Alternative Fermentation: Sake

With only about a dozen Sake breweries in the United States, yet imported premium Sake from Japan continuing to find home across the Pacific, the market is small yet fruitful for the few who have ventured into this craft alcohol market.

Asked if Sake brewing is something a craft beer brewery could use as an additional way to find reach inside the craft alcohol world — like the addition of craft ciders or spirits — and the reviews are mixed.

The common misconception is that Sake is a “rice wine.” Not so, yet filing paperwork for a craft Sake brewery can be perplexing as the TTB regulates that Sake is produced and distributed like a beer; it’s labeling is akin to wine said Boston-based Dovetail Brewing co-founder Todd Bellomy.

“The problem with Sake is you are talking about a beverage with no plan, no education behind it,” he said. “It’s not like today in the age of the Internet where you can create a new market and have a strategy. Sake just showed up one day. The same goes for any sort of regulation. So the TTB looked at this beverage and didn’t know anything about it, so they just shoehorned it into the existing rules.

“If there were more of us, they would have to make a Sake licence. There are aspects that differ from beer or wine.”

Many states don’t have much in terms of certain regulation for the beverage, meaning San Diego’s Setting Sun Brewing is required to have a federal beer brewer’s license and a California state winegrower’s license.

“To sell bottles across state lines, we have to get federal approval under wine production for recipe and label approval,” said CEO Keldon Warwick Premuda.

For Bellomy, being the first and only Sake brewery in Massachusetts which sold about 5,000 liters of product in its first year of 2016 (approximately 40 barrels), he contacted local officials in this state and told them Dovetail was applying for a license.

“I gave them a chance to make a precedent and treat us like a winery or a brewery and they basically came to the conclusion that there was just one of us, so they just followed the TTB’s rules,” he said.

The cost and effort with the business development portion is synonymous as a opening craft brewery. The one thing that does make things a bit more expensive is the larger overhead for both lease and property during the bonding period, Premuda said, because of the application and confusion between governing agencies, as well as the longer brew cycle lead time for planning.

Brewing Sake is similar to beer in that it is a cereal based beverage, and it incorporates familiar yeast, yet it can be vastly different.

“Brewing sake is different than beer in that it incorporates multiple parallel fermentation, does not use a brew house — or added heat to the ‘moto-brew,’ “ Premuda said. “It incorporates both single and multi cell fungi, has multiple ingredient addition periods and roughly a two-week long “brew day,” has two fermentation cycles, ferments with “grain in” during the first cycle, and takes eight to twelve weeks to finish fermenting with temperature controls.”

That hasn’t stopped at least one beer brewery to tackle the subject of Sake and beer.

Will Meyers, a Brewmaster for Cambridge Brewing worked with Bellomy for a true beer/Sake hybrid called Banryu Ichi.

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“Discussions between Todd and I often centered on the many similarities in process between beer and sake,” said Meyers, who was awarded the Russell Schehrer Innovation in Craft Brewing Award at April’s Craft Brewer’s Conference in Washington, DC. “Eventually we decided to brew a hybrid which combined aspects of both beverages and focused on the multiple parallel fermentation of sake yeast and Koji, and wanted to make a wort that would be unfermentable if both weren’t involved.”

Specifically the duo wanted to use the actual fermenting sake as inoculant for a wort that would be so high in dextrins that normal brewers yeast would not succeed in fermenting it fully.

“In other words, we needed to count on the Koji to break down the starches in the wort so the sake yeast couple ferment it, simultaneously,” explained Meyers.

Customers still ask for it regularly, he added.

“Those who get it, get it. Those who do not have a basic knowledge of sake are often predisposed to thinking it should be consumed in a shot, rather than sipped and enjoyed.

“We decided to serve Banryu Ichi in a 5-ounce glass set inside a masu, so the customer would understand that this was something unusual which deserved consideration. We have been consistently surprised by how well-received this project is with each release.”

With a focus stressed on quality, Premuda said that margins aren’t very high. But being able to introduce high quality Sake was paramount. He did note that Setting Sun has been able to successfully increase costs to add a few environmentally friendly changes.

“Reducing our carbon footprint and environmental impact is a top priority,” he said. “Quality is a top priority. Unfortunately, our margin ultimately suffers, but keeping focus on our top priorities is all that we have the capacity for at this time.”

All of Setting Sun’s vendors are similar to beer vendors, including using hops in its Sake.

For the first several years Cambridge worked with the same vendors for rice and koji.

“Thanks to the creation of Dovetail Sake we now have considerably greater control over grains, koji strains, and yeast,” Meyers said.

So can a current established brewery dive into the Sake world? It’s a topic of contention. Meyers stresses that Sake is a beverage with a long history of dedicated producers who suffer greatly to produce something with quality and character.

“By turning sake into an add-on like some other soda pop, we demean the traditions of this beverage,” he said. “I think such dilettantism ensures a lack of high quality all-around but specifically as regards production of sake, which requires incredible attention. I would prefer to let those with a focused dedication to Sake take the reins of producing and promoting to create a growth market. Call me a purist, but it’s not something to take advantage of.”

Premuda feels differently

“A rising tide floats all boats,” he said. “We encourage all adventurous brewers to join us in this expedition and are happy to be a resource to those that are passionately curious and driven to push the limits of human creativity.”

Bellomy said for it to make sense, Sake would have to massively increase in sales to be able to make a dent.

“What we have seen in the last 3-4 years there has been a few more Sake breweries open,” he said, noting that the number has jumped from 10 to 15 breweries in that time period. “From a business standpoint if you are going to open something that is a real new thing for almost everybody, you have to open up in a population center. The problem of that is that it’s so new to everybody you have to be in people’s faces all the time. There is was no question we would self distribute. I know a lot of distributors and there is no question that the product is so new we have to make every delivery and transaction ourselves so we can teach as much as we can teach. Every delivery is a sales call, just like the old days of craft beer.”

Dovetail photo courtesy Adam Detour Photography

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