If your only experience with saké has been drinking it hot from a small carafe at a sushi bar (or even more regrettably, as part of a saké bomb on a dare), there is an undiscovered world of lively spirits waiting for you! Most Americans haven’t yet discovered the astounding breadth of varieties of sakés, mainly because Japanese producers do not export them to most of the United States.
Fortunately, there has been a bit of a recent boom in the production of the fermented rice beverage, and a surprisingly large proportion of that growth has come from artisan craft brewers around the South.
Saké has been an integral part of Japanese culture for centuries, appearing in the country’s first written history in 712 AD. Made by fermenting rice with water and mold-inoculated grains called koji, saké brewing is an intensely labor-intensive process … with delicious results.
When Nashville based saké brewer Byron Stithem starts a batch at Proper Saké Co., he pretty much has to make a bed in his small brewery for three or four days as he nurtures the rice, water, koji, and yeast mixture to create the complex and beautiful nuances of his artisan sakés. Why does he do it? “Because saké is the best beverage on the planet!” Stithem explains with a chuckle.
Weston Konishi is the president of the Saké Brewers Association of North America, and he agrees with Stithem. “Saké is incredibly versatile,” he explains. “It pairs with just about every kind of food, especially classic Southern cuisine.” Konishi recognizes and appreciates Stithem’s dedication to the art of saké brewing. “If you’re meant to make it, you have to do it! You have to dedicate your life to it.”
Rick Margaritov and Ryan Costanza are two Nashville entrepreneurs who have also caught the saké bug and gone all-in to create a new brewery named Pure Land Saké. Drawing on their experiences traveling in Asia as part of their previous careers as an alcohol importer and chef, respectively, Margaritov and Costanza fell for the romance of the ancient brewing methods.
Costanza already had experience working with koji in the kitchen, making miso or slathering it on vegetables and meats as a fermentation agent to add unique umami flavors. “I’ve been using koji for six years, so that makes it easier to learn about brewing saké,” he explains. “Rick and I decided that saké deserved to be on the map in America, so we decided that we would just start making it!”
Margaritov became certified as a saké sommelier and began to take online microbiology classes to learn about fermentation at the cellular level. While they wait for construction on their brewery to be completed in Nashville’s burgeoning Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, Margaritov and Costanza are exploring recipes by brewing small batches in their garages. They already have an eye on their company’s future. Margaritov explains, “Making saké is one thing, but how do we create and scale a sustainable business?”
The American saké market is still minuscule compared to Japan, but it is growing. “According to a recent study, saké represented .2% of the alcoholic beverage market in the US,” reveals Konishi. “It’s a really tiny portion of the market, but it already represents $44 million in sales per year. We feel there is great potential for growth.”
What sort of drinker is the saké industry aiming to convert to grow sales? “Everyone!” says Konishi. “It’s easy to say that you’re focusing on millennials who concentrate on hip new things, but it’s important to reach out to a wide range of potential customers. There are so many different varieties of saké out there that there’s a product for every consumer.”
Stithem has a more specific view of his current and potential customers. “Given the style we do, we’ve been successful going after drinkers of natural wines — people who appreciate quality but don’t necessarily spend $50 to $100 on a bottle. We also do well with people who are thoughtful about craft beer and really interested in fermentation methods.”
Pure Land is casting a wider net. Costanza explains, “We make saké that is crisp without high acidity. We think it’s totally crushable and extremely food-friendly. We’re aiming to convert white wine, rosė, and craft beer drinkers. We also want people to be able to drink it out of a can on a golf course because it’s cool and refreshing.”
The pair-able nature of saké with such a broad variety of foods is critical to the spirit’s growth. “It’s really wonderful to pair with just about any cuisine,” shares Stithem. “There’s a lot of interest in Japanese cuisine, but we’re now seeing menu placements at many non-Japanese restaurants. Every time a new menu adds it, that unlocks another hundred potential drinkers.”
The South is seeing impressive growth in the number and quality of saké breweries. In addition to Proper Saké and Pure Land in Tennessee, Kentucky boasts two breweries: The Void in Lexington and an offshoot of Louisville’s Against the Grain beer brewery named River City Saké. Nan Wallis and Lindsey Brower launched Wetlands Saké in New Orleans in 2021 and have seen great success with their draft and canned sakés. They also donate a portion of their profits to preserve Louisiana’s fragile wetlands.
North American Saké Co. has been brewing award-winning spirits in Charlottesville, VA, since 2018, and Arkansas will soon see its first saké brewery when Origami Saké opens in Hot Springs. Ben’s American Saké in Asheville, NC, will host the second American Craft Saké Festival on May 28, 2022, further demonstrating that the South is a hotbed for saké brewing.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth in the industry and the association,” says Konishi. “We’re going to showcase 10 different breweries at the event.” Konishi doesn’t have an easy explanation for the region’s new focus on rice-based spirits. “You’d think that you’d see more breweries popping up in the Pacific Northwest or the Bay area with larger Asian populations, but we’re definitely seeing a mini-boom in the South.”
So, why the sudden popularity in the South? Margaritov’s theory revolves around the two most important raw materials involved in the saké brewing process: water and rice. “Water is such an important component, and we use the most pristine and beautiful water source from the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. It’s similar to the water sources at the most prestigious saké producers in Japan at the base of mountains.”
Most of the domestically-grown saké rice comes from two producers. One is in California, and the other is Isbell Farms in Arkansas, right in the middle of the region’s premier rice-growing area. Isbell Farms has been growing rice for generations and began planting Japanese Koshihikari sushi rice in the early 1990s, back when nobody thought the ancient strain could be produced outside of Japan.
For more than fifteen years, Isbell Farms has supplied Yamada Nishiki, Omachi, Wataribune, and Gohakumangoku rice varieties to craft saké brewers. These specific rices have a lower protein content than traditional long grains and exhibit a vital property called shinpaku, which refers to the fact that each grain has a cloudy core at its center that is important to the fermentation process and the final quality and flavor of saké. Isbell Farms sends most of its saké rice to Minnesota to be specially milled for saké, polishing the outer bran layers of protein and fat off the grain to leave the starchy center that is integral to fermentation.
“Isbell Farms is actually at approximately the same latitude as Japan’s Hyogo region, where the highest quality saké rices are grown, the ones that win all the awards,” explains Stithem. These rices are among the most flavorful and aromatic in the world and contribute a distinct flavor to the finished product.
The final reason why saké may be booming in the South is a general appreciation of the concept of craft production. Konishi explains, “The assumption is that Japan looks down on the US, but the quality of what is being produced is being appreciated, and we’re seeing a real kindred-ness. There should be even more opportunity for collaboration and cooperation between the countries moving forward.”
He continues, “It is truly an artisanal craft product. You cannot half-ass saké brewing or take shortcuts along the way. Even more so than craft beer, it’s a hands-on process that you have to be watching the whole way. It’s the epitome of a local craft product.”
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