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Day Trip: Kato Sake Works’ Shinobu Kato

When Shinobu Kato moved to the U.S. in 2004, the sake available within his budget brought him back to the cheap sake he drank during his college years in Tokyo. Eventually, while working for Nissan in Nashville, Kato tried his hand at homebrewing the rice-based beverage to make up for the market’s dearth. The venture proved a success: In April 2020, less than 10 years following his first batch, Kato opened the doors to Kato Sake Works in Brooklyn. Here, Kato shares a peek into the 500-square-foot brewery’s operations.

9:00 A.M.

The distance from my house to the brewery is only about 20 minutes walking. On the walk, I listen to a Spanish language program. The neighborhood we’re in in Bushwick has a large Latino population, and the owner of the nearby laundromat is a guy from Mexico. We started talking a lot and he gives me Spanish lessons every time I see him. I ask him, “Say that again, say it slowly, one more time.” I decided, I have a brewery here and I live in this neighborhood, I should probably be able to speak Spanish. 

9:30 A.M. 

My assistant brewer, Joanie, starts at 7 a.m., so when I arrive, the washed rice is in the steamer, which warms the brewery in the wintertime. We use Calrose rice for our sake. It’s what I initially started homebrewing with because it was the only rice available at the homebrewer’s scale. But also, Calrose has an interesting history: One parent is a native Japanese sake rice brought by the first immigrants to California. They tried to grow it in the U.S. but failed, until eventually they found a way to hybridize it with a native American rice, and then it survived. It’s a nice history about immigrants, and I’m a first-generation immigrant, too, so that’s a beautiful story to me. I want to make my sake like that—I don’t want to import stuff from Japan, there’s premium Japanese sake available already. 

I start my day cleaning and organizing the brewery. Our space is so small, less than 500 square feet. We have all the equipment—rice washer, steamer, fermentation tanks, pressing equipment, and so on—in a studio apartment–size space, so we don’t have the luxury to leave stuff around. 

11:00 A.M. 

The rest of the morning is spent tackling emergencies. Sometimes the problem is with the fermentation—it’s too slow or too active. Once, the pasteurization equipment exploded and we had a hot sake shower everywhere. We’re in our second year of operation, so we are almost at the stage of being more proactive than reactive. [Editor’s note: This article was written for the November/December 2021 issue.]

1:00 P.M.

Since Joanie and I are the only full-time employees, the brewing work is shared between the two of us. The other half of my time, I’m doing all the fun administrative stuff to run the business. Today, our monthly rice delivery arrives and we put it into storage, then spend the rest of the afternoon conditioning and finishing the sake. We do every step—filtration, pasteurization, and bottling—manually. We usually make less than 200 bottles of sake at a time, so it’s manageable. It takes two months for a fresh batch of rice to become sake and we begin a new batch every week, so we typically have six or seven batches going at once. Today, we’re doing filtration and tomorrow will most likely be the pasteurization day. Usually, we pasteurize our sake as the process kills the yeast and denatures the enzymes, locking in the flavor. 

3:00 P.M.

Joanie’s shift ends and the brewery switches over to sales. The original idea was to have our shop function as a tasting room. Then the lockdown happened, and since then we’ve been operating more like a bottle shop. Our sake is a bit bolder compared to typical Japanese sake because American food is louder, noisier—to pair well, the sake needs to be able to stand up to it. I like my sake, but it’s a little bit different from the sake I would order at a nice omakase restaurant. That’s intentional, because people in Bushwick don’t go to omakase every night. They eat pizza and hot dogs and tacos, so I’d like to make our sake more approachable.

All the processes and techniques we follow are quite authentic, and we are very much geeking out about all the traditional methods, but that’s not our marketing pitch. I wish to make sake a bigger part of the drinking culture here. So, maybe there’s a stop at a sake brewery on a beer brewery tour or something. I want to see my sake not only at the sushi restaurant but at more general places like wine bars.

6:00 P.M.

The problem with being a 20-minute walk from home is the great bars and breweries in between. Since my wife and I are in the industry, most of the people working nearby are part of the same community. I usually stop by at least one of the bars. If we make a new batch or have half-filled bottles, I’ll bring those along. My wife and I don’t go to restaurants per se, our priority is drink before food.

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