Islander Sake Brewery Produces Traditional Sake with Some Local Flavors

2023 SmallBiz Editor’s Choice Award winner: Chiaki Takahashi and Tama Hirose operate Hawai‘i’s only licensed sake brewery and a new sushi restaurant.
05 23 Hb Best Of Small Business Hero 11 Islander Sake Brewery

Chiaki Takahashi and Tama Hirose’s homeland of Japan has about 1,600 licensed sake breweries. In Hawai‘i, there’s one: Islander Sake Brewery, which the pair launched in 2018. Until then, Hawai‘i had gone 33 years without a sake brewery.

“By making sake in Hawai’i, and through our customers meeting us, we hope more people can understand Japanese culture,” Hirose says. “That is our mission.”

Hirose, whose first name was “Tadashi,” changed his name in order to avoid confusion with his business partner. He chose “Tama” — the name of the city where Hirose and Takahashi met at a sake convention.

After looking for a place to set up shop, getting their working visas in order, and managing the language barrier, the duo opened their Kaka‘ako brewery in March 2020, about a week before Gov. David Ige signed a statewide shutdown order because of the pandemic.

“It has not been easy,” says Takahashi, a medical researcher turned brew master. “But it’s my dream come true.” She added that typically, women in Japan don’t return to work after giving birth. But at 52 and with two grown children, she hopes to inspire other Japanese women to pursue their passions.

In just over a year of operations, they’ve produced 10 different sakes. The majority of their signature sakes are brewed without pasteurization or filtering, and two are flavored with fruit: locally sourced pineapple and liliko‘i.

“We use the same technique other Japanese sake brewers use, but we are creating a Hawaiian sake,” says Hirose, who ran a general store in Japan with his family and is well-acquainted with sake.

“There are four ingredients to make sake: rice, water, yeast and koji.” He says two of the four they use are sourced from Japan: the koji fungus and 50% of their rice. “Our fifth ingredient is the plumeria-scented Hawaiian wind.”

Island Sake Brewery thrived during lockdown, and the duo produced about 12,000 bottles of sake in their humble 1,100 square-foot-space, which they say is all thanks to the local community that supported them during the pandemic.

In February 2022, the duo also opened Hanale, an eightseat sushi restaurant in Chinatown that offers an 18-course dining experience. They’re still waiting for their liquor license, so for now, customers can bring their own and there is no corkage fee if you bring in a bottle of Islander Sake.

In December 2022, they officially moved their brewery to Hawai‘i Island, where they are using volcanic water and melted snow from Maunakea for their sake. They also have plans to start a sake school, to pass on Takahashi’s knowledge to the next generation of brewers.