Flavor Flav Meets Sake

By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

There’s something about flavors that sends ripples of excitement into the North American consumer. We’ve seen it with ice cream, popcorn and candies, more recently with craft beers and now it very much seems the turn of our sake industry to soak up this upsurge in interest.

But first things first, hold onto you o-choko as it only seems right to get the legalities off the table before we get into all things flavored.

In Japan, flavors cannot be added to sake. Well, they can be, but the brewer then gives up the right to call it seishu, the legal term for sake as defined by the Liquor Tax Law.

There are plenty of breweries in Japan making flavored products, some really delicious ones too. It’s hard, for example, to leave Wakayama Prefecture without a couple of mikan mandarin orange and ume plum bottles clanking about in your luggage. 

However, juicy delicious though they are, they are not legally sake.

In North America, the jury’s out on just where to draw the line with our own definitions, legal hardline, simple guideline or otherwise. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (or TTB) is making labelling a challenge, with set phrases meaning that “infused” is out but “flavors” is in. The latter brings to mind more negative connotations, a heavy handedness that the former doesn’t, and that’s something we’ll be looking at in more detail in 2022.

And that’s probably just as well as there tends to be quite a division between those who like to infuse and those who don’t want to confuse. Sceptics may ask why add a layer of complexity to the sake brewing process with the addition of flavor and is it right to meddle with such a unique and mysterious beverage?

Where do you sit? Take your time to consider that but for now, shake off any preconceptions and see what’s driving innovation at your local sake brewery. There’s a groundswell of activity around flavor and with a neutral hat on it seems this movement is helping to grow sake sales in North America, without causing too much collateral damage to the original recipes.

Leading the case for the defense is Chris Pisano, owner of Apex Flavors, with a long history in the world of flavor and a recent member of the Association: “My family has been in the flavor business since 1933. I started Apex Flavors, Inc. in 2006 to supply smaller manufactures with high quality extracts and flavors.

This almost century working in flavortown has led to one key approach to blending which North America’s sake brewers wholeheartedly support. “We try to help our customers choose flavors that complement the products they are flavoring,” says Chris. “All too often flavors are used to mask the finished product.  We feel the best results are achieved when a flavor complements and enhances the finished product.

Tsuki Sake’s Jill Watanabe walks the same line, explaining “I always try to balance traditional Japanese with modern American in all things with our brand. When infusing this is particularly important because I don’t want to overpower the ‘sake flavor’ entirely with the item we are infusing sake with.

Patrick Shearer would definitely describe himself as an infuser. Having started his sake adventure working with Sake One over ten years ago, there’s not many an aroma he hasn’t considered, or used.

Now at Ben’s American Sake, these last three years have also been spent deep in infused sake too. “We are very focused on using natural ingredients,” says Patrick, “so we use 100% real fruits and juices even though the costs and labor is significantly greater. Ideally when we make our blends the customer will still be aware that the base product is sake.

And therein lies the key point, sake needs to play a starring role in the finished product, and seemingly this adds another skillset to the already difficult process of brewing sake. 

Working with fruit infusions, as the fruits sometimes change in potency and strength, it is always advised to start with less and add more ginger or jalapenos, or whatever the infusions may be, as needed,” explains Patrick.

But with challenge comes opportunity, as Chris Pisano mentions: “Good Sake is typically multi-dimensional and the subtle flavor nuances make it challenging and dare I say fun to flavor.  We are just scratching the surface with what can be done with flavored Sake.

This precarious balancing act, managing the delicate innate DNA of sake with external flavors, has a real and valid purpose, tried and tested in the craft beer industry, as Patrick explains:

I think the craft beer scene in the USA has inspired me to be creative and to be unafraid to push the boundaries when brewing sake and working on new infused blends. There are interesting parallels with craft beer and the German Purity Laws, the Reinheitsgebot, and what we are doing with infused sake and the strong sake brewing traditions of Japan. To see where the craft beer industry has gone in the last 20 plus years is very impressive and I’m sure many of the sake brewers in North America hope we can achieve something similar.” 

A common thread across many online panels and in after-hours brewery tap room discussions is the constant need to educate would be sake consumers about the merits of what is a difficult beverage to understand. Too many dawns have broken on bleary eyed North American revellers who have fallen prey to cheap and badly presented sakes, each vowing a croaky “never again.” 

Sakes made accessible by familiar, safe and normalised flavors is therefore a simple mechanic to tease and nurture potential converts. It seems to work for Josh Hembree of Setting Sun Sake:

I believe that sake can be made most approachable to American palates when flavored or paired with familiar food. Though thankfully, I find that as my patrons become more sake literate, they inevitably become fans of junmai.

And that’s a sentiment mirrored 800 miles or so to the northeast, at Tsuki Sake “I would say that infused sake can be fun to play around with in cocktails. I’ve even seen pickle sake to mix into bloody marys! It definitely can make sake more approachable and easier to try out if there is a recognizable ingredient in it besides ‘rice’ lol. I’m a sucker for a saketini!

Some 2,500 miles east, at Ben’s American Sake, the feeling is the same “Serving infused sake absolutely appeals to a wider audience here in the USA,” says Patrick Shearer. “Many of our customers only have a faint awareness of what sake is and we use our infused products to try and get them to open up and try something new and exciting. We certainly hope that after trying our infusions they will be open to trying our non-infused more traditional products as well.

But does this, to some more cynical readers, sound like an exercise in sleight of hand, masking the true virtues of the sake beverage and distracting the consumer from the Japanese core?

Well I can’t definitively prove that one way or the other but any lingering pangs of guilt could well be assuaged by the collective commitment shared by North America’s brewers to do the right thing by Japan’s industry, whilst wholeheartedly embracing local sourcing.

Whereas the lack of any strict regulations in North America allows sake slinging innovators like Josh Hembree to get all experimental and diverse in this modern day Wild West, it does throw open the door to interpretation. But it seems to be working at both ends of the spectrum.

I abide by the traditional sake methods defined by the Japanese, in which sake is made of rice, water, yeast, koji, and is then pressed. This is how it is defined in Japan,” says Jill Watanabe, a relative newcomer to brewing but making a name for Tsuki Sake in their inaugural year of brewing.

At Ben’s, entering its eighth year of sake brewing and thereby a seasoned bastion in North America’s industry, the story is one more of fusion between east and west:

Occasionally someone will challenge us and say that what we do is not really sake. My response is usually something along the lines of ‘Yes, in Japan, our infused products would not be considered sake and that’s ok. We are making something for the American consumer in our market.’ Our sake is unabashedly American.  We aim to remove any pretension from the experience of serving and drinking this refined drink.

So the choice is up to you, and in so making that choice take your time, discover what’s out there and give all options your keen attention. Key thing is, the winner out there is sake, be it traditional Japanese, America’s finest, flavored or otherwise. Just keep that glass topped up, and those of your drinking partners. 



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Sake Brewers Association of North America or its members.

Last But Not Least: Yamahai

By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

With yamahai, we find ourselves at the very beginning of the twentieth century.

For centuries, kimoto reigned supreme, a process built on experience, perseverance and, well, trial
and error. Regardless, it built a successful and enduring sake industry. Good times.

All of a sudden though, in 1909, the National Institute for Brewing Studies’ Mr Kinichiro Kagi made
a rather staggering discovery. The iconic (even today) pole ramming yama-oroshi was found to be

The centuries old belief that a significant investment of time and good old elbow grease had been
dispelled by a far more restful solution: patience. In a nutshell, with enough time, the enzymes in
the koji would eventually activate and fulfil their duty, penetrating into the starchy core of their
rice grains. A little bit more water in the mix served to help this, as did a small rise in temperature.

“Just five degrees separates my kimoto from my yamahai,” Blake Richardson of moto-i Sake, North
America’s first craft sake brewery, tells me.

Yes, it is largely as simple as that. Yamahai 山廃: 

Yeast starter method developed after kimoto allowing for natural lactic acid production but without the pummelling labours of yama-oroshi. Also takes 4 weeks, twice as long as its successor sokujo-moto, and tends to yield flavor profiles that are full bodied and funky.

As kimoto’s well-worn poles became a distant memory, this new way of creating the yeast starter would blanket Japan’s Prefectures. Fittingly yamahai, or more precisely yama-oroshi haishi moto, was the term put in place to signal the end of kimoto’s ubiquity, taken from the Japanese haishi (to cease) and of course yama-oroshi (pole ramming). Mercifully for us in the West, they condensed this to a far more manageable term: yamahai.

In modern day Japan, yamahai sakes (kimotos too) are not all that common in the overall sake universe. Not all brewers make one, but, luckily for us, these two styles punch well above their weight and draw in a loyal, arguably fanatical, following.

Once such conscript is Byron Stithem at Proper Saké Co. in Nashville TN. “I was in New York at the time when I was lucky to stumble across yamahai but quickly saw that it just wasn’t around much. I remember thinking I’m probably going to have to make this myself if I want to keep on drinking it,” he tells me. 

Byron quickly moves the conversation to British-born sake brewer, the first non-Japanese toji or master sake brewer, Mr Philip Harper:

We’ve had no yamahai fails so we’re a bit like Philip Harper at Kyoto’s Kinoshita Brewery, although we don’t have the 200 years of brewing history he does! He’s a big inspiration for me, his yamahai sakes changed my world.” We can’t argue with that.

Tamagawa, the brewery’s brand overseen by Harper, is a law unto itself and a subject worthy of its own lengthy article. Tamagawa is divisive and controversial and perhaps that’s where a lot of today’s North American pioneer spirit is coming from.

Only a few years in the making, Brooklyn Kura is leading such a charge across the nation. “Our yamahai is a bigger sake. I wanted to make something distinct from the kimoto. It’s hard to get a spontaneous fermentation in what is basically a modern cement building so I took inspiration from Norway’s kveik yeast. Norway’s rural farmhouses have a wooden wreath that is covered in this yeast and dipped into the brewing wort of beer. So I took this idea back to Brooklyn Kura,” so Brandon Doughan’s story goes.

The wreath itself is hung up in the brewery until needed and is celebrated on the yamahai label. Brooklyn Kura’s BYx – Brewing Year x – will evolve over the years and reflect the naturally occurring ambient yeast, lactic acid, and bacteria found at the brewery at any specific time. It’s a wonderful throwback to simpler times.

Most yamahai conversations, more often than not, quickly move into talk of food pairings.

With food it’s great. Yamahai likes full flavored cuisine, like grilled or seared meats, yakitori of course, cheeses too. In fact anything but sushi it pairs well with. Yamahai has less interference and gives more complexity, it’s more free range if you like,” Byron continues, a great way to sum up what is quite a complicated style of sake.

We use spontaneous fermentation for our in-house selections, and it’s not like the brewery is a couple hundred years old like Japan’s kura,” he says, underplaying things. Byron is currently rebranding his labels to highlight more the yamahai process, whereas before it really wasn’t clear he felt.

But there’s a twist in the tale. Yamahai’s reign was shortlived, no sooner had brewers bought into the method and started to forget about the exertions of kimoto than science would deal another slap across the face of tradition. In 1911, just a couple of years after yamahai’s coming of age, sokujo-moto would halve the time required for making the yeast starter, now needing just two weeks. 

The simple addition of a bit of lactic acid to the moto was deemed to be enough to prevent the wild yeast and unfriendly bacteria from multiplying. This artificial addition has distinct advantages. It’s less susceptible to fluctuating environmental conditions, is less labor-intensive and makes it easier for brewers to keep consistent batch quality. But, it does smother the development of those rugged and unfettered aromas and flavors beloved by many sake fans.

Luckily for us, the craft sake brewer maintains a strong desire to extend the longevity of kimoto and yamahai. It’s a unifying force, and growing, and as customers flock back more and more to the tasting rooms and breweries of North America, it feels like the creativity is cranked up to eleven.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Sake Brewers Association of North America or its members.

Association Brewers Rake in Medals at Sake Competition

Association Brewers Rake in Medals at Sake Competition

We are extremely proud to announce that three Association brewers were medal winners at the prestigious 2021 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition (NYWSC), with Proper Sake Co. taking home a Double Gold Medal for its Yamahai Sake.

The winning streak continued with The Void Sake Co. winning Silvers for both its Opalescent Sake and The Messenger Sake and Ben’s American Sake crossing the finish line with a Silver for its Natural Sake and a Bronze for its Premium Sake. (Click here and enter “sake” in the search window for a full lineup of sake entrants.)

This year was the first time that the NYWSC added a Craft American Sake category, underscoring the increasing quality and sophistication of domestic sake. We are all the more proud to see so many of our member brewers get the recognition they deserve.

Kudos and a big kanpai to all!

In the Beginning: Kimoto

By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

In the Beginning: Kimoto

For both kimoto and yamahai, the yeast starter takes twice as long as the modern day sokujo moto process relying on naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria to create a suitable environment for the sake yeast to multiply.

In so doing, a whole host of other wild yeasts and bacteria spend a short period of time as part of the brew, adding a distinctive wild and gamey tang to the final sakes. And it’s for such aromas and flavors that these two historical types of sake are catching the interest of brewers and customers alike.

It certainly makes for some interesting flavors,” Byron Stithem at Proper Saké Co. tells me. “In the US most people are experiencing sake for the first time so something that pairs with Western cuisine is a good thing, with more complexity on the nose and the palate. America is getting into more modern wine styles. I’m talking natural wines, orange wines, skin contact, all that stuff, which has some parallels with yamahai and kimoto in that they are from a non-intervention production,” he adds.

Unapologetically, here’s the spoiler for Kimoto 生酛:
Kimoto uses a traditional yeast starter method that requires long paddles (kai) to laboriously combine yeast, water, rice and koji into a mash that naturally promotes lactic acid development. This takes four weeks and creates flavors that are generally robust and sometimes funky and tart.

Throughout Japan’s Edo era (1603-1867) and beyond, all yeast starters were kimoto, and everyone was happy with that, unaware of the brewing revolutions around the corner that would simplify so much.

You see, making kimoto is strenuous stuff. Man-sized poles are rammed into small (historically) wooden tubs containing a thick mix of rice and koji, intent on bashing it into a purée. Such aggressive efforts were judged to assist the natural yeast in propagating and kick off the whole fermentation process.

This pole ramming (yama-oroshi) could go on for quite a time, hours in fact, and at all times of the day making sake production at this time into quite a physical ordeal, even more so than today’s experience. But it was deemed essential, and let’s face it, it worked for centuries.

Certainly amongst today’s brewers, there seems to be a growing unspoken allegiance towards a more reverent approach to sake making, as Brandon Doughan at New York’s enterprising Brooklyn Kura explains: “We’re all about the traditional side of sake making, take out the legalities and essentially we’re focused on making proper Japanese sake, basically their Nihonshu.”

Blake Richardson of moto-i Sake, North America’s first craft sake brewery, takes his lead too from the Japan sake mothership, a true fan of yamahai and kimoto sakes. “I always wanted to make these formats. For centuries this is just what you did as a brewer in Japan, there wasn’t such a choice of styles like there is now.

In North America, it seems drinkers are of late looking to purer methods of production, something offered by both yamahai and kimoto. That’s certainly the case for Brooklyn Kura. “I was so inspired by the kimoto I had at Takashima Brewery in Shizuoka Prefecture, it was like this lemon yogurt on a spoon and totally amazing. Breadth of offer is important to Brooklyn Kura’s customers, we need to be sure what we have are all very different to each other and our kimoto helps that a lot,” Brandon informs me.

Pole ramming is supplanted by stomping in Brooklyn, but the microbial situation remains the same. “Our kimoto uses calrose, a very hard rice so it needs to be smashed up. In fact we invite the local kids along to help us with this, which is a lot of fun.

Brooklyn’s kimoto is named “Greenwood” after the park and gothic cemetery just two blocks away from the brewery. “There’s some huge old trees in the park so I’m sure the yeast starters in our courtyard have some Greenwood microorganisms drop into the tubs when the kids are stomping about and that’s pretty cool.” Brandon’s still looking to isolate a Greenwood yeast, we’re told, but isn’t giving up.

Clearly kimoto production is far from straightforward. Now, as then, brewers need to rely a lot more on instinct and experience. At moto-i, Blake is constantly checking temperatures and relocating the repurposed German schnapps tanks around the brewery, as well as on the rooftop when conditions are right to manage the yeast and bacterial populations. “Luckily the tanks are on wheels,” he admits, “and we call it “Kimoto On The Roof”. We’ve tried the Akita-style pulverising of the mash for our kimoto but it’s largely all down to the temperature controls.

We did our first kimoto in 2019 so it’s still early days and we’re always learning. However, both yamahai and kimoto are easy sells to people that have a natural affinity with brewing processes, passionate fermenters if you like. We seem to attract quite a lot of these kinds of consumers,” confesses Brian Polen, partner in crime at Brooklyn Kura.

It seems the risk-reward balance of kimoto production is paying off and striking a chord across North America. Although there’s no hard and fast textbook profile for kimoto, advocates will talk of a richer, more robust beverage, with a depth and lactic tang, bordering on a tartness.

This does allow it to play a leading role in food pairings, offering as it does a wealth of savoury components, and can hold its own with rich dairy dishes (carbonara and cream sauces), umami rich ingredients also (cheese, mushrooms). Grilled meats love a kimoto too, so that’s your izakaya skewers, but also your grill favourites. Light her on up!

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Sake Brewers Association of North America or its members.

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.

GETTING STARTED: Kimoto & Yamahai Series

By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

GETTING STARTED: Kimoto & Yamahai Series

Summer is well and truly here. Shaking off some of the restrictions is allowing a bon viveur mentality to take hold. Consumers are flocking to patronise again old haunts and slowly help them recoup the lost fortunes of the last eighteen or so months.

Brewers too across North America have reconnected with the passionate experimentation that got sent reluctantly into hibernation during the darker months of the pandemic, with the traditional yeast starters (“motos” or “shubos” in Japanese, the terms are interchangeable) known as yamahai shikomi and kimoto-tsukuri playing a big part.

As both yamahai and kimoto are processes that can be applied to all grades of sake, they’re definitely going to be on your radar at some time or other, so knowing what you’re ordering is important. Time for a fast-track to moto appreciation:

  • Yamahai and kimoto sakes are largely similar to each other in that their yeasts are left to multiply in a rich lactic acid soup created by harnessing the bacteria naturally
  • Yamahai and kimoto yeast starters take four, not two, weeks like their modern counterparts to reach a state of readiness
  • This extended period allows wild microbes to briefly add their gamey (“rambunctious” John Gaunter calls it) contribution to the end sake

Basically “Wild” Mother Nature takes her time, but it’s up to you how you want to remember it.

So what’s really going on in tank? Well, like all alcoholic fermentations, sake needs yeast cells, lots of them. We’re talking tens of millions of cells in just a few drops of liquid. To provide the ideal environment for sake yeasts to thrive, all else needs to be wiped out.

Only lactic acid can do this without obliterating everything inside, the unwanted and the wanted. Through some wonderful coincidence lactic acid and the yeast can coexist where nothing else can, but the key point here is how the lactic acid is introduced.

These days and since 1911 actually, in really the vast majority of cases, lactic acid is added by brewers from a cultivated pure vial, unleashing the selective death and destruction required quickly and effectively. Today’s sokujo moto (“fast” moto) dominates the market and uses this shortcut, but yamahai and kimoto do not.

Before 1911, there was no other way. Lactic acid had to be cajoled and introduced naturally into the moto. There was no work around. This process takes time but at the end of the four weeks the yamahai and kimoto yeast starter is largely, on the surface at least, in the same ballpark as sokujo moto.

That is, except for a critical factor that explains the aromatic and flavor differences within the resulting kimoto and yamahai sakes. During their four-week period of moto development, the foundations for yamahai and kimoto sakes are essentially a playground for all kinds of wild entities to have their moment in influencing the end sake. It’s like Spring Break in there!

As to exactly when the lactic acid bacteria gain supremacy will vary each time but either way, foreign microbes have had a window to make their mark and forever be part of the final beverage. This all leads, usually, to a richer, wilder flavor for sakes fermented from a yamahai and kimoto yeast starter compared to the cleaner flavor profiles of sokujo moto.

But what of the differences between yamahai and kimoto? The next article will take a closer look at the original yeast starter, kimoto, which was until 1909 or so the only option out there for brewers for centuries. Now making a comeback, we’ll see just what this slice of sake history means to brewers in North America.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Sake Brewers Association of North America or its members.

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.

Pure Allure

By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

Junmai or aruten sake, what’s best?

Well, I could end this article here, before it’s even got started, because for the majority of sake consumers in a blind tasting, it’s just not at all easy to differentiate between sake that has been made with and without the addition of distilled alcohol. In such a situation, does it really matter which one you prefer? Just settle in and keep drinking it.

But there is a debate, one that’s been raging for much of this century, that seems to be ongoing because there somehow needs to be a winner. At least that’s what some pockets of stubborn sake enthusiasts feel.

Our view is that junmai and aruten are both delicious forms of sake, and that there’s better times to drink one than another, but even then it’s never that clean cut. If you’re new to sake and already confused, let’s give out a lifeline and a quick rundown on things. Brace yourself.

The world of sake can be bisected in many ways, and in a number of circumstances the cutting can yield a simple A or B option. For instance, premium sake (tokutei meishoshu) and regular sake (futsushu). There’s also pasteurised (hi-ire) and non-pasteurised (namazake) sake. And, of course, this junmai and aruten slicing is another example.

Junmai 純米, or junmai-shu, refers to sake that is made solely from rice, koji and water – the triumvirate of ingredients required in order to brew sake (although most have small additions of yeast and lactic acid nowadays too) – and translates as pure rice sake (純: pure; 米: rice). Purity is a cornerstone of the Shinto religion and sake is used to purify space and as an offering to appease the gods. It’s not hard to see the appeal.

Aruten アル添 is short for arukōru (alcohol) tenka (addition) and differentiates sake where brewer’s alcohol is added before the pressing stage. All sake legally has to go through pressing to be classed as seishu 清酒, the legal name for sake in Japanese. Aruten itself is not a legal term but works nonetheless, although you won’t see it written on a label, whereas you will with junmai.

Anyway, still with us? Hope so. Now here’s a big point to note, and one that disbands the myth that drinking sake gives you that headache. Even this added alcohol aruten category does not supercharge the sake into a fortified beverage or spirit. More water is added later on in the process that reduces the overall alcohol levels back to the standard 15-17% ABV (although it can go a little higher and significantly lower). That unproductive Friday morning in the office isn’t due to drinking sake, it’s because you drank too much sake. At least with Zoom nobody can smell you out.

You might be wondering what all the fuss is about then. Well, junmai as a category is enjoying a period of popularity growth these last few years. In many ways that is not difficult to comprehend because of the 1,200 or so active breweries in Japan, less than 5% are dedicated to brewing solely junmai sakes. The remaining majority, however, will be making a few junmai-shu within their regular line up but clearly then there’s room for some volume growth.

In North America, things are very different with many breweries in fact favouring no added alcohol sakes. However, this focus could well be down to local legislation which is a source of frustration for many in the industry, as debated in a recent Association webinar (to watch click here), and outlined here by Andrew Centofante at North American Sake Brewery: “I think the biggest reason most of us are not playing with aruten is the lack of clarity around the US laws. Adding distilled alcohol is kind of a grey area and depending on the federal laws and the state laws, it might not be possible or it might make things complicated in terms of labelling, taxes and sources.”

Award-winning junmai from North American Sake Brewery

Josh Hembree at Setting Sun Sake Brewing Co. goes a little further when he says “The laws here in America make it very difficult to manufacture and distribute this product. You need many more licenses to distill and fortify or purchase bulk neutral grain spirit and fortify, including additional certifications to be able to sell it.”

As we learned during the Association’s webinar, the situation can vary state by state, something which Patrick Shearer – Head Brewer at Ben’s American Sake – explained to me:

“My guess as to why the sake brewers in the US are sticking to brewing junmai primarily has to do with the difficulty in getting a distillery permit. My understanding is that to brew sake in the United States, you need a Federal Brewing Permit and a state brewing or winery licence. In North Carolina we are classified as a winery. In order to add brewers alcohol or neutral grain spirits we would need to get a Federal and state distillery permit, the difficulty and cost of doing so skyrockets.

Brewing junmai sake at Ben’s American Sake

Here, up until just last year, any product that has a distilled spirit in it had to be taxed as a spirit (a higher tax rate than wine). The product was then shipped to the state-controlled ABC (Alcohol Beverage Commission) warehouse and then repurchased by the producer or by the state-controlled ABC liquor stores.

This means that the product was marked up multiple times before the producer could sell it at their own bar or tasting room. Plus, it could only be sold at state-controlled liquor stores, the distillery’s tasting room or a licenced bar by special order through the state-controlled ABC store.”

In Japan, where things are significantly more straightforward, the driving force behind the junmai resurgence is down to the whole purity of the 純米 nomenclature as people thirst for a lifestyle where less is more and feel a moral obligation to have a predominantly natural shopping basket of free from groceries. Basically, it’s very on trend to be drinking pure.

Taking this a step further is the concurrent growth trajectory in yamahai and kimoto sakes. Sure, production levels can only realistically go up as they constitute, combined, around just 1% of Japan’s sake output. As I alluded to earlier, vials of yeast and lactic acid generally are the fourth and fifth ingredients of junmai sake but truly authentically made yamahai and kimoto sakes will depend on naturally occurring proprietary yeasts and lactic acid bacteria from the brewery walls and beams to fall into the tanks, rather than rely on their stable laboratory equivalents. It doesn’t get much purer than that.

The last point to make in favour of this pure sake by the junmai campaigners is that in the same way we like to know the source of the happy pigs and smiling cows that have made it to our dining tables, with no alcohol added sakes those key three ingredients (the acid and the yeasts too) are all Japanese sourced. This gives full Japanese traceability and a warm sense of national pride all in one bottle.

For aruten sakes, the added alcohol comes from sugarcane grown outside of Japan. It’s still pretty pure though in that the distillation process itself is as clean as it gets and even then, the imported distillate mostly gets redistilled further in Japan, and then let down with a little water before shipping to breweries (this is flammable stuff, remember).

Let’s just go back to a word earlier in this piece – futsushu. This category occupies about 65% of Japan’s total sake production. The reason for adding alcohol in the production of futsushu is largely an economic one. Bulking sake out with alcohol and the requisite amount of water to keep that ABV within the legal parameters is a very reasonable solution to bolster yields. There’s plenty of very decent futsushu out there too, quality is not an issue.

For premium sake – tokutei meishoshu – the addition of alcohol is not an economic one, and the amounts introduced are small compared to futsushu. What little that does get added coaxes out the more delicate and fragrant aromatics, making them more prominent. It’s no surprise that the majority of award-winning competition sakes are aruten.

“There are reasons to believe that the gentle coaxing provided by a small amount of spirit can unlock a heightened sense of aroma as well as a sharpening or balancing of some flavors that may otherwise not have found harmony with one another,” explains Byron Stithem at Proper Saké Co.

Byron’s junmai sake

It’s here that a highly experienced palate has their way in to making a call on aruten or junmai when blind tasting. The latter will tend to be richer, with higher acidity. However, these attributes can be masked with yeasts and rice varietals. The nature of the original rice comes through better with junmai, there’s less chemical trickery going on to confuse, giving the taster a strong hint at the category.

For Japanese brewers, with decades and centuries of experience, junmai making is, relatively speaking, a lot more routine. It’s a different story here. Adding further procedures into what is already a challenging production process isn’t something many want to get into, including Brad Saliga, Toji at Texas Sake Company:

“To put it simply, it would add an extra step that’s unnecessary. We get plenty of ABV within a short enough amount of time and still retain flavor characteristics depending on the style. I also don’t see the cost benefit unless you’re using less raw ingredients. But even then I’m not sure if it’s worth the hassle of blending exact measurements in a large volume of liquid.”

Texas Sake’s junmai sake

Andrew making koji, one of the three key ingredients for junmai-shu

Andrew Centofante agrees, saying: “There is not a ton of information available about some of the nuance around this. Certain sources say to add brewers alcohol but it doesn’t really say what exactly that is. I think most understand the basic concept but there might not be enough knowledge and so people won’t risk it.”

Brian Polen at Brooklyn Kura volunteers a different take on it, but one that will have many of his peers nodding in agreement: “It’s always a challenge to present sake to people for the first time. In the US, people often think of sake as a distilled beverage that is served to them in shot glasses. So, for me to explain to them that it is a brewed beverage, but also, in certain cases, has spirit added to it, can be very confusing for people.”

You can see why many sake fans won’t get involved in this dialogue as to which is better. However, there is one inescapable truth here. Aruten sakes generally have a better shelf life with this additional hit of alcohol but unless you’re engaged in some at home long term aging experimentation, chances are you’ll respect the brewer’s wishes and drink the sake sooner rather than later, so this extra shelf life isn’t such a bonus anyway.

It’s a complicated situation but one to be aware of, so our advice right now is simple. Enjoy your sake, whatever you have to hand. If it’s aruten then just understand the validity and benefits that the added alcohol is giving you, basking in those aromats and floating amidst that perfumed haze. If you’re having junmai, acknowledge the brewer’s decision to keep it pure, get to know the rice within and, if you want, feel a little smugness at the purity of your buying decision.

Lastly, if you do want to argue about it, be sure it’s with a sake newbie. The more sake drinkers we enlist, the more assured the future of this baffling beverage.


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.

Rising to the Challenge

By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

To you it’s heavenly but your basement emits a heady aroma that has the neighbors wondering about just how much you’re drinking. Your backyard is an engineering playground as you weld pipes, tubes and hoppers, foraged from the junkyard, into usable brewing equipment. The mailman some days squints to read the packages franked with Japanese stamps and unintelligible Hiragana.

That’s right, you’re on the cusp of opening a sake brewery in North America.

At this point, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like much of the hard work is done and only excitement and sake experimentation lie ahead. In this article we want to leave you informed and forewarned of the potential regulatory headaches ahead, and to assure you that the sake community won’t leave you out in the cold.

The recent webinar ‘Rules Of The Brew’ hosted by Bernie Baskin, founding President and current Board Member of the Association outlined the current challenges and opportunities ahead for North American sake and touched on the progress achieved in the relatively short existence of the Association. But there’s still a long way to go, and the reality of what the industry could be is still heavily restrained by some short-sighted law-making and poorly thought through policies.

One of the first things Bernie told us was that: “Until 2019, nobody had catalogued Federal and State laws and regulations across the USA, Mexico and Canada.” Yet by the summer of 2019, a 166-page document existed that did just that, thanks to the Association’s efforts and now rather than facing the challenges somewhat blindly, it’s clear where they are, as well as where the opportunities exist.

We would encourage you to watch the captivating hour of footage (here) with Jamie Graves (Skurnik Wines), Sachiko Miyagi (Tippsy), and Andrew Centofante (North American Sake Brewery). Their passionate words will convey far better the idiosyncrasies of their situations, and how they’ve all learned to deal with adversity in their respective roles. However, it’s still worth taking a closer look at the key regulatory impediments to industry growth as this is where the Association can advocate for change at the Federal and State levels.

The overriding challenge for anyone associated with the industry here is that sake is not defined under US, Canadian or Mexican Laws. As a relatively small segment of the alcoholic beverages market, this has not been such a big hurdle but by shining a spotlight onto the industry through the positive growth and recognition we are now experiencing, it will be hard for things to remain under the radar.

As sake attracts more consumers, the need for them to know what they’re drinking from the label and bottle will become more important, and will need to be consistent,” says Bernie. Consumer confidence and buy in is vital to the ongoing success of North American sake and so ironing out the finer details of the definition with relevant agencies is a critically important undertaking. “People will need to be told what sake is, and what it is not, and that’s down to the regulators,” Bernie continues.

Depending on your location, incorporating a sake brewery can be a difficult affair. In almost all States sake is categorized as a beer, yet more often than not labelling falls under wine industry guidelines. Laws and regulations have been hastily put together and simply don’t make a whole lot of sense. You might need two permits, one allowing you to act as a brewer and the other permitting production and blending of wines. A crazy amount of unnecessary bureaucracy.

Complexity doesn’t end there. For Andrew Centofante in Virginia and his North American Sake Brewery there is the added stipulation within Virginia State Law to have a food made fresh on-site requirement with a minimum $2,000 of revenue per month. “We have a wonderful restaurant here but we shouldn’t need to be worrying about this when there’s enough going on with simply brewing sake,” explains Andrew.

In States where sake is defined as a beer, there are challenges also. Tennessee, for example, has a cap on sales of beverages that are over 8% ABV, so this of course affects sake. This means that two cases (5 gallons) is the maximum purchase per visit. Not great for wedding planning, summer parties or Thanksgiving family dinners once life returns to normal.

So that’s where this problem lies. In opening this Pandora’s Box of regulatory uncertainty, the confusion over whether sake is a beer or a wine – of course it’s neither – will be scrutinized and this scrutiny will largely be conducted by those with next to no sake knowledge of their own.

What is needed is a more rational and harmonized system for regulating sake. The task should smooth the set-up process for new breweries across the nation but it’s a big undertaking as “Every State acts like a different country,” Sachiko Miyagi from online retailer Tippsy points out.

As of right now, your choice of location also has the benefits, or more likely disadvantages, of taxation rules as to how the State categorizes your sake line up. Taxes can vary significantly but that’s not all, in some places your route to market can be compromised. For example, in some local jurisdictions your sakes may not be eligible to be stocked within grocery stores along with all other alcoholic beverages, and that’s a big deal.

As a maker of alcohol, sake brewing sits within one of three tiers in the US alcoholic beverages supply chain. As a ‘maker’, breweries cannot also be a ‘distributor’. Distributors, such as Skurnik Wines in New York, reside in a second tier and can sell to restaurants and businesses but cannot sell to consumers directly. Plus, there is no such thing as preferential pricing for bulk purchase and loyal customers. It’s one price for all, and that doesn’t feel right.

Tippsy on the other hand, an online distributor, makes up the third tier of ‘sellers’ and is permitted to sell to you and me, the end user consumer, but cannot sell to restaurants, clubs and sports venues.

This three-tier system is a rather antiquated legacy of the prohibition days and full of its own legal complexities and limitations which doesn’t work in the industry’s favour. However, it is a very entrenched system and one that is unlikely to see any change.

It’s clear now that the Rules Of The Brew need to change. We are at a turning point. Tippsy recently surveyed their audience and concluded that the industry is definitely in growth, and that it’s now “just the tip of the iceberg.” You can see why they are growing their sake portfolio by 40% this year.

Jamie from Skurnik Wines talked about the passion for sake in the restaurant industry: “A real big moment in the last five to ten years took place whereby people used to say ‘I didn’t know sake could be good’ are now saying ‘I don’t know what to get’.

That’s a seismic shift in how consumers are viewing and interacting with sake. Riding this wave of enthusiasm is key and it is in the best interests of the sake community to reduce the structural and legal impediments that may hamper industry growth.

If you’re out there listening and want to do something in the US – setting up a brewery or bringing your sake here – we have a home for you and we have a community waiting to help you,” are Bernie’s final words.

Sounds good, right? Let’s do this.

Taking the Leap

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.

– – – – – –

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.

– – – – –

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.

SBANA Partners with EOJ on Series of Virtual Events

The Sake Brewers Association of North America (SBANA) is pleased to announce our new partnership with the Embassy of Japan in Washington, DC launching a series of virtual, engaging, and exciting initiatives promoting the sake industry and consumer knowledge in North America via three online webinar sessions:

Thursday, February 25th, 2021
7:00PM-8:30PM USA/Eastern Time
Friday, February 26th
9:00AM-10:30AM Japan Time
This engaging exploration of sake will shine a spotlight on the launch of the North America-Japan Sake Dialogue, an initiative designed to foster cooperation and information-sharing between sake brewers on both sides of the Pacific about common challenges and opportunities in the industry. Featuring an all-star lineup of some of the most dynamic innovators in the sake industry in Japan and the United States in a discussion moderated by sake expert Justin Potts of Sake On Air and with introductory remarks by Kosuke Kuji, master brewer and president of Nanbu Bijin. Dialogue participants include:

Japanese sake representatives:

North American sake representatives:

Click here to register for the event.

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021
7:00PM-8:00PM USA/Eastern Time
Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021
9:00AM-10:00AM Japan Time
Sake brewers and entrepreneurs often face a bewildering array of laws that strictly regulate how their products are produced, distributed and sold across North America. SBANA  Board Member Bernie Baskin will lead a discussion on the regulatory landscape facing the industry, followed by a discussion on the future direction of the sake market in North America with industry insiders Ms. Sachiko Miyagi of Tippsy and Mr. Jamie Graves of Skurnik Wines and Spirits. The webinar will be simultaneously translated in English and Japanese and will include a Q&A session with the audience.

Click here to register for the event.

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021
7:00PM-8:00PM USA/Eastern Time
Wednesday, March 24th, 2021
8:00AM-9:00AM Japan Time
This webinar will feature the world premier of SBANA’s animated video illustrating sake’s unique tradition, craft, and range of enjoyment for sake newcomers. The video will be followed by a panel discussion, moderated by sake expert Jessica Joly, with three SBANA member brewers relating their passion for sake and sake-making: Mr. Andrew Centofante of North American Sake Brewery (Charlottesville, VA); Ms. Euka Isawa of MiCURA (Miyagi, Japan) and Mr. Patrick Shearer of Ben’s American Sake (Asheville, NC). The March 23 event will be held in conjunction with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the nation’s greatest springtime celebration commemorating the enduring friendship between the people of Japan and the United States.

Click here to register for the event.

We hope you will be able to join us for what promises to be an exciting series of sake programs (be sure to register via the links above)!

Brewer in a Box

By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

With the global pandemic reaching its first (and hopefully last) birthday this month, we take a look at the growing interest in homebrewing, one of the popular new hobbies taken up since restrictions curtailed many previous regular pastimes.

 In subsequent pieces in this mini-series, we’ll go on to see just how passionately the alchemy has been embraced within the homebrewing movement, as well as how homebrewing inspired some to take the leap from domestic to commercial brewing ventures.

For now, in this the first article on homebrewing and fermentation, we take a look at the innovative MiCURA brand, speaking with business owner and Tokyo resident Euka Isawa.

There are a number of often unspoken, but widely recognised, aromas that tend to lift the spirits and bring an uncontrollable beaming smile. Grilled onions on a hotdog stand wafting down the sidewalk from a block away is likely one of them. Sorry, veggies, but the humble allium never smelled so good, or so wrong.

Golf nuts will nod in quiet agreement that the freshly cut fairway smell on a crisp summer morning, the dew evaporating off the grass is also right up there. Better still if the rough has been cut down too.

For many sake fans spending far too much mandated time at home recently, there’s no doubt that the aroma of our happy place, a sake brewery, will always bring an overdose of excitement. Those unmistakeable aromas steeped into the walls from decades of fermentation are truly life enhancing.

Well, relief is on its way, a sake vaccine if you like, thanks to the enterprising efforts of Euka Isawa and her boutique business enterprise, MiCURA, that is producing an all you need sake brewing kit, for homebrewing.

I say boutique but that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. MiCURA has over 5,000 active members – complimentary membership is offered with purchase – in the US, Europe and Asia, 23 countries in all. A great following in less than three years.

Being able to interact with sake lovers from all over the world through MiCURA is one of the great joys of this project”.

That’s a pretty significant following. MiCURA retains a personal feel to it with Euka-san herself just an email or online video away from helping guide you through any brewing questions. Not that you would really need much support, which is a big part of the MiCURA appeal, in that pretty much every brewing issue or eventuality has been identified, addressed and ironed out within the ‘How To Brew’ guide. In some instances, recurrent pitfalls have been alleviated entirely from the brewing process.

The vision behind MiCURA is really rather special. In essence, with every box of MiCURA that gets shipped out of Tokyo, Euka-san hopes to convert the passion of each budding home Toji into a step forward for the potential of the sake industry outside of Japan. She believes that by delivering a good brewing experience, MiCURA can only cement consumer appreciation and understanding, growing further international acceptance and demand for sake.

Allow me to break it down for you a little.

Euka-san recognised an important dichotomy within the sake industry in that Japanese seishu 清酒 brewers are confined by age old regulations and restrictions, some due to stuffy bureaucracy (not least Japan’s Liquor Tax laws), others attributable to cultural or historical restraints. That isn’t necessarily a criticism. For centuries such confines have kept the industry alive, thriving in fact, at least until about 50 years ago. But let’s not go there.

The difference lies with the absence of the majority of these shackles outside of Japan, something Euka-san noted during a stint in the US:

“I noticed whilst I was in New York that there was a lot of energy and potential around homebrewing. I decided I wanted to find a way of bringing the sake brewing industry out of Japan”.

The unique design – and it is unique, there is no other one-stop-shop kit in the world – allows any budding home Toji to produce close to three 720ml yongobin of Ginjo level sake. MiCURA’s emphasis is on maximising the experience of brewing, ensuring a full sensory journey for the brewer as the sake evolves. For example, you’re encouraged to taste the moromi at different stages of its development to gauge what is happening below the bubbles.

This is achieved by having all the fermentation ingredients pre-weighed and hermetically sealed, ready to go. The equipment, not that there’s a lot of it, has been carefully selected for ease and smoothness during the processes. So, the bag used for separating the lees from your sake is not only made from the same material used within the industry itself for pressing, it also conveniently fits perfectly the containers provided by MiCURA for carrying out this process.

Euka-san wants pressing to be enjoyable, visual (the containers are transparent) and simple, rather than have the brewer frustrated over spillage, mess and less than perfect results.

Equipment sourcing is something Euka-san takes personal pride in and as MiCURA has developed, additional resources have been identified to elevate the homebrewing result even closer to the real deal. This includes a tabletop fune-shibori type pressing tool which can be used instead of the shizuku ‘by bag’ pressing option provided within the kit.

Requiring more time than scouring around for equipment, and certainly more knowledge, has been the enormous task of putting together the MiCURA “recipe” for brewers to follow. The recipe book, it’s more of a manual I suppose, is just twenty or so pages which belies the time, patience and commitment to getting this project off the ground in the first place.

The very name, MiCURA, is a hint at the efforts required in creating the kit and the science behind it all. ‘Mi’ relates to everyone’s favourite microorganisms, koji-kin and brewing yeasts.  It’s also a clever play on words with ‘My Kura’ (kura is Japanese for brewery) being darn close to MiCURA!

Euka-san had two pretty good headstarts when it came to putting together the formulae for a sake brewing kit. Firstly, her aptitude for sciences at High School enabled her to read and comprehend a number of brewing papers and articles which would have been beyond the abilities of many.

Secondly, Euka-san is the daughter of the Kuramoto at Katsuyama Shuzo in Miyagi Prefecture, which has been making top class sake since 1688, quenching the thirsts of Sendai’s feudal lords in the early decades. Although not officially inducted as a Katsuyama brewer, it’s in the blood, and spring break would be spent working in the brewery.

Like many of her generation, Euka-san left home for the big city life, enrolling at the University of Tokyo where the cityslicker students’ attitude towards sake painted a very different picture.

They stereotyped sake drinking as something for boozy nights out, something that would lead to hangovers. It got me asking ‘Why do they think that?’”.

Quickly, Euka-san created the Sake Student Association, open to all University students to join, to begin her crusade to change this perception and would later go on to win a place on a joint public-private scholarship programme which would address the ‘Study of the Sake Market Overseas’, with a view to contribute to the Japanese industry in the future.

Seemingly the MiCURA concept began bubbling away as an idea almost a decade ago. To bolster thing further, Euka-san, now 21 years old, would spend significant periods of the year in New York, facilitating the growth of Katsuyama’s sakes within the restaurant community, and growing a trusted network of beverage professionals. She would also take the Sake Sommelier Course, run by the Sake School of America.

Effectively becoming a student again, Euka-san spent three months immersed in self-study of how to translate factory scale brewing into a homebrewing capacity. At the end of it the first MiCURA prototype was ready for her inquisitive, yet cynical, New York restaurant guinea pigs to try, including Cagen restaurant’s respected Tomita-sensei.

His understanding of the importance of temperature control and hygiene as a Michelin starred sushi chef were skills that facilitated a very tasty first effort at sake brewing. Cagen staff also became engaged in the restaurant’s sake production, taking time to check on the sake and enjoy the evolution of the moromi.

It made me think: ‘Well, it’s not impossible to make high quality sake from homebrewing if you have good temperature control and hygiene’”.

With the prototypes turning out to be rather good, the floodgates had opened.

Things started to pick up. The sake kasu my testing was making showed potential with Chefs. I started giving prototype kits to Sommeliers, mixologists and restaurateurs. They seemed to really like it, the kits were a nice change to the usual sake tastings and seminars, they’d done all that before but hadn’t made their own sake.

In a way it became a learning tool for them, it opened their eyes too to the regulations and laws involved in sake making in the US and Japan, as well as the differences. More importantly perhaps, it got them experimenting and enjoying the process. We had one guy innovating with a lemon’s citric acid instead of lactic acid, for example”.

The rest is MiCURA history in a way. These industry contacts helped mould the kit into the current version and Euka-san is keen to sprinkle into its presentation the learnings, fun and games to be had, that they had, for each new member to enjoy.

The manual is a mix of education and information, clearly laid out but with suggestions all through to take a listen or have a taste to get the full immersive and multisensory benefits derived from brewing sake. It’s one of the most captivating science experiments out there, and it yields sake, what’s not to like!

I have a lot of Members who are sake educators, they really find this takes their knowledge to a new level, and in a different direction. Live streamers love it too for the visuals they can share and promote and it’s really satisfying the inquisitive minds of the sake geeks out there too!”.

So much has been crammed into these last three years. What’s next for MiCURA? The kit continues to evolve and has just been finessed for the international markets, taking on board recent feedback, such as some regions don’t tend to respond well to written instructions.

The intention is for MiCURA always to be failsafe wherever possible to guarantee the enjoyment factor. Plus I’m always trying to innovate, so for example the newest kit, ‘Nana’, has no need for any lactic acid to be added. It uses two kinds of koji-kin, yellow and white, the white introduces citric acid into the moromi which controls unwanted bacteria and creates a really juicy fresh sake, not unlike white wine”.

Let’s finish with a final look at how MiCURA has by chance slotted in so well into the current global situation living under virus restrictions. Japan’s domestic sake market is struggling like never before and is turning to the international industry to spread the good word of nihonshu.

People in Japan can only drink so much sake, and they tend not to drink so much at home compared to when eating at restaurants and social drinking after work which is not possible just now. Consumption and sales peaks come from all the events across the country which are constantly being cancelled. More importantly though, these events allow consumers to try new brands of sake and talk with the brewers which is something that is right now really missing in the industry with things being as they are”.

Brewing your own sake really is a great way, a practical way, to augment any sake education. There are plenty of options for theory learning out there from a handful of recognised education providers but you can’t beat the hands on experience, taking on the responsibility of a living, bubbling batch of the stuff. MiCURA is one of many solutions to any brew-curious sake fans, and with stay at home orders still in place for many of us, now’s really not a bad time to have a go.

Let’s face it, we all know there’s nothing quite like tasting namazake from the tank, and MiCURA’s is as fresh as it gets, and you don’t even need to leave your front door to have a cup. Or four.



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.