With shouts of “kampai,” a room filled with chefs, elected officials and educators at the Culinary Institute of America on Tuesday raised up glasses of sake. The gesture marked the official welcoming of Asahi Shuzo Co. Ltd., a sake maker that will spend $28 million to build its first international brewery in Dutchess County.
The Japanese toast kampai, described as an equivalent of bottoms up, is a refrain that CIA and regional officials hope to hear many more times in the Hudson Valley starting next year. That’s when Asahi Shuzo, maker of Dassai premium sake, plans to open its brewery about a mile north of the CIA in Hyde Park.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced the partnership between the company and the CIA in a February speech at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. Tuesday’s event, held in a reception room at the school’s Marriott Pavilion, marked the official welcoming of Asahi Shuzo to the region.
The company used the reception to describe its plans in greater detail before it starts construction later this spring on the 52,500-square-foot brewery.
Asahi Shuzo will build at the former site of a Stop & Shop on the corner of St. Andrews Road and Route 9. The brewery will produce 332,000 gallons of sake each year, with a tasting room, retail space and public tours.
The company and CIA officials described a plan that will bring not only one of Japan’s best known sake brands to the region, but also Japanese culture and traditions. The architecture team – a collaboration of a Japanese and an American firm – plans to populate the site with cherry blossom trees and remove some of the parking lot to make the site more natural for outdoor gatherings.
Asahi Shuzo traces its roots back 250 years ago in Yamaguchi in western Japan, though it became officially organized as a company in the 20th century. The brewery has stayed in the Sakurai family that entire time, as Asahi Shuzo’s third-generation owner and Chairman Hiroshi Sakurai explained.
“We’re very excited to build on that history and traditions of making sake and bring an excellent sake brewery here to Hyde Park,” Sakurai said through a translator.
Sakurai said what sets the company apart is a focus only on the highest quality type of sake, known as Junmai Daiginjo. Its Dassai brand is produced from a single brewery in Yamaguchi using a variety of rice called Yamada Nishiki, described as the king of sake rice.
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the White House in 2015 for a state dinner, media accounts said he and President Barack Obama toasted with Asahi Shuzo’s Dassai 23.
The mix of media from both U.S. and Japanese outlets made the significance of the company’s move clear. Scanning the packed reception room, Sakurai already appeared satisfied with the decision.
“Very excited to hear from so many future customers of ours,” Sakurai said with a smile. “We’re really not worried about sales anymore.”
The move marks not only the first U.S. brewery for Asahi Shuzo, but also the first time a major sake producer from Japan will set down roots on the East Coast.
Kazuhiro Sakurai, the company’s president and fourth-generation owner, noted that several Japanese sake producers have already made the jump to the United States. But they’ve all focused their efforts on the West Coast, where there’s easier access to high-quality rice in California.
In coming to New York, Asahi Shuzo can differentiate itself as the first Japanese sake brewery close to New York City, the younger Sakurai explained through a translator.
For the Culinary Institute of America, the partnership offers a chance to collaborate with an international beverage producer on curriculum, workshops, certification programs and special events. The CIA offers a bachelor’s-level course in Japanese cuisine, which college President Tim Ryan said will be expanded to a full academic concentration.
Ryan said Asahi Shuzo is known worldwide as the top sake company in the country.
“As people are exposed to high-quality sake in the right manner, it is going to take off,” Ryan said. “There is tremendous, tremendous growth potential.”
This is not the first time the culinary has teamed up with a big-name brewer. In 2015, the school opened The Brewery at the CIA, an educational facility it created in partnership with Brooklyn Brewery.
The Asahi Shuzo brewery is designed by Jun Mitsui & Associates Architects of Tokyo and Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects of New Haven. The two firms have worked together on projects in Japan for 30 years, but said that this is their first joint project in the United States.
The sake produced in Hyde Park will be branded under a different name, but will “honor Dassai in a familiar way,” as described in materials from Asahi Shuzo.
The project will receive up to $588,000 in Excelsior tax credits through the state’s economic development arm, Empire State Development.
Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro welcomed Asahi Shuzo to what he called the “epicenter of the food and beverage industry.”
Both Molinaro and Hyde Park Supervisor Aileen Rohr praised the brewery’s location as a way to bring life to an abandoned site and better connect the town to the culinary institute.
Rohr said the adaptive reuse of the property has the town “thrilled to see it will become a vibrant center for Japanese culture and for the food and beverage industry.”
While Asahi Shuzo will bring some employees over from Japan, the company is planning to hire at least 32 locally. One of those employees making the trip to the United States is the company’s chairman himself. Hiroshi Sakurai said he’ll be living in Hyde Park to oversee the operation until “the sake is at the level he wants it to be.”
He said he looks forward to meeting his new neighbors.