Changes brewing in the world of sake

Exports of sake have been rocketing in recent years, as foreign drinkers develop a taste for the rice brew. But as one recent tasting competition showed, it's not just the Japanese stuff that's impressing: a new wave of international brewers is picking up plaudits and winning over palates.

Earlier this month, more than 400 brewers gathered in central Tokyo, hoping to pick up medals in the country's biggest sake competition. And in amongst the usual candidates were some new faces. Alongside the Japanese producers were brewers from Spain, Mexico, the United States and several other countries, all vying for the newest of the awards: Best Sake Brewed Overseas.

In the end, it was California's Sequoia Sake Company that came out top, beating 12 other breweries with a fruity bottling called "Coastal Ginjo."

Jake Myrick, who runs the brewery with his Japanese wife Noriko, says he began making sake because he wanted to share a passion that was piqued while he was living in Japan.

Most of their releases are unpasteurized, called "namazake" in Japanese, which means they taste fresher and livelier than brews that have been heat treated.

But Myrick says that also means they're more delicate and deteriorate faster, so he refuses to ship long distance. Sequoia sake is strictly for the locals.

The Myricks established the Sequoia Sake Company in San Francisco in 2015.

And it's made with strictly local ingredients too. The water comes from the Yosemite valley, and, for now, the rice comes from nearby Sacramento. From next year, though, the Myricks hope to use rice they grew themselves. They have spent the past seven years trying to cultivate an ancient strain of Japanese rice considered ideal for sake, and they say the next harvest should be good enough for brewing.

Jake Myrick says he wants to show Californians that sake isn't just for sushi restaurants. "It's a wonderful drink that suits all kinds of cuisines," he says. "I want to brew sake that Californians can enjoy as a daily drink."

"Coastal Ginjo" of Sequoia Sake got the prize of Sake Competition 2019.

One of the contest organizers, former soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata, says he thinks foreign sake has a bright future.
"It will probably take longer to get it right if you're outside Japan because of the different environmental factors and rice varieties," he says. "But there used to be a time when people thought it was impossible to make wine in America. Now, California is seen as one of the top wine regions in the world. So I think we will see more and more sake breweries opening outside Japan."

The Myricks impressed the judges in only their fourth season of brewing, so perhaps it won't be long before sake sommeliers around the world are asking "new world or old?".