Why American Sake Producers Are on the Rise
Brewers are infusing Japanese rice wine with fruit, carbonation, and hops.
In Japan, sake simply means “alcohol.” It has a rich, storied history in the country, where it’s been produced for thousands of years after making its way over from ancient China. Now, the technique of fermenting rice into alcohol has started to inch its way into American brewing culture. The first legal American sake brewery opened in 1992—a stateside outpost of Momokawa Brewing, which had already been brewing nihonshu (the more specific Japanese word for sake) for centuries.
But after nearly three decades, American sake is hitting its stride. At first described by experts as fairly “one note,” American sake makers are now developing depth, perfecting their formulas, and even playing around with added flavor notes in the same way you find in craft beer.
“Part of it is the great American quest for the next undiscovered thing that’s propelling the interest in sake,” says Weston Konishi, president of the Sake Brewers Association of North America. “When people become more experimental and savvy with Japanese food and sophisticated drinks, they realize what a tremendous product sake is.”
Previously uninitiated Americans are beginning to catch on to the magic that is sake, as a growing number of breweries also means more bottles ending up in local restaurants and on cocktail menus. Just like wine, sake is also a product that reflects its physical origin, meaning that while U.S. tojis (or master brewers) might be using traditional Japanese methods, their finished product is distinctly American.
“You could argue that our terroir is New York City tap water, but there’s so many other things that also drive the distinctive quality or style of a particular producer of sake,” says Brian Polen, the co-owner and founder of Brooklyn Kura, one of the largest sake producers in the country. “What we make is American craft sake because we’re using domestic ingredients. Our rice comes from California and Arkansas, our water is New York City tap, and our koji—which is the source of sugar for our fermentation—we make ourselves.”
Polen and his co-founder, Brandon Doughan, have certainly started to figure things out for themselves. Doughan, also the head brewer, is largely self-taught, and yet the pair managed to open the first sake brewery in the state of New York in 2018. Currently, the duo is already scouting spots for their second location.
Over the past decade, the amount of sake breweries cropping up around the United States has grown exponentially. American interest in sake has grown just as quickly—in 2019, the U.S. was actually the biggest importer of Japanese sake, both in quantity and value. There are currently around 20 or so sake breweries, and a decade ago, there were just five. Now, from Maine to Arizona, ambitious new talent is taking on the complicated category, trying their hand at ancient techniques and injecting new technology and flavor into bottles of stateside sake.
“Now, you have brewers infusing sake with fruit flavors, carbonating it, or using hops in their sake brewing,” Konishi says. “Sake is one of those things, particularly for brewers, it’s very easy to become intrigued by. You can easily geek out on sake because it’s this incredible alchemy of elements that goes into it, a little bit more complex and more hands on than beer brewing.”
Moto-I, which opened in Minneapolis back in 2008, is considered the first sake brewpub in the country, and it serves intensely flavored and unpasteurized sake on draft. In San Diego, Setting Sun Sake Brewing Company sources local ingredients for their sake, and even offers sake that’s dry-hopped like an IPA beer.
Japanese-American owned breweries can be found across the country, too, like Den Sake Brewery in Oakland and Arizona Sake, as well as the second Brooklyn sake brewery to open, called Kato Sake Works by Shinobu Kato, who grew up in Tokyo. It took an upgrade from drinking hangover-inducing Futsu-shu in college to a top-notch bottle of Daiginjo to inspire Kato to get into the art of sake making.
The tiny but mighty Arizona Sake is one of the few American sake breweries to have taken home some awards, as well as Portland, Oregon’s SakeOne—the first American outpost for Momokawa. There, visitors can try sake that is either imported from Japan or crafted in-state using local ingredients such as water from the Willamette Valley.
Small production models allow these budding sake masters the license to experiment with styles not easily found elsewhere, like at Nashville’s Proper Sake Co., where brewmaster Byron Stithem makes what he calls “premodern, more esoteric [sake] styles like yamahai or kimoto.”
The growing interest from American consumers is also allowing new producers to enter the game, like U.S.-based wine membership company Winc, founded by California sommelier Brian Smith. Typically, Winc works with vineyards and winemakers to create exclusive wine varietals, which they then bottle up, make available online, and ship over to their members monthly.
Long after becoming interested in sake himself, Smith says he saw the potential of bringing sake to Winc members, who are usually drawn to the company because of a desire to explore and experiment. Working closely with a Japanese producer over the course of two years, Winc just created its own bottle of junmai sake called House of Luck.
“The way we’re approaching this is that we just want people to try new things, and our customers look to us for discovery,” Smith says. “One of the greatest things about sake is this precision, purity, and subtlety of flavor. Once you can find an appreciation for those subtleties, it becomes really interesting, and you want to explore it in the same way other people want to explore wine.”
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to drinking sake, but typically you’ll want to chill your bottle for 24 hours before you decide to serve it. Less premium sake should usually not be chilled, though, and might taste better at room temperature or served warm.
In Japanese culture, if you’re drinking sake with friends or colleagues, you’re also not supposed to serve yourself. If you’d like to try it out, then let your fellow sake drinkers know that you’ll be pouring for one another. When someone is pouring your sake, it is also considered polite to slightly lift your cup toward them.
The Japanese consider sharing sake a knot that is being tied—between a bride and groom at a wedding, at the start of a relationship, or to welcome new members in the workplace or in a social setting. There, it is also prepared as an offering to gods and ancestral spirits. No matter how you decide to enjoy your sake, make sure you mark the first sip with a celebratory toast, or “kanpai!”
“The more people learn about it, the more they’re going to want it,” Konishi says. “Sake is such a versatile drink that pairs well with American classics. Once people realize how well it goes well with pizza and barbecue, then it’s really going to explode.”