Move over ‘ginaissance’ — it’s sake’s time in the sun

The Gekkeikan Sake lab in Folsom, California

The Gekkeikan Sake lab in Folsom, California   | Photo Credit: Max Whittaker

A growing community of American brewers is experimenting with the rice-based Japanese beverage

If you have heard of Folsom — the 78,000 strong town in California’s Sacramento County — chances are it’s because of singer-songwriter Johnny Cash’s live album, At Folsom Prison, recorded, well, at Folsom Prison. We’re on the six-mile Johnny Cash trail (a work-in-progress homage to the singer, with upcoming art installations), and our guide, Rob, shows us the distant landscape of the prison. “It has the best view in the area,” he tells us ruefully.

But if you are a connoisseur of spirits (the kind you drink), you might also know that Folsom is home to the Gekkeikan Sake brewery. It is the first and only offshoot of the 400-year-old Fushimi-based outfit with its accolade-winning junmai (pure rice sake), made using the legendary water of the Japanese region.

Brewing over

When the nine-acre facility came to town in 1989 (after testing the water samples in 30 locations across the US), it was one of the few sake-producing outfits in the country, joining the ranks of the Japanese-owned Takara Sake in Berkeley. California’s water, according to Gekkeikan brewmaster Kawase Yousuke, is comparable to Japan’s. The five versions of the beverage made in Folsom — including the award-winning ‘Haiku’ junmai and the nama (unpasteurised) sake — use water from the American River (most of it snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains) and premium rice from the Sacramento Valley. After production, they make their way to destinations in the US, Europe, South America and even South Korea.


Today though, it’s not just legacy Japanese brewers making their mark in the US. It is evident that the microbrewing treatment given to beer and cider has been extended to the rice-based drink. In the US, there are around 20 sake brewers, most of them dotting the Western and North-Eastern coasts. Earlier this year, the rising number of commercial brewers led to the creation of The Sake Brewers Association of North America, the beverage’s first trade association formed outside of Japan.

Juniper joy

The past few years saw gin — a drink derisively referred to as ‘Mother’s Ruin’ in the past — get a fashionable makeover, with sleek microdistilleries popping up across the world. The trend made its way to India, with Nao Spirits launching its London and Himalayan Dry gins in the country. In a world that is continuing to look for alternatives to gluten-laden options, is sake primed to become the next big thing? Bernie Baskin, Executive Director of the Sake Brewers Association of North America, believes so. He cites the global renaissance of Japanese cuisine as one reason. Then there is the fact that the Japanese sake industry has marketed itself to an overseas audience after facing declining local demand (from around 4,000 breweries a few decades ago, there are only around 1,200 in the country today). “I think that work is paying off in some ways,” he says.


In the US, where Baskin thinks there is a saturation of beer breweries, sake brings novelty. “It’s a rather complex beverage to brew, and some of the more experienced brewers are fascinated by the challenge,” he says.

Adding some spark

If sake conjures up images of solemn brewing rituals and centuries-old recipes, these brewers can convince you otherwise. At the Gekkeikan brewery, we are treated to fruit-flavoured sparkling brews, with tips on using them to make the best cocktails (‘a bit of junmai, a bit of the sparkling kind, some lime and tonic’) and advice on how to use it for cooking (similar to white wine, and to naturally tenderise meat and remove fishy smells).

I find out later that Virginia-based North American Sake Brewery has an option called ‘Spicy Vacay’ — infused with mango, lime leaf and jalapeno. Experimenting, then, is part of the game for these new wave of brewers. “We have a lot of different styles to work on, whether that means more traditional approaches like yamahai or ki-moto (using different kinds of yeast starters), or playing with more yeast and rice-milling rates, and finding new ingredients and flavour profiles that will infuse well with our sake,” shares co-founder Andrew Centofante.


Given that sake is the country’s fastest-growing beverage, there is demand to match. Jeremy Goldstein, co-founder of North American Sake Brewery adds, “Sake truly is the cleanest, most curious drink on the planet. Japanese brewers bring so much experience, history and tradition to the table, while American brewers are making fresh, local sake with an experimental craft twist.”

The writer was in Folsom at the invitation of Visit California


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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 7:51:14 PM |

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