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American Saké Takes Flight

A cup of saké at Brooklyn Kura.

In its homeland of Japan, a river of saké has been flowing for near on 12 centuries, through uncountable millions of funerals, festivals and weddings—not to mention late-night benders and workaday suppers. And tojis, the artisan brewmasters who devoted their lives to the craft and culture of saké, passing traditions and recipes through the generations, are revered accordingly.

But on American shores, the drink’s history has been briefer and considerably more ignominious. Most drinkers, if they’ve tried saké at all, encounter it within the confines of an anodyne suburban sushi spot or knee-deep into a blurry night of karaoke, and possibly via that hangover-delivery system known as the “saké bomb”: a tepid shot of low-quality saké launched into a foaming pint of cheap lager. Thanks to a combination of limited options and consumer confusion about the category, until recently, finding a decent selection of Japanese saké stateside has been a challenge. So, to talk of “craft American saké”—saké brewed with an eye to tradition and all the attendant artistry, right here in the USA? The concept alone seems like a contradiction in terms.

But things change. Think of it as a sort of boozy Freaky Friday situation: According to figures released by Japan’s national tax agency, since 1975, saké sales in Japan have decreased by nearly 30 percent—a plummet that’s largely the result of young Japanese drinkers cooling on saké while taking a livelier interest in beer, whiskey and other international spirits. At the same time, the buzz about saké has been quietly growing in certain American drinks circles. And now, a growing cadre of upstart saké brewers, inspired by the lessons and breakneck success of the craft beer movement, are betting that American saké’s big moment is finally poised to arrive.

“The craft beer scene is highly competitive, and many craft beer outlets are approaching saturation,” says Tim Klatt, co-owner of the Austin-based Texas Saké Company. “The market demands something new every month—but there are only so many ways you can make an IPA.” Klatt knows of which he speaks. Before he and a partner bought the struggling Texas Saké Company from the previous owner and revamped it, sourcing rice better suited to brewing high-quality saké and playing with experimental techniques like oak chip aging, Klatt’s other role was (and still is) as co-founder and head brewer at Austin’s Strange Land Brewery. “It’s a huge opportunity,” he says. “Here’s this product that is fundamentally beer—but the flavor is so different. And people are really excited to try something they haven’t tried before.”

Rice at Brooklyn Kura being poured into a washer.

A New Brew

The numbers speak for themselves. Little more than a decade ago, only a handful of saké breweries operated on U.S. soil, including the California outposts of Japanese conglomerates like Gekkeikan and Hakusan, and SakéOne, a Forest Grove, Oregon–based brewery that was the first American-operated saké brewery in the United States. Today, that figure is edging closer to 20—and the ranks are growing quickly. You can stroll into a local brewery and sip homegrown saké in every corner of the country, from Maine to Washington. In Minneapolis, Moto-i, an izakaya-style brewpub, has won a loyal following for its ever-rotating menu of housemade unpasturized sakés, and just last fall, Nashville got its first homegrown saké brewery, Proper Saké, helmed by Byron Stithem, a vet of Husk Nashville and the Brooklyn craft-cocktail den Clover Club.

“Saké has had trendy moments before and never quite made the mainstream—but this time, the timing feels right,” says Todd Bellomy, co-owner and head brewer at Dovetail Sake in Waltham, Massachusetts. “Within five miles of our operation you can get artisanal chocolate and cheese and bread and pickles. For customers, the idea of visiting a taproom in an industrial space or picking up a growler of craft saké to take home just isn’t an ‘out there’ concept anymore.”

Bellomy, a Japanophile who studied linguistics and Japanese at UMass-Amherst before dropping out in 2000 to travel around Japan, launched Dovetail with partner Daniel Krupp in 2016. But his path to toji-dom was hardly a straight line. After returning from Japan in 2004, Bellomy—a longtime homebrewer—took a job at the Boston Beer Company in 2006. When he started tinkering with saké a few years later, it wasn’t a money-making gambit—it was simply a way to sate a craving. “I’d started to miss drinking good saké,” he says. “One day it struck me: Maybe I could make saké at home the same way I’d been making beer.”

That’s not as big a leap as it might seem. While sometimes called by the misnomer rice “wine,” saké is actually a brewed beverage made from rice (not fruit) that has been milled and fermented. The ingredient list couldn’t be more elemental: water, rice, yeast and koji—a mold that’s also used in making soy sauce and shochu. And though the alcohol levels of saké—typically 15 to 16 percent—are closer to that of wine than a lager or a stout, beer is in fact its closest cousin. In that way, saké is similar to barley wine—a brewed beverage that’s so strong it’s been given the suffix “wine.”

Encouraged by some promising early batches, Bellomy began refining his recipes and using vacation time to travel back to Japan for research, spending time at two different breweries—though beyond that, materials presented something of a challenge. “Homebrewing is illegal in Japan, so the only manuals I could order were these huge commercial ones,” he says. “I spent a lot of hours sitting with my face in a dictionary.”

It was only after years of R&D—and a nifty bit of kismet—that it all started to come together. Mere months before Dovetail was scheduled to open, Bellomy learned that an enterprising rice farmer in Arkansas had just begun growing Yamada Nishiki, a prized strain of Japanese grain that’s considered the “king of saké rice.” Though it meant further delays, he jumped at the chance to buy it. Today, Bellomy says, he believes Dovetail—whose portfolio includes a nakahama junmai and omori nigori—is the only brewery outside Japan to exclusively use the high-quality rice.

While Dovetail’s sakés are made with respect to the traditional style, Bellomy is still quick to point out that theirs is a wholly regional product. “We’ve closed the circle as tightly as we can—using rice that’s grown in Arkansas and milled in Minneapolis, and local Massachusetts water from Quabbin reservoir,” he says. In the fall season, the company also releases a third, limited-edition saké called Kˉoyˉo, a gently sweet and vegetal brew made by replacing conventional water with maple water sourced from the Vermont company DRINKmaple.

Brooklyn Kura owners Brandon Doughan (left) and Brian Polen.

Japanese Roots, American Attitude

Indeed, if there’s one thing that unites the craft American saké scene, it’s the embrace of a melting pot approach: one that celebrates the customs of old world saké without feeling creatively bound to them. “I’m totally comfortable saying I’m making American saké, that is brewed for an American palate, with bigger flavors,” says Josh Hembree, co-owner and head brewer at San Diego’s Setting Sun Sake Brewing Company.

If the domestic saké market is a spectrum, with Dovetail falling on the more conservative side, the remarkable brews that Hembree is making—some dry hopped, some blended with fresh watermelon or blood orange juice, others aged in rum barrels like a creamy stout—show what’s possible when the category is pushed to more freewheeling, gonzo extremes. Hembree, a self-described “problem-solver” and brewing obsessive, says ironically, it was drinking a fresh ESB straight from the cask in London that first gave him the idea of making saké in the States. “That beer tasted so fresh—like nothing you would ever get in America, because usually it has been dulled by weeks and months in transit,” he explains. “Saké is the same—and I just thought, wouldn’t it be cool to try to bring out everything I love about beer through that lens?”

Since opening in 2016, Setting Sun has built out their tasting room and doubled their square footage and fermentation capacity twice over. Recent projects have included a habanero saké that’s poured in a mule-style cocktail, and a lambic-style saké that Hembree made with spontaneous yeasts and blended with 50 pounds of fresh peach purée before letting it mature for nine months. “Some Japanese sakés are beautiful and subtle, with roundness, creaminess, hints of chrysanthemum—but I think Americans understand boldness a little more,” Hembree says.

Brooklyn Kura’s signature #14 is a light, floral and aromatic saké.

Meanwhile, at a brewhouse on the industrial fringes of New York’s Gowanus Expressway, Brooklyn Kura became the state’s first saké brewery when it opened its facility early in 2018, and their approach is similarly earnest. “We make an effort to communicate that we’re not Japanese, and we’re not claiming to be,” says co-owner and president Brian Polen. The sakés that Polen and his partner, Brooklyn Kura head brewer Brandon Doughan—a former biochemist and hobbyist homebrewer—make, including their range of junmai (pure rice) and nama (unpasturized) sakés with a special shiboritate (freshly pressed saké) served in the tap room, are deeply refined and precisely crafted. They’re also imbued with a youthful energy. “Let’s face it,” Doughan says. “When you go to a kura in Japan, it’s hundreds of years old and has built a house style that’s come down through the generations. We opened in January.”

That energy comes across as soon as you enter Brooklyn Kura’s 2,500-square-foot brewery and taproom, with its sun-drenched wall of windows, concrete floors, minimalist bar and gleaming taps. But just because the enterprise is young doesn’t mean it’s unserious. In just a few short months, Polen and Doughan have built impressive momentum locally, with more than 34 retail relationships and a diverse list of restaurant clients, including The Lobster Club, Major Food Group’s latest Seagram Building hotspot. Perhaps most tellingly, even within a global city like New York, where high-quality saké is more accessible than almost anywhere outside Japan, Brooklyn Kura’s subtle, meticulous sakés have won praise not just from locals but also from international saké experts like Chris Johnson and Chizuko Niikawa-Helton.

Will that traction be enough to keep Brooklyn Kura growing? That may come down to getting saké into a more diverse set of hands. “As a brewer, the biggest challenge with American saké is that you’re not just making this product, you’re trying to create the market itself,” says Doughan. “It’s not the s/ame as craft beer, because when that came along at least beer wasn’t an unfamiliar concept. With saké, craft brewers are starting from zero. The question is, can we all survive long enough for that change?”

Saké bottles at Tokyo Record Bar in New York City.

New School

From the brewery floor to the back bar, ask a saké professional what the biggest barrier is to saké’s success in America and they all answer the same way: education. After all, it’s hard to get customers interested in your product if they know nothing about it—and when most of the information they do encounter about it is literally written in a foreign language. “I get it,” says Brian Polen. “I don’t read kanji, and when I go into bottle shops and look at Japanese saké labels, I still get confused.”

To make saké more approachable, many brewers today are eschewing complicated names and classifications and keeping labels brief and easy to read. “There are a lot of Japanese words we could throw out to describe each of our sakés, but that’s a barrier,” says Todd Bellomy. “Our feeling is, let’s just teach people the one word: junmai. Let’s get people speaking the same language.”

Even deep in Brooklyn, Polen and Doughan deal with a similar dynamic. “We get plenty of people who come in and ask, ‘How should I drink this?’ ” Doughan says. That’s why, he says, they think of their taproom as an educational space as much as a commercial one. Brooklyn Kura saké is poured in wine glasses to help show off the color and aroma—and to offer an element of familiarity. “We don’t want people to feel like they can’t buy saké because they don’t have the right ceramic glasses at home,” says Polen. “This is a place for learning—and for us, too, where we can see what American palates are responsive to.”

Saké sommelier and bartender Jessica Joly at Tokyo Record Bar.

The way Jessica Joly sees it, breaking down those barriers benefits everyone in the saké world—both the American upstarts and the Japanese old guard. Joly is the reigning Miss Sake USA (yes, it’s a thing) and also a saké sommelier and bartender at New York’s Tokyo Record Bar, a subterranean izakaya with an extensive list of saké and saké cocktails, modeled after Japan’s vinyl bars. “It doesn’t have to be complicated,” she says. “At the bar, instead of categorizing saké in traditional terms, we describe everything on a spectrum of fruit flavors, or full or light body, or dry or sweet. And the response is amazing. People walk in knowing nothing, but they’ll try it because we’re making it more approachable.”

Joly says Japanese saké makers recognize the need to breathe life into the market, too—and she points to a recent collaboration between indie rock band Phoenix and Tatenokawa, a historic Japanese brewery, on a limited-edition junmai daiginjo. “That sort of partnership would have been unthinkable to serious saké makers 50 years ago,” she says. “But today, there’s an understanding that it helps bring in a new consumer.”

At the same time, Japanese saké makers are putting more chips in the American saké game. Earlier this year, Asahi Shuzo, makers of premium Dassai saké, broke ground on a new 52,500-square-foot brewery adjacent to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York’s Hudson Valley. In addition to relocating staff from Japan to work in the region, the company plans to partner with the CIA to develop certification programs, curricula and special events—all aimed at bolstering saké education and awareness in the United States.

Breaking saké out of the confines of the sushi bar and into a more diverse array of restaurants and bars—the way Spanish sherries and Italian bitters have managed to transition—is another step that craft saké advocates see as essential to its growth. When Jake Freed and Hiroko Nakamura opened their saké-focused taproom, The Periodic Table, in Emeryville, California’s Public Market last fall, their aim was to “domesticate” what’s usually seen as a foreign product by bringing it into a context that is comforting and approachable. “We love saké,” Freed says. “Now we’re just using the familiar—burgers and chicken wings—to get people to see that it doesn’t have to be this exotic thing.”

Of course, some of the struggle is about breaking down the stereotypes of Japanese food as well as saké. “When people get hung up on ‘pairing’ saké with food, I like to remind them that Japanese food has this huge range, too,” says Polen. “You have sushi, you have curries, you have grilled stuff, you have burgers. You can find analogues to basically anything we think of as ‘American.’ ”

In New England, Todd Bellomy is fighting the same fight. “I want to see saké everywhere,” he says. “I want to see people drinking saké with oysters and lobster rolls. Not because I want to sell something, but because it’s great.

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