There are approximately a dozen Sake breweries in the U.S. that already exist or are in the works to open in the near future. The oldest was founded n the 1970s though numerous other Sake breweries have come and gone since the start of the 20th century. I want to explore the history of these early breweries, to look at our country’s introduction to this intriguing Japanese alcohol. More research is warranted into this history so the following is more a peek into the past rather than an extensive examination.
When did Japanese Sake first arrive in the U.S.? We might never know the exact answer but we can speculate based on the evidence. The odd Sake container might have shown up in the U.S. as early as the 18th century, a curiosity brought in by a merchant or world traveler, though I'm unaware of any documentary evidence to prove it. It seems logical though that Hawaii, in the later part of the 19th century, might be the site where Sake first made its appearance as more than a mere oddity.
In 1868, the first Japanese immigrants, the gannen mono, arrived in Hawaii. Gannen mono means the “first-year people” as they traveled to the Kingdom of Hawaii in the first year in the reign of Emperor Meiji. Hawaii needed laborers to work on their sugarcane plantations and they sought out assistance from Japan. Though they wanted 350 laborers, only 148 Japanese actually stepped forward, including 140 men, 6 women, and 2 children. Their passage to Hawaii was fully paid and they were to receive a salary of $4 per month, including room and board, for a three-year period.
It seems reasonable that some of these immigrants brought Sake with them to Hawaii. Sake is an important beverage, one often used to celebrate special occasions and holidays. The immigrants would have wanted a slice of their home with them, and Sake could be such an element. Unfortunately, many of these immigrants had no knowledge of farming and the Japanese government received many complaints from them about their treatment by the Hawaiians. Ultimately the experiment was considered a failure and 40 of the immigrants returned to Japan.
As other Japanese immigrants began to travel to California and other parts of the mainland U.S., it's likely they brought Sake with them. By 1890, Sake was available in Hawaii, and California too, as an import though it could be costly. On Hawaii, there was also a temperance movement, led by a Japanese priest and a number of wives, which tried to decrease Sake imports and consumption. Several years later, the Hawaiian government started becoming anti-immigration and wanted to discourage it. One method of doing so was to raise taxes on an important import, Sake.
In June 1896, the Hawaiian legislature approved, over the veto of President Dole, “An Act To Increase The Duty on Liquors, Still Wines, And Other Beverages Made From Materials Other Than Grape Juice.” This raised the duty on Sake imports from 18 cents to $1, a vast jump. When the Japanese laborers were only earning $12-$15 per month, Sake became a very expensive luxury and it led to some people choosing to illegally brew their own Sake. One enterprising Sake brewery found a loophole in the new Act. The Kiku-Masamume Brewery in Japan had been exporting Sake to California since 1889. They realized that the Act’s oppressive duty only applied to Sake that was shipped into Hawaii from Japan. If they shipped their Sake from California to Hawaii, even though the Sake had originally been imported from Japan to California, they didn't have to pay the duty.
There is some indication that the Japan Brewing Co. closed in 1906 but that might not have actually been the case. In January 1906, there was a brief news article that Soejima wanted to move the brewery to San Francisco to avoid having to pay a $200 license fee. Though there doesn't appear to be evidence of such a move, there is some evidence, in 1907, of a Japan Brewing Co. in Emeryville, which is close to Berkeley. It is possible the brewery moved to Emeryville, lasting for one more year, but more investigation is needed.
In addition, there is evidence of the existence of other Sake breweries in California, such as one in Watsonville during 1907 and another in San Jose in 1916. However, there seems to be very little information about these other breweries, and it is another fertile ground for more research.
Back to Hawaii. In 1899, a sixteen-year old Japanese immigrant from Hiroshima, named Tajiro Sumida, came to Hawaii and in 1904, he opened a shop. Eventually, he decided that he could lower the price of Sake if he produced it himself so he opened a Sake brewery in 1908, the Honolulu Sake Brewery. The heat of Hawaii caused problems with the fermentation process, but Sumida persevered and was still able to produce a brew in December 1908 which he named Takarajima, “treasure island.”
To handle the difficulties of brewing Sake in Hawaii, Sumida eventually invented a refrigeration process to handle the heat problem, and that innovation would later be adopted by Japanese Sake breweries. In numerous other ways, Sumida was also a pioneer and innovator, being the first to use stainless steel tanks, the first to brew Sake year round, devising a method to use California rice, and also creating a yeast strain which reduced the foam created by fermentation, increasing the yield in a vat by 30%. These foamless yeasts are now used by a number of Japanese breweries. By 1914, Sumida was making about 300,000 gallons of Sake annually and by 1920, he was the most successful Japanese businessman in Hawaii.
Prior to Prohibition, there might have been 9-20 Sake breweries in the U.S., though little is known about most of them, many which existed for only a short time. California and Hawaii seemed to be the primary location for these breweries. Prohibition stopped Sake brewing, which also contributed to some breweries having to close. The Honolulu Sake Brewery was able to survive as they changed gears and produced ice during Prohibition. Once Prohibition ended in December 1933, the Honolulu Sake Brewery returned to brewing, creating a few different labels, including Takara Masamune.
Other new Sake breweries then arose too in Hawaii. For example, there was the Hilo Brewing Co. (from 1937-1942) and the Maui Sake Brewery Co., Ltd. (from 1935-1942). The Nichebei Shuzo Kabushiki Kaisha, Ltd. (from 1935-1942) may have been succeeded after World War II by a name change, to the Kokusui Co., Ltd. Brewery (from 1948-1957). The Fuji Sake Brewing Co. also lasted from 1934-1942 and then restarted after the war from 1948 to 1965.
San Francisco saw its share of Sake breweries too, including the Aiji Matsuo Brewery (from 1934-1937) which seems to have been succeeded by Matsuo Sake Brewing Co. (from 1937-1941). There was also the Katsuzo Shioji (1934), which was seemingly succeeded by the San Francisco Sake Brewery (from 1934-1935), and the California Sake Brewery Co. (from 1934-1935), which was succeeded by the Nippon Sake Brewery Co., Inc. (from 1935-1937). There was even a brewery in Denver, the Colorado Sake Brewery (from 1947-1949).
In Hawaii, when World War II began, the existing breweries were producing annually almost 2 million gallons of Sake. However, a law was issued prohibiting rice from being used for anything except food, meaning it was now illegal to brew Sake. As with Prohibition, the Honolulu Sake Brewery found a way to survive, this time by producing shoyu, soy sauce, under the label Marumasa Soy and later Diamond Shoyu. Once the war ended, and the prohibition was lifted, they began making Sake once again, continuing to operate their brewery until 1989, though it became a subsidiary of Takara Sake in 1986. Sadly, when the brewery closed, it was destroyed to make way for townhouses.
There seemed to have been a large void, except for the Honolulu Sale Brewery, in U.S. Sake breweries after 1950 for over twenty years. It wouldn't be until the 1970s that the next crop of new Sake breweries started opening, primarily in California but that is a tale for another time.