Australia's Sake Success Story

22 Apr 2015

Author: Imogen Brennan

Photography: Images courtesy of Sun Masamune


The small team behind Australia’s only sake brewery, Sun Masamune, is driven by a passion and thirst for making a handcrafted product from only the best-quality Australian ingredients. They’ve had so much success, they now export 80 per cent of their Sydney-made sake to Japan.
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The gentle chime of Bellbirds is the first thing you notice when you arrive at Australia’s only sake brewery, Sun Masamune, in Penrith, New South Wales. It’s an easy drive about an hour west of Sydney, close to the foothills of the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains National Park. You’ll also notice that the air smells clean, it feels fresher and the sky is immense here – it stretches as far as the eye can see.

Sun Masamune’s Managing Director Allan Noble has spent the morning moving little caterpillars from the path outside the brewery. He says they come here every season to “munch up all the leaves” of the cedar trees that tower around the sake brewery.

With a Japanese mother and an Australian father, Noble grew up between Nagasaki and Hiroshima. He beams with pride when he says 80 per cent of the sake they make is exported to Japan. It’s found in major national retail chains across the country, including leading retailer AEON, which has more than 1,000 domestic outlets. It’s also stocked in high-profile regional liquor chains including Mandai and Liquor Mountain.

It’s not just consumers in Japan who have the opportunity to drink Australian made sake. Noble says they are shipping their products to South Korea, China and Italy too. In the United States, their Go-Shu Australian sake can be found across the Pacific Northwest in Japanese grocer, Uwajimaya, and to the east in one of New York’s leading sushi restaurants, Sushi Dojo.

Noble says with a team of just four people, it’s a big achievement to produce up to 500,000 litres of sake every year.

“We do about 15 or 20 batches per year, sometimes 50 batches. It’s a four- to five-month cycle per batch, so it is a good challenge for us,” says Noble. 

Japanese heritage

Sake has been an integral part of Japanese culture for at least 16 centuries and it’s increasingly becoming a fixture on the menus of some of the world’s best restaurants. It’s brewed in a similar way to beer, yet the drink itself is more like wine, with an alcohol content of about 15 per cent.

Production begins by polishing the rice to remove the unwanted fats and proteins in the outer layer to reveal the starchy core. Usually the amount of the rice grain that’s polished away determines the purity and elegance of the sake.

Sun Masamune makes three grades of rice-only premium Go-Shu Australian Sake: Junmai, Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo. After the grains are polished, they end up being about 40–70 per cent of their original size. Noble says his aim is to produce approachable sake that the “everyday drinker” will enjoy.

“Aussies love the Go-Shu Blue, it tends to show a dry finish. It’s great to have on its own or to use as a base for mixed drinks or cocktails too,” he says.

 In fact, Australians like Sun Masamune sake so much, it’s available in most major liquor stores and is served at some of the country’s best restaurants, including Sydney’s Quay, Sushi E, Azuma at Chifley and many Japanese restaurants. 

Australian Ingredients

Noble attributes the success of Sun Masamune’s sake to the clear water and the quality of the Australian rice they use to produce it. The fact that Leeton, the ‘rice capital’ of Australia, is just a few hours away is one of the reasons why Noble chose to build the brewery in Penrith.

Leeton lies within a productive food-growing region that is known for its quality grapes, wheat and citrus fruit, but rice is what makes the small town tick. Farmers have been growing rice there for more than 100 years. The Australian rice industry is so trusted that more than 80 per cent of the industry’s production is exported to about 70 countries.

"In Japan, land is scarce so you have no luxury of ‘resting’ the rice fields,” says Noble.

“In Australia, we use a sustainable rotational crop system. So for example, the land that grew rice for one season will have legumes the next to give nitrogen and nutrients back to the soil. The water here is also excellent. It’s pristine, a little bit soft and perfectly suited to sake making.”

Traditional techniques

Despite being relatively young for a sake brewery, at 19 years old Sun Masamune has grown up within a family that has an unbeatable heritage. Its Japanese parent company, Konishi, was established in the year 1550. It is the world’s oldest commercial sake brewery.

“We follow the traditional sake brewing process 100 per cent. We are very much about handcrafting our creations and although we’re only 19 – you know that is young in a Japanese context – our brewers here have a combined knowledge of more than 100 years and we use a wealth of knowledge from our parent company,” says Noble.

So why did a Japanese company decide to invest in a sake producer in Australia?

“In Japan, food safety is a serious issue,” explains Noble. “So the quality, safety and reliability of a consistently good product are crucial to us.”

“We’ve got the total deal here – the clean environment, the premium produce and the owner Mr Konishi loves Australia. He is well and truly pioneer-spirited,” says Noble. 

Clean environment

At the heart of the Sun Masamune company is a belief in helping the environment where possible by minimising waste and finding a second life for the by-products of its sake production.

Noble holds up a jar of extremely fine powder. “We make the polished rice in this jar into soap, as well as a beautiful skin moisturiser with native Lemon Myrtle.”

Noble also says to “watch this space” because they’re currently working on another project that will develop the nutrient and protein-rich leftover solid rice grains, called “sake lees”, into a commercial product.

"There’s no wastage here,” he says.

If you are lucky enough to visit Sun Masamune’s purpose-built brewery in Penrith, you’ll also discover that they make a precious amount of traditional Japanese plum wine. Some of the plums are grown in the brewery’s own orchard, while the rest come from fertile grounds near North Queensland’s tropical city of Cairns.

The amount of plum wine they make is so small, you can currently only buy it exclusively at the cellar door or by special order.

“We worked with the Department of Agriculture to bring Japanese plum trees from Japan so we could cultivate them here in Australia. It’s taken about 13 years to get this project going to make proper Japanese plum wine with only the best-quality Australian-grown fruit,” says Noble.

Passion and a thirst for sharing traditional Japanese culture with Australia drive the small team at Sun Masamune. But perhaps more than anything else, they pride themselves on producing quality, locally crafted sake with only the best Australian ingredients and sharing it with the world.

Visit Sun Masamune

Sun Masamune welcomes visitors to its tasting room and brewery in Penrith, New South Wales from Monday to Friday, between 10am and 4pm.

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