond the Beyond” made with the winning rice of “Yamada Nishiki Project 2019” to the online Sotheby’s Auction this Autumn, intending to bring high-quality sake to the next level in the global market.
The Delicate Flavours of Dassai
Dassai is making sake throughout the year to satisfy market demand. With a distinguished character and a dedicated range of products, Dassai is the sake of choice for many on the dining table.
Dassai 23 Junmai Daiginjo
It is the most popular product of the brand. When it was first launched, the brewery took seven days and a total of 168 hours to polish the rice to a mere 23%, which made it the only sake at that time with such a low rice polishing ratio. Delivering an elegant floral aroma, this irresistible sake has a gentle and smooth body with a lasting finish. It is best accompanied with Comte cheese aged 20-24 months.
Dassai 39 Centrifuge Junmai Daiginjo
Using the centrifugal machine during the process of filtering the fermentation mash, the sake can be separated from the mash without applying pressure, resulting in a Junmai daiginjo that is delicate and smooth, with an impeccable mellow and clean flavour. It is best paired with the aromatic prawn tempura.
It is the highest quality product of the brand. It took the brewery more than a decade to craft this sake that surpassed the excellence of Dassai 23. Made with Yamada Nishiki rice (the king of sake rice) with carefully selected rice grains of similar size, the crafting process is highly intricate and complicated. To best appreciate Dassai Beyond, it is recommended that one should taste it with Dassai 23. Be prepared for an experience beyond all expectations by first taking a few sips of Dassai 23 and then taste Dassai Beyond. There is a reason for it to be named a product of “miracle extravagance”! It is best paired with shellfish sashimi like scallop.
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