Food & Drink

7 American Sake Breweries to Visit Now

Brooklyn Kura Tap Room / Courtesy of Brooklyn Kura

In case you didn’t realize it, American sake is a thing. More than just “that thing next to the Sapporo” on a sushi restaurant menu, sake, as a category, is interesting, diverse and delicious. And there are American versions that are just as good as their Japanese counterparts.

To explore the origins of the American sake movement, and to shine a light on the breweries that have been passionately creating their own takes on it for years, we talked to seven different sake brewers around the country. These brewers not only have sakes that can be bought right now, but they all have tasting rooms at their breweries that you can visit. Here, you can find out where to drink sake near you.

Blue Current Brewing

Kittery, Maine

Based in Kittery, Maine, Blue Current Brewing started as the passion project of owner and master brewer Dan Ford. A dedicated homebrewer, Ford discovered sake after living and working in Japan, where he fell in love with the taste, the craft and the process of making sake. After finding a sake homebrew kit when he came home, Ford started experimenting with making his own sake in his garage. “I just love everything about sake,” says Ford. “Brewing sake fulfills a lot of my needs as a person: being creative and perpetually learning.” Eventually, Ford outgrew his home-based brewery, and expanded to his current location (it was funded with help from a Kickstarter campaign and most of his equipment was built with the help of the University of Maine’s engineering department). In that time he also became one of the only American sake brewers to be certified as an Advanced Sake Professional (think master sommelier of sake) from the Sake Education Council in Tokyo.


Sakes to try when visiting:
Currently, Ford only makes a Junmai Ginjo sake, but one glass is definitely worth the visit to the brewery. In 2016, Blue Current’s Junmai Ginjo was awarded a gold medal at the London Sake Challenge, which is judged by the Sake Sommelier Association (Ford was the first American to win the gold). Ford’s custom brewery, complete with a cedar ageing room for koji (a fungus used in sake production) is also worth checking out.

65 US-1 BYP, Kittery, ME 03904
Open Wednesday thru Sunday 1-6 p.m.

Texas SakĂ©  

Austin, Texas

This Austin, Texas, based sake brewery makes a Nigori with enough backbone to stand up to Texas barbeque. But things weren't always this way. Originally, the brewery tried to produce sake using local long grain Texas rice, which produced a sake that was starchy and hard for customers to understand let alone drink. Seven years later, after drastic changes in their production methods (including a change to Calrose Japonica rice from California), the brewery took home two bronze medals in last years international sake competition. “Breaking the paradigm that sake only goes with Japanese food has been one of the greatest hurdles for us,” says Trevor Wight, the company’s marketing and sales manager. “When you encounter a sake with more acidity and bigger fruit, you can pair it with hearty, spicier foods.”


Sakes to try when visiting:
The Nigori is the brewery’s best selling product and a defacto flagship. But something more unique to the brewery is their oak cask aged Junmai sake (simply called the Oak Junmai) that will appeal to bourbon drinkers. They also have a sparkling sake on draft that is a great introduction for those new to sake.

5501 N Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78751
Open Thursday and Friday from 6-11 p.m.
Saturday from 6 p.m.-12 a.m.

Sequoia Sake

San Francisco, California

Sequoia is another sake that began as a homebrew project. “I couldn't find the style of sake I loved in the US—Nama Genshu—so I started making it in my garage,” says co-founder and head brewer Jake Myrick. “I first went to Japan on a college scholarship. It was during this time that I was first introduced sake. When I returned [to the US] in 2001 I really dove deep into the world of sake. Over a 10 year period, I traveled to 200-plus sake breweries, joined a local sake club and even met John Gauntner [the leading non-Japanese sake expert].”

Myrick partnered with brewmaster Noriko Kamei and Warren Pfahl to open Sequoia sake at its current Bayview location in 2014. They brewed their first official batch in 2015 and opened to the public a year later. Now the brewery makes three different lines of sake: unpasteurized sake (the Sequoia line, which are fresher and bolder), pasteurized sake (the Coastal line, which can be enjoyed warm or cold) and barrel-aged sake, which is aged in ex-bourbon barrels, ex-white wine barrels and ex-red wine barrels.

For the overall vibe of the taproom, the owners tried their best to replicate the experience of visiting a Japanese sake brewery. “Make sure you have matching socks,” says Myrick. “You will need to change your shoes before entering our brewery.”

Sakes to try when visiting:
We highly recommend trying all three sakes in the brewery’s Sequoia line—especially the Nama. Not only are these bottlings available exclusively at the brewery, but the Nama sake in the line is a style you don’t see often outside of Japan.

50 Apparel Way, San Francisco, CA 94124
Open Saturday from 12-6 p.m.

SakeOne

Forest Grove, Oregon

Originally established in 1992, as the American outpost of Japan’s centuries old Momokawa Brewery, SakeOne was the first legal sake brewery in the United States. Initially the brewery just imported its own sakes from Japan, and their first domestically produced sake wasn’t bottled until 1998. But now, the only sake brewery in the Pacific Northwest produces dozens of different styles.


Although SakeOne’s sakes are produced in the same way that they are at the Momokawa brewery in Japan, they are made with California rice (grown from a Japanese varietal) and Oregon water, creating a flavor and product that is unique to the brewery here in the States. Momokawa also produces a line of flavored sakes—think coconut lemongrass, Asian pear, and plum—specifically designed for the American palate.

Sakes to try when visiting:
Definitely take a brewery tour when visiting. It’s the closest you can get to a Japanese sake brewery without crossing the Pacific. Our personal favorite sake from the SakeOne lineup is the unfiltered Nigori, which, unlike so many others, is savory and rich instead of sweet. It’s incredible fresh and straight from the tap.

820 Elm Street, Forest Grove, OR 97116
Open Monday through Sunday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Moto-i

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Blake Richardson, the brew master of Moto-i, started brewing at Herkimer, one of the Twin Cities’ most beloved brewpubs (which he also founded). Before opening Moto-i, Richardson educated himself on sake by traveling to Japan, visiting breweries there and taking classes from sake experts.


Since opening, Moto-i has become known for its unpasteurized Nama sakes—both filtered and unfiltered—which are only available at the brewpub. It is also one of the only sake producers that is making sake cocktails from its own sakes at its brewery. Using its Junmai Ginjo, the Moto-i bar makes everything from a sake-based Moscow Mules to a sake-based Bloody Mary.

Sakes to try when visiting:
This sake brewery is technically a brewpub, and they have a full kitchen on premise that serves Asian inspired small plates and high-end ramen. We highly, highly recommend getting their namazake (unpasteurized sake) on draft, housemade rangoon dumplings and a bowl of the Duck Ramen with duck confit.

2940 Lyndale Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55408
Open Monday through Friday from 12pm-2am
Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m.-2 a.m.

Setting Sun Sake

San Diego, California

At Setting Sun brewery, the sakes are influenced as much by American beer brewing techniques as they are by Japanese sake styles (the brewers define their take on sake as “West Coast craft sake”). While there are more traditional sakes available, like the Ronin Clear—which uses Ginjo-grade polished California rice—the brewery is also known for incorporating Western ingredients into their sakes like hops, fresh watermelon juice, blood orange and lavender. “I got interested in the art of sake through my journey as a brewer,” says Josh Hembree, the president of Setting Sun. “While I worked in the brewhouse at Black Market Brewing Company, I started reading into sake and fell in love with the unique brewing process that had been generated over thousands of years of tradition. I wanted to push the limits of my brewing knowledge and try something that was more arduous. In the process of tweaking the recipe I found out that the concept of my experimental brew was fundamentally the sake brewing process.”


Opened in August 2016, Setting Sun brewery was the first sake brewery in the city of San Diego, an area known for its high brewery to people ratio. When visiting the brewery, be prepared to taste a variety of sakes that you can’t find elsewhere and are higher quality than you’re used to. “Most people that have tried sake have only tried hot sake,” says Hembree. “[Those are typically] lower grade sakes that are not brewed for craft or flavor. Our craft sake is brewed in a way that brings about a clean fermentation and natural flavors from the yeast that most visitors didn’t even know existed until now.”

Sakes to try when visiting:
At the taproom, start with their Ronin Clear; it’s one of the brewery’s most popular sakes and the most representative of its style of brewing. Then try their Viridescent Waves sake which is more experimental and a mishmash of Japanese sake flavors and hoppy, California IPAs. While it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is a unique and refreshing take.

8680 Miralani Drive Suite 120 San Diego, CA 92126
Open Monday through Thursday from 3pm-9pm
Friday and Saturday from 12 p.m.-10 p.m.
Sundays 12 p.m.-9 p.m.

Brooklyn Kura

Industry City, Brooklyn

The newest addition to the American craft sake brewery family, Brooklyn Kura is the first sake brewery in New York. Its first releases to the public are a Junmai Ginjo, which leans heavily on traditional techniques and flavors (so much so that the only U.S. based, Japanese sake sommelier Chizuko Niikawa-Helton gave it her approval in The New York Times) and the #14, which is more experimental and modern (when we tasted it, the sake reminded us of flambĂ©ed bananas).  


Behind Brooklyn Kura are Brandon Doughan and Brian Polen, who met in Japan at a friend's wedding. It was there and then that they discovered that they shared a mutual admiration for high-quality sake, and the pair ended up exploring the country’s sake breweries together. “We were surprised by the range and affordability of high quality sake, and we wondered why more people hadn’t started brewing sake in the U.S.” says Polen, Brooklyn Kura’s president. “Back stateside, we were also surprised and pleased with how high quality the sake that our amateur homebrewing experiments yielded. Then, after discovering a small number of American brewers based on the West Coast, we dove into our sake education through courses and apprenticeships. [Eventually] we saw an opportunity to introduce New Yorkers to sake and the idea of opening our own brewery was born.”

Sakes to try when visiting:
If you’re a sake novice, Brooklyn Kura has a resident sake expert in its taproom to help lead guests through the menu and to introduce them to the different tastes and styles of sake (his name is Sam). Personally, we recommend trying their Junmai Ginjo first. Then, try Brooklyn Kura’s sake at different stages in the fermentation process: moromi, when the sake is still fermenting and is effervescent and milky; shiboritate, when the sake is freshly pressed, still raw and unpasteurized; and orizake, which still has rice particles that cause a cloudy look and textured mouthfeel. Being able to taste the sake at all these different stages is rare outside of Japan and exclusive to Kura’s tasting room.

68 34th St, Brooklyn, NY 11232
Open on Fridays from 5 p.m.-9 p.m.
Saturdays 1 p.m.-9 p.m.
Sundays 1 p.m.-6 p.m.