‘More Like a Fine Wine’: West Coast Makers Want You to Be a Better Sake Drinker
Brands like Nova Brewing, SakéOne, and Sequoia Sake are redefining what sake is in the West.
West Coast brewers are making sake more food-friendly than ever.
The traditional, rice-based alcoholic beverage has been brewed for thousands of years in Japan. But sake breweries are spawning on the West Coast, particularly across California and Oregon in recent years. In an attempt to simultaneously honor traditional sake-making and also introduce innovative methods, these brewers are creating their own spin by sourcing local ingredients and adding unique regional flavors.
“It’s been hard for the whole sake industry to grow in America,” says James Jin, head brewer and co-founder of Nova Brewing Co. in Southern California. “First of all, people have a misconception of what it is because a lot of cheaply made sake have been imported, most of which have a more alcoholic taste. Modern brewers, we’re trying to clarify what sake is and how we drink it more like a fine wine.”
Sake makers face the challenge of not only modifying the brewing method to fit West Coast ingredients, but also marketing it to a wine-drinking audience. “What I discovered was that Americans, for the most part, unlike these other categories like wine or beer or spirits, think of sake as very Japanese specific,” says SakéOne president and CEO Steve Vuylsteke.
Instead of being viewed as a drink to enjoy every day with dinner, sake, to many, is something primarily consumed at restaurants, often with Japanese foods like sushi, Vulysteke notes. But West Coast brewers are on a mission to educate consumers about how much more sake can be.
Ripe for Rice Cultivation
The West is home to the best sake rice outside of Japan, making it an ideal region to craft what Vuylsteke calls “one of the purest forms of alcoholic beverages in the market.” Based in Oregon, SakéOne was the first major sake producer in the U.S. and has since become a leading brewery with five distinct sakes.
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Sake is made from just four ingredients: rice, water, koji, and yeast. “Since it’s so simple in the number of ingredients, it means each ingredient needs to be perfect,” Vuylsteke says.
Grown primarily in California’s Sacramento region, calrose rice is known by brewers as the best alternative to Japanese-grown sake rice. It’s a descendent of the yamada nishiki variety, a rice often used in Japanese sake. John W. Thompson, partner and grower of Chico Executive Group in the Sacramento Valley, is one of few farmers in the U.S. who grow sake-grade rice.
Because the crop requires such a specific environment, rice growers are often unwilling to risk a low yield, or sometimes even a failed season. So, some farmers took whatever pure calrose they could grow and combined it with other varieties, Thompson explains.
“Before Thompson, we couldn’t figure out what we were missing,” Vuylsteke says. “We had perfected our recipe, but the rice we sourced wasn’t all calrose.”
SakéOne now exclusively sources rice through Thompson, and Vuylsteke credits his company’s success to the high-quality product.
Water Makes a Difference
Beyond rice, Jin says the biggest difference between West Coast and Japanese sakes is the water. Most of the water used in Japanese sakes is soft; even the regions considered to produce hard water are softer than American water, especially water sourced from the West Coast.
Hard water contains more minerals, especially calcium, making a healthier and drier fermentation that gives you a richer mouth feel. “Our particular style has higher acidity and more sweetness than traditional Japanese sake, which leads to more umami and fruitiness,” says Jin, who also crafts sakes with calrose rice.
West Coast sake makers are also experimenting with flavor. Jake Myrick, head brewer and co-founder of Sequoia Sake in San Francisco, created a California Sake Collection in which he channeled the region’s reputation for making great wine. Traditionally, sake is brewed in stainless steel tanks without additional ingredients, but Myrick aged it in used wine barrels to bring in new flavors. For instance, Sequoia’s Rosé sake was aged in red wine barrels previously used for Napa-based winery Matthiasson’s Cabernet Sauvignon. Seqouia’s Blanc sake was aged in French oak barrels used for Matthiasson’s Chardonnay.
To take these infusions a step further, Myrick also incorporates jalapeños as an homage to California’s massive pepper agriculture industry. He buys fresh peppers then roasts, de-seeds, and de-skins them before placing them in the sake for three to five weeks, which allows the flavor to seep into the sake with just the right amount of heat.
“The Bay Area has a long tradition with fermentation and food, so it makes perfect sense we should incorporate wine barrels and jalapeño peppers into our sake,” Myrick says.
How to Enjoy Sake
West Coast sake brewers want to emphasize the beverage’s malleability. While an incompatible food and wine pairing can lead to a “gastronomic disaster” in your mouth, “you don’t need to be nearly so concerned with how you’re pairing sake with the right entree,” Vuylsteke says.
You can experiment with pairing sake with different cuisines like Italian, Indian, American, and more.
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Jin emphasizes that all sake should be served chilled in a white wine glass, not a traditional shot glass. “Sake contains more alcohol than wine, but that doesn’t make it a liquor,” he says, adding that it should not be served warm. Some restaurants serve it as such to mask the strong alcoholic taste, especially when the sake is cheaply made, Jin explains. West Coast brewers are aiming to dispel that idea and prove that high-quality sake tastes best when chilled or over ice.
When choosing a sake, the most common ones you’ll run into are Junmai-shu, Daiginjo-shu, Genshu, and Nigori. Nova Brewing’s Eclipse sake is Junmai, meaning the rice grain has been milled down to 70% of its size, as Jin aimed to reflect more of a white wine taste. This method results in an alcohol content of around 15%.
Daiginjo, or ginjo, means the rice grain has been milled down to 50% of the size—the most premium sake—and sits at an ABV of 13%. (SakéOne became one of the first companies to can Ginjo with its Yomi Junmai Ginjo collection.)
Genshu sake is undiluted and features the highest alcohol content through natural fermentation at over 18%. SakéOne’s highly awarded g saké works well when sipped slowly over ice or in cocktails.
Nigori, a coarsely filtered yet creamy sake, typically has lower ABV levels around 13% to 15% and takes on flavor infusions more drastically. Sequoia Sake’s Coastal Nigori stands out as a perfectly creamy and balanced Nigori, and SakéOne’s Moonstone Coconut Lemongrass Nigori is known for its piña colada-y flavors.