By Byron Stithem
(an emotionally and financially invested American sake brewer)
It’s Monday June 25, 2018 and the world’s first North American Sake Brewers Conference has descended upon the “Old Town Sacramento” Holiday Inn. Sixteen upstart American breweries are here, making it the largest gathering of sake brewers ever to take place outside of Japan. Three of the world’s most revered Japanese brewers are present as well, along with several of the most important bilingual sake writers and educators. This is the Woodstock of my world.
The event begins like any good summer camp might, with counselor intros, an explanation of itinerary, and a bus ride that lasts three to four times longer than the Google Maps estimate. The initial introductions are uneasy. It’s the first time most of us have met in person and certainly the first time most have tasted each other’s wares.
Brewing sake is a nightmare. A beautiful nightmare, but a nightmare nonetheless. There are no constants and something can and will always go wrong. Things change without warning—the rice’s growing season, bacteria, wild yeasts, and temperature fluctuations each playing a part to ensure no batch is exactly the same, and when you throw in the added gauntlet of small business ownership, it makes for a proper shit storm. Some Japanese brewers consider the process akin to raising a child, and as a “child owner” myself I would have to agree—the similarities are uncanny. Both leave me crying and short on sleep.
This was all weighing very heavily on me as I packed my four bottles of sake for the reception, expecting one if not all to be shattered upon arrival, leaking all over my clothes and out of the bag onto the carousel. On the other hand, I was so concerned about sharing my sake “children” with the group, part of me quietly hoped for that complete destruction in transit.
There would of course be no such luck.
Once we had all assembled in the dour hotel ballroom, Kosuke Kuji—the 4th generation owner/brewer of Nanbu Bijin Brewery in Japan, where he produces sake with a modern palate and notable finesse—welcomes us to the conference. “Your sakes are no good,” he remarks somewhat harshly. “You need to start over and make better sake.”
Kuji-san hasn’t even tasted any of our products yet, but that doesn’t make it sting any less. As one of the stars of the documentary “Kampai! For the Love of Sake,” he’s a celebrity in this room, and we all know there’s some truth to his words. Very kindly, though, he follows up by offering to help rebuild our atrocities by employing the same precision and historical reverence that have propelled him to such great heights.
Up next, is Philip Harper, also of “Kampai!” notoriety. As an Englishman, he’s even more notably the only non-Japanese master brewer in Japan—and a true visionary by my reckoning. With many of his ferments propelled by ambient yeasts naturally living in the brewery, his potions are a miracle of timing, knowledge, and happenstance. They have exotic lushness and complexity unrivaled by nearly any drink I’ve come across to date.
I’m a total fanboy and would sell my soul to make a sake half as stimulating and well-rounded. A majority of my trip was spent trying to accidentally sit next to or run into Philip. Philip, if you’re reading this: I’m sorry.
The next few days were spent speculating on the more granular elements of sake production, topics that no doubt, would have been mind numbing for a non-industry attendee. But which to me, produced the most compelling three days in memory.
I spent almost every moment trying to comprehend the magnitude of this event. I wanted, almost needed, this to be a momentous occasion: the start of the sake revolution. Then, a revelation came—what I’ve decided to call the 25-year California beverage reawakening.
It starts in the 70s when American wine first gained traction. Mondavi, Krug, Inglenook—names that put American wine on the world stage all gathered in this region of the world nearly 50 years ago. People said American wine was undrinkable, but then at the ‘76 Judgement of Paris, blind tastings scored a slew of California wines higher than most competitors from Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Some 25 years later, American beer then rose to the fore with industry pioneers like Anchor Brewing, Gordon Biersch, and Sierra Nevada launching craft beer into the lexicon. Again, California was at the heart of it all. Now, both craft brewing and American wine have reached heights that would have been considered unimaginable in the past, even as they seem inevitable today.
So fast forward another 25 years and will we see the rise of the American sake industry? As I sit in this suburban hotel, surrounded by so many upstart sake brewers, I have visions of sake rising to become a staple of the western world. Once the public learns how to enjoy this umami-rich libation, other beverages have little chance!
Or at the very least, maybe we’ll earn a seat at the table.
It helps to understand some key elements of the craft. The whole sake making operation is something I consider to be a miracle of science, but amazingly it’s a process that was developed well before modern brewing technology came into existence. In its purest form, sake is a simply brewed beverage composed of four ingredients: rice, koji, yeast and water. The mineral content of the water, the solubility of the rice, and the temperature dictate how vigorous the ferment is, while koji is the workhorse that facilitates the whole show with it's enzymatic capabilities that digest the pure starch in sake rice.
Beyond sake, koji has historically been used to facilitate other Japanese ferments like miso and soy sauce, but has seen a recent rise to culinary stardom in progressive restaurants all over the world. The opportunities for fermenting are limitless, but chefs have become especially fond of koji’s ability to “age” meats more quickly, and speed along the charcuterie process all while adding an unmatched punch of umami to the finished product.
If you’ve had the misfortune of ingesting hot sake from a strip mall sushi restaurant there are likely some things we need to clear up. Specifically, that’s not how sake is supposed to taste. There should be no confusion about whether the beverage you’re consuming is nail polish remover or liquid bleach. This bastardized concoction is a commodity product that seems to have been created as a joke at the expense of the Western public.
Good sake, by contrast, is as widely nuanced in aroma, texture, and flavor as wine, beer, or any other natural ferment on the market. There is a sake for every occasion, but what really sets sake apart are the umami notes derived from the amino acids and natural glutamate byproducts of the brewing process.
Despite the quality of local brews, the popularity of sake in its homeland is on the decline. Japanese youth have become distracted by other beverages, and it’s become increasingly hard to staff the breweries. The number of breweries in Japan has plummeted since the 70s. That said, the breweries that have managed to hang on have begun to find a new market in the West.
Even in times of regressive politics and inflated nationalism, food and beverage have always operated as a conduit between cultures and a bastion for dialogue. As sake culture continues to entangle itself with modern American cuisine, we see great hope, but most importantly an opportunity, for sake to reset its image in the West. Much like expectations of American wine before the 70s, American sake has work to do, but it’s ready to win that battle.
As our conference showed, the work has already begun in earnest. Japanese exports are now increasingly landing on American shores, American farmers are beginning to see the value of growing sake rice, and craft sake breweries are opening around the country at an ever-increasing rate. With each new entrant, there’s more diversity in the market and more opportunities to highlight the wide range of sake styles. Just like wine, if you can’t find a sake that meets your needs it’s probably because there’s something wrong with you, not the beverage.
The three main classifications of sake are Junmai, Ginjo, and Daiginjo—each based on the amount the rice is milled before the brewing process. Junmai is milled the least and therefore typically offers more robust flavors and textures. It’s typically the best pairing for non-Japanese cuisine or for use in cocktails. Compared with junmai sakes, ginjo and daiginjo varieties are typically brewed at a lower temperature and in smaller batches, which leads to very refined and focused flavors. These sakes feature a very crisp or subtle palate, and often a fruity or floral aroma. They tend to work especially well with subtle, minimalist cuisine, but there are always exceptions to every rule.
After the final panel of the conference, I grabbed my copy of Philip Harper’s “Book of Sake” and presented it to him for an autograph. I knew how stupid this was, but the novelty of it made me giddy and I hoped on some level he would appreciate the absurdity as well. I think my real hope was that I could muster the courage to ask him the questions that would never meet the format of a conference Q&A. Swirling in my head were questions like, what is this profound and beautiful loneliness that attaches itself with the crafting of this beverage? Will I ever feel I’ve perfected my craft? Will the Western public ever be able to understand all the nuances of our products?
Maybe I’ll even ask them next time, when I visit Harper-san's brewery in Kyoto this winter.
As Americans we have a beautiful if not childlike affinity for exploring new cultural specialties and experiences. My fear, though, is that oftentimes our passionate disregard for history and tradition end up dissolving the substance of the very things we once cared about so deeply. Before we start to experiment with what sake can be in the future and outside Japan and “Americanizing” it with adjuncts, flavorings, exotic techniques and combinations, my hope is that we understand its history and give it the respect it deserves. Once those truths have rooted themselves into our collective sake consciousness, then the exploration can truly begin and be appreciated.
For now, if you think you don’t like sake, I urge you to give it another chance. There’s something out there for most everyone, and if my conference daydreams have a chance of coming true, we’ll need your help. Ask for sake in places that don’t sell Japanese cuisine. Pizza and sake are especially famous bedmates. And, of course, Philip Harper is a boss—if you find his juice anywhere, don’t be a fool and grab as much as you can.
Finally, if you cross paths with a sake brewer, ask them some questions, taste their wares, and most importantly, give them a hug.
Byron Stithem is the founder and chief fermentation officer at Proper Sake Co., a Nashville, Tennessee based sake brewery. His mission is to celebrate sake as it was enjoyed in its heyday, full flavored and slightly wild, with a thoughtful reverence for the beautiful cultures that brought sake to its present day state of being.