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Sake gains steam in NYC as makers and consumers of Japanese beverage increase

An iconic Japanese beverage is brewing up big buzz in New York City.

There’s never been a better time to be a sake fan in the city. And there’s never been a better time for the Japanese beverage, either, with more New Yorkers interested in both making and consuming the rice-based alcoholic drink. 

New York’s sake hub has long been focused on two blocks in the East Village, where sake bars Decibel and Hi-Collar and specialty sake store Sakaya attract both enthusiasts and novices to East Ninth and East 10th streets.

Now, Industry City is emerging as another destination for the brewed beverage, with the recent opening of New York state’s first sake brewery, Brooklyn Kura, churning out sake borrowing from the 2,000-year-old tradition of Japan’s national beverage and made with American ingredients. 

The Sunset Park creative hub will also soon be home to what’s being described as a Japanese Eataly; this summer, Japan Village is slated to take over 20,000 square feet of Industry City with a grocery store from Sunrise Mart, food hall, izakaya and a sake store.

Brooklyn-born sake

Brooklyn Kura co-founders Brandon Doughan, left, and Brian
Photo Credit: Molly Tavoletti

After a year experimenting at the old Pfizer building, Brooklyn Kura started making its first commercial batches in December. It specializes in “pure rice sake,” junmai ginjo, says co-owner Brian Polen (pictured above, right), made with four ingredients: American-grown rice, New York City water, koji (a steamed rice with mold spores cultivated onto it that’s made in the brewery) and yeast, which are fermented into alcohol.

“We’re making mild-style sake,” the Prospect Heights resident, 36, says. “That’s the style of sake that we’re excited about.”

Polen and Brooklyn Kura co-owner and head brewer Brandon Doughan (pictured above, left), were introduced at a wedding in Japan in 2013. They developed a taste for premium sake on that trip and started tinkering at home — Polen in Brooklyn, Doughan in Portland, Oregon — before getting serious enough to leave their jobs and, for Doughan, to move to Bay Ridge.

“Part of our goal in addition to just making the best sake that we can is just educating — like fine wine and craft beer drinkers — that sake has the breadth and depth that people look for when they’re thinking about what to have for dinner,” Polen says. “And that sake can be taken out of the context of Japanese food.”

So instead of sake of the warm and astringent variety, Polen says, think of the drink with floral and effervescent qualities that you “might confuse with a glass of white wine.”

Part of that education will be through Brooklyn Kura’s tap room, located at its Industry City facility, which is open Fridays and Saturdays, with hours and tours likely to be added on Sundays. In addition to the tap room, the brewery’s sake is available only in NYC at the stores Astor Wines & Spirits and Union Square Wines, as well as Manhattan restaurants and bars including Decibel, Tonchin, Oka and Bohemian.

“We want to be in Japanese and non-Japanese restaurants,” Polen says. “There’s a world where other places — more progressive beer bars, places like Gold Star in Prospect Heights — where we’d love to have our sake.”

Sake’s steady stateside rise

Hiroko Furukawa, left, and her husband Rick Smith,
Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

As sake consumption and breweries are generally on the decline in Japan — competing with beer, whisky and shochu — the growing interest in the United States has been slow and steady. Sakaya, which opened in 2007, is one of three specialty sake stores in the entire country and the first and — until Japan Village debuts — the only in New York City.

“When I first started, I didn’t even know if we would survive as the only one,” says Rick Smith, who runs the store with his wife, Hiroko Furukawa (both pictured above), selling some 140 premium Japanese sakes. “From year to year, we’ve always done better than the year prior. Of late, particularly in the last two to three years, there’s been a greater awareness of sake and premium sake.”

In addition to more restaurants — Japanese and not — serving the drink, Smith points to one major catalyst for the increased interest he’s seen: the 2015 documentary “The Birth of Saké,” which is available on Netflix and iTunes. A few times a week, Sakaya gets customers looking for sake made by the Japanese brewery featured in the film, Yoshida Brewery.

“Over the course of 10 years, I’ve seen a lot of people trying to promote sake,” Smith, 65, says. “That movie in and of itself has single-handedly done more than anything else to raise awareness and interest in sake.”

Smith tells as much to the film’s Kensington-based director, Erik Shirai, every time he sees him in the store. The Japanese-American filmmaker wanted to make a film that explored his roots before landing on the laborious sake-making process, a subject he didn’t know much about at first.

“I think there’s something to be said about consuming something that is made by people,” Shirai, 35, says. “It just tastes different, it feels different, and I think it generates a different type of appreciation for it.”

A craft calling

The Joy of Sake
Photo Credit: The Joy of Sake

This June, sake appreciators will converge at Chelsea’s Metropolitan Pavilion for the annual Joy of Sake (pictured), a tasting and food pairing event now in its 13th year. It should be the biggest yet in NYC; since its launch, the festival has moved a handful of times to accommodate growing crowds. On June 15 this year, it’s looking to have more than 1,000 attendees, up from about 800 at this fall’s iteration.

“Sake just keeps getting more prevalent,” says Chris Johnson, 48, a Joy of Sake board member, World Sake Imports national manager and distributor, and Japan Sake Brewers Association-certified “sake samurai.” He is also a self-proclaimed “sake ninja.” 

“Of course there’s Decibel and Sakagura and SakaMai, but other Asian restaurants and non-Japanese restaurants are starting to get excited about pouring sake to pair with their food,” Johnson says.

The American-made sake is also getting better, he adds, pointing to brewers like Brooklyn Kura, Massachusetts’ Dovetail Sake and Maine’s Blue Current Brewery.

“The interest is there, and the excitement of brewing sake is there for these craft brewers,” the Alphabet City resident says.

Indeed, Brooklyn Kura won’t be the only sake brewery in the state soon; the Culinary Institute of America is partnering with Asahi Shuzo, the Japanese brewer of Dassai sake, to build a $28 million sake brewing facility in Hyde Park, New York. And SakeBrooklyn, a craft sake microbrewery, has plans to open in the borough.

Brooklyn Kura gets calls on a weekly basis from people interested in starting breweries themselves and looking for guidance on everything from the rice they use to their equipment.

“What we’re trying to do is just be as available and as supportive as we can,” Polen says. “The more people producing higher-quality sake, whatever form that takes, I think the better for the category.”

Sake, Brooklyn-style

Brooklyn Kura. Credit: Molly Tavoletti
Photo Credit: Molly Tavoletti

Brooklyn Kura has several junmai ginjo and junmai sakes on its tap room menu, available by the glass, small and large carafe, plus a few exclusive offerings that provide insight into the sake-making process.

“Part of the cool thing about sake is it’s a very different thing over its life cycle. It can be the same fermentation with the same base ingredients from the same tank, but at day 10 of the process, day 20, day 30 — there are similarities across, but they’re very different drinks,” Polen says. “We’re producing different batches with different rice ratios, different milling rates, different yeasts — all of those things that drive different flavor profiles of sake.”

Polen walks us through some of the menu:

#14: “We’re calling it #14 because it’s essentially our 14th recipe for sake that we worked on,” Polen says. The light-bodied, floral drink is good for beginners, he adds. 

Blend: This sake is a blend of two finished batches of sake: #14 and a drier sake made with a different yeast and temperature profile. “It has a drier profile and some nice fruit notes,” Polen says. “We just call it the blend, we’re not super creative. Either we spend time arguing about the names or we make sake.”

Blend - Frizzante: This sake is the blend but it’s been given a light carbonation. “It’s just a light sparkle,” Polen says.

Blue Door: For more adventurous drinkers, this junmai sake has a “rich, ripe banana aroma and kind of a dry, almost smoky finish to it,” Polen says. 

Moromi: “This is fermentation that in a unique way we are able to serve,” Polen says, noting that rice particles are still in the sake mash, available only at the tap room.

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