Josh Hembree never loved extra special bitters—the classic British beers always tasted flat and lackluster to him, their quality dulled by lengthy transit. Then the brewing veteran traveled overseas to work for Fuller’s Brewery in London. He tipped back ESBs on their native turf and found their biscuit and toffee flavors balanced and beautiful.
“I was drinking beer that I always found to be average but finding it to be exceptional [now] because it was local and fresh,” says the San Diego local. That led to a far-out Far East epiphany. “It crystallized to me that nobody was really showing sake the love it could get.” Hembree, whose résumé includes stints at Stone and Belching Beaver breweries, had seen beer evolve from a humdrum commodity to a wide-ranging platform for flavorful expression. Perhaps the Japanese rice alcohol was ripe for reinvention, too.
In 2016, Hembree cofounded San Diego’s Setting Sun Sake Brewing Co.; he is the company’s president and head of brewing operations. His convention-crushing releases have included sakes inspired by strong German lagers, hopped versions, and a cider-sake hybrid infused with gin botanicals. “Sake has been here the whole time,” Hembree says, “and nobody has really explored it.”
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Forty years back, drinking beer in America was like dining at a restaurant that offered a single item. There was only light, inoffensive lager. Over the decades, visionary brewers, joining forces with distilleries, wineries, and cideries in pursuit of the next great taste, developed fruited sours, fragrant IPAs, and barrel-aged everything.
Now sake has become American brewers’ latest muse. Brewers are collaborating with sake producers, using sake yeast strains, and brewing their own, a move that makes sense when you consider that sake, like beer, is a fermented cereal beverage. “The fact that they have more alcohol than standard beer doesn’t matter,” John Laffler, the co-owner and brewer of Chicago’s Off Color Brewing, says of sakes, which generally have winelike alcohol levels. “It has nothing to do with the ABV. It’s a fermented cereal grain.”
The essential difference between brewing beer and brewing sake lies in the way in which the grains’ sugary potential is unlocked. Rice is inoculated with aspergillus fungus (a.k.a. koji), whose enzymes convert starches into fermentable sugars. Barley undergoes malting, in which the grains are steeped in water to jump-start germination and the enzymatic process. (Kiln-drying stops the germination and prevents the grains from consuming their sugar.)
Last year, Laffler used koji rice to create QingMing—a collaboration beer with Chicago’s Field Museum that took cues from ancient Chinese brewing techniques. “Afterward we were like, ‘This is really neat—we enjoy the flavor it’s creating,’” Laffler says of the brew, which was evocative of peaches, lemon rind, tea, and—yes—sake.
Off Color is one of the more thrillingly idiosyncratic breweries in the U.S., making beers such as an herbal English mild inspired by an 18th-century British convict, and a s’mores–influenced imperial stout. Laffler saw sake as a new avenue for artistic expression. “You can get bored just making beer day in, day out, day in, day out,” he says. “At a certain point, you use the same six malts all the time, and a few different yeast strains.”
Laffler applied for a license to produce sake, a common move in Japan, where companies such as Ishikawa and Kiuchi, which makes Hitachino Nest beer, produce both beer and sake. “When we got our license,” he says, “it was [a] ridiculously low [number]; like, it was the 17th license in the U.S.” (Of note: In 2008, Herkimer Brewing founder Blake Richardson opened Moto-i in Minneapolis, the first sake brewpub outside Japan.)
Off Color ferments sake with its house wild yeast and souring cultures, which produce rustic revelations like Little Fluffy Clouds. Clouds smells of bubblegum and dandelions sprinkled with pink peppercorns, and it’s poured in Off Color’s taproom alongside unfiltered lagers and multifaceted sours. Says Laffler, “We try to push the envelope as far as possible in the brewing world.”
Since 1989, Cambridge Brewing Company in Massachusetts has also broadened the scope of beer, adding malted sunflower seeds to tart German ales and operating a solera-style barrel-aging program. In 2012 brewmaster Will Meyers teamed up with sake homebrewer Todd Bellomy (who now runs Dovetail Sake, located near Boston) to create a beer-sake hybrid.
They brewed a traditional sake and added it to rich, sticky, and not particularly fermentable wort, the grain broth that becomes beer. The koji and sake yeast devoured tough-to-digest sugars, creating a complex quaff redolent of rice and apples, mushrooms and fennel.
“We consider this to be a true hybridization of the ingredient and the processes,” Meyers says of Banryu Ichi (Japanese for “10,001 ways,” a twist on the Japanese saying that there are 10,000 ways to make sake). It was served at the brewery’s taproom in a cylindrical glass set inside a square wooden box. “Our servers are trained to let people know that it’s a beverage that’s meant to be sipped and contemplated,” Meyers says. “We wanted to emphasize that this is a pretty special thing.”
Banryu Ichi is now an annual Cambridge release—the most recent batch was unveiled this spring. Brewpub guests will find it on tap in different expressions, perhaps aged on sugi wood, dry-hopped, or aged in bourbon barrels. Says Meyers, “We’ve got some room to play.”
In Brooklyn, Five Boroughs Brewing recently collaborated with Brooklyn Kura, a sake brewery located about 10 blocks away. The near-neighbors created Sunset Kura, a lager made with pale pilsner malt and koji rice. The beer, released this spring, was fermented slow and cold, bringing koji’s fresh and citrusy qualities front and center. The successful alliance got head brewer Nick Griffin’s brain spinning. “Right after we had the first one in the tanks,” he says, “we were thinking about other collaborations we could do.”
Josh Hembree’s Setting Sun often partners with Thunderhawk Alements, a San Diego microbrewery, on beers such as Hot Liqqa Tank, featuring flaked rice and sake yeast. “My dream,” Hembree says, “is to see all my favorite beer styles iterated through the prism of sake, as well as the reverse.”
He’s helped introduce sake in a different context, serving it at his taproom independently from sushi. “Just like beer and pretzels,” he says, “you can have them separately from each other or with something else.”
Selling sake isn’t without challenges, though. People often tell Hembree that they dislike sake, because previous experiences have left a lingering bad taste. “It’s like, I understand that you don’t like sake,” he says. “[But] this is not what you had before. Please try it again. Something else like it could be delicious.”
Brewers are also finding that sake production requires lots of learning on the fly. For this year’s Banryu batch, Cambridge used a different sake yeast strain, and the fermentation took a month longer than expected to finish.
Furthermore, various methodologies are used to coax different flavors from sake, such as adding extra water after pressing rice; beer needs no additional tweaks. “It’s a completely different medium,” Laffler says. “It’s as if we were oil painters and we picked up watercolors.”
For now, Off Color’s sake experiments are sold only at its taproom, where they’ve attracted a small but enthusiastic audience. Perhaps curiosity will lead other customers to sample sake instead of beer, and round out their experience with an educational tour. “We hope it catches fire,” Laffler says. “If not, we’ll just sell it out of the taproom and be happy.”
Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of four books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, and the just-released Homebrew World.