Episode 123 Show Notes
Episode 123. Can you keep a secret? We usually can… unless it involves sake intel that’s hot off the presses. This week, we have a fun interview with California sake expert and sommelier Greg Beck. Greg is the founder and owner of Sake Secret, an L.A. County sake pop up. He studied Japanese in college and found his way to sake through the festivals and matsuri while working in Hiroshima. As his passion for sake grew, he returned to the States to share the secrets of sake with everyone. While the pop up is fantastic, Greg has a dream to give sake a permanent home in Southern California and so he’s launched a Kickstarter campaign to make a brick and mortar sake shop a reality in SoCal. Listen in to hear Greg’s story and consider supporting his efforts to share the Sake Secret with us all! #SakeRevolution
Skip to: 00:19
Welcome to the show from John and Timothy
Skip to: 01:37
SAKE SECRET is LA County’s only Sake Specialty Shop, offering bottles from 6 ounces to 60 at every price range. In addition to buying and trying different styles, you can ask questions and get real, unbiased info.
Learn more about this unique beverage so you can order with confidence, unlocking all of Sake’s Secrets
Origin of the “Sake Secret” name. Read the sake production story from the RICE’S point of view!
☛ Support the Kickstarter ☚
Sake Secret: A Japanese Sake Shop for SoCal
Hakkaisan “Yuki Muro” 3 Year Snow Aged Junmai Daiginjo*
Classification: Junmai Daiginjo, Koshu
Brewery: Hakkaisan Sake Brewery
Rice Type: Gohyakumangoku, Yamadanishiki, Yukinosei
Brand: Hakkaisan (八海山)
Sake Name English: Eight Peaks
Importer: Mutual Trading (USA)
*Please note: Timothy works as the Brand Ambassador for Hakkaisan Sake Brewery.
Please see our Ethics Statement for more information
NOTE: Use Discount Code “REVOLUTION” for 10% off your first order with Tippsy Sake.
Sake Secret Kickstarter
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Sake Secret: A Japanese Sake Shop for SoCal
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Episode 123 Transcript
John Puma: 0:21
Hello everybody and welcome to Sake Revolution. This is America’s First Sake podcast and I am your host, John Puma. From the Sake Notes, also the administrator over at the internet sake Discord. Do come down and have a drink with us sometime, and on the show I am the, uh, regular old sake Otaku.
Timothy Sullivan: 0:41
And I’m your host Timothy Sullivan. I’m a Sake, Samurai, sake educator, as well as the founder of the Urban Sake website. And every week John and I will be here tasting and chatting about all things sake and doing our best to make it fun and easy to understand.
John Puma: 0:58
Uh, Tim, I, I love how you’re able to, just to nail that intro every single
Timothy Sullivan: 1:04
Almost like I’ve never said it before, it just rolls off the tongue now.
John Puma: 1:09
Just rolls off the tongue. uh, so I, I’m noticing something in the Zoom here. Uh, it’s, it’s not just you and me, so can you please, uh, let me and the people at home know, uh, who is this person?
Timothy Sullivan: 1:19
Yeah. We have a special guest joining us for the show today. It is a good friend of ours. I want to introduce everybody to Greg Beck. He is a sake educator and expert from the West coast. He’s got an exciting project going on over there that we’re gonna talk about today. So Greg, welcome to the show.
Greg Beck: 1:37
Oh my gosh, guys, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be on the podcast. I’ve listened to so many times.
John Puma: 1:44
Uh, well thank you for that, Greg, and welcome to the show. Yeah. Uh, it’s good to see you.
Greg Beck: 1:49
Yeah, likewise. I, uh, it’s, it’s not weird to see you. I’ve, I’ve seen you both online or in person, but never together.
Timothy Sullivan: 1:59
Yeah, so Greg, for those listeners of ours who have not heard of you before, do you wanna give us a little bit of a self introduction and how you got connected to Japan in the first place?
Greg Beck: 2:11
Yeah. Let’s see how quickly I can run through this. Um, I am originally from Tucson, Arizona. I went to the University of Arizona. And my second language was actually German from high school and getting into, uh, college and testing into a very high level of German, I did not like the grad student teaching it. So I said, I’m gonna drop this and come back to it later. And the next year I was looking through. The course teachers to make sure she wasn’t there and I found Japanese and I was like, Oh, I can learn Japanese. That’s rad. So I signed up and I knew from learning German that, uh, studying abroad would hasten my understanding of Japanese. And I very quickly decided that was necessary getting into the language. So it was completely language driven. I’m a, I’m a linguist, I’m a word nerd. I love puns. And, uh, I moved to Japan for my junior year of college and lived with a Japanese host family. And, Just tried to immerse myself as much as I could, which included both the language and the culture and just wanted to learn as much about everything as I could. Ended up becoming very fluent very quickly. And, moving back to Japan after college for the JET program. So the JET program is the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for, young professionals. And they matched me up with, Hiroshima Perpetual Government. And I worked as both a assistant language teacher for two years and a coordinator of international relations for another three years. The long and short of it is I got to find out a lot about my Prefecture, where I was living, including the fact that Hiroshima is one of the three oldest, sake brewing regions in Japan and has a huge rich history of sake making. So I went on brewery tours and I helped translate materials for their, annual sake festival, and that’s kind of where I got indoctrinated with. sake and became, not just, a regular drinker of it, but somebody who wanted to learn as much as possible about it.
Timothy Sullivan: 4:33
Well, that’s, that’s really cool. And I’m not gonna hold it against you that you said you became fluent in Japanese very quickly because I’ve been studying for about 10 years and still can barely put two words together. But I won’t hold that against you,
Greg Beck: 4:48
I, I have to give, I have to give all credit to my host family, The Ogawas. They, uh, were instrumental in everything. And, Konan Daigaku shout out to Konan University in, Hyogo Prefecture. Uh, all of my professors and my, my host family were hugely, uh, to thank for that.
John Puma: 5:09
so you did mention that you went to visit a lot of breweries when you were over in Hiroshima. Um, but what was the moment, what was that like aha moment for you when you tried some sake and went Oh, oh, yes.
Greg Beck: 5:21
So honestly, it, it wasn’t one single moment as uh, anti-climactic as that might be. Going to the Hiroshima Sake Festival every year was this amazing experience because it started off like, Hey guys, here’s an all you can drink sake event for $25. Roughly, let’s, let’s go get housed, right? like we just we’re drinking as much as we could, for the joy of having a boozy day, in our early twenties, as we all probably do. And, uh, you know, the second year doing that, And having literally every Prefecture that makes sake represented in this park where all you had to do was run up and say, Gimme something dry, or gimme something sweet. I finally started to think, Hey, hey, what, what, what’s, what’s going on here? Why are these so vastly different if I go to one Prefecture sake? I can after, you know, tasting many back to back, to back, being a silly young guy, I started to notice like, Oh, this one’s really earthy and this one’s got minerality and this one’s dry, and this one’s sweet. Even though they’re made by the same brewery. What is going on here? And I just started taking advantage of the fact that I speak Japanese and I have these Japanese brewers. representing their breweries all pouring for me. And I just asked questions like, why is this, this way? And they’d say something like, Oh, it’s our water, or, Oh, it’s our rice. And, everyone had different answers, but I took it all in and just kept asking more and more questions. And from there, I just took that outside of that festival, and if I was at a bar that had, uh, a, a large sake menu or somebody mentioned that they were known for sake, I just, just kept asking questions.
John Puma: 7:25
Timothy Sullivan: 7:25
Hmm, and, and after you. Up your time in Japan with this like love for sake. You came back here. How did you get into sake professionally?
Greg Beck: 7:35
Yeah, it’s funny. I moved to New York, to be a television news producer for Japanese network, tbs, and uh, I was working in an all Japanese office and we would often go out to dinner after a long day’s work at a Japanese restaurant and. I actually, by that point, was really into shochu as well. So more often than not, I was drinking shochu. but my love for sake didn’t go away. It was always there and I was always, Drinking it where I could find the ones I liked or where I found something that peaked my interest or caught my eye. And it wasn’t actually until I moved to Los Angeles that I decided to dive back into it. So moving to LA I had a lot of free time and didn’t know a lot of people, so I started volunteering at Sake Events, and that is where I met, Toshio Ueno. or as we all know him Ueno-san and I worked at a sake booth at a LA Times event, and at the end of the night he goes, Hey, you know a lot about sake. And I was like, Wow, no. You know way more than me. I don’t know anything compared to you. And he’s like, Nah, you’re like practically a sommelier. I said, I don’t know what that means. He said, Oh, it’s like an expert. I was like, You are the expert. He’s like, I know I’m a master sommelier. I said, Oh, oh, that makes sense. And he goes, he goes, No, you don’t get it. Like master sommelier are, are able to teach sommelier and you’re almost there. I can help you fill in the gaps. Uh, I offer courses and you just need to read some books and, and work with me a little bit and you can take the test and get qualified. And that’s where I realized that, being an expert in sake was actually, a path that was available to me.
John Puma: 9:31
Uh, and now sake, secret little bottle, a little sake bar bottle shop inside of a beer brewery.
Greg Beck: 9:38
Yeah. Oh man.
John Puma: 9:39
Tell us about,
Greg Beck: 9:41
This is kind of a really happy accident, that came from my passion for all things craft and, Getting back into the food and beverage world in la I was working at izakayas and Sake houses. I actually started, just before I moved to LA from New York, working at EN Brasserie in Greenwich Village and, getting to know their sake Sommelier and, That was kind of what planted the seed in my head, coming to LA like, Oh yeah, remember sake, your old friend. so I did all this, part-time work, just having fun paying the bills at, at these Izakayas. And I did different jobs and import export and while I was working out here in la I was also home brewing beer for, for years and I decided to finally pull the trigger and become an entrepreneur and I thought to myself, Let me open a brewery cuz LA doesn’t have very many craft breweries. but first let me get some hands on experience at a commercial brewery because I’m sure it’s different than home brewing. And I’d rather make the mistakes and get the learning on their dime than mine. So I started working at a, a craft beer, brewery in Torrance called Strand. And by the time I really felt competent. The number of breweries in LA County had quadrupled, and I started writing a business plan and realized that there was no more need for more breweries in LA. And I had this idea in my head, like, I need to do something that I’m passionate about, that I’m knowledgeable about, but it also needs to fill a need, uh, a niche. Not just a niche like to make money off of, but like a need in the community for something. And I hit on sake as one of these things that I know a lot about. People always want me to talk about. And, um, people wanna drink and wanna learn more, but there’s just not that many people. Doing what you guys are doing here on this podcast. So I changed my business plan from a brewery to a sake shop because in Japan, no matter how small the city, village or township is, there’s always a sake shop. And you go to the big cities and they’ll have a Western wine shop. So I thought, isn’t it weird that the opposite isn’t the case in America? Like every little town in America has a wine shop. Shouldn’t a big city like LA have a sake shop?
Timothy Sullivan: 12:33
John Puma: 12:34
Timothy Sullivan: 12:35
John Puma: 12:37
As it turns out,
Greg Beck: 12:39
absolutely right. So I wrote this business plan and I was still brewing away my days at Strand. And then, some other friends at another brewery where I live in Long Beach said, Hey, we’re expanding. We need help. Come help us. And I said, That’s, that’s very kind of you, but I’m, I’m trying to open a sake shop, so I’m not gonna quit my brewery. To work at another brewery that’s kind of a tangent that I don’t want to go on. And they, and they said, Well, we have lots of space. Why don’t you do both? And so basically I’m helping them brew and they’re helping me get started because there’s not a farmer’s market option available for somebody trying to start an alcohol business, which would make farmer’s markets way better. In my opinion, but it’s the logistics and the legal aspects of selling alcohol before you have a shop are very difficult. So thanks to, Long Beach Beer Lab here in Long Beach, I get to brew during the day, which I still love doing. And, then I clock out and I open my little sake shop. And because they also, they’re a brew pub, They have a full restaurant. I’m able to also act as a, a sake bar for the brewery and, pair sake with their sourdough pizzas and other tasty menu items.
Timothy Sullivan: 14:11
Yeah, no, I, I had the good fortune to visit you, Greg, to visit you out there and, spent the evening with you as you’re pouring sake. So maybe I can give people some of the vibe, a little description of what it’s like. So we have in one of the corners of this very large beer brewing space, Greg is set up with a bar. And tables. And behind him is a refrigerated glass case filled to the brim with the most delicious looking sake bottles and a big flag overhead that says sake secret. And if you come over to this corner of the. Beautiful, uh, beer brewing space, like a tap room kind of space. Uh, there’s one corner that’s reserved for sake, and your friendly face is there to greet everybody. And you can sell people bottles, retail, and you can also pour them samples. So it’s like the best of both worlds.
John Puma: 15:02
That is extraordinarily not Possible here in New York,
Timothy Sullivan: 15:08
Yeah. So before we go any further sake secret, what’s behind the name? Why did you call this, uh, shop that you’d set up there? Why is it sake secret?
Greg Beck: 15:18
Oh gosh. I wish I had short answers for any of your questions. I, uh, uh, you know, as a journalist and a writer, I have always been writing stuff. I even, while I was moonlighting at Izakayas here in LA I was doing travel writing and going back and forth to Japan and just on a lark I decided to give myself homework and, a creative writing exercise. I decided to write the Secrets of Sake, and it was a story of how sake is made from the perspective of the rice. And, uh, it is still living out there on the internet, on a blog. I think it might be Longtime No Taco. I forget I had a lot of punny, blog sites in my day. But, it was basically, a multi-part, story. That’s a, a horror story of this grain of rice and his entire village being swept up and tortured and, manipulated until they basically became sake. Um, and then that, that kind of secret sake, sake secret, like stuck in my head and and so I, went with that for my business name.
Timothy Sullivan: 16:28
I don’t know if you agree with this, but I think a lot of consumers who are really into sake, but feel like there’s this veil, it’s behind a veil, and they, they don’t know what the secret is about sake. So it, it does make sense given the position sake has for a lot of consumers. Right now.
Greg Beck: 16:46
Yeah, I always tell people I have to sell you the sake, but the secrets are free.
John Puma: 16:53
I like it.
Timothy Sullivan: 16:54
All right. Now we know you have a new project coming up. That’s very exciting. But before we get to that, how about we explore a little sake secret of our own and sip on some?
Greg Beck: 17:07
John Puma: 17:09
That was very subtle. Tim
Timothy Sullivan: 17:10
Very, so, all right, so we prepared a sake to enjoy together today. Uh, jp do you wanna let us know what we’re drinking?
John Puma: 17:20
I would be happy to. so I’m, I’m quite excited about this one. And I, I imagine, Tim, so are you, this is the Hakkaisan Yuki Muro. The, uh, three year snow aged Junmai Daiginjo. so this is classified as a Junmai Daiginjo, but also a koshu because of a three year aging. the brewery, of course, is Hakkaisan sake brewery over in Niigata Prefecture. The, rice is actually a combination of gohyakumangoku, Yamadanishiki, and Yukinosei all mill down to 50% of their original size. Alcohol percentage is 17%. The smv is minus one. And personally, this is probably my favorite Hakkaisan product, so I’m excited to be tasting this again. It’s been a long time.
Timothy Sullivan: 18:13
Yeah, we had this on the show for our gift giving episode way back when. So, um, and full disclosure, I am a brand rep for this particular brand, but we all happen to have it, so we decided just to go for it and, uh, we’re gonna go ahead and get it in the glass and do our asmr. All right, so we’ve got it in the glass now. John and I have talked about this sake on the show before. So Greg, we’d love to get your, impression of the aroma and the taste. So let’s give it a smell.
Greg Beck: 18:51
Yeah, let me sing its praises. I have, sold this for many years, not just at my sake shop, but at other izakayas as well. And I love the smell. This is, I get white flower. It’s a classic, Junmai, Daiginjo aroma, uh, in the best sense of, uh, the more modern ones you get more melon and tropical fruit, whereas this is more of a, of a gentle floral aroma. And I get, little lychee, even like a hint.
John Puma: 19:26
Greg Beck: 19:28
And you definitely get the, like a biscuity. Sort of smell from the rice.
John Puma: 19:34
Hmm. I like that. I never thought about associating that rice with a little bit of sweetness to it and saying like, Biscuit, that really works actually.
Timothy Sullivan: 19:41
Yeah, and for those who are not familiar with the Hakasan snow age sake, this is called the Yuki Muro because this sake is actually aged for three years. In the Yuki, Muro and Yuki. Muro is a snow cellar. It’s a room filled with snow, and there’s stainless steel tanks side by side with the snow, and they use really low temperature, very, very close to freezing temperatures to mature this sake for three years. And that adds a real complexity to, to the sake. Uh, so let’s go ahead and give it a.
John Puma: 20:16
Timothy Sullivan: 20:17
What I really like about this sake being from Niigata, is that when you think about a koshu or an aged sake, normally they’re dark in color and more carmel-y and a little bit more oxidized. This is. Aged and concentrated, but I always describe it as a Niigata style. Koshu, like it’s still clear, relatively clean on the finish, but it is concentrated. So that’s a lovely marriage of Niigata and Koshu, I think.
Greg Beck: 20:49
Yeah, this is super clean. And, like you said, the clarity is almost crystalline and there is a little bit of that, rice coloration but nowhere near what a most koshu have. It’s like you have this unaged, it’s been aged for three years, but it has alluded time through being kept cold. And then as it warms up in your cup. All of that age catches up to it. So when it’s fresh out of the refrigerator and you just open that and you pour it in your glass, it tastes the way it did three years ago. Uh, and then as the temperature comes up, you’re getting all of that aging, catching up to it in your glass, and you get these tight white pepper flavors that kind of melt and turn into caramel.
John Puma: 21:44
Timothy Sullivan: 21:45
Well, I think it’s important to talk about umami when. I drink this sake because the finish has much more umami than you’re gonna find in these classic Niigata styles, aged or not. So this really brings out a very elegant umami. I think that word might scare some people when they’re talking about sake. I don’t want any funky, earthy flavors. But this brings a gentle, savory note on the finish that pairs so well with red meat, uh, short ribs. Different pork dishes and for me it just opens up a whole new world of pairing that aging concentrates the umami and gives you the savoriness that is really, really special. That’s one thing I love about this one.
John Puma: 22:30
Yeah, one of my favorite things about it is that it’s so friendly to Western dishes. And as somebody who for a lot of years, like getting into sake, most of what I was eating was, was Western stuff. And so it was like, Oh, this sake goes fantastic with Italian food that I have at home nice hearty American western style dishes and it really stands up to them perfectly
Greg Beck: 22:54
That’s so funny that you started with sake and Western dishes cuz I feel like most people, it’s the opposite. They only have sake when they’re at a Japanese restaurant and in their head the two are inextricably linked. And I can’t tell you how many people have walked into Sake Secret and seen my sake, uh, collection and gone, Where’s the sushi
Timothy Sullivan: 23:17
John Puma: 23:18
Well, uh, for me it was more along the lines of, uh, bringing sake home. Sipping it without food, but I have to eventually eat. And so I was just, Oh, you’re gonna eat. And then I will also have some sake. And oh wow, this is, this goes really well, what I’m eating. This is wonderful
Greg Beck: 23:32
Yeah, for me, that’s where all the fun is, is finding which sakes pair with which dishes in non-Japanese cuisine as I, I could eat Japanese food only for the rest of my life and be happy, but. the thing I love about, America in general, if I can get poetic, is like the multiculturalism and, and what happens when you mash up. These, these different cultures and you find, a sake that goes really well with a cheeseburger or, uh, you have, you know, foie gras and sake, and you go, What, how is this working? it’s unlocking the best in each other. Like the food is making the sake taste better. The sake is making the food taste better, and it’s that elevating it and taking it to the next level.
John Puma: 24:22
Excellent. Greg, thank you for tasting with us here. Uh, the big question now is what’s next for Sake Secret? And for Greg Beck.
Greg Beck: 24:31
Thank you. Yeah. What’s next is what has always been in the, in the plan, which was to open a brick and mortar sake shop. And, the popup has been a great, prelude to that and the, the breweries food. A lot of sourdough crust pizzas and you know, we’ve got cheese that pairs with sake incredibly well, and, all kinds of fun things going on there, but, I really want to be my own boss, have my own spot, expand the selection, expand the space, and include Japanese craft beer, and shochu Japanese snacks and other things that I feel would compete with the brewery. So I, I’ve been holding back and not, not trying to provide too much with the small space I have there. Um, I want to, open a brick and mortar shop. What I have now is technically the first in LA County, and, this shop will be a home base for sake, lovers in LA County, and the surrounding region as well. So that there’s no question like, where can we have, this brewer come and talk about their sake, or where can we have these sake meetups? Like I want there to be a dedicated space where people always feel welcome to come and meet and nerd out on sake. So, I’m about to launch a kickstarter. The kickstarter is to help me crowd fund, and there’s a number of reasons for that. But the simplest is just that there are a lot of upfront costs associated with opening any alcohol shop. I, I need a lot of licenses and permits as well as, down payment on the space. And then there’s a half a year plus waiting period where. I send that all that money out, and I have to sit here and wait for the city and the state to approve the licenses and permits before I can actually open up. Now, the good news is I can still run my popup during that time, and keep making, headway there. But having this money will also help me with the build out. It’ll help me with my first round inventory of, the expanded selection. like Tim mentioned, I have one fridge that I have packed to the, to the bursting with, uh, over 75 kinds of premium sake. But I wanna have three of those fridges and I wanna have, prepackaged, cheese and charcuterie and, and more to provide to people and, and give them, not just pairing suggestions, but things that they can take home and eat right away. And I want to have, a traditional Japanese space for events as well. So the kickstarter is, is to help pay for that and if it goes really well, the reach goal is to have that private event space as well, where I can introduce local chefs and we can have fun pairing their food with sake.
Timothy Sullivan: 27:47
John Puma: 27:47
That sounds very exciting.
Greg Beck: 27:49
It’s a lot of business stuff and I really hate it. I just want
John Puma: 27:54
Just wanna get to the fun part where you
Greg Beck: 27:55
and talk about it.
Timothy Sullivan: 27:57
Now if people wanna get behind you and want to support this new sake secret, uh, can we call it a lair? I guess we can call it a lair the secret lair of sake in LA County.
Greg Beck: 28:14
He needs key.
Timothy Sullivan: 28:15
how do people, get in touch with you? Or where can they go to learn more about supporting your kickstarter?
Greg Beck: 28:20
Yeah. Thank you guys so much for this opportunity. they can find me on Sake Secret on Instagram is one of my fastest ways to communicate with people and I also have a monthly newsletter. On my website, SakeSecret.com. You can subscribe by just going to SakeSecret.com/subscribe. I have a TikTok and a Twitter and a Facebook page as well, but, the Instagram and the newsletter are your best bets.
Timothy Sullivan: 28:50
Okay, so if we visit SakeSecret.com we’ll we’ll see the Kickstarter info.
Greg Beck: 28:55
Smash the like button and subscribe
Timothy Sullivan: 28:57
Well, Greg, I cannot wait to support you on Kickstarter and can’t wait for this shop to open and I can’t wait to learn what the sake secret is. But for anyone who wants to learn their own sake secret, please visit Kickstarter and support our friend. Greg, I want to thank John, so great to taste with you as always, and I wanna thank our listeners for tuning in. We hope you enjoy our show.
Greg Beck: 29:22
Thank you listeners.
Timothy Sullivan: 29:25
And I want to give a special shout out and hello and a thank you to our patrons. If you’d like to support the revolution here on Sake Revolution, please visit Patreon.com/SakeRevolution to learn more about supporting us.
John Puma: 29:41
And did you know that at SakeRevolution.com, there is a small collection of t-shirts and other kinds of swag bearing the Sake Revolution logo. So on that note Revolutionaries is please grab your glass, Remember to keep drinking sake and Kanpai Woo.