By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

Our homebrewing mini-series continues as we check in with three Association members and take a look at their experiences. Two have migrated from homebrewer to commercial brewing, the third is teetering on the edge.

Their respective situations share many similarities, not least an unbridled passion for sake exploration and hunger for perfection. With this piece we hope to motivate any readers out there to have a go at homebrewing, and for those already enjoying a taste of their own sake stash, perhaps this will inspire you to take the leap into the challenging but exciting realm of large scale production.

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Make the leap no matter what.

That’s the advice of Byron Stithem, Founder CEO and Brewmaster of Proper Saké Co. down in Nashville, started in 2016. It typifies the passion within the growing international sake community.

That said, Byron confessed a few short minutes earlier that “I would have done things a bit differently had I known the obstacles ahead,” and he wisely checks himself and amends his statement to “Everyone should make the leap, just make sure you’ve done your homework.” Wise words.

And that’s what this whole thing is really about. Sake lures you in, like a mythological liquor Siren, she’s something quite fascinating. Japan already has a huge allure to so many people, cloaked in mystery and underlined by a culture so ancient yet seemingly so advanced at the same time. This semi-mystical nation’s national drink provides such a range of aromas, flavours and textures and for every answer to a sake question there always seems to be a handful of exceptions and sidesteps.

It’s easy to see how to a certain personality type or to folks with a certain field of interest, sake brewing can be so rewarding. And ultimately addictive.

For Troy Nakamatsu, brewing the first authentic craft Japanese sake in Los Angeles at Sawtelle Sake is the result of a perfect storm of circumstances. Being in the right place (Los Angeles, a city where Japanese food has a head start on much of the country) at the right time kicked him over the edge and into brewing full time: “It was a slow building thing, but I was deeply unfulfilled at work which pushed me to brew more and ultimately gave me the confidence to seize the opportunity.

With the majority of North America’s sake breweries celebrating anniversaries this year that aren’t even in double digits, it’s incredible to see how much progress has been made within the sake community here that can only smooth the path for the budding brewmasters of the future.

Amongst those could well be Karine Villeneuve, doing her thing in Montréal just over the border in Canada’s Québec province. Karine’s attraction to sake is based on her very capable technical background as a chemist, working at a molecular level with active ingredients.

An exposure to sake and sushi during a two-year stint in Southern California, a well-thumbed copy of Release The Toji Within along with a John Gauntner online course accelerated Karine’s introduction to brewing and her first batch was deemed: “Not bad at all.

Karine's first batch

The floodgates were open: “I decided then and there that I wanted to try more and more things, I love doing that.” Fortunately for Karine, trailblazers like Byron and Troy (and many others) have paved the way for a smoother entry into the brewing world outside of Japan.

So what’s changed?

Many Japanese breweries have begun to notice the parallels of our efforts and have started to offer guidance in really profound ways.  Plus, with organizations like the Association now, we’ve really been able to rally our minds and resources around brewers wanting to get started.

Byron continues by explaining further the broader opportunities out there in the current community for would be brewers:

One of the biggest things you can now do is go work in a brewery here in America. At least when the virus isn’t around. And plenty of Japanese breweries will show you around too but apprenticing wherever you can is so helpful. Working within the SOPs of a commercial brewing environment will really help with all the sanitation requirements you’ll need. Two or three years ago it was different, it was hard to get any information from Japanese breweries back in the day.

Yes, the sake community is all warm and fluffy for this kind of thing, but it’s early days still and there’s a long way to go, as Troy explains: “Homebrewers of beer have a massive amount of information to hand, but we’re not there yet for sake. Yet. We are a group leading the charge.

Troy goes on to make a very relevant observation that the cultural differences between Japan and the West play a significant role in how each approaches sake brewing. Being so new in the West, sake brewing is perceived more as an art whereas, in Japan, sake brewing often is just a job people get paid to do. In many ways, sharing this trade with the West must seem quite odd, and having lots of Westerners come to your place of work asking all sorts of questions about your 9 to 5 isn’t something you would expect.

To this Troy adds: “It’s possible that Japan is only beginning to consider that we could be the real deal outside of Japan, an actual industry.” The Association agrees and projecting a positive image of our own sake products is a big part of the ongoing North America-Japan Sake Brewers dialogue and our partnership with the Embassy of Japan.

One other key thing for Karine and others like her is that the North American industry has now evolved and matured far enough to have worked through the early breweries’ business plans (for some the five-year plans and beyond) and seen them play out for real in the cold light of day. Because of this, learnings are now being shared and forerunners’ mistakes and pitfalls can be swerved.

Raise an appropriate amount of funds, more than you think,” suggests Byron. Troy echoes that sentiment. His financial services background held him in good stead from the off and he elected to raise equity capital for Sawtelle Sake in the beginning, although laments having to rapidly adjust the business model initially in response to the COVID pandemic.

Early homebrew koji experimentation for Sawtelle Sake
A homebrew explosion

Troy’s own experience of unwittingly walking into the benefits of being located alongside a distillery leads him to recommend a support bubble of some kind or other: “The guys there are all ex-engineers and it has a welding station on site which we’ve been able to take advantage of a few times. Knowing this was there for us gave a lot of confidence to the venture. We even use their column still to steam our rice.

Karine tells us that her should I/shouldn’t I? existence at the moment is something of a rollercoaster ride, and lately she’s at the bottom of one of the coaster’s dips. Luckily though, as Karine explains, the ride will start to climb again soon: “I have discovered a great mentor, she’s in the food industry and really connected.

Her pensive situation is understandable though in many ways in that Canada, in particular the province of Québec, is behind the US in terms of its sake evolution and acceptance in the local market.

There is no category here for sake either, we have to use the Government channels for distribution, we cannot do direct sales so the distributor model is the only one open to us. This makes scaling up and customer education more challenging. As a consumer, the range is pretty limited but I’m prepared to drive an hour to Ontario to pick up from the store there. The good news is things are changing, we even have a very small Sake Festival that started in 2018 now.”

Moto prep, Québec style

Initially in Karine’s homebrewing experience, ingredient sourcing was a challenge. One place in Vancouver was a lifeline for rice selling 60% milled Akita Komachi but she would have to reach across the border to the US for koji-kin and even then, the options were very limited.

It’s a little better now, I have #7 and #9 yeasts to play with and a variety of rices from Sun Valley Rice. I’ll be making my first Daiginjo in 2021 too, but first need to get through the 150 pounds of rice I have already at my house! Luckily for me, the spring water around Québec is pretty nice – it’s hard and has no iron.

Karine’s passion is clear, and her hunger for experimentation and ambition is catching. She even talks of wanting to try her hand at a Yamahai. “The costs may be prohibitive but there’s always a way. I’m looking for a partner right now such as beer breweries for instance to help absorb the costs and potentially share some equipment and staff.

Byron’s Diplomat range of sakes are Yamahai style

Speaking of Yamahai, the biggest catalyst for Byron’s plunge into commercial production came after trying his first Yamahai at Sake Bar Decibel in New York.  “It put me over the edge and is such a wonderful category.  I hope my Yamahai will inspire folks to continue learning about and enjoying new and old styles of sake.

And therein lies perhaps the biggest challenge facing brewers, and the Association, in the current market. The future of the sake industry in North America will be covered in a webinar on March 2 and education will surely take up a good part of the discussions.

As brewers we have to create a market, and we are stronger working together with the Association,” says Troy. “We have to normalise all the State and Federal regulations, they’re a nightmare. Our goal has to be to get people to drink more sake, to make it super accessible. We have to simplify. Right now people just don’t know how to order sake.

Byron agrees, but nobody here is complaining. They have solutions and ideas, and just want people to be able to get into and enjoy this great drink. Byron hopes that the West Coast and New York sakes can start to trickle down south, and Troy is even disappointed with the current range of sake for sale in Los Angeles.

Accessibility is important. Byron feels that Japan should look to simplify the labels more for international markets and domestic sake should appear in a broader range of restaurant cuisines. “Sake shouldn’t be relegated to Sushi and Japanese restaurants,” agrees Troy, adding “there’s a lot of demand for cocktails made with a sake base and now that we have our own local sake rice varietals, we should look to a kind of California terroir.

Byron’s “Make the leap no matter what” started this article and it’s clear why. The North American sake industry is full of passionate visionary personalities. The physical ingredients for making sake here may be tricky to come by but the mental ingredients required are well stocked.

To you, Karine, and anyone else thinking about going for it this status quo has to be very comforting. Add to this passion the opportunities now available to shadow homegrown industry experts in a real brewing environment, get to Japan when you can, and be realistic about the financial implications of what you’re taking on. That’s the recipe for success, so leap away.

It’s only fair that Troy finishes this article that Byron’s quote started with one of his own that might just be the little catalyst needed: “In a lot of ways, brewing sake is so stupidly hard and complicated but that makes it even more rewarding and a lot of fun.

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A certified sake sommelier, Will Jarvis is the owner and founder of Sake Matters, consulting for a variety of clients in Hong Kong and around the world. He has over 20 years’ experience working in the F&B industry in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, is a trained chef and holds a diploma in hospitality.