By Gregory Daurer | Mar 27, 2023
San Francisco, California
Sake and sake kasu
Sequoia Sake is "one of the most unique sake breweries in California," says Myrick. "We actually control everything from the seed all the way through the bottle."
Sake is often called "rice wine," and California categorizes it as a wine in terms of licensing. But sake is actually brewed through an incredibly hands-on process, even more so than beer-making.
Specially milled sake rice gets steamed and then inoculated with a fungus called koji, which will convert rice into sugar during the sake-making process and add a unique umami flavor to the finished beverage. In a 120-liter stainless-steel starter tank, the koji-inoculated rice, additional steamed rice, water, and yeast are mixed together. Then, that mixture gets transferred into a 1,000-liter fermentation tank. From there, the sake-making process entails three more staged additions of water, koji rice, and cooked rice -- as well as lots of stirring. Myrick says, "It's a very cold, slow process, and I'm controlling the heat to the whole time." Myrick warns visitors about the brewery's cool temperature.
By necessity, the company's first tanks were fabricated by one of Myrick's business partners, Warren Pfahl, a carpenter. The specialty tanks required weren't readily available for purchase from a local beer or wine equipment supplier. "Because it's open-top fermentation, you have to have a ratio of depth to surface area to let the CO2 out," says Myrick. Now, the business buys additional stainless-steel tanks from China, made to their specifications.
When the brewing is completed, the mixture gets poured into tightly meshed bags. Then the liquid is squeezed out of the rice using a specialty Japanese press, called a fune. Myrick says, "We actually had to spend the $60,000 to bring that over from Japan." The leftover residue, called sake kasu, is sold to various companies. "They're using it to make alternative meat products and meat fillers," says Myrick.
"Probably 80 percent of what we sell is unpasteurized sake," says Myrick of the finished bottlings. The rest is pasteurized, which provides longer shelf stability. But it's that unpasteurized version that still entrances Myrick and his Japanese-born wife Noriko Kamei -- who's also Myrick's other business partner and a sake brewmaster, herself. The two of them missed the taste of unpasteurized sake so much after living together in Japan for 10 years that they began homebrewing it themselves after moving to San Francisco.
For Sequoia Sake, it all begins with that specialty rice. While California is the second largest producer of rice in the United States, the predominant variety has been crossbred over the years to be less starchy. Working with researchers at UC Davis over the course of seven years, Myrick has spearheaded the reintroduction of that rice's ancestor into California's agriculture. "It has a bigger starch center," notes Myrick. Two farmers, located north of Sacramento, now grow the organic rice for Sequoia Sake. Afterwards, the rice needs to be dried to a particular moisture content. Then, the rice is milled using a specialty machine, which costs around a half million dollars. A couple of separate businesses each have their own milling machine not far from the fields.
This year, the brewery will utilize somewhere between 18 to 20 tons of rice. "It works out to about a pound of rice per bottle," says Myrick. In other words, Sequoia Sake will produce in excess of 36,000 bottles in 2023, each one 750 ml in size.
A lot of sales presently take place during tasting events held at the brewery's location. In the past, Myrick -- who previously worked in IT, himself -- would do presentations at businesses like Google and Facebook, resulting in good sales days. Given his own IT background, the brewery has also incorporated modern technology to assist with the ancient sake-making process. Myrick says, "Coming from the IT world, we monitor everything: I monitor my humidity, my temperature, the CO2, everything inside these rooms."
It's a family business: Myrick and Kamei's daughter Olivia also works at the brewery. Myrick says, "There are only three female sake producers outside of Japan, and two of them are here at Sequoia."
In 2019, the brewery won a gold medal for its Coastal Ginjo sake (described as possessing "a refreshing aroma of green apple" on the company's website) and a silver award for its Coastal Genshu sake ("rich, earthy, and full bodied") at the Sake Competition held in Japan. During the awards presentation, Myrick recalls, "There were nine Japanese standing on the stage -- and I was the one non-Japanese" winner.
Myrick is at the vanguard of domestic sake-making, thus "creating a brand-new industry" in America. "We are still the only sake producer in San Francisco," he says. "When we started, there were 11 [microbrewery] sake producers in North America. There are now close to 30."
But he's also tied to that longstanding sake-making tradition which has existed in Japan for -- just like the existence of sequoia trees themselves in California --1,700 years. "When I go back to Japan, I just love being welcomed into sake breweries,”" says Myrick. "It's just fantastic!"
Challenges: The process of winning over restaurants with their domestic craft sake has been one of the brewery's historic challenges. Myrick says, "It took me three years to convince the first Japanese restaurant to take my product, because they wanted to know I was still going to be around." His first food service customers were "Americans doing ramen shops and things like that."
Opportunities: Promoting sake as -- in terms of the ingredients used -- a healthier form of alcohol. Myrick says, "Sake is the only alcohol that has no glutens, no tannins, no sulfites. Also, there's only one grain on the whole planet no one is allergic to, which is rice. So, if you're a celiac -- or if you're trying to not bring in any more in toxins than alcohol -- sake is actually the best [form of alcohol]." And remember, newer consumers: while sake can be heated, many prefer to imbibe it while it's chilled.
Needs: The need is "to stabilize my rice production," says Myrick. "I'm still working with UC Davis and some other rice research people to get that as a stable product that I can consistently rely on. It has still been a challenge."