Brewery Report:

Sequoia Sake Brewery – Local Sake Loved In The Innovative City San Francisco

Written and translated by Saki Kimura

When I sipped sake poured from a bottle with an illustration of Bambi and a title “Nama,” fresh fruity odor sparked and juicy flavor of rice spread throughout the mouth.

– I had never expected that I could experience “this” flavor here.

I was at Sequoia Sake Brewery – the first sake microbrewery here, in San Francisco, whose leading product is nama-sake (unpasteurized sake).

Bay Area – Favorable Area For Local Sake

Let me talk about beer before starting today’s main topic, sake.

Recently, craft beer has been actively produced in the US. In Bay Area on the West Coast, in tune with gourmet stuff, you can see a wide variety of local beer lineup everywhere – not only restaurants, bars, but also supermarkets such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market.

According to a report that The Brewers Association published the end of 2017, the number of beer breweries in the US has been more than 6,000, and 98% of them are craft breweries or microbreweries: though they are called differently depending on production volume and rules they should follow (simply speaking, microbreweries have smaller production and easier rules), both mean small and independent breweries. The number of beer breweries is leading the world, surpassing well beyond that in Germany or Belgium, countries popular for beer.

Why are so many people brewing craft beer in the US? The US, a country which has a culture of home-brewing, has an ideal environment for brewing beer.
Briefly explaining, there are main factors as follows:
1. The number of breweries had dropped in the Prohibition era.
2. President Jimmy Carter allowed home brewing in 1978.
3. Small breweries receive preferential tax treatment.
4. Deregulation for small breweries is expected to increase more and more.

These conditions helped the growth of micro beer market while they would later also help the sake microbrewery market.

Nama-Sake Ties To Love For Local

Sequoia Sake Brewery, established in 2014, is owned by the husband and wife team of Jake Myrick and Noriko Kamei. Knowing Noriko was born in Japan, you may jump to a conclusion that she has a career as a sake brewer in Japan: in fact, however, they had no experience to brew sake before starting this brewery as they had worked for the IT industry for a long time.

“We worked and lived in Japan for 10 years and that’s when we fell in love with sake. Our favorite was nama-sake, however, upon returning to the US we found that it is not available. We had no choice but to brew it by ourselves,” Noriko said.

Nama-sake means unpasteurized sake, which skips the final step of heating (called as “hi-ire” in Japanese). As the yeast in nama-sake is still alive, this style of sake has a fresh and dynamic flavor.
On the other hand, active yeast can affect on flavor or quality of sake as time advances or the temperature changes. For this, it is difficult to import nama-sake from Japan to the US.

Sequoia Sake Brewery takes advantage of this fact for a local business. “Our favorite sake needs to be unique – this is how we succeeded in distinguishing ourselves from existing sake products in the US.” Jake and Noriko switched their sake brewing as a hobby to business after their daughter’s graduation from high school.

Their main customers are restaurants and stores in the Bay Area. Fresh nama-sake, a product only available in the local area, has succeeded to attract interest by people with a big love for local: their production volume has currently doubles every year since production started in 2015.

Their Perspective Achieved American-Friendly Approach

Unpasteurized series Sequoia has three types of products, Nama, Genshu (undiluted sake) and Nigori (unfiltered cloudy sake). Also, pasteurized series Coastal has Ginjo (sake brewed with very highly polished rice), Genshu and Nigori.

“There are many different kinds of sake in Japan, but we picked out these three types because they are easy to understand for people in America,” Noriko explained. “The difference between brewing method such as yama-hai, junmai, honjozo, is complicated, and the difference between varieties of rice is subtle to understand for most people here. For the first step, it is important for them to compare easy-to-understand flavors to create their own palette. Our best product is such an education.

Their perspective as people living in the US achieved the friendly design of their sake bottles.

Almost all labels of sake bottles from Japan traditionally have kanji, characters originally came from China. For people in western countries who are not familiar with this character, in fact, it is tough to tell the difference between bottles and to remember the name of each brand.

For this reason, Jake and Noriko put an illustration on their labels – for the Sequoia series, Nama has Bambi, Genshu has a rooster and Nigori has a white rabbit.

“We selected animals that represent the character of each sake: Nama is pure and soft, Genshu is strong, Nigori is white and faintly sweet. Even though people can’t understand the meaning of the word Nama or Nigori, we can communicate like ‘I like Bambi,’ ‘Can I have a rabbit bottle?’

Can IT Philosophy Change Future Of Sake?

Another strong point of Sequoia Sake Brewery is their background for the IT industry. For instance, they introduce a thermal management system: in Japan, traditional sake breweries often require their workers to stay overnight to control the temperature of koji (malted rice) room. Using this system, however, they can find the status of their sake soon even at home because the alert rings when the room temperature exceeds a certain value. Using this system, also, they can control logs easily.

“It’s not up-to-date technology, but those who came from Japanese traditional breweries get surprised at this. Our background for the IT industry might let us introduce such a system naturally.”

Not only the equipment but also the view of business also reflects their IT background. In the same way as fast-changing IT industry, Sequoia Sake Brewery is always challenging new and innovative approaches.

I don’t have a belief that there is only one correct way working forever for business. In this day and age, if you cling to an old way, it is difficult to keep your business over 3 years. We should think new approaches every day. We should just challenge what we expect interesting.”

Noriko explained about “the agile method,” the way current IT companies introduce to their software development. A few decades ago, the IT industry required making a specification and carrying out a product test for each project. For the agile method, however, they don’t aim to create an immaculate product at first: they give it to the world as a trial and continue improvement little by little, seeing users’ reactions. As you can see services by Google or Facebook that change from day to day, this method is the mainstream for the current IT businesses.

“Though sake is kind of traditional product, it has a lot of potentials to accept innovative challenges. There should be pros and cons, but we want to take an advantage of such a background.”

One of their challenges has produced Barrel-aged series – three months aged sake flavored with red and white Napa Valley Wine and bourbon whiskey made in California.

“The label says that ‘American frontier spirit meets Japanese tradition.’ We want to make such products that can breathe a new life into the declining Japan’s sake industry.”

Towards The Future Of Sake In US

The amount of sake imported from Japan to the US has been increasing year by year. Even though sake has certainly gained increasing recognition in this country, Noriko sees the actual status with calm eyes. “People here regard sake just as a part of Japanese food culture. They just enjoy it as if they enjoy the culture of Japan, not focus on sake itself.”

In fact, the sake consumption way in the US is different from that in Japan.

“For example, a custom of buying sake at a liquor store then drinking it at home has not taken root here yet. Today, in Japan, we can buy wine at convenience stores or supermarkets, but it was only available in Italian or French restaurants when I was a university student. Just like this, for most American people, sake is what they drink only at Japanese restaurants.”

One of the strong points of sake, whose ingredients are rice and water, is that it goes well with any kind of food, not only Japanese food but also Italian, French, American, ethnic, etc. While Sequoia Sake Brewery is trying to market their products to various genres of restaurants, 90% of their customers are actually Japanese restaurants.

“Our main customers are American-owned Japanese restaurants or restaurants managed by young Japanese owners. Conservative Japanese restaurateurs don’t accept our sake because they don’t believe the quality of American domestic sake: on the other hand, young owners are open-minded and deal with our products if they like the flavor.”

Sequoia Sake Brewery keeps challenging new products with free-minded perspective from the US. However, Noriko understands that they can try innovative and creative sake on the premise that they can make traditional and solid one.

Sequoia Sake Brewery’s products are made from Calrose rice made in California: its ancestry is Wataribune, a kind of sakamai (rice appropriate for sake brewing rather than eating) brought into the US by Japanese immigrants after World Wars. This is because Calrose is more crumbly than general eating rice in Japan, but its character works well for sake brewing.

However, the quality of Calrose is uneven depending on farmers. Because big sake companies have priority to choose rice, Jake and Noriko had a hard time to procure good quality rice when they started their business. Recently, they are trying to make their rice better enthusiastically, through establishing good relationships with farmers and cooperating with UC Davis, a university located in Bay Area famous for winemaking program.

“Of course we feel happy when we can make tasty sake with good rice, but it is also the harsh fact that the quality of sake is influenced by the quality of rice. Due to my IT background, I feel agricultural project progresses very slowly, but we have no choice: our situation sometimes can be beyond our control. We have to establish ecosystem patiently – otherwise, we can’t brew tasty sake.