By Richard Auffrey  |  July 30, 2019

Reprinted with Author’s Permission. Find the original here.

The sale and manufacture must be a source of great profit, for it is consumed in enormous quantities and on every possible occasion in the realms of the mikado and is shipped extensively to all parts of the world where his subjects find abiding places.”
San  Francisco Call, December 18, 1910: An article titled Sake, The National Booze of the Japanese by Mary Ogden Vaughan

Currently, there are about twenty or so Sake breweries in the U.S. that already exist or are in the works to open in the near future. They span from Maine to Oregon, Colorado to Tennessee, California to New York. The oldest of these breweries was founded in the late 1970s but did Sake breweries exist in the U.S. before that time? If so, when was the first Sake brewery established in the U.S.?

On my first trip to San Francisco, about fifteen years ago, I visited the Tasting Room and Sake Museum of Takara Sake USA, Inc. in Berkeley. It was a fun experience at the time, especially seeing some of the historical artifacts and information on 19th century Sake brewing, but at the time I was unaware that Berkeley was also the site of the first U.S. Sake brewery. Most of the articles and books I’d previously read mentioned that the first Sake brewery outside of Japan was in Hawaii, the Honolulu Japanese Sake Brewery Co. Many people still believe that to be true but through my own research, I’ve learned otherwise.

After perusing through thousands of newspaper articles, books, magazines and websites, I’ve learned that the Honolulu Japanese Sake Brewery Co. might actually have been the fourth Sake brewery established in the U.S. However, the Honolulu brewery was more successful, more long lasting, and left a much greater legacy than any other of the early Sake breweries in the U.S. In fact, for many of these first breweries, we know little more than the most basic of information, such as their name and location. The Honolulu Japanese Sake Brewery Co. wasn’t the first but I don’t think anyone will argue that it wasn’t the most important.

As few people know about these early Sake breweries, I wanted to explore the history of these first Sake breweries as well as to look at our country’s introduction to this intriguing Japanese alcohol. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of fascinating information which is new to you, and which will broaden your understanding of Sake. The original version of this article was posted in April 2015, and has seen multiple expansions/revisions over the years due to additional research. Most recently, in June 2019, I posted a significant expansion that doubled the size of the original article. Additional research is certainly warranted and there will likely be additional expansions/revisions in the future.

When did Japanese Sake first arrive in the U.S.? We might never know the exact answer but we can speculate. The first Europeans likely to have tasted Japanese Sake were two to three Portuguese merchants whose ship, in 1542 or 1543, was forced, by the weather, to land on the island of Tanegashima. Lord Tanegashima Tokitaka feted these men, and it seems logical that the sailors were presented Sake, an alcoholic beverage that was an integral element of Japanese life. During the next several years, other Portuguese merchants came to Japan and around 1547, Captain Jorge Alvares wrote a report on his visit to Japan, mentioning Sake. This might have been the earliest known European record mentioning Sake.

As for the U.S., the odd Sake container might have shown up as early as the 18th century, an oddity brought in by a merchant, missionary or world traveler, though I’m unaware of any documentary evidence to prove that occurred. There is some evidence that during this time period, Sake was being exported to Europe, through the Dutch East India Company, but it seemed to still be more of a rarity than anything else. One source claims that the first major showing of Sake outside of Japan might have occurred in 1872, at an international exposition in Australia. However, it seems more likely it occurred at the 1879 Sydney International Exposition.

The first U.S. newspaper reference that I’ve found concerning Sake was from the Weekly National Intelligencer, November 5, 1853, which discussed the visits of Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan, and mentioned “presents of saki and cake.” Several other subsequent newspaper articles, concerning Perry’s visits to Japan, also mentioned Sake, commonly referring to it as saki. The New York Daily Herald, June 27, 1854, was the first article to actually give a basic definition of Sake, rather than a brief mention, stating,“The extract from rice is now the only liquor known in Japan. It is called saki by them.”

So when was Sake first introduced into the U.S? As everyone discussed Commodore’s Perry visits to Japan, the Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 13, 1854, mentioned that “The ‘Journal of Commerce’ is showing the vast advantages American commerce is destined to derive from intercourse with the Japanese. Exports from that country, we are told, at present consist of….rice, saki, soy;..” Thus, it seemed possible that as trade with Japan began, it was possible that Sake could soon be exported to the U.S.

It wasn’t until almost eighteen months later that the first mention of a Sake shipment to the U.S. occurred. The Sacramento Daily Union, February 18, 1856 indicated the receipt of a shipment of “Forty dozen imperial cordial Saki.” In March 1856, another ship arrived with a delivery of Sake, which is described as: “a liquor in pint jars called Saki which is not at all hard to take. It is like the Dutch maraschino and of the color of cider. It was bought at eighteen cents a jar.” However, it seemed that these Sake shipments were uncommon, more of a unique curiosity, that occasionally got imported into the U.S. I didn’t find evidence of any regular or large shipments of Sake during this period.

In the later part of the 19th century, the Territory of Hawaii was also a site for some of the earliest shipments of Sake. In the late 1840s, sugar became a major crop on Hawaii, but there was a shortage of laborers needed to work on the sugar plantations. This was compounded by a significant death rate for Hawaiians, due to foreign diseases, which essentially halved their population in a thirty year period, from around 1831 to 1860. To help their labor situation, Hawaii passed the Masters & Servants’ Act in 1850, which allowed them to hire foreign laborers for their plantations.

The Chinese, in 1852, were the first people to be brought to Hawaii under this new Act. but within ten years, few Chinese were interested in this contract labor so Hawaii sought elsewhere, including Japan. In 1868, the first Japanese immigrants, the gannen mono, arrived in Hawaii aboard the Scioto, a British ship. 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. Though Hawaii wanted 350 laborers, only about 148 Japanese actually stepped forward, including 140 men, 6 women (who accompanied their husbands), and 2 teenagers. 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.

This group consisted of “samurai, cooks, sake brewers, potters, printers, tailors, wood workers, a hairdresser and a 13-year-old heavy drinker nicknamed ‘Ichi the Viper.’” Ichi’s full name was Ishigoro though, because of all the trouble he caused, he earned the nickname, Mamushi-no-Ichi (Ichi the Viper). He would eventually clean up his act and started a cooking school in 1893.

What is most important here is that Sake brewers were part of this initial group. It seems reasonable that some of these immigrants would have 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. However, they probably understood the difficulty, and expense, they might face with trying to import Sake from Japan. By bring Sake brewers with them, they could produce enough, albeit illegally, for their small community.

Unfortunately, many of these immigrants had no knowledge of farming and the Japanese government received many complaints from them about their harsh treatment by the Hawaiians.  Ultimately the experiment was considered a failure and over 40 of the immigrants would later to Japan. The fate of the Sake brewers is unknown.

The Japanese government decided to prohibit any further emigration to Hawaii, and banned it from 1869-1884. In 1874, Kalākaua, who would later be known as the Merrie Monarch, became the King of Hawaii, reigning until 1891. In 1881, King Kalākaua began a diplomatic tour of the world, and spent ten days in Japan, trying to form a better relationship and lift the ban on immigration. After some intense negotiations, his efforts were eventually successful and he granted better terms for future Japanese immigrants, including increased pay, medical care, and a food allowance.

Japan would also be more selective in their choice of immigrants, seeking more people with farming experience, so as to not perpetuate the prior problems. It should be noted that Kalākaua was the first foreign ruler to ever shake hands with a Japanese Emperor, and he was also given a gift of a silver Sake set. It seems probable that Kalākaua also received some Sake to take home with him, and if so, it was probably of the highest quality.

In early February 1885, once the ban was lifted, the first group of 943 Japanese immigrants (676 men, 159 women and 108 children) made the journey to Hawaii to work on the sugarcane and pineapple plantations. Their arrival is also the first known documentation of the presence of Sake in Hawaii. Upon their ship’s landing, King Kalākaua organized a sumo wrestling exhibition at the Honolulu Immigration Depot. Forty immigrants were divided into two groups, the East and West, and competed for about an hour. The East won, and the King had arranged for 10 barrels of Sake to be awarded to the winners. With that much Sake, I’m sure everyone got to drink some, not just the winners. I wasn’t able to determine though how and where the King obtained the Sake.

Most of the early Japanese immigrants were single men, and drinking became a common activity. For some, they used alcohol as an escape from the difficult plantation work and their separation from their homeland. 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. It didn’t take long for Japan to begin actively exporting Sake to the U.S. and the rest of the world. For example, it is known that in 1887, the Kiku-Masamune Brewery starting exporting Sake to the United Kingdom, and two years later, started exporting to the U.S. too. By 1890, Sake was readily available, as an import, in Hawaii and California.

Sake became so popular in Hawaii that by November 1894, the California wine industry claimed that they were having difficulty in Hawaii competing with Sake imports. In 1893, Hawaii imported only about 3,400 gallons of Japanese Sake and in April 1894, it still imported only about 626 gallons that month. However, imports exploded to 16,000 gallons in July and 13,000 gallons in August, with a total amount of imports for 1894 being about 83,000 gallons. That substantial amount of Sake imports continued so that in February 1896, Hawaii imported 18,672 gallons; of Sake. The Japanese in Hawaii were avid consumers of Sake, and their demand seemed to only be increasing.

In response to California’s complaints, Consul General Ellis G. Mills investigated the matter, eventually filing a report with the State Department that concluded there were no actual grounds for concern. As for California wine, they exported about 103,000 gallons to Hawaii in 1893 and 125,000 gallons in 1894. Mills concluded that California wine exports to Hawaii didn’t decrease due to Sake imports, and actually grew. This report though didn’t stop the California wine industry from continuing to complain, fearing Sake would hurt their market in Hawaii.

By March 1896, the largest market in Hawaii for California wine was the Portuguese, who enjoyed their sweet wines. For example, in the previous month, California exported about 10,591 gallons of wine to Hawaii, and the top five wines included Madeira (5,727 gallons), Port(2,014 gallons), Tokay (825 gallons), Angelica (600 cases), and Sherry (434 gallons). It’s easy to see that sweet wines constituted the vast majority of exports.

At this time, California wine and Sake were paying the same duty, 15 cents a gallon. to export to Hawaii. However, a proposal was put forth to increase the duty on wine to 30 cents a gallon, if it contained less than 14% alcohol, and 50 cents per gallon, if it was over 14% alcohol. As almost all of the exported California wine was sweet, and around 20% alcohol, the duty would increase for them by more than three times. As Sake would not be affected by this proposed duty, it would make it far tougher for California to compete with Sake imports. Obviously, California wine makers were upset with this proposed duty change and tried to defeat this measure.

Somehow they succeeded in not only defeating the duty, but in a move that clearly helped to protect the California wine industry, the situation ended up in a major reversal. Rather than increasing the duty on wine, the duty was raised on Sake instead, and at an even higher amount than had been proposed for wine. In June 1896, over the veto of Hawaiian President Sanford Dole, the Hawaiian legislature approved “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 still wines made of materials other than grape juice, of less than 14% alcohol, to 60 cents per gallon, and if over 14% alcohol, the duty became $1.00. As the average Sake was 16% alcohol, then it would be charged the $1.00 duty, twice what the originally proposed duty had been for wine.

Though technically applicable to more than just Sake, it is obvious that it was specifically targeted toward Sake, raising the duty from four to almost seven times the prior rate. During discussions on the passage of this act, it was even alleged by some that Sake contained a large amount of poisonous methylic alcohol, so the legislature wanted to raise the duty to protect native Hawaiians. This allegation doesn’t seem to have any support or evidence, and also doesn’t appear to have been raised ever again. It seems more just a baseless justification to support the imposition of the prohibitive duty on Sake. If it had been a true threat, then Sake would simply have been banned.

At this time, most Japanese laborers were only earning $12-$15 per month, so in July 1897 when the new duty went into effect, Sake became an expensive luxury that they could only purchase infrequently. By December 1897, newspapers were noting a significant decrease in Sake consumption in Hawaii, though they also mentioned that there were other contributory reasons. Due to Japan’s war with China, and an economic change from a silver to a gold basis, the price of imported Sake basically doubled. With such a drastic price increase, and the added duty, that made Sake imports into Hawaii even more expensive.

During the first three months of 1898, only 2983 gallons of Sake were imported into Hawaii. This meant that annual Sake imports had decreased to what was once imported in a single month. Interestingly, though California had hoped that the decrease in Sake consumption would lead to a significant increase in wine consumption, that didn’t occur. Sake lovers, who couldn’t afford to buy Sake, were generally not seeking out California wine as a replacement.

As Sake was so pricey, but still greatly desired, it led some Japanese in Hawaii to chose to illegally brew their own Sake, risking arrest and potential fines. One enterprising Sake brewery in Japan also found a loophole in the new Act. The Kiku-Masamume Brewery realized that the Act’s oppressive duty only applied to Sake that was shipped into Hawaii from Japan. If they first shipped their Sake from Japan to California and then later shipped it to Hawaii, they didn’t have to pay the increased duty. It is unclear whether other Sake breweries realized and took advantage of this loophole.

Besides Hawaii, the rest of the U.S. also grappled with the issue of the proper duty on Sake imports. Prior to 1894, Sake was classified by similitude to distilled liquor, and subjected to a duty of $2.50 per proof gallon. In July 1894, this classification was disputed by a Sake importer and that resulted in Sake being reclassified as more similar to still wine, thus decreasing the amount of its duty. The classification would be contested once again, starting in April 1903, by another Sake importer, W. Nishimiya, in the New York courts. On appeal, the Circuit Court decided that Sake was not similar to either wine or beer, and should be considered a nonenumerated manufactured article, which gave it an even more beneficial duty rate.

In November 1904, the Sake importer, T. Komada & Co. in San Francisco, filed a similar protest to the duty on Sake. They brought suit against the government to recover $500,000 which they had paid, under protest, as a duty on Sake. Though the lower courts followed the New York court’s decision, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision stating that Sake was in similitude to wine. In December 1908, the Supreme Court of the U.S. granted the petition of Komada & Co. for a writ of certiorari. In January 1910, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, stating “the Japanese beverage sake is properly dutiable under § 297 of the Tariff Act of July 24, 1897, c. ll, 30 Stat. 151, 205, as similar to still wine, and not as similar to beer.

Due to these battles over the costs of imported Sake, and a  number of other reasons, there was an impetus for some enterprising entrepreneurs to establish Sake breweries in the U.S. They knew it would be less expensive to brew it here. I was fascinated to learn that the first legal Sake brewery in the U.S. was almost established in a very unlikely location: Chicago. Hawaii, California or another West Coast location would have seemed a more logical starting place, but it appears the nature of the person involved trumped location.

In 1883, Jokichi Takamine, a famous Japanese chemist, worked at the Japanese Department of Agriculture & Commerce and concentrated on Sake brewing. His mother’s family owned a Sake brewery so that might have been the impetus for his concentration in this field. He wanted to know how koji transformed starches into sugars. In his researches, he eventually found a way to grow koji on wheat bran rather than rice. This ultimately led to the creation of a process to transform starches into sugars, from any grain, that was cheaper and quicker than the usual malting process used by whiskey distillers.

In 1890, he was hired by a large distilling conglomerate to come to Chicago and then in 1891, he was relocated to Peoria, Illinois. He founded the Takamine Ferment Company in 1891 to market his new process, and try to create whiskey cheaper and quicker than it was currently done using malt. However he faced great opposition from the maltmen, which soon after led to a suspicious fire that destroyed the distillery. Though it was rebuilt, and some whiskey was produced, it never really caught on and ultimately was a bust. These disappointments may have led him to consider a different option.

In April 4, 1892, an Indiana newspaper briefly reported that, “A syndicate of wealthy Japanese are to establish a large ‘sake’ brewery in Chicago, with a capital of $250,000.” The next day, a Chicago newspaper provided much more detail, in an article entitled, “Sake for Chicagoans–Japanese Will at Once Establish a Brewery with an Unpronounceable Name.” The article reported, “A letter from Yokohama states that leading Japanese capitalists of that city and a party of Japanese in Chicago are completing the necessary arrangements for the establishment in Chicago of a Japanese sake brewery, with a capital of $250,000. The brewery is to be called ‘Takamine Shurm Jozo Kaisha.’ The President of the company will probably be Takamine Jokichi, ex-chief of the analysis section in the agricultural and chemical department of Tokio Unniversity. About one-half of the necessary capital has been subscribed.”

Two days later, on April 7, a Pittsburgh newspaper reprinted this article, though under a better title, “Sake for Chicago People–Japanese Capitalists Organize to Establish a Factory for Their Beverage.” A Rochester, Indiana, newspaper briefly reported on this matter, adding their own comment, “Sake is probably a temperance drink intended for such visitors to the world’s fair as are prohibitionists, who like to ‘take a little something for the stomachs sake,’ according to scriptural injunction.

It was the temperance faction that voiced opposition to the plans for a Sake brewery in Chicago. An August 8 Indiana newspaper alleged that this new brewery would be doom for the city. “If the Congress of the United States had the interests of the people at heart this thing would be forbidden before it gets a foot hold, but Congress will do nothing of the kind, no matter how much appealed to unless indeed the patrons and promoters of the ‘great American industry’ of beer making should see their craft is in danger and should step in and forbid it, which is sincerely to be hoped they will. Even Satan inadvertently brings about the overthrow of evil occasionally. This is a case in which the old, oft repeated quotation applies: ‘I hear a lion in the lobby roar, say, Mr. Speaker shall I shut the door and keep him out or, shall I let him in, and trust to luck to get him out again?” Was this a case of racism, or were they opposed to all alcohol?

In support of their fears, they also noted, “Had lager beer been prohibited at its incipiency American today would have been a comparatively temperate country, but that deceitful drink which lures a man on until he has lost control of his will and so blinds him that he does not see his danger, is the gigantic curse of this or any other country where it is used.” This would seem to indicate that their fears concerned all forms of alcohol, though we can’t also ignore that there might have been at least a touch of racism as well. A single Sake brewery certainly didn’t seem to pose a dire threat.

The last article I located about this proposed Sake brewery was in a North Carolina newspaper on April 15, 1892. It didn’t add any additional facts but mentioned that, “From the name and the amount of cash it takes to run it, Japanese beer (which they mean Sake) must be quite a complicated beverage.” Unfortunately, for unknown reasons, it seems plans for the brewery never came to fruition. Did the financing fall through? Was the temperance faction successful in preventing the brewery from opening? It seems strange that the fate of this large proposed project wasn’t apparently reported in any newspaper.

It is fascinating to consider what might have happened to the Sake industry in the U.S. if this sake brewery had started in Chicago. Would Sake have become a more popular drink? Would other cities have decided to create their own Sake breweries to compete with Chicago? An investment of $250,000 would have created a huge brewery, especially considering that later U.S. Sake breweries would often started with only $50,000 to $100,000.

Though many sources claim that the first legal Sake brewery in the U.S. was started in Hawaii, that is not the case and it was actually Berkeley, California. On June 10, 1901, the Japan Brewing Co. filed incorporation papers in San Francisco. The brewery was owned by H. Soejima, President of the Japanese Association of America, and it was located in West Berkeley, though they also had a business address at 209 Battery Street in San Francisco. The secretary and manager of the brewery was S.K. Mitsuse.

The West Berkeley location, at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and University, was the site of the former Hofburg Brewery, which had been open from 1888 to 1899.  The former beer brewery had spent two years prospecting before they finally constructed two wells, each about 65 feet deep, which led to pure gravel water. As water is so important in brewing Sake, this was an excellent choice for the new Sake brewery.

The lease for the building was signed by Yin Sino, for a term of ten years at $150 per month, and they expected to employ about 100 men at the brewery. However, not everyone was pleased with the idea of this new brewery. In July 1901, the Los Angeles Herald published a brief editorial, casting racist aspersions about the idea. The article stated that the Japanese company was “composed of little men” and that Sake “will hold its own as a destructive agent, with brands of American whisky variously known as forty-rod, sure death, etc.” It continues, noting that “one dose paralyzes and one bottle kills.” Fortunately, this was one of the only such negative articles that I found.

They began brewing Sake in 1902 and by January 1905, the brewery was producing about 90,000 gallons annually, and was exporting Sake to Hawaii, the Philippines and even Japan. It must have been doing something right if even people in Japan wanted to buy their Sake. As the brewery was doing so well, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service started to pay attention, with the idea of regulating the Sake industry, which they suspected might grow after the success of the Japan Brewing Co.

A 1905 newspaper noted that the Sake was known as “rice nectar” and it isn’t clear whether that was the brand name or simply a descriptor on the sake bottles. It was also mentioned that the brewery was using rice from Texas and Louisiana, and Soejima claimed that his Sake was even preferred by the Emperor of Japan to Japanese Sake.

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. By July 1906, a newspaper reported that the brewery has closed in Berkeley, but it had reopened elsewhere, though that location wasn’t provided. However, 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 only for another year, but more investigation is needed.

Why did this brewery shut down? It may not have been financially successful and I’ll note that in November 1907, a lawsuit was brought against the Japan Brewing Co. to foreclose on a $1000, mortgage, alleging the brewery had failed to pay for equipment they purchased which was used to brew Sake. That was a significant debt, and could easily have been sufficient to cause the brewery to close.

It is also interesting that the President and Manager of the Honolulu Brewing & Malting Co. would later claim that the reason the Japan Brewing Co. closed was due to their cooperage, the wood they used to construct their barrels. The brewery used American white oak rather than the traditional Japanese cedar, and as the choice of wood affects the flavor of the Sake, this rationale may have some validity.

Besides the Japan Brewing Co., there is evidence of the existence of at least a couple other Sake breweries in California around this time. In 1903, Kinzo Yasuhara came to California and two years later opened a Sake brewery on Jackson Street in Los Angeles, which appears to have closed around 1917, though possibly a little later. As Prohibition came into effect, the Sake brewery was turned into a miso and soy sauce factory. The Sugita Bros. Brewery, located at 569 East Taylor Street, San Jose, opened in 1905 but closed in 1906. However, there is some information that the brewery might have changed its name, at least to J. Sugita, while it was open from 1906-1908. Additional information indicates that might have been succeeded by an unnamed “Rice Beer Brewery” from 1908 to bout 1915.

There was also a Sake brewery in Watsonville, the Tamasaki & Murata Sake Brewery(during 1907), and another in San Jose in 1916, the Nippon Sake Company which was located at the corner of Jackson and Seventh Streets. By the mid-1910s, there was also the Kawaguchi & Ida Sake Brewery (or alternatively known as the Iida Sake Brewery), located at 665 North 5th Street in San Jose and the K. Hayashi Sake Brewery (1916) also in San Jose.  I haven’t yet been able to find much information about these breweries, and there might have been others too.

Let’s return to Hawaii. Around January 1902, there were approximately 60,000 Japanese living in Hawaii. Sake imports from Japan had increased from the lows of a few years prior. From July 15, 1901 to January 15, 1902, Hawaii imported 27,660 barrels of Sake (about 221,000 gallons), each priced at $8.50, and 6984 bottles, each priced at $2.80.

With this increased consumption, there was also a temperance movement in Hawaii, mainly led by women and priests, who claimed Sake caused terrible harms. They alleged that Sake consumption led to increased gambling as men tried to win money to buy Sake. They also claimed that Sake consumption led to physical violence against wives and children. In addition, they stated: “There was an average of one death a day among the Japanese population in Honolulu due to drink alone.” I have not found any evidence to prove that extraordinary claim. The temperance movement even thought that “Those who drink sake were sapping their moral strength.”

In 1899, a sixteen-year old Japanese immigrant from Hiroshima, named Tajiro Sumida, came to Hawaii and would eventually play a major role in the Sake industry, and not just in Hawaii. Five years later, in 1904, Sumida opened a general store, and started selling imported Sake at some point. Eventually, Sumida decided that he could lower the price of Sake, to make it more affordable to the poor Japanese workers in Hawaii, if he produced it himself so he decided to open a Sake brewery. He knew that Sake brewing had succeeded in California, so thought it could work in Hawaii too.

In 1908, Sumida and T. Iwanaga of Kimura & Co., opened the Honolulu Japanese Sake Brewery Co.. in the Pauoa Valley. Their corporation had an initial capital of $30,000 with 1500 shares valued at $20 each. The corporate officers and share holders included: T. Sumida as President (450 shares), S. Kojima as Vice President (200 shares), T. Iawanaga as Secretary and Treasurer (450 shares); K. Odo as Auditor (200 shares) and Y. Yamasato (200 shares). The main brewery building was built from Hawaiian stone, and when the Sake was ready for sale, it would be placed into large, 810 gallon tubs.

The incorporation papers stated they would not only produce and sell Sake, but also shoyu, soy, and miso. In addition, they would manufacture ice and establish cold storage and refrigerated warehouses.  Besides the Sake, the additional items, an almost prescient addition, would serve the brewery well during Prohibition and World War II. Sumida and Iwanaga stated that this would initially be an experimental Sake brewery as they weren’t sure if they could succeed or not. They needed to evaluate the conditions, such as the quality of their water, to assess whether they were conducive to Sake brewing or not.

At this time, about 500,000 cases of Sake were being imported into Hawaii, and their annual value, since 1900, ranged from $150,000 to $200,000. It’s also important to know that there were only about 70,000 to 90,000 Japanese living in Hawaii at this time. In comparison, in 2013, the entire U.S. only imported about 516,000 cases of Japanese Sake. Sake imports to the U.S. evidently took a nose dive during the last one hundred years. Fortunately, the amount of Sake imports has been increasing in recent years, so Sake’s popularity is at least on the rise.

Sumida wasn’t the only one at this time who wanted to start brewing Sake in Hawaii. In 1908, C.G. Bartlett, the President and Manager of the Honolulu Brewing & Malting Co., also indicated interest in being able to produce Sake. This company was founded in 1898, as the Honolulu Brewing Co., and became the Honolulu Brewing and Malting Co. Ltd. in 1900. As Prohibition struck, it would close, and reopen in 1933 as the American Brewing Co. Ltd. and would remain in operation until 1962. The company started as a beer brewery and was most famous for their Primo Lager. They eventually ended up producing Sake though it is unclear when they actually started doing so.

Sumida and his brew masters, S. Fujikawa and T. Watanabe, encountered significant problems with the fermentation process due to the heat of Hawaii but they persevered and were still able to produce a brew in December 1908 which was named Takarajima, “treasure island.” In January 1909, a Hawaiian newspaper declared their “Sake Brewing is Great Success,” The article noted that “other Sake breweries in Hawaii have proved more or less failures” though those were not identified. It is possible these failed Sake breweries could have predated Sumida’s operation.

The key to the success of Sumida was that they chose the right location for their brewery, a place with conditions conducive to Sake production. To handle the difficulties of brewing Sake in Hawaii’s heat, Sumida eventually invented a refrigeration process to handle the problem and that innovation would later be adopted by breweries in Japan. 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.

Sumida didn’t have a monopoly on Sake brewing for very long though. As previously mentioned, the Honolulu Brewing & Malting Co. started Sake brewing at some point, and maybe even as early as 1908, and there is evidence they were brewing Sake at least by 1913. In January 1909, the Hilo Sake Brewery, owned by K. Koizumi and located at the intersection of Omao & Kaumana Roads, started and hoped to be brewing by February. It seems their plans may have been delayed as they didn’t file Articles of Association for the Hilo Sake Brewery, Ltd. until November 1912. With a capital of $30,000, their corporate officers and share holders included T. Machida as President, (70 shares), T.R. Saiki as Vice President (75 shares), C. Shimamoto as Secretary &/Treasurer (75 shares), S. Kido as Auditor (75 shares), and H. Kawashima (5 shares).

In May, 1913, Hawaii Seishu Kwaisha, Ltd was established, with plans to brew 10,000 gallons of Sake by the end of its opening month. Their brewing was supervised by K. Otake, a graduate from the Sake brewing department of the famed Tokyo High Industrial School. Their starting capital was $40,000 and their corporate officers included K. Ono, as President, A. Hocking as Vice President, D. Natani as Auditor, Y. Kimura as Secretary, and C.G. Bartlett as Treasurer. This Bartlett may have been the same individual who was also the President of the Honolulu Brewing & Malting Co. In 1915, this brewery was doing well enough that they expanded the size of their premises.

In 1916, it was estimated that the Sake brewing industry In Hawaii was generating about $200,000 in revenue. As of September 1917, there were four Sake breweries in Hawaii, employing over 300 men, and selling their Sake to at least 13 Japanese liquor dealers. It was also estimated that there was about $500,000 invested in the local Sake industry. It is interesting to note that these breweries, to avoid cooperage problems, were importing cedar logs from Japan to craft their Sake vats.

Let’s discuss rice for a short bit. It is believed that rice first came to America, to Virginia, sometime before 1647. It later spread to South Carolina and then Georgia, and remained largely in the South. At the start of the 20th century, people in Sacramento Valley, California, thought that they too could grow good rice, and they started experimentation, with assistance from the government. Many different types of rice were imported from Asia and elsewhere, trying to determine which might be most suitable for Sacramento Valley. In 1909, Tokuya Yasuoka, a Japanese immigrant, was the first to successfully harvest 25-acres of rice in the valley.

Other farmers then followed his path so that by 1920, there were approximately 162,000 acres of rice grown in California. The rice variety that proved best to the area was Wataribune, and its descendant, known as Pearl Rice, still grows in the region. Wataribune could be used as an eating rice, and that was probably its main function in California, though it also could be used to make excellent Sake.

In August 1917, a survey was done of four Sake breweries in Hawaii, noting that they all used only imported Japanese rice, though there was an earlier newspaper account, from 1909, indicating the Honolulu Japanese Sake Brewing Co. used both Japanese and Hawaiian rice. They might have discontinued the use of Hawaiian rice by 1917. The survey also indicated the amount of rice each brewery used per month: Hilo Sake Brewery, 36,168 pounds; Hawaii Seishu Kwaisha, 100,000 pounds; Honolulu Brewing & Malting Co., 42,000 pounds; and Honolulu Sake Brewery, 150,000 pounds. That totals about 164 tons.

When rice is polished to make Sake, the remaining powder that is left behind is referred to as nuka. All of those tons of rice generated a significant amount of nuka, and the survey mentioned some of the figures. The Hilo Sake Brewery generated about 6000 pounds a month, which was fed to cattle and pigs. The Hawaii Seishu Kwaisha generated about 24,000 pounds, which they sold at 1 cent per pound for soup and manufacturing pickles. Some was also used as poultry feed though it costs more than corn or wheat. The Honolulu Sake Brewery generated about 19,000 pounds.

And now, back to Sake. Besides the issues of duty, imported Sake faced another significant legal obstacle in 1908, which may have contributed to a desire for establishing breweries in the U.S. Back in June 1906, the Pure Food & Drugs Act was passed, banning adulterated foods and drinks from interstate commerce. Two years later, in April 1908, the federal government stated they were going to ban the importation of any Sake that contained salicylic acid, a common preservative used in Sake. Though salicylic acid can be toxic in high doses, it naturally occurs in a number of foods, such as artichoke, broccoli and cauliflower.

The government ordered all Sake imports to be detained so that they could be analyzed by chemists for salicylic acid. Initially, several hundred barrels of Sake in San Francisco were examined and it was determined they were 90% adulterated. All further Sake imports were essentially prohibited as nearly all of them contained salicylic acid. Though Japanese representatives protested this ban, the Sake brewing industry in Japan had already been addressing the issue of the use of salicylic acid as a preservative. 

The Sake industry had long been concerned with trying to prevent Sake from spoiling, During the 1880s, they started to follow the advice of Oscar Korschelt, a German who taught at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Tokyo, and began using salicylic acid as a preservative. Eventually, the use of salicylic acid began to be questioned, with worries that it could have a deleterious effect on people. In September 1903, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued the “Regulations on Food and Drink Preservatives” which prohibited the use of salicylic acid in Sake, though the actual ban would not take place until October 1911.

As can be seen, the Japanese were already on top of this issue when the U.S. instituted their own ban on imported Sake containing salicylic acid. The breweries were already struggling to find a different way to preserve Sake. Gekkeikan, which has been producing Sake for almost 380 years, might have been the first brewery to create a preservative-free Sake which would not spoil. They also started labeling their Sake, “Noninjurious to Health; No Preservatives,” and that claim was tested and certified by the Osaka Institute of Hygienic Sciences.

As an aside, in March 1916, Kenkichi Ono, the President of the Hawaii Seishu Kaishabrewery, was arrested for a violation of the Mann Act, the White Slave Traffic Act. Mr. Ono, who was married, was accused of transporting a young Japanese girl from Honolulu to Hilo for illegal purposes. The case seemed to drag on for at least a few years, though I was unable to determine the final resolution. As some background, back in March 1914, Kan Ono, the wife of Kenkichi, filed a bill for maintenance from her husband, who she alleges was no longer maintaining her. Kan claimed that he was supporting a former geisha girl of Honolulu who now lived at his home in Japan. Kan and Kenkichi had been married in Hawaii on May 1, 1899, and had five children. The suit was discontinued though in April. After Kenkichi’s arrest for the violation of the Mann Act, Kan filed for divorce but that was also discontinued a month or so after the filing.

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.

Just prior to Prohibition, in early 1918, the Honolulu Japanese Brewing Co., a magazine indicated that the brewery was producing two brands, Takara Masamune and Daikoku Masamune. This contradicts a later newspaper reference, from December 1935, indicating that Daikoku Masamune was a new brand at that time.

Prohibition came early to the Territory of Hawaii and worries about the sake industry began at least in March 1918. President Woodrow Wilson ordered that in the beginning of April, the island of Oahu would be made dry. The sake breweries initially believed that they would have to close, or change businesses. However, the new prohibition law wasn’t as restrictive as initially believed. All saloons (about 43 in all), wholesale and retailers liquor houses had to shut down on Oahu but the new law “Allows for the manufacture of beer, sake, wines or other liquors for sale and consumption in other islands.”

The main objective of the new law was to prevent the 8000 U.S. servicemen on Oahu from having access to alcohol. You couldn’t buy alcohol on Oahu though private citizens could receive imports for their own consumption. In addition, you could manufacture alcohol on Oahu and then sell it on any of the other Hawaiian islands. That would allow the sake breweries in Hawaii to continue in business, though worries would continue.

It was subsequently ordered that the islands of Maui and Kauai would go dry on June 30, still allowing alcohol on the island of Hawaii. If that wasn’t bad enough, May 1918 also brought other challenges for the Hawaiian sake industry. Because of a severe rice shortage in Japan, most exports of rice were banned. Shipments were still permitted to Hawaii although they needed to seek a special permit, which didn’t appear to be easily gotten. As such, the Hawaiian sake breweries produced only limited amounts of Sake. For example, it was stated that where they once produced 100 kegs a day, their output had decreased to only 25 kegs. Rice hoarding occurred and prices were quite high.

The Honolulu sake breweries shipped their limited output to Hawaii, Kauai, and Maui, and some of it was then sent to Oahu, though only to to private individuals. That would change as a new bill declared that on August 25, even Hawaii would go dry. Before that time, both the Honolulu Sake Brewery and Hawaii Seishu Kaisha, LTD, breweries sought to renew their licenses from July 1 to August 25, to make use of the limited time remaining. However, H. Tsurushima, the manager of Hawaii Seishu Kaisha, and I. Otake, its head brewer, both quit to move to San Francisco with plans to brew Sake there. As Prohibition would soon affect the entire U.S., their plans wouldn’t last long.

In October 1918, Hilo Sake Brewery filed to dissolve its corporation and auctioned off their brewery and other real property in November. Prohibition was too much for them to handle. Even the Honolulu Sake Brewery had to shut down, at least for a few years, before they would return as an ice factory. It almost seems prescient that their original articles of incorporation noted that they could and might manufacture ice. They had no need to dissolve their corporation.

Illegal sake breweries operated during Prohibition and law enforcement was able to shut down some of them, though it is unknown how many might have gone unnoticed. In early March 1919, authorities raided an illicit sake brewery, on Hawaii near Kanehoe, noting it was the largest operation they had discovered so far. They found three 200 gallon vats, two which were full, as well as 36 quarts of bottled sake. The chief brewer, Hatano, was arrested and he told the police that he used to work for a local sake brewery. Interestingly, the health inspector noted the immaculate cleanliness of the facility and he couldn’t find any health violations.

This was a significant and technologically superior operation, and not some cheap bath tub gin operation. It was even alleged that someone had invested $20,000 in the illegal brewery. The police  estimated that $15 of rice, a special grade used for brewing that cost $5-$6 more than table rice, could be turned into $80 of sake. About 10 gallons of sake could be made from one sack of rice, and the sake sold for $2 a quart, or $80 for ten gallons. Despite Prohibition, the Japanese in Hawaii still wanted sake and some people were willing to make it, despite its illegality.

Soon after this bust, another illegal sake brewery was busted at the intersection of Kuakini and Liliha streets. They found a bath tub with fermenting Sake as well as two, large wooden vats, each containing at least 500 gallons of sake. During the raid, one of the officers slipped on the floor and fell into a sake-filled rub. The sake was destroyed and two Japanese men were arrested, while they sought a third man.

In April 1920, another illegal sake brewery was raided, located on Puumaile road. It was hidden underground, accessed by a stairway concealed under floorboards in an outhouse. There were two rooms, about 20 feet square, and one of the polices described what he found as “the most complete paraphernalia for sake brewing I have ever seen.” Three men were arrested, including Ikeda, a prosperous hog raiser, Masui and Tomimori, while the police sought a fourth person.

In August 1920, K Miura, who was recently arrested for operating an illegal sake brewery, pled guilty and was sentenced to 5 months imprisonment, a fine of $100, plus court costs of $17.05. This was his second offense. Guess he didn’t learn anything after the first arrest.

Later, in July 1921, a large illegal brewery was discovered at the bottom of a gulch in the Puaka stream manka of the Takashi camp. The Prohibition agents found 250 gallons of sake, a 100-gallon press, and 200 gallons of mash, arresting Y. Uemura whether found working at the brewery. Around December 1921, an illegal brewery was found in the Hamakua district, which had an output about 100 gallons every two weeks. Hinnakichi Mitani was arrested and fined $400. And in May 1926, a sake brewery was raided at Camp 5 Piihonua.

Finally, in December 1928, the authorities raided a substantial illegal brewery, located at 137 Beretania Street, which was allegedly supplying a number of local tea houses and restaurants. The authorities found a 100 gallon sake press, a 50 gallon sake press, 1000 gallons of sake mash, and 2000 empty quart bottles. It was thought that this brewery could produce 1000 gallons on a weekly basis, and it was considered one of the best equipped breweries the police had ever seen. A woman, See Takahashi, was arrested though her fate wasn’t mentioned.

Besides these raids and arrests in the territory of Hawaii, other raids were occurring on the mainland. For example, in March 1921, there was a raid, including two federal Prohibition agents, near Everett, Washington, on an illegal Sake making operation. Three Sake making devices were found, a quantity of Sake was seized and seven Japanese men were arrested. In March 1922, in Oregon, a Japanese man was arrested for violating the prohibition laws. The authorities seized 200 gallons of “saki mash” and 950 gallons of “rice-wine.”

Even when Prohibition ended, illegal sake breweries still existed. In August 1941, federal agents arrested Charles Him Toy, 65 years old, who was brewing sake illegally in Chicago. The agents recovered 12 barrels of rice mash, 5 gallons of sake, and 30 sacks of rice. Apparently, the sake had been sent to various Chinese and Japanese individuals in a number of Midwest cities. Other agents, in Kansas City, Missouri, arrested Tuck Long, who received a delivery from Toy of illegal sake, hidden in a 5 gallon can under the label “cigarets.”

As I mentioned earlier, the Honolulu Sake Brewery had to shut down when Hawaii went dry. However, by May 1921, they decided to establish an ice factory, under the name Hawaii Product Co., Ltd., in their former brewery. However, in 1925, because of some confusion over their name, they decided to change it to the Honolulu Ice Co., Ltd. They raised $80,000 in initial capitalization, with plans to produce about 20-30 tons of ice each day, starting in October or November. This would enable their company to survive Prohibition.

Once Prohibition ended in December 1933, the newly renamed Honolulu Sake Brewery & Ice Co., Ltd., headed by Daizo Sumida of T. Sumida & Co. as president and managing director, was quick to act to return to producing sake. In January 1934, they filed for a permit to construct a $50,000 sake brewery, equipped with $45,000 of machinery, at 2153 Booth Road. However, the bureaucracy didn’t act quickly, and it wasn’t until February 1934 that they received their license to produce Sake once again, though they were the first new sake brewery established in Hawaii after Prohibition.

It wouldn’t be until October 1934 that their brewery completed construction, with a cost of the building and equipment about $140,000, and as soon as the bottling plant was finished, they would be able to employ about 125 people. “Most of the rooms of the plant have to be kept at a constantly cool temperature to insure perfect production, this being done through a modern refrigeration system.” The new brewery had a capacity of 45,000 gallons each month, and it was hoped their first sake for sale would be available on December 1, though it wasn’t actually released until Saturday, December 8.

They brought five sake making experts from Japan to work at the new brewery, including Hide Fujitagishi or brewing superintendent and chemist, Katsuichiro Takakishijoshu or Mr. Fujita’s assistant, Kunjio Nishigakitoji or brew master, Minoru Tanigoshubo man or fermentation expert, and Kiichiro Tajiri, koji or yeast master. Their first brand of sake was to be Takara Masamune, which literally means “a superior product,” and there were plans to add additional brands in the future. Their initial brand would be sold in gallon, half-gallon and quart bottles. The Takara Masamune would be produced from a mixture of two varieties of imported rice (though they were experimenting with local rice), and aged in cryptomeria wooden vats. The brewery had about 50 of those vats, which cost them $30,000. Their goal was to produce sake of equal quality to imported sake, but at half the price.

Other new Sake breweries arose at this time in Hawaii too. The Maui Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., located in Kula, was organized on June 12, 1934 and began brewing in 1935, lasting until 1942. The company officers included M. Kobayashi as President and S. Kofama as Vice President. The brewery was under the capable management of R.H. Okita. The brewery produced two brands, Hinode Masamune, a dark Sake, and Aloha Masamune, a lighter brand, which were sold in gallons, half gallons, 60 ounce and 22 ounce bottles. By 1941, they were producing about 60,000 to 70,000 gallons a year, with 60% sold on Maui and the rest sold on the other Hawaiian islands. The Sake was made from California rice, and nearly all of their supplies were also sourced from the U.S.

In January 1935, the American-Japanese Sake Brewery, also known as Nichibei Shuzo Kabushiki Kaisha, led by president Isojiro Kitagawa and vice president I. Fujimoto (of the Fujimoto Trading Co.), filed building permits to construct a $16,000 brewery on Kamehameha Avenue in Hilo. The building, made of reinforced concrete, would include a laboratory, fermentation room, steaming room, sweat room, a general work room, sterilization room, bottling room, and an office. Two sake experts from Japan, Mr. Shinoda and Mr. Hara, came to Hawaii to produce sake for the new brewery. They were granted a provisional brewing license in May.

They held an island-wide contest to name their sake and their choice was Koku-sui, which different sources allege means “the best in the country” or “national characteristics or virtues.” Their first Kokusui sake was sold in March 1936, and in December 1938, they had been successful enough to give a 5% dividend to their stockholders. Unfortunately, a seismic wave destroyed their new brewery in April 1946. They were able though to reacquire their old brewery, which they had leased to the government, and converted part of the facility so they could produce shoyu and miso. In January 1948, they got a new license to manufacture sake and starting selling in June 1948.

The Kanda Shokai, Inc (1934-1935), owned by Junichi Fujii, a business executive in Hawaii and Japan, was located at Halekauwila and Cooke streets. It was succeeded by the Fuji Sake Brewing Co. which lasted from 1935-1942 and then restarted after the war from 1948 to 1965. The Hilo Sake Brewers Co., Ltd. (from 1937-1942) was headed by president Sadanosuke Hatal. They constructed a $75,000 sake brewery on Kawaiahao street, between Cummins and Kamakee streets. 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).

After Prohibition ended, more Sake breweries opened up California as well. There was the American Sake Brewery Co. (from 1934-1935), located at 2444/46 E. 8th in Los Angeles, which brewed 5146 gallons of Sake in the fiscal year ending June 1934. It was succeeded by the Asahi Wine Mfg. Co. (1935), which produced 7032.5 gallons in the fiscal year ending June 1935.

Also in Los Angeles, there was the Central Sake Brewing Co. (from 1948-1950), located at 1144 S. Central Ave., the California Sake Brewery (from 1947-1949), located at 10706-08 Burbank Boulvevard, and the Los Angeles Sake Brewing Co. (from 1947-1949), located at 715 E. Fifth St.

In San Jose, there was the San Jose Sake Brewery (from 1934-1935), and located at 291 Jackson Street, at the corner of North 7th Street), which in the fiscal year ending June 1936, produced 17,610 gallons, and was succeeded by the Nippon Sake Brewery (from 1935-1940).

San Francisco saw its share of Sake breweries too, including the Aiji Matsuo Brewery (from 1934-1937) which was succeeded by Matsuo Sake Brewing Co. (from 1937-1941), located at 498 Bryant Street. The owner of this brewery was Aiji Matsuo. In the fiscal year ending June 1935, this brewery produced 5,308 gallons while  in the next year it saw a significant increase to 22,117 gallons. They produced the Shira Ume brand (“white plum”) and there’s some indication, as of 1934, that they experimented with Sparkling Sake, though little is known of their efforts and I haven’t found any evidence that they ever produced a commercial Sparkling Sake.

There was also the Katsuzo Shioji (1934), which was succeeded by the San Francisco Sake Brewery, located at 342 Fifth Street (from 1934-1936). In the fiscal year ending June 1935, it produced 16,889 gallons and then in the next year, this decreased to 13,292.5 gallons.

Finally, and also in San Francisco, was the California Sake Brewery Co. (from 1934-1935), which was succeeded by the Nippon Sake Brewery Co., Inc. (from 1935-1937).

There were even two sakes breweries in Denver during the 1940s. The first was B & Y Sales Co., established in 1945 and located on 2845 Walnut Street, by J.V. Bradley, an Irish accountant, and Dan K. Yamagami, a pre-war San Jose fruit merchant. Yamagami was able to secure their Japanese brew master, Ria Kubo, from a relocation camp. Their Assistant Brewer would be T. Hesatsune. Their $100,000 brewery produced about 3200 gallons of sake monthly, nearly all which was exported though they started to sell some domestically. Their company existed under this name until 1947 when it became the Colorado Sake Brewery (from 1947-1949). B & Y Sales Co. sold a brand named Hakumine, which was described as “refined Colorado sake” and had an alcohol content of 14%. They also produced two other brands, Geppo and Kotobuki.

The second Denver sake brewery, owned by 32-year-old Tad Akaba, started operations in the beginning of 1946. Akaba, born in California, eventually left the U.S. Army and met an elderly Japanese man who knew how to brew sake, though he wasn’t a trained brew master. With a starting fund of $50,000, Akaba established a sake brewery which produced 6,500 gallons monthly though he recently added air conditioning and refrigeration which he expected to boost his capacity to 8,000 gallons. About 3,500 gallons of his sake were sold in Honolulu, and most of the rest was exported overseas. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to learn the name of this brewery or how long it lasted.

Returning to the Honolulu Sake Brewery & Ice Co., Ltd., they celebrated their first re-opening anniversary in December 1935. During that past year, they released their second brand, Takara Musume, known as the “Hula-Girl,” and in honor of their anniversary, released a third brand, Daikoku Masa-mune. By September 1937, their brewery had the capacity to produce 55,000 gallons monthly though their actual output was just over 40,000 gallons. As the total consumption of sake in the Territory of Hawaii was only about 60-65,000 gallons, Honolulu Sake was supplying 7 out of every 10 consumers. They were also supplying a majority of the Sake consumed in the Pacific coast states.

In this ad from June 1939, note that it states you can drink their Sake cold! At this time, the vast majority of Sake was served hot, and cold Sake would have seemed very odd to most consumers in the U.S. Honolulu Sake might have been a pioneer in this respect, in the promotion of cold Sake.

They even obtained a trademark for their brand, Takara Masamune.

Honolulu Sake was also the pioneer in another regard, and possibly the inventor, of Sparkling Sake! At some point before 1938, Katsuichiro Takakishi, who was now the chief brewmaster, traveled to Japan where he first thought about creating a sparkling Sake. With some assistance from Dr. Yamada of the Japanese government’s laboratory, Takakishi was successful in creating this product. He filed a patent in Japan and on July 25, 1938, also filed a patent in the U.S.

In November 1939, the Honolulu Sake brewery exhibited this new product, which was named Polo, as a “Hawaiian carbonated sake,” though it was also known as champagne Sake or rice champagne. The Polo was said to have “the taste of champagne, though it does not cost as much.” It was also advertised as the first of its kind anywhere, and the evidence seems to support this contention.

Takakishi’s U.S. patent, No. 2,243,513, was granted on May 27, 1941, and it consists of a single page, titled Method of Making a Sparkling Sake-Like Beverage. It is interesting that it was filed under his name, and not under the auspices of the Honolulu Sake brewery. The patent states, “My invention relates to the art of making champagne and more particularly to a method of making champagne from sake or the like. One of the principal objects of my invention is to provide a method of treating sake or the like in a manner to produce champagne therefrom. Another object of my invention is to vary the usual method of making sake in a manner whereby the resultant sake can be further treated to produce a champagne which has combined therein the aroma, taste, activation, and appearance of grape champagne.”

Production of sparkling Sake was somewhat different from regular Sake, even before the carbonation step. First, the rice grains were polished to a greater degree, about 40% to 50%, which nowadays is reminiscent of a Ginjo or Daiginjo Sake. Second, the Sake was aged in porcelain lined tanks, instead of the ordinary wooden tanks. Lastly, once the refined Sake was ready, “I add an adequate amount of sugar, white wine and other extracts and finally carbonic acid gas, which results in champagne.” No specific amounts for these additions were provided. Takakishi then finished with, “From the foregoing it will be apparent that I have provided a simple and economical method of making champagne from sake or the like and that the champagne thus produced comprehends all the attractive qualities of grape champagne, for instance aroma, taste, appearance and activation.

Who knew that sparkling sake was that old? It has always seemed like such a relatively new product.

Shortly after the patent was granted, in August 1941, the brewery created a new sparkling Sake, called Polo Champion, which one of their ad’s stated, “Polo Champion is not beer, champagne nor sake, but it is something like a combination of the three. Serve it chilled at dinner, parties, or at anytime a cool, refreshing drink is needed.” It was supposed to possess a “New, improved quality—New, different flavor.” A price was given for this new product too, only 15 cents for an 11 ounce bottle!

Unfortunately, the innovative Sake brewmaster, Katsuichiro Takakishi, left the brewery to go to Japan in November 1941. His legacy though would continue, including the creation of a new Sparkling Sake twenty years later.

Twenty year later, in April 1961, the Honolulu Sake Brewery created its third sparkling Sake, the Polynesian Champion. It was a carbonated Sake “with Hawaiian fruit flavors” and “aimed at the feminine taste.” Transpacific Export-Import Co. president Herbert B. Granas stated that “It is intended primarily as something light for the ladies, but it also will appeal to those men who don’t want to get ‘stoned’ on a few drinks when they’re out for an occasion.”

On a trip to Hawaii in 1956, Granas tasted and enjoyed some sparkling Sake from the Honolulu Sake Brewery, likely the Polo Champion, and wanted them to produce a new flavored sparkling Sake. The new Polynesian Champion had only 10% alcohol, a natural golden color and a fruity flavor from the addition of pineapple, reflective of the Hawaii. The initial production of Polynesian Champion was about 500 cases a month and was available for $3.95 for a fifth.

Later, in 1967, the president of the Honolulu Sake Brewery discussed their experiences over the years with sparkling Sake. “We tried carbonated sake in Hawaii but it didn’t go too well.” When their mainland distributor, Mr. Granas, asked them to change the flavor of their sparkling Sake to pineapple, they decided to take a chance and do so. It didn’t sell well in Hawaii either so all of the Polynesian Champion was shipped to the mainland. I guess most people weren’t ready at the time for sparkling Sake.

In Hawaii, when World War II began, the existing breweries were producing annually almost 2 million gallons of Sake. However, on December 21, 1941, the Federal government prohibited the production of Sake in Hawaii. As with Prohibition, the Honolulu Sake Brewery found a way to survive, this time by producing shoyu, soy sauce, about 3500 gallons monthly, under the label Marumasa Soy and later Diamond Shoyu. They used their Sake production equipment to make shoyu, though they used porcelain vats rather than wooden casks. In addition, the Honolulu Sake Brewery leased their cold storage plant to the Army for at least a year.

During World War II, the U.S. forced thousands of Japanese into internment camps, wrongfully believing they posed a threat to the country. The incarcerated Japanese were not permitted to bring Sake into the camps, so some smuggled Sake inside while others created illegal stills to produce it. Left over rice was used to home brew Sake, and it had to be carefully hidden from the guards.

At the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming, during the Spring of 1945, camp guards arrested internee Yasutaro Oku. They discussed that he possessed five barrels of mash, each equal to about 15-20 gallons, five gallons of Sake, and brewing equipment . He subsequently plead guilty to the offense of brewing Sake and was sentenced to 15 days in jail, though a judicial commission of fellow internees suspended that sentence. If that was the worst punishment internees faced for illegally brewing Sake, then it’s easy to see why a number of them decided to risk it.

Once the war ended, and the prohibition was lifted, the Honolulu Sake Brewery didn’t begin selling sake again until around June 1948. First, they remodeled the brewery, at a cost of around $300,000, which included the installation of stainless steel tanks, to replace their old wooden barrels, with the objective of producing a better grade of sake. The new brewery, employing 85 people, was capable of production about 30,000 gallons monthly, though they continued to make Diamond Shoyu too, about 12,000 gallons a month. Initially, using rice from California, they produced only 20,000 gallons of sake, under the brand name Takara Masamune.

Later that year, in November, the Honolulu Sake Brewery created two Sake cocktails, one sweet and one dry. Were these the first ever Sake cocktails? It is possible. The brewery held a contest to name the cocktails, with the winners receiving a prize of $50. With over 600 entries, the two winners were Keomailani Reid, who came up with the name Rainbow Maiden for their sweet cocktail, and Mary Jane M. Turner, who came up with the name Aloha Delight for the dry cocktail.

Above, you can see the recipe for the Rainbow Maiden, which resembles a Japanese version of a Manhattan cocktail. I was unable to find a recipe for the Aloha Delight though I suspect it was also a rather simple cocktail, and maybe based on a classic cocktail.

In 1954, hearings were held concerning a major revision to the Internal Revenue Code, and the original proposal would have changed the class and tax status of Sake, from treating it as Beer (a “fermented malt liquor”) to a Wine. That would have increased the tax on Sake from 29 cents to 67 cents a gallon, a more than double increase. Attorneys from the three existing Sake breweries (Honolulu Sake Brewery & Ice Co.Fuji Sake Brewing, and Nichibei Shuzo Kabushiki Kaisha) in Hawaii submitted letters opposition this change, noting that they were currently the only Sake producers in the U.S.

The letters also noted that Sake production was currently on the decline, as Sake consumption had not resumed to the levels it reached prior to World War 2. The letters also explained the role of Sake to the Japanese population, such as “sake is generally consumed by the Japanese people together with their meals and in connection with wedding receptions and other festivities.” One letter also stated, “To him sake is not a luxury but a portion of his food.” A significant tax increase would have to lead to increased prices, which meant the Sake breweries wouldn’t be able to compete with cheaper alcoholic beverages, and could be forced to shut down.

Interesting statistics were provided for the three Sake breweries, comparing production before and after World War 2. In 1940, the Honolulu Sake Brewery & Ice Co., produced 228,589 gallons of Sake, as well as paid $40,805.01 in federal taxes. However, in 1953, they only produced 58,614 gallons of Sake, as well as paid $16,391.30 in federal taxes. Such a drastic reduction in production, down to about 25% of what it had been in 1940. In addition, the prewar consumer price for their Sake was $1.80 per gallon but their current price is $5.50.

In 1940, the Nichibei Shuzo Kabushiki Kaisha produced 271,339 gallons of Sake, as well as paid $40,255.77 in federal taxes. However, in 1953, they only produced 16,546 gallons of Sake, as well as paid $5,615.13 in federal taxes. Another drastic reduction in production, down to about 6% of what it had been in 1940. In addition, the prewar consumer price for their Sake was $1.95 per gallon but their current price is $4.90

As for the Fuji Sake Brewing, in 1939, they sold 237,159 gallons and in 1953, they sold 88,531 gallons. Another drastic reduction in production, down to about one-third of what it had been in 1939.

Fortunately, their concerns must have proven persuasive as the Internal Revenue Code changes did not alter the classification of Sake, so it continued to be governed by the tax on beer.

Jump ahead to December 1959, when the Honolulu Sake Brewery published advertisements for a special sale during the month of December. We now find prices for their sake, Takara Masamune, which was sold by the Gallon (Reg. $5.65, Sale $4.98), ½ Gallon (Reg. $2.88, Sale $2.49), Quart (Reg. $1.49, Sale $1.29), and 24 oz (Reg. $1.29, Sale $1.15).

Two years later, in December 1961, the prices for Takara Masamune remained the same. The brewery was also now selling another brand, Takara Musume by the Gallon (Reg. $4.65, Sale $3.95), ½ Gallon (Reg. $2.40, Sale $2.05), and Quart (Reg. $1.25, Sale $1.05). In April 1965, a gallon of Takara Masamune was selling for $5.15 and in October 1968, it would sell for $1.45 for a 30 ounce bottle. And in May 1969, the Takara Masamune was selling for $2.99 for a half gallon while in September 1970, a 30 ounce bottle sold for $1.60.

Unfortunately, on January 1, 1962, Daizo Sumida, the president of the Honolulu Sake Brewery died at the age of 74, though the company would continue, although with challenges. By 1967, the Honolulu Sake Brewery was allegedly the only remaining sake brewery in the U.S., and the evidence seems to support this belief. Their overall sales were 1 1/2 times greater than they had been in 1960. And, far more non-Japanese were drinking Sake. The president of Honolulu Sake Brewery stated that traditionally, Japanese bought sake in half-gallon bottles so with the growing popularity of quart bottles, more non-Japanese were consuming it.  About 1/3 of their production was being shipped to the Mainland, mostly to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

This success was threatened though as proposed new zoning laws could force them to close their brewery. It was proposed that the area of their brewery would become zoned residential, and though the brewery would remain as a non-conforming use, they wouldn’t be able to make any major alterations or repairs to the brewery. At the time, the brewery employed 35 people and had paid $70,000 in taxes the prior year. The decision on the rezoning was deferred for a time and the brewery had to consider possible relocation. Fortunately, in December 1968, it was decided that the area would be rezoned as light industrial so the brewery wouldn’t need to move.

In February 1969, the Honolulu Sake Brewery published this cool advertisement in a Hawaiian newspaper, showing their sake production process.

During the beginning of 1970s, there were a few large newspapers articles about the Honolulu Sake Brewery, though they also contributed to some myth making, especially the claim that the Honolulu Sake Brewery was the first sake brewery built outside of Japan. As I’ve already indicated, the first sake brewery in the U.S. was the Japan Brewing Co. in 1902 in Berkeley, California. And I’ve also shown that some of the people at the Honolulu Sake Brewery, including one of its founders, were aware of this Berkeley sake brewery. It seems that memories faded over time, and the myth was born.

In a 1971 news article, Shinsaburo Sumida, president of the Honolulu Sake Brewery, indicated they reached their sales peak in 1967 to 1969, and there has been a slight decrease since then. He indicates, “There’s no market now. The Japanese here, especially the younger ones, drink highballs instead of sake these days.” They still sell over 100,000 gallons a year, two-thirds in Hawaii and the rest on the Mainland, and about 50% of their sales occurs during December and January.

It wouldn’t be until the end of the 1970s that the next crop of new Sake breweries started opening, primarily in California. It seems only fitting that the first of these new breweries was established in Berkeley, California, the same city where the first ever U.S. Sake brewery was located. With a growing cost of Japanese Sake imports, it was believed that Sake, of similar quality, could be produced in the U.S. but at a significant decrease in cost. A partnership developed between Curtis M. Rocca Sr., president and founder of Pacific International Rice Mills Inc. and Taketsugu Numamo, Japanese born importer and owner of Numano International, Inc.

In 1978, they converted a dairy on Addison street into a Sake brewery, establishing the Numano Sake Co. Their brewmaster was Seizaburo Numano, a 40 year old Japanese native, who worked with two assistants, also native to Japan. They used rice from near Sacramento and went into commercial production in 1979, producing about 150,000 gallons of Sake, with plans to make about 250,000 gallons in 1980. They made two labels: Koshu Masamune, aimed at the Japanese palate, intended to be drunk warm, and made mainly for restaurants; and Numano’s Sake, aimed at the American palate, made to be more wine-like, and intended to be drunk cold. They understood though that “The American market for the cold sake has yet to be created.”

Back in 1975, Japan exported about 333,000 gallons of Sake to the U.S. which increased to 487,000 gallons in 1978. However, in 1979, the amount decreased to 410,000 gallons, which could be due, at least in part, to consumers buying Sake from the new Numano Sake Co. In addition, in 1979, Numano shipped about 5-10% of their own Sake to Japan and hoped to send even more in 1980.

Other Sake breweries would soon open, following the lead of Numano Sake Co, but that is a tale for another time.

The Honolulu Sake Brewery continued 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. The Honolulu Sake Brewery left an important legacy, being a pioneer in a number of sake-related items, from the use of refrigeration to the invention of sparkling sake. It wasn’t the first sake brewery in the U.S. but it had the greatest impact of any of them.


The original version of this article was posted in April 2015, and has seen multiple expansions/revisions over the years due to additional research. As of July 30, 2019, further updates have been added. [Research & Sources for this article.]