You’re on a culinary tour of San Francisco. You’ve visited an esteemed winery in Napa or Sonoma… check. You’ve visited one of the Bay Area’s great craft beer breweries… check. You’ve visited a Japanese-inspired sake brewery… wait, what?!?
Brewers have been making sake, a fermented rice alcohol, in Japan for over a thousand years. In recent years, a few American makers have brought the traditional craft here to the United States, including Sequoia Sake, a small, startup brewer based in San Francisco.
I met Jake Myrick the co-founder of Sequoia Sake at a Japanese food event last year. He told me he had started a small microbrewery and was making sake here in California. I know how deeply rooted food and drink traditions are in Japan, but I was completely unaware of the movement to brew sake here in the states. When Kevin and I were planning our San Francisco holiday getaway, I sent him an email and he invited us to come see for ourselves.
Jake and his wife, Noriko Kamei founded Sequoia Sake in 2014. Noriko was born in Japan and Jake had lived there for ten years. They wanted to bring the fresh sake like they enjoyed in Japan, back home to California. In early 2015, the duo and partner Warren Pfahl, Jake’s childhood friend, moved into their new home base in a light industrial area near Bernal Heights.
Sake is sometimes called “rice wine,” but that phrase is a bit of a misnomer. The process used to turn sake from rice to alcohol is closer to the steps used to turn grain into beer. Pure sake only has four ingredients: rice, water, koji (a mold used to convert the rice’s starch to sugar), and yeast (which ferments the sugar and turns it into alcohol). Some brands add a grain alcohol, flavors, or other additives to the final product. Sequoia only makes pure sake, called junmai (“nothing added”).
The brewery was fun to visit, definitely something different. As we entered, we had to take off our shoes and put on plastic slippers, which brought back memories of visiting obsessively clean temples and hotels in Japan. In this case, though, the policy helps to keep out yeast and bacteria that could interfere with fermentation.
Jake showed us all the Japanese-sourced brewing and equipment, and he explained some of the challenges the team has faced pioneering the American sake industry. For example, in California sake is classified as a wine, so Sequoia is subject to California’s strict state winery codes. However, the federal government classifies sake as a beer, so they have to follow brewery laws, too. Despite having to jump through these hoops, they got their equipment up and running and brewed their first batch in April 2015.
We sat down to sample all three varieties of Sequoia’s sakes: Nama, a slightly sweet, smooth bodied and lower alcohol (14-15%); Genshu, a floral and full-bodied and higher alcohol (18%); and Nigori, an unfiltered, farmhouse-style sake. The rice blends into the sake giving it a creamy texture. All of their sakes are unpasteurized and full of live cultures which make them more flavorful, but also more perishable. Unpasturized sake must be kept refrigerated. They last up to six months unopened, or up to two weeks after opening.
I liked the Genshu and Nigori the best so we picked up some to bring home. I also loved a blend, that they, unfortunately, were not selling by the bottle. I guess we need to go back!
Sequoia may have been inspired by Japanese sakes, but they are a very much a California product. The flavors and texture are crafted to be more robust than Japanese sakes, better for pairing with bold, American food. They use Sacramento-grown rice, Yosemite/Hetch Hetchy-sourced water, and they take advantage of San Francisco’s cool, damp climate, the perfect conditions for brewing sake year round. Even the company name is “rooted” in California (See what I did there?), inspired by the state’s much-loved Giant Sequoia trees. It’s a unique experience for foodies and Japanese culture lovers in the Bay Area. Add local San Francisco sake tasting to your culinary bucket list!
How to Visit Sequoia Sake:
The Sequoia Sake brewery (50 Apparel Way, San Francisco) is open for sake tasting and retail sales every Saturday from 11am-3pm. They are building out a tasting room right now to improve the tasting experience. Parking is limited on the on the short industrial alley, Apparel Way, but you can park on Barneveld Ave. and walk over.
You can find Sequoia Sake at a number of notable Japanese and American restaurants, ramen shops, and izakayas in San Francisco and the East Bay. You can even find it on a nitrogen tap at Iza Ramen in The City. The sake is sold retail at Bi-Rite Market and True Sake in San Francisco, and Umami Mart in Oakland.