Nova Brewing Company: Southern California’s Bright New Sake Star

**Reposted from Rice, Water Earth: Notes on Sake**

The sake world is so exciting now in part because of the way it seems to be infiltrating every corner of the world, from New Orleans to New Zealand. In North America, it’s hard to get an exact bead on that growth because the industry “is still in its infancy” and new breweries are in various stages of planning and building, notes Weston Konishi, president of the Sake Brewers Association of North America.

Yet over the last year, he’s noticed “a growing number of folks in the southern states who have either opened or expressed an interest in opening commercial sake breweries, including in states like Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas.” He adds, “I'm not really sure why that is--it could be due to access to rice--but it is in marked contrast to other regions where growth has been more incremental. On the whole, though, I see more openings than closures--and that's a good thing!”

Southern California, too, has witnessed some promising sake activity. On my recent trip to Los Angeles, I dropped in on one of two new breweries that have opened recently in the area, Nova Brewing Company.

Company co-founder James Jin began his sake journey (like so many others!) through promoting Japanese food and beverages. As a sake sales rep for Mutual Trading Co., falling in love with sake was almost a given once he had access to premium craft sake. It was his first sip of junmai daiginjo—from Yamagata Prefecture’s Tatenokawa Shuzo that made him a fan. “I was blown away by how fruity and smooth it was, yet it was just rice, water and koji,” he recalls. He went on to add other Tohoku brands to his list of favorites, including Takagi Shuzo (makers of the Juyondai brand) and Aramasa breweries. Today, his love of these makers—along with Hyogo’s venerable Kiku-Masamune Brewery—helps shape the sakes he brews himself, big, bold and dry flavors that pair well with western food, especially the food of his native southern California.

It was while he was studying for his sake sommelier certification at Los Angeles’s Sake School of America in 2018 that Jin got to know his future partner, both business and IRL, Emiko Tanabe  (they now have a one-and-a half-year-old daughter, Yuna). A native of Niigata Prefecture, Tanabe owns a vitamin company in Niigata and in the U.S., distributes a soy paper product used as a stand-in for nori. Both she and Jin like to taste sake and explore, so they traveled as far as Hokkaido to visit breweries and take notes on sake production and sales. They wondered why Los Angeles, despite its large Japanese population, had no sake brewery to call its own, and decided to remedy that, hatching the birth of Nova.

They leased a 3,000-square-foot former brewery space in the San Gabriel Valley town of Covina they opened Nova in 2019, where they brew both sake and beer, and sell a Nova brand of wine made by a third-party producer in Lodi, California.

 The couple chose the name Nova, in the sense of “bright new star” to capture their hopes for their new enterprise, explains Jin, an astronomy buff who once taught the subject at a local community college. They launched a sake-promoting Instagram account, @sakeunderground in 2018, and later that year opened Nova.  As Tanabe was assembling the licensing they would need to sell alcohol, in late 2019, Jin headed to Japan. At this point his brewing training consisted of home brewing both beer and sake. He spent several months as a hands-on apprentice at Ibaraki Prefecture’s Inaba Shuzo, headed by sixth-generation owner-master brewer Nobuko Inaba. He trained mostly under head brewer in charge of daily operations, Masao Matsuura, then put in a stint at another Ibaraki Prefecture brewery, Kiuchi Shuzo (makers of Hitachino beer as well as sake).

Inaba was “one of the smallest breweries that Mutual was working with, and still using handmade techniques,” he recalls. “I wanted to learn that.” In exchange for free lodging and his fill of rice, he labored daily in the brewery.Rice made a big impact on him both as a brewer and an eater. “Some of the best rice I’ve had in my life was the freshly harvested Koshihikari there,” he says. All he needed to do to complete his meals, he adds, “was to go to 7/11 for some soy sauce and tamago (eggs).” I know exactly what he means! I would trade many a fancy North American restaurant dinner in exchange for new harvest Japanese table rice—it can be a revelation, even for someone who grew up on Calrose and Tamahikari rice.

Jin released his first batch of sake for sale in in late summer 2020. All of Nova’s sakes are nama, or unpasteurized, and use both the traditional method of pressing called shizuku (drip-method) and Jin’s own method of vacuum pressing. Both preserve the integrity and delicacy of the sake’s flavor profile and avoid crushing the rice, which can result in harshness and off flavors. Jin’s Gravity sake, made with California Calrose table rice polished to 50 percent, is inspired by Inaba Shuzo’s delicious small-batch Stella junmai daiginjo sake. Both are drip-pressed, muroka genshu (not charcoal filtered, with no water added post-brewing) labels that start with a fruity sweetness but finish dry.

One difference is Gravity’s super-high acidity (up to 2.4 percent), which Jin offsets by drawing out its sweetness (SMV -3). Gravity exhibits the creamy lactic notes of unpasteurized sake, but is astringent with a long finish. The label suits Jin’s taste for juicy, rich sakes that go with bolder foods like grilled steaks, roasted pork or sake lees-marinated chicken katsu. The label design uses a Japanese suminagashi paper marbling technique of ink drops swirled with water, which echoes the shizuku drip method of pressing, and the name “gravity” also refers to the drip filtering. A nice blend of concept, content and label design!

Tanabe’s tastes, meanwhile, run toward the sweeter profile of Nova’s Eclipse sake, which is brewed using a blend of black koji (used to make Okinawan awamori and shochu) and the more traditional yellow koji. The black koji results in higher, Riesling wine-like acidity, which Jin says was inspired by Ikekami Shuzo’s Kurokabuto sake. Again, the name and label design—a solar eclipse depicting both light and dark koji types—reflect the core identity of the sake.

Jin’s love of Okinawan drink also inspired his dark, Belgian triple ale-like Okinawa Smoke beer, brewed with kokuto (mineral-rich Okinawan unrefined brown sugar), and cherrywood-smoked malt. Sadly, this beer was out of stock when I visited, but I did try and like his crisp and fruity Ginjo 7 hybrid lager/ale, which he brews with steamed Calrose rice and Kyokai Yeast #701.

After chatting and tasting in Nova’s rustic tasting room, we exited through the back of the building and entered the adjacent brewery space, which that week was dedicated to beer brewing. The room was suffused with the grassy, pungent aroma of hops. In between guiding a new employee through beer brewing basics Jin showed me his beer fermentation tanks, the stacked, dim sum-style rice steamers he bought from a restaurant supplier, the walk-in fridge that serves as his fermentation room, and his small, hand-made and meticulously sanitized koji muro. Every surface that his koji touches, even the koji-buta (koji box) is made of stainless steel , which he asserts is more hygienic than wood and easier to clean.

Jin then offered me a taste of mouth-puckering black koji, sourced from Japan. There was also a small batch of yamahai starter that he was experimenting with, as well as an experimental tank of doburoku (the chunky, unfiltered sake that he loves) that he’s brewing with cacao nib koji. His discovery: “There’s not much starch in cacao, so the koji grown on it didn’t produce much sweetness; I had to be blended with rice koji.” Although he doesn’t have completed doburoku on hand today, in October, to celebrate both World Sake Day and the brewery’s one-year anniversary, Nova offered three, eight-seat doburoku-making workshops, all of which sold out.

Over time, Jin and Tanabe would like to raise the brewery’s profile in the Los Angeles area, promote sake culture, and show consumers how well sake can pair with western as well as Asian food. Jin will continue his doburoku production and education, and ultimately he hopes, create a “sake museum” where visitors can see sake brewing in process and learn about everything from sake pairing to how to use sake kasu (lees) in cooking.

If you happen to be in southern California, check out this map to see where you might be able to find some Nova sake, or just visit the brewery’s tasting room!

In Other Sake News…

In my last post, I touted the March 8 release of our book, Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake: Rice, Water, Earth. Well, guess what? Covid supply chain issues have made our books miss their deadline, something I myself try never to do. Now the new publication date is May 10, but you can still pre-order from all major booksellers. Stay tuned for more updates!

 


Rule of Thirds puts Greenpoint, Brooklyn on the Sake Map

**Reposted from Rice, Water Earth: Notes on Sake**

How do you go, in a span of under three years, from running a 12-seat restaurant counter specializing in sustainable fish and Japanese breakfasts, to helming a sprawling, 100-plus seat hangar of an izakaya?

For Rule of Thirds co-founders J.T. Vuong and George Padilla, the transformation was made possible by the close-knit creative community they built during their five years together at Yuji Haraguchi’s  Okonomi in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This is where Vuong, as head chef, and Padilla, as general manager, offered Vuong’s beautifully restrained ichiju-sansai breakfasts, and later, weekend evening omakase menus. So many of the people they would eventually partner with at Rule of Thirds, from Todd Enany, Adam Landsman, and Jaime Young of Sunday Hospitality to their sake importers, interior and graphic designers and ceramic artists, were regular customers at Okonomi.

Rule of Thirds opened on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint in early 2020, a neighborhood filled with two-story warehouses and the feel of a living, evolving community. On offer is Vuong’s extensive roster of globally influenced izakaya fare (a pork shoulder tonkatsu that’s been marinated in Brooklyn Kura sake lees; kanpachi box sushi pressed with pickled cherry leaves, or a hot honey and yuzu salad with buckwheat groats), a 40-label sake list and a 25-plus natural wine list curated by Padilla. “I like to think of wine as the pickles on the table,” he says, “a vibrant and refreshing acidic counterpoint” to the seamless meshing of food and sake. Approximately a third of the sake list consists of fresh and lively nama, or unpasteurized, sakes, many of them brewed with the old-fashioned bodaimotokimoto or yamahai starter methods. For me, the combination of delicious food, sake, and Rule of Thirds’ modern Japanese vibe makes it well worth the three-subway trek it takes to get there.

Padilla and Vuong’ migration from Williamsburg to Greenpoint happened after departing Okonomi in 2018, feeling constrained by its small size. The duo knew they wanted to continue their collaboration, so they worked a variety of restaurant and hospitality gigs and on their day off, held a short-lived pop-up called Yasumi Project at Brooklyn Kura. Then in 2019 they heard from their friends at Sunday Hospitality, who were on the hunt for a team to step into the 85-seat space recently vacated by the Scandinavian restaurant Norman. The new concept would anchor a 23,000-square-foot creative and co-working space in Greenpoint owned by BMW and centered on its Mini Cooper division’s A/D/O design studio.

Padilla and Vuong were up for the challenge. But shortly after they opened Rule of Thirds, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and in May 2020, A/D/O, which had become an incubator for progressive design thinking, abruptly announced its imminent closure. Rule of Thirds annexed half of the remaining A/D/O space, adding a soon-to-open retail bottle shop called Bin Bin Sake, and the capacity to stage events for up to 500 people.

The name Rule of Thirds refers to the concept of dividing a visual field into a grid of thirds—an aid to creating a strong, balanced picture. The name is both a nod to the space’s design-centric origins, says Padilla, and the “synergy and collaboration” that is at the core of the restaurant. “The most interesting things happen at the intersection of the grid lines,” he explains.

The restaurant, outfitted with shoji-like screens, wooden latticework, soft lighting and lots of natural wood surfaces, is the work of interior designer Loren Daye, while graphic designers Andy Chen and Waqas Jawid captured the restaurant’s spirit of playfulness. Padilla called on other friends from his time at Okonomi, ceramic artists Yuko NishikawaErin Louise Clancy, and twins Carly and Alana Miller for fittingly shibui tableware, ochoko sake cups and mobiles, some of which adorn the many private rooms scattered through the restaurant. “We wanted to take that community feeling of Okonomi, and transfer it to Rule of Thirds,” explains Padilla. A tall order given the size of his new home!

What We Drank

But sitting in one of the many meditative private rooms last week, chatting over a flight of five sakes with Padilla and server Sophia Sioris (who takes the lead on sake-related projects, including the forthcoming retail shop), it did feel like a cozy communal sake experience. Especially when Padilla warmed up a carafe of Terada Honke Brewery’s Katori 90, a junmai nama genshu and one of my favorite “natural” sakes. Padilla likes it for its versatility, noting that in addition to serving it warm it’s good for sake tonics. “I especially love it at room temperature,” he adds.

There was an easy-drinking, softly acidic Heiwa Shuzo “Kid” junmai that we tasted both chilled and warmed, which paired nicely with a tuna tartare and nori dish as well as a citrus-accented plate of binchotan-grilled maitake mushrooms slicked with olive oil, an herbaceous gremolata, and a showering of lemon zest.

I was particularly excited to taste some of Kato Sake Works’ products: a bright and creamy Pilot nigori sake that’s lightly carbonated in the bottle. The back label explains that the sake is “a prototype we’re playing around with,” and requests feedback from tasters. For comparison’s sake, we also tried Kato’s “Hazy” nigori, a grassy, slightly cloudy bottle brewed with Calrose table rice polished to 60 percent. Both were nice foils for Vuong’s exemplary tsukune, ground chicken wrapped around skewers and coated with a sweet-and-savory Worcestershire-egg yolk jam. We closed out the tasting with the powerfully savory Hojo Biden yamahai junmai sake from Mii no Kotobuki, poured from an isshobin (magnum) format bottle specially brewed for Rule of Thirds.

Padilla fell into the hospitality business after moving from Portland, Oregon to New York City to attend Columbia’s Master of Public Health program in environmental health policy. His own tastes, developed on the job, are wide ranging, spanning his first discovery in 2014 during his early days at Okonomi of Kiku-Masamune’s kimoto junmai, which the restaurant sold by the cup, to current favorites Akishika Shuzo’s Black Moheji, a “powerful and moving sake,” brewed with Omachi rice from a single paddy, and Kato Sake Work’s yuzu Citrus Junos sake. “The sake flavor itself leads,” Padilla says of the yuzu sake, “unlike most others that just taste like juice.” He is also a fan of Uehara Shuzo’s Soma no Tengu usu-nigori junmai ginjo nama genshu for its often perplexing balance of creamy fruitiness and firm woody bitterness.

When and How to Visit Rule of Thirds

A good introduction to Rule of Thirds’ sake list is through its Bin Bin Sake pop-ups on weekends (check the restaurant’s Resy page or its Instagram account. There are also ticketed, multi-course dinners like the current Uni & Friends and Friends, held in the restaurant’s tented, outdoor “Winter Village” space.

Padilla’s vision of the restaurant as a multi-faceted hospitality platform, a “whole ecosystem,” is in line with his own environmental studies and the constantly mutating ferment of the sake world itself. By staging events like “kanpai comedy nights,” or tenugui bottle- wrapping workshops or perhaps even guided, immersive theater-like sake experiences, he wants to connect different parts of that ecosystem, and teach people to “live with sake,” both on nights out and at home.

“My dream is to have everyone who visits our sake shop pick up an isshobin of sake—or actually, two,” he says. “One for the fridge and one to leave out at room temperature.”


Decibel: New York City's First, and Coolest, Sake Bar

**Reposted from Rice, Water Earth: Notes on Sake**

Since I’m in New York, now, I decided to check on the seminal East Village Sake Bar Decibel to  see how it’s faring after a year-and-a-half of pandemic hardship.

Decibel opened in 1993, setting itself on the path to becoming arguably the best place outside of Japan to drink sake. Inspiration for the concept came to entrepreneur Bon Yagi in 1992, when he took his first sip of Niigata Prefecture’s Koshi no Kanbai, an example of the light, dry and refined junmai style that was then all the rage in Japan, so different from the heavily adulterated post-World War II stuff that Yagi typically associated with the drink.

The sake blew Yagi’s mind, enough so to make him decide to clear the whisky out of his East 9th Street underground bar and make way for about 40 different sake labels.

From the beginning, Yagi intended for Decibel to be a hidden speakeasy. He mounted an “On Air” radio studio sign on the building’s front to throw off the uninitiated. Inside, the bar was gritty, graffiti covered and loud, punk music blasting from the speakers, the floor staffed with Japanese expats. They had little in common with midtown finance and trading company types; they orbited around the worlds of art, fashion and music. It was a scene that writer Jon Bonné chronicles well in this 2019 appreciation.

A Breeding Ground for Sake Bar Talent

For all its drunken revelry, Decibel was also a training ground for sake professionals who put in their time, then fanned out to open sake bars across New York and the country, bringing with them a passion for craft sake. Former manager Takahiro Okada went on to EN Japanese Brasserie (with Decibel co-worker Miki Kanematsu), then to Tribeca’s  Sake Bar Shigure. Now the the two of them are spearheading the launch of a new East Village Sake bar, to be called Gongo (五合) which refers to half of a standard 1.8-liter issho-bin.

Manager Yuki Mori arrived at Decibel in 2004 and fell in love with sake on the job, leaving in 2014 to launch Stirling Sake in Greenport, Long Island (its tagline: “A Restaurant and Sake Bar where the Far East Meets the East End.”) Another alum, Courtney Kaplan, opened Los Angeles’s Tsubaki and Ototo with her partner, chef Charles Nanba.

Arriving at Decibel, I meet co-managers Cho Shintaro and Yuri Itakura. Shintaro’s previous job was sourcing fabrics for brands like Comme des Garçons and Prada, while Itakura was drawn to New York to study fashion. Decades of hard use have turned the basement bar into a dimly-lit cave of aka-chochin (red paper restaurant lanterns), dusty sake bottles, issho-bin on tap, Japanese folk masks and quirky dioramas.

Shinkame Tasting

Itakura says that she likes ojisan-style sakes (lit., “uncle” style, but basically rich and robust old-school bottles that eschew big fruit and floral aromas—impeccably brewed brands like Kenbishi or Tengumai.  Shintaro announces that his current favorite sake is Saitama Prefecture’s Shinkame, one of the pioneers of the revived junmai (pure, uncut with brewer’s alcohol) style.

He sets off to retrieve a bottle. What are the chances? Within the span of two weeks, I’m lucky enough to get my second taste of Shinkame’s delicious junmai. (The first was during my visit to Los Angeles, when I finally—after long hoping to buy a bottle—managed to track one down from True Sake.) “It’s good, right?” asks Shintaro. “It’s so awesome you can’t stop drinking it. Sometimes Tamagawa (from the widely admired Kinoshita Brewery in Kyoto led by British master brewer Philip Harper) comes on too strong but this is really rich and smooth.”

Top-selling sakes at Decibel change along with what the featured sake of the week are. Recently Decibel has spotlighted Senchu Hassaku from Tsukasabotan Brewery in Kochi Prefecture, Suishin from Hiroshima, and Kikusui’s izakaya food-friendly Funaguchi from Niigata.

The Covid-19 shut-downs and curfews have been hard, Shintaro and Itakura admit. They’ve had to winnow down what was once a 100-bottle list or so to 50, while Decibel’s staff has shrunk from 15 to five people. Operating hours have been shortened as well.

 Over the nine years or so that they have worked at Decibel, they’ve noticed that regulars are becoming younger, moving from mostly a mid-30s crowd to guests in their 20s. While most do not know much about sake, Yuri notes that “almost every day” someone will come in who has tasted sake at one of the many craft sake breweries that are opening across America, wanting to learn more. “I recommend that they go to Kato Sake Works or Brooklyn Kura,” where they can try draft sake,” she says.

Decibel Nostalgia

As we sip our Shinkame in a worn, sticker-covered booth fitted with a wooden table that has nearly completely lost its finish, Shintaro and Itakura regale me with a selection of Decibel stories.

When Decibel turned 21 in 2014, the staff decided it should celebrate its arrival at legal drinking age by throwing a party. During a week of celebratory events, they held open mic nights, during which guests told their favorite drinking stories before downing a shot of sake. They also played drinking games like the Kochi Prefecture favorite, bekuhai.

In those earlier days, Decibel’s punk roots merged with performance art. There was an employee who, taking a page from Japanese pro wrestling legend Antonio Inoki, gained a reputation for creating champs by slapping them. Guests would look forward to watching the Inoki impersonator, in various stages of undress, slapping other guests. It seems that this was a little too East Village dive bar for Mori, who stepped in to put an end to that chapter of the bar’s history. “It was bad for customers, and out of control, so I had to stop it,” Mori recalls. “It was crazy idea to do that!”

Even though serving customers who were already drunk when they arrived at the bar and mediating fights could be taxing, Mori remembers his decade at Decibel fondly. “I met so many cool people from all over the world,” he says. Decibel was part of the charged underground art, music and dance scene of the late ’90s and early oughts, making it into the chronicle of this universe, Evanly Schindler’s BlackBook. By the time Mori arrived, Decibel’s playlist veered from punk to hip hop to world music. “Every month one of the employees could buy a CD, and when it was your turn to tend bar, you could choose the music,” he recalls. There was a purism about the bar, too. No matter how much guests might beg for a sake bomb, servers made it clear that wasn’t going to happen here.

“Sake is like the Beatles,” Yuki says, somewhat puzzlingly. What he remembers, he explains, is how nights at Decibel were like the kind of communal experience when a whole roomful of strangers hear a Beatles song. “White people, Black people, Asian people, they all know they lyrics, they sing together and start talking to each other. Decibel was like that,” Mori says. “It’s a really small place, and when people drink sake, they start to talk to each other. I remember two couples who met at Decibel and ended up getting married.”

In less than two years Decibel will celebrate its 30th anniversary. It is a must-visit if you want to do a New York City sake bar crawl. I hope that knowing a little bit of its storied history will make your visit an even more fun and meaningful place to explore some new sakes and old favorites.

More Sake News

My sake book co-writer and I, Michael Tremblay, have submitted a panel proposal for the 2022 South By Southwest Festival in Austin. The PanelPicker process allows you to upvote panels that you like. Voting is open til August 26, so if you like this blog and want to learn more about our book, please take a moment to upvote us here! We will be forever grateful.

RWE: Notes on Sake friend Will Jarvis has written this very interesting article on vegan sake and why we’re seeing these labels more and more.

While I plan my next Clubhouse room on cooking with sake lees and shio-koji, here’s a story on what sake lees can do for Japanese-raised cattle. I applaud Toyama Prefecture’s efforts to meet the UN’s sustainability goal of halving its food waste by 2030!


Islander Sake Brewery: Reviving a Hawai'ian Sake Brewing Tradition

**Reposted from Rice, Water Earth: Notes on Sake**

One of the most exciting aspects of being a sake fan today is watching more and more craft sake breweries open around the world. One that I’m looking forward to visiting is Honolulu’s Islander Sake Brewery, which has brought sake making back to the islands after a gap of more than 30 years.

 When the brewery opened its doors on March 16, 2020, it was the culmination of master brewer and president Chiaki Takahashi’s love for Hawai’i, Japan and the microbes that she, as a fermentation scientist, knows and loves.

The brewery is tiny, about 1,100 square feet with a maximum production capacity of about 12,000 bottles annually. “People call us and want to participate in a brewery tour. They assume it will take forty-five minutes or an hour, but I tell them it takes five minutes,” says vice president Tama Hirose.

Still, in the 15 months since it opened, the brewery has produced 10 different sakes, most of them nama genshu (unpasteurized and undiluted), using Okayama Omachi rice, Kitashizuku from Hokkaido, and Sacramento Yamada Nishiki. They brew with yeast numbers 7 and 9.

It wasn’t easy connecting with the brewery’s co-owners to learn more about them—they were busy trying to keep the business afloat during the pandemic—but I finally managed to do so.

Takahashi’s love for the islands grew over the course of more than 100 visits to Hawai’i, both for pleasure and business. Through her stays first as a single woman, then with her husband and children, she came to think of the islands as a second home. She loved Hawai’i so much she announced to her family that when she reached the age of 50, she would retire there and begin her second career as the maker of pineapple wine.

 But during the intervening years, Hawai’i changed. High land and labor costs drove the big pineapple producers like Dole and Del Monte elsewhere. Meanwhile, Takahashi’s own work as a research scientist had pushed her interests in a slightly different direction. Mid-career, she transitioned from studying the effects of stress on brain chemistry at Nippon Medical School to working for Japan’s National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB). Her topic was still the same, studying the effects of stress, both harmful and beneficial, only now it was in relation to sake fermentation. She also learned how to make wine at the Institute of Enology and Viticulture at the University of Yamanashi.

Takahashi learned that just as for human beings, there is an optimal level of stress that one should put on the microbes involved in sake fermentation. Her post-retirement dream shifted from making pineapple wine to making sake—still in the Hawai’i she loved.

 Honolulu Sake Brewery

 When Takahashi and her business partner Hirose opened the brewery in 2020, few old-timers remained who remembered the last sake brewery to operate on the islands. Honolulu Sake Brewery was established in 1908 by Tajiro Sumida to cater to the large number of Japanese immigrants laboring on sugar cane plantations. After a long, hard day at work, they needed that taste of home to soothe their homesick souls and tired muscles. Honolulu Sake Brewery helped shaped Hawai’i’s economy, and became a leader in sake brewing innovation.

 It survived Prohibition thanks to its groundbreaking advances in refrigeration technology, which had allowed it to become the only company in the world to brew sake year round. When liquor production was outlawed, the company turned to ice making as its primary business, with Tajiro’s younger brother Daizo leading the company. It survived World War II as well, despite the imprisonment of the younger Sumida in a U.S. Government prison camp.

 Paying Tribute to a Legendary Brewing Scientist

 In the 1950s, as new technical challenges emerged, Honolulu Sake Brewery was saved by a brilliant brewing scientist, Takao Nihei, who had been dispatched from NRIB to help it work through its brewing issues. He eventually moved to Hawai’i with his wife, raising a family and living there until his death in 1994, just five years after the shuttering of the brewery that owed its survival to him.

 At NRIB, Takahashi had gotten to know Nihei’s widow, Misayo Nihei. She came to understand the important role Nihei and the brewery had played in the history of sake development. She began to imagine reviving his legacy of sake-making excellence. A year later, in 2017, Takahashi was invited to be a judge at the U.S. National Sake Appraisal, attending the Joy of Sake event that followed. She was impressed by the 1,600 or so enthusiastic sake fans that thronged the event, and decided it was time to make her move, as well as pay tribute to Nihei’s legacy.

 She launched a crowdfunding campaign and partnered with Hirose, a Kochi Prefecture native with a business degree from the University of Hawai’i. In addition to having worked for the biggest Japanese-language newspaper and radio broadcaster in Hawai’i, he had a background in retail. In Kochi City he had operated a store in which sake was just one of many items he sold.

 The 3/11 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster had changed his life and deepened his appreciation of the drink. The disaster put a halt to all domestic tourism to Northern Japan. Suddenly, vacationers were arriving in Kochi (located on the southern side of the picturesque island of Shikoku) in droves. “The hardest customers to deal with were from Hiroshima, Fukushima and Niigata,” Hirose recalls, which are known for producing very good sake. They were knowledgeable and demanding when it came to sake.

Hirose began asking these customers which sakes were their favorites, and tracking down those sakes to learn more. He attended sake conventions and meetings around the country. He also discovered what he considers the amazing health benefits of sake.

 As it had for many Japanese, the 3/11 disaster heightened his fears of both earthquake and nuclear disaster. Since the northern coast of Shikoku is home to the Ikata Nuclear Power plant, fears began to circulate on the island that it could be the next earthquake-related nuclear disaster to hit Japan. Hirose’s stress level shot up, he developed heart problems, and his doctor advised him that without surgery, his life expectancy was only about seven or eight years.

Instead of resorting to surgery, Hirose says, he turned to a more pleasurable source of healing. He began frequenting one of the best sake bars in Kochi City to learn more about sake, but also to relax his mind and body. Though they didn’t realized it at the time, he and Takahashi were traveling on parallel tracks; studying sake, the effects of stress, and how they interacted with each other. For her, it was a scientific pursuit. For him, it was a way to save his health. After meeting at a sake convention, they found that they had the same tastes in liquor ,and more specifically, in sake.

 Once they decided to collaborate on Islander brewery, they began the long process of securing visas, a liquor license and various permits. The liquor license alone took almost a year to obtain, so in the meantime, in December of 2019, they began selling non-alcoholic amazake at the farmer’s market. In February, liquor license finally in hand, they were ready to open. Then two days after they opened their doors in Honolulu in March of 2020, with the Covid-19 virus raging around the world, the city shut down all food and beverage establishments.

 Government grants have helped keep them afloat, as well as retails sales, curbside pickup, and take-out menus from their micro-café,  Kura Kitchen. The restaurant offers five-course tasting menus, each paired with a different sake.

 Nihei’s widow, Misayo Nihei, had been looking forward to visiting Islander once it opened. But sadly, the long delays made that impossible. “I was traveling on a bus in Okayama City, heading for Akaiwa (where prime Omachi rice fields are located) when I got a phone call from Hawai’i—Mrs. Nihei had just passed away,” recalls Hirose. “I had hoped she would join our opening ceremony.”

 Although the Niheis were unable to witness the opening of Islander, I hope that after reading this post you’ll appreciate the technical and economic foundation that Islander Sake Brewery is built upon: the years of sake brewing innovation that Nihei spearheaded, and the struggles of the Japanese immigrant laborers who helped build modern Hawai’i.


Courtney Kaplan: Introducing Small Craft Brewers to L.A. Diners

**Reposted from Rice, Water Earth: Notes on Sake**

On my recent trip to Los Angeles, I hoped to visit the Echo Park  restaurant Tsubaki and its little brother, sake bar Ototo. I wanted to sample from co-owner Courtney Kaplan’s interesting sake program and talk to her about how she and her partner, chef Charles Namba, came to be serving elevated izakaya fare and great sake in their corner of Echo Park.

Tsubaki was open and preparations were underway to bring Ototo out of lockdown in a matter of days. In that flurry of activity, our schedules did not align, but I did managed to connect with Courtney on Zoom after I returned to Toronto. Our conversation made me more eager than before to make a reservation at Ototo the next time I’m town.

One reason is that Kaplan, who manages the front of house as well as the sake and wine lists for both restaurants, favors small craft sake producers that skew domaine-style and organic, and in wine, organic and biodynamic.

 “I look for producers that do estate-grown rice,” she told me, such as Nagayama Honke Brewery’s Taka, which she called “accessible and crowd-pleasing.” She’s  also partial to breweries like Yucho in Nara (the maker of the Kaze no Mori line), for its “fascinating blend of ancient and modern techniques,” and Senkin in Tochigi, for its single-minded embrace of locally grown rice and its sakes’ trademark elevated acidity. She likes Mutemuka Brewery in Kochi Prefecture, a pioneer in organic rice growing, and Akishika Brewery in Osaka. In addition to using all-organic rice, most of it is estate grown, and the brewery offers a selection of aged sake as well.

But there are other things to look for at Ototo besides sake. I’m eager to try Kumamoto-made Oka Kura Bermutto, or vermouth. Its junmai sake base is fortified with rice shochu and perfumed with Japanese botanicals including yuzu, yomogi, and sancho peppercorns. A cross of two beverages I love!

Kaplan began making yearly batches of ume shu, or plum wine, even before opening Tsubaki in 2017 (Ototo opened in 2019); this year she snagged 45 pounds of green plums from the farmer’s market and made enough to put on the drinks menu, along with close to a dozen other plum wines. The plum wine is also available in Kaplan and Namba’s pantry shop, which sells things I wish I could get my hands on in Canada, like Hyogo Prefecture-brewed usukuchi soy sauce from Suehiro Shoyu,  or a line of Iio Jozo vinegars from Kyoto.

As it did for many of us, Kaplan’s route to sake involved a fair bit of serendipity.

In 1999, she decided to do her junior year abroad in Tokyo, drawn there mostly because she liked Japanese fashion. To make it a truly immersive experience she looked for a job, landing one as a server at a Hawaiian-style barbecue restaurant in the Ebisu district. Management figured an American, even a college student from Long Island, was on-theme enough for them.

 But Tsubaki’s sake menu perplexed some customers. “We didn’t have a lot of the big brands, no Dassai, Hakkaisan, Kikusui or Kubota,” Kaplan recalls. One thing guests have embraced wholeheartedly,  Kaplan says, is fresh and lively unpasteurized sake. “There’s a huge interest in nama now … it’s having a moment,” she says.

In many ways serving sake to Angelenos was easier than it was at En in the mid-2000s, she notes, when guests would declare, “I only drink junmai daiginjo,” or “I only drink cold sake,” and look askance at any other recommendations. “What I really love about working with sake in L.A. is that the majority of our guests are really excited about sake and want to learn,” she explains. “They’re not coming to us with any hang-ups.” Yet L.A. diners do share the attitude toward elevated izakaya fare that she encountered during the early days of En: many equate the word “izakaya” with cheap eats, and aren’t used to paying what it costs to serve more creative and specialized fare that goes beyond standard sushi and ramen offerings.

Our conversation was a tantalizing appetizer to the main course--my eventual visit to Echo Park. I can’t wait! One word of warning about visiting Tsubaki and/or Ototo: both are small; 33 seats at Tsubaki and 38 at Ototo, with an expected 10 more outdoor seats each once they are both at full capacity.

So plan ahead, and when you’re there, raise a glass to the growing sister (and brother-)hood of sake!


Arkansan Chris Isbell: America's Pioneering Premium Sake Rice Farmer

**Reposted from Rice, Water Earth: Notes on Sake**

One of my favorite parts of researching our forthcoming book on craft sake has been talking to farmers who grow sake rice. They harbor a deep, parental love for the earth and the crops they coax out of it and beam with pride when a sake they helped create wins a prize or is singled out for praise. They endure the uncertainty, anxiety and heartache that comes with being subject to the mercy of nature and climate, and they often lament that there is no one willing to follow in their footsteps.

As the future of sake becomes increasingly dependent on international sales of the drink, we will likely see more and more sake rice cultivation outside of Japan. One American farmer who is well positioned to take advantage of this growth is Chris Isbell, a third-generation farmer from Lonoke County in Central Arkansas.

Growing up in California, I knew a little about Japanese rice cultivation in the Sacramento Valley. But it was fascinating to learn that Arkansas is the largest rice-growing region in the U.S. and that in 1988, Isbell pioneered the cultivation of premium Japanese sake rice in America. Of all the rice varieties Isbell grows on his 3,000 acres of farmland (in addition to the four sake rice varieties he tends to several different varieties of medium- and long-grain rice) his family’s favorite is Japanese Koshihikari table rice.

Although Japanese rice accounts for only about five percent of Isbell Farms’ total production, its Yamada Nishiki has been turned into award-winning ginjo sakes for Berkeley, Calif.-based Takara Sake USA. Isbell regularly supplies Yamada Nishiki to Saké One in Portland, Ore. and Nami in Culiacán, Mexico as well.

Yamada Nishiki is native to Hyogo Prefecture and famous for growing best in its southwestern Banshu, or Harima region. One reason for Isbell’s success at growing the “king of sake rice,” as Yamada Nishiki is often called, is that although central Arkansas and Hyogo Prefecture are nearly 7,000 miles apart, they share almost the exact same latitude. The second is that they are home to a similar soil type: nutrient-rich clay. Though Arkansas lacks a third key factor in Banshu’s secret formula, wide-ranging daytime temperature shifts, it does share its high humidity. The farmer’s lifetime of experience as a rice farmer helps offset climate and other differences. One adjustment he’s made, for example, is to delay the planting of his Yamada Nishiki so that it mimics the late-harvest pattern of its Japanese counterpart and finishes ripening in cooler autumn temperatures.

While large breweries such as Takara and Saké One have in-house rice polishing machines, for all of his other milling needs Isbell works with Blake Richardson’s Minneapolis Rice and Milling.

For Richardson, rice polishing was a sideline that had grown out of his sake brewery and izakaya, which in 2008 became the first such business to open outside of Japan. In 2014, he saw an article in the Arkansas Times about Isbell that coined the term “Arkan-sake.” He had heard of Isbell even earlier, though, from his friend Kjetil Jikiun, the airplane pilot-turn sake brewer at Norway’s pioneering Nøgne Ø (sadly it is no longer making sake). With characteristic single mindedness Richardson contacted Isbell and asked, “Can I come down there the day after tomorrow?” Isbell remembers being impressed that the brewer offered sake on tap and the two formed a business relationship that continues to this day.

Several years before meeting Richardson, Isbell received seeds for  Gohyakumangoku, Omachi and Wataribune rice from GRIN-Global (Germplasm Resource Information Network), a joint project of the USDA and The Crop Trust that was conceived as a global gene bank information system.

Isbell, who exudes a quiet confidence, l tells me that the latter two crops, Omachi and Wataribune, are in the very early stages of production. He tends to not want to plant until he knows he’s got a customer for the rice because it’s complicated to juggle different varieties in small craft brewery quantities. But it’s worth it to him to experiment with these varieties because he knows the demand will arrive one day.  “Everyone seems to still want the Yamada,” he explains, “but it’s going to be like craft beer breweries, eventually everyone is going to want something a little different. I’m not in a hurry,” he adds. “You kind of have to wait on the market to catch up. I learned patience doing crosses [cross breeding rice varieties], which take seven to eight years to get to where you want them—and from having children.”

 The first American brewers to get their hands on Isbell’s Omachi—my favorite heirloom variety—were Richardson and Brandon Doughan at Brooklyn Kura. The crop first traveled to Minneapolis Rice and Milling for polishing, where Richardson kept some for himself and sent the rest to Brooklyn. Doughan, Brooklyn Kura’s co-founder and head brewer, specified a 65% polishing ratio and was pleased with the result of his first attempt at brewing with the rice. “I found it to be very soft and needing a very short soak time,” Doughan says, “one of the shortest of any rice types and milling rates I’ve used in the past.” Richardson, too, who brewed a 65% polished Omachi with Yeast #6, says he was “delighted with the flavors the rice produced.”

Although Isbell is still waiting for a market for the rice to develop, Richardson too, is confident it will materialize. “There is a premium attached to good rice,” he notes: “yields per acre are far less than table rice so it costs more to produce.” But as American brewers come to understand its benefits, “most obviously its superior flavor,”  he says, he believes more will opt to brew with high-quality sake rice.

Doughan’s description of the softness of Omachi was in keeping with what we learned when we visited the heart of Japan’s Omachi-growing country, Okayama Prefecture’s Akaiwa district. There, farmers and brewers told us that the extremely tall rice plants and the very soft rice grains they produce are especially difficult to grow and tricky to polish and brew with, too. But early reports from Isbell, Richardson and Doughan indicate that the intricacies of growing and working with this heirloom rice are well within their grasp. “I’ve only grown about fifteen or twenty acres,” says Isbell. Although by Japanese paddy field standards, that’s a sizeable amount, it’s a drop in the bucket for Isbell. “It lodged (meaning the heads blew over), but our equipment (including a specially fitted combine designed to handle lodged rice) has made working with the rice easier. For his part, Doughan says, “I’m still trying to wrap my head around how it tastes and ferments,” noting that Brooklyn Kura’s Omachi sold out quickly and that he plans to brew more of it.

Isbell has recently released a new option for sake brewers called SoMai. It’s a southern medium-grain table rice, he explains, a bit less sticky than the California staple table rice variety Calrose that many brewers use to make sake. It has been well received by brewers. He’s marketing it as a lower-cost variety that brewers can use for their less premium sake, allowing them to budget more for their premium labels. When I ask Isbell what the parentage of his SoMai is, he prefers not to divulge that. The reason, he says, goes back to his earliest days growing Japanese table rice in the 1980s.

For that story, as well as the tale of how Isbell became a celebrity rice farmer in Japan and was visited by busloads of Japanese tourists, you’ll have to wait for Part II for this post. I’ll also tell you about some of the farm’s impressive sustainability practices, and the Arkansas plant geneticist who tracked down 800 varieties of Japanese rice in the USDA’s germplasm bank and traced them all back to one “unknown Japanese rice variety.” So stay tuned!


America's First Sake-Making Dynasty?

**Reposted from Rice, Water Earth: Notes on Sake**

In Japan, it’s not unusual to find sake brewing families that have plied their trade continuously for generations, over a span of hundreds of years. In our book we’ll be including 18th-generation owner Yasuhiko Niida of Niida Honke Brewery in Fukushima Prefecture and 17th-generation owner Tatsushi Yanagi of Kikuhime Brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture. The oldest brewery we discuss is Shusen Kurano in Nagano Prefecture, founded in 1540 and now headed by female master brewer and heir Mariko Chino. There’s a lot of accumulated wisdom in brewing families this old, but also great pressure to keep the lineage going and the business profitable through both good and bad times.

None of this history, or you might say, baggage, comes with New World sake breweries. While Niida,  Kuheiji and Chino are both owner and master brewer of their domains, traditionally owners were content to manage their land and workers, hiring seasonal staff to brew their sake. These brewery workers (kurabito) and master brewers (toji) were drawn from a class of craftsmen who farmed or fished during the summer months and made sake during the six coldest months of the year.

Almost all of the rapidly growing number of international sake brewers fall into the owner-toji category. Usually, with no cultural or family history of sake making to guide them, they are clean slates, freer to innovate and do crazy stuff that is harder to pull off if you’re a Japanese heir carrying the weight of history and family expectations on your back.

But dynasties can sprout up on terra nova, too. Sequoia Sake Brewery in San Francisco has set a record by producing America’s first second-generation sake brewer. And I love that she’s a young woman: Olivia Myrick, 24, the daughter of Sequoia founders Noriko and Jake Myrick. (You can read my profile of Noriko and Jake here.) Jake and Noriko share toji duties, with Noriko specializing in the koji making, and Jake in charge of fermentation and business-related issues.

Their daughter Olivia released her first small-batch blended sake, Bad Cat Good Sake—a slightly acidic, citron-accented tokubetsu junmai genshu—as a Halloween special for friends in 2019. Because he liked it, she gave her dad four cases to sell to Sequoia club members. The first batch sold out in three days, and the second, larger 500-liter (132-gallon) batch issued in the fall of 2020 sold out in 24 hours. The 500-liter tank Olivia’s father bought her in 2018 to encourage her brewing experimentations paid off.

Olivia’s second label debuted last spring, an usu nigori (slightly cloudy) junmai sake that she named “Hazy Delight.” It was snapped up by Sequoia club members and through retail sales at Beau Timken’s San Francisco sake shop True Sake.

Despite the family vocation, Olivia did not grow up feeling she was destined to brew sake. Between the ages of 14, when her parents began brewing sake in their San Francisco garage and 20, she experienced a gradual transformation from teenager unimpressed with the taste of sake (“The quality of sake we were producing was not that good back then and I didn’t have the palate for it, either,” she says) to a fledging brewer with a passion for fermentation.

“I remember looking at all the home brew equipment and the makeshift koji room inside and tent, and thinking, “Well, that’s an interesting hobby they’ve got themselves into,” Olivia says. In 2014, when her parents began setting up their current brewery space in San Francisco’s Bayview District, they enlisted 18-year-old Olivia to help out with production and events. Then, after a short stint at college in Washington state left her feeling dissatisfied, she returned to the brewery to work part-time. When friend of Sequoia and loyal customer Jun Yamadera offered to connect her to a sake shop in his hometown of Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, she parlayed that into two brewery internship opportunities. Both, Olivia says, were with “amazing breweries with history and innovative ideas.”

The first was a two-week stint at Miyaizumi Meijo Brewery (makers of the Sharaku line of sake), which, she says, was “more like getting a tour and seeing how they do things.” Next came a two-year stint at Akebono Brewery (makers of the Tenmei brand, among others). At Akebono she was treated no differently than any of the other kurabito, which gave her an accurate picture of both the joys and hardships of brewing.

The joys included “getting to know the people working in the sake industry, from  brew masters to seasonal workers,” while her least favorite part, she says, “was definitely the snow and freezing winter.”

Upon returning to the U.S. she noticed a lack of diversity in nigori (less filtered, cloudy sake) styles available here compared to Japan. So in 2019 when Olivia and her parents were brainstorming new sakes that would reflect their San Francisco setting, she, says, “I pushed the idea of a savory usu nigori. “We had been talking about how popular nigori is in America and how we wanted to introduce some diversity in the kinds of nigori available here.” She wanted to make a less sweet and only faintly cloudy version, rather than the milky type that is more typically seen in the west.

Her Hazy Delight sake is a blend of 98 percent pressed, filtered sake and two percent unfiltered tank sake that has been passed through two fine-meshed filters. This last steps removes all of the visible rice particles, allowing only the cloudy portion to pass through. “We wanted the extra tank sake to blend in smoothly with the rest of the sake to create the ‘hazy’ texture,” Olivia explains.

It was Olivia’s mother Noriko who taught her how to make nigori, a technique she’s honed during her years of brewing at Sequoia. The pressed sake is stored in a tank that is kept very cold, at 0.5 Celsius  (about 33 degrees Fahrenheit) and devoid of oxygen. The tricky part is the timing of the blending of the two parts, which is determined by the flavor of the pressed sake and the sugar content of the fermentation tank sake. As Jake explains, “The two have to align to make good nigori.” When they do align, “it’s a mad rush to get them bottled and pasteurized as quickly as we can.” This usually means four-to-six very long days. For Hazy Delight, it was Olivia who called the shots and decided when and how much to blend.

The result is a soft-textured, refined and refreshing usu nigori with notes of melon, mushroom, and honeysuckle. It’s more food friendly than its creamier counterparts, good with Fisherman’s Wharf Dungeness crab or clam chowder, North Beach pesto pizza, vegan sushi, Marin Headland’s goat cheese, or artisan chocolate.

Because it was created as a brand that would represent San Francisco, Olivia says, “I wanted to get creative with the naming.” She also wanted to convey that this was a different kind of nigori sake. “Hazy,” accurately described its less cloudy characteristic, and adding “Delight,” she realized made it “sound just like a cannabis strain. I thought that was perfect for a uniquely San Francisco sake.”

Olivia’s dad designed the label, a somewhat psychedelic rendering based on a type of purple-and-orange African daisy that blooms in the neighborhood, which he and Olivia thought recalled the hippie “flower child” of their city’s 1960s-era Haight-Ashbury district.

Olivia’s time spent studying food science at Evergreen State College in Washington did feed her fascination with food science and fermentation, but she isn’t sure yet if brewing sake is her life’s path. And starting America’s first sake-making dynasty, she adds, “isn’t necessarily something I’m striving to make happen.” She is however, thinking about new additions to the San Francisco line, and has in mind a yamahai or kimoto style. “I think the high acidity and robust flavor is something that represents San Francisco, with all its sourdough bread and third-wave coffee,” she notes.

She’s also intrigued by the idea of making a hiyaoroshi, or summer-aged sake, which she enjoyed drinking in Japan, and believes would find a ready market in the U.S. And she’s curious to see how a sake gently aged in the cold San Francisco summer instead of the super-hot and sticky Japanese summer will turn out—no doubt distinctly San Franciscan in style and taste.