Episode 34 Show Notes
Season 1. Episode 34. Continuing our series of interviews with U.S. sake brewers, this week we sit down with Yoshihiro Sako, owner and brewer at Den Sake Brewery in Oakland, California. Yoshi comes from the hospitality side of the sake industry and brings a true love of sake over to the world of U.S. sake production. Hailing from Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan, Yoshi is the ultimate ambassador of sake – melding his knowledge of Japanese culture and language with his years living in the U.S., to create a sake that is a unique and delicious hybrid of these two world views. With a bumped up acidity, unique calhikari rice and a firm, dry finish, Yoshi crafts sake that hews to his own vision. So far, he’s been recognized as a James Beard Award semi-finalist as well as being featured in season two of the PBS Television series Tastemakers. Listen in as we taste Den’s Junmai (batch 11) and explore the flavors that Yoshi is crafting in Oakland. As a true pioneer of sake brewing in the U.S., it’s an honor to chat with Yoshi about sake now and how to raise sake up in the years to come.
Skip to: 00:19
Welcome to the show from John and Timothy
Founded in 2017 by Yoshihiro Sako, Den Sake Brewery is the first sake brewery in Oakland, California. Sako brews small-batch sake using traditional Japanese brewing methods and proprietary techniques adapted for the California climate. Den Sake is a pure rice sake made from single origin Cal-Hikari rice from Rue & Forsman ranch in the Sacramento Valley.
Yoshihiro Sako spent years as a sake buyer/sommelier in Bay Area restaurants and gained the knowledge to brew sake during apprenticeships at Kubota Brewery in Kanagawa-ken and Shiokawa Brewery in Niigata Prefecture.
However, because of the environmental differences between Japan and California, and the differences in the basic ingredients of rice and water, Sako needed to develop an alternative method of brewing. This included recalculating the water absorption ratios in the drier California Cal-Hikari rice versus traditional Japanese rice and taking into account the lower mineral content in Oakland, California water.
DEN Website: https://densakebrewery.com/
DEN Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/densakebrewery/
DEN Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Den-Sake-Brewery-LLC-362410004232643/
Den Junmai Batch 11
Brewery: Den Sake Brewery
Rice Type: Calhihari
This is it! Join us next time for another episode of Sake Revolution!
Episode 34 Transcript
John Puma: 0:22
Hello, everybody. Welcome to Sake Revolution. This is America’s first sake podcast. I’m your host, John Puma from the sake notes administrator of the internet sake discord. The guy on the show who’s not a sake samurai and just an old fashioned and nerd Just like you.
Timothy Sullivan: 0:38
and I’m your host Timothy Sullivan. I am the sake samurai, the sake educator, as well as the founder of the urban Sake website and together John and I will be tasting and chatting about all things, Sake and doing our best to make it fun and easy to understand.
John Puma: 0:54
Tim. And, uh, today we’re doing, our, I believe this is our second in our series of US Sake brewers.
Timothy Sullivan: 1:03
yes, that’s right. We have a very, very VIP special guests in the studio with us.
John Puma: 1:09
Yes in the studio with us, right.
Timothy Sullivan: 1:12
Over over the interwebs. I want to welcome Yoshihiro Sako to Sake Revolution. Welcome Yoshi. It’s so good to have you.
Yoshihiro Sako: 1:21
Thank you Timothy thank you for having me John
Timothy Sullivan: 1:25
So you are the brewer at Den sake brewery in Oakland, California. And this is, as John mentioned, this is our second interview with a us Sake brewer. And we’re so excited to have you with us today to get started. Why don’t you give us a little bit of a self-introduction.
Yoshihiro Sako: 1:43
Uh, yes, my name is Yoshi Yoshihiro Sako. I’m the head brewer and the owner of Den Sake brewery in Oakland, California. Uh, we established this brewery 2018, so it’s been two years and little bit. And, currently we, right now we produce about. 250 cases every two months and then like that. And, mainly the locally we distribute that sake by ourself, locally within Bay area, including San Francisco, Oakland Berkeley and we just started shipping, within California. ,yeah, that’s about it.
Timothy Sullivan: 2:28
Great. So professionally, what did you do before you got into making Sake Were you connected to the sake industry?
Yoshihiro Sako: 2:35
Thank you for asking. I was going to tell this, but I forgot. Yeah I was in the restaurant industry for a long time, more than 15 years in San Francisco. I was sake wine buyer, and I became a sake director at the restaurant called the Yuzuki, Japanese Eatery in San Francisco. Then I also started teaching, sake class, when I was working in the restaurant and, I wanted to, you know, gain a more, the sake knowledge. So, uh, you know, I was like, okay, maybe let’s brew sake. And, uh, I did some apprecticeship at a couple of different breweries in Japan and then came back to San Francisco, I felt like I kind of like I needed to brew by myself, we decided to brew, test brewing at their, my friend’s backyard in the Bay area. And, uh, it kind of went. It came out really good. So we kind of like got confident. So we kind of decided to go into a sake brewing business. It’s a big change. It’s kind of easy to say, but it was kind of a big change for me, but I’m enjoying it.
John Puma: 3:52
What made you go like, you know what I want to try and brew some sake, and I mean, obviously you made that call, but what was, what was the, seed that, that brought that
Yoshihiro Sako: 4:00
I was in the restaurant industry for a long time and, uh, that kind of made me a little bit tired of being always kind of up against the, uh, Uh, toward the customers. And also I kind of like need to work till super late. And, um, I was in playing music, uh, before I got into the restaurant industry, I was playing music. I was playing bass in several bands in the Bay area doing recording and some tours. And, when I felt like, kind of a little bit kind of tiring, like in the restaurant job, you know, I still love going to restaurants, but job-wise, I felt like it was time to move to something different I really wanted to leave some creativity that, uh, because I’m used to, I was used to like just play music, making music all the time. And so some creativity and plus something. I wanted to go into a little bit more introverted kind of like world. So I think, shifting to the, uh, sake brewing business from a restaurant work, I think it was kind of smooth shift even though, we had to struggle right away in the beginning, but, uh, it was kind of a smooth shift yeah, mentally for me.
John Puma: 5:19
Wow. Yeah, I imagine that would be, quite a shift. So you’re now you’re making Sake in the U S but you’ve got a lot of experience with, with styles of Sake made in Japan. How would you say that U S made Sake is developing stylistically? how has that different from japan made sake days.
Yoshihiro Sako: 5:38
I it’s very hard to say because I haven’t tried all the domestic sake yet, but, for my case, I’m trying to make sake, that will pair. Well, was the food here and the food that I eat everyday life I, brought sake into the restaurant, like a California cuisine or Italian cuisine restaurants. And I kind of pair sake with all those, non-Japanese food, the only Asian food. And, uh, sometimes it’s very successful, but at the same time, I felt like just the, attack of their sake is I felt like it’s a little bit weaker than wine and I love wine and I drink a lot of wine too. so I just started to think what’s the difference between sake and the wine. And as a lot of people knows, biggest difference between sake and wine, that’s kind of acidity. Uh, it’s, it’s a big, different wine has much higher acidity and the, sake instead has, a lot of more umami flavor based, you know, a lot of times comes from, uh, Amino Acid so that’s a backbone of a sake, umami and the backbone wine is more like acidity and the, so that acidity, you know, I always enjoy that acidity. Even if I eat some kind of salad. You know, and also of course meat, like a protein, rich food, fatty food. I always enjoy pairing food. I eat with something a little bit acidic beverage. So I wanted to make sake with that acidity, that pair well with the food here.
Timothy Sullivan: 7:13
so Yoshi, where, where in Japan are you from?
Yoshihiro Sako: 7:16
I’m from Kanagawa prefecture, uh, you know, next to Tokyo Yokohama and the Kamakura is in Kanagawa prefecture.
Timothy Sullivan: 7:26
one thought or question I kind of had was, you know, you’re a Japanese person making Sake outside of Japan. Do you feel any advantage or disadvantage from being a Japanese person making Sake outside of Japan?
Yoshihiro Sako: 7:42
uh, well, interesting question. I think it’s, for me, it’s easy to access all the, uh, for example, thesis or some kind of when I hit the problem, when I’m brewing Sake I always check, I ask people, but also, I can find a lot of thesis about, the sake brewing because it’s written in Japanese. So as a native Japanese, I can read the, the Japanese, I think it’s definitely it’s advantageous for me, to get the, all the information about sake brewing The disadvantage is it’s opposite. It’s sometimes it’s, it’s hard to, uh, communicate For example, like a dealer was supplier or, it’s just habit is not the only language. It just, that habit of doing the business is kind of a little different, you know, Japanese mentality versus American mentality. It’s a little bit different. So I need to adjust to the American way and it’s, it’s still not easy for me. Yeah.
John Puma: 8:48
Hmm. what’s the one thing that you would want, Japanese people to know about US-made Sake since you are making a slightly different style, you’re making something that’s a little bit more friendly for American food. What would be the lessons you’d want to take back? And when you’re speaking to a Japanese person about sake that you make,
Yoshihiro Sako: 9:03
I think it’s, Japanese sake industry inside, it’s uh, strict. I mean, you know, I think, those, rating system about sake, it’s very strict. And, uh, for example, like, um, Have you heard about the things called the kigashu? The smell of the wood? It’s like I think it’s inferior. I mean, it’s inferior in a sake, a brewing, uh, traditional, a brewing world in Japan you know, a lot of those kind of like things. That Japanese people think that’s inferior or it’s a bad thing. It can good here. And a lot of people here don’t have those, uh, very strict, how can I say regulation or rule of sake making. So I can more add things to be considered like a bad in Japan. Yeah. I think it’s, just a clean and, uh, super beautiful aromatic styles. sake, elegant style, sake. It’s not always, you know, necessarily to be always like that. You know, I think we can add something. Um, kind of off-flavor, but if it’s a little bit, it becomes kind of attraction. So it’s, that means in that sense, I just feel like. Brewing sake in United States. I think it has much, you know, kind of more possibility for me.
Timothy Sullivan: 10:37
Yeah, well talking about brewing Sake in the U S I think there must be some unique challenges to brewing Sake in the U S versus in Japan, as someone making sake over here in the U S what has surprised you or challenged you the most versus making sake in Japan?
Yoshihiro Sako: 10:55
Well, not so many choice, uh, for rice varietal, and they’ll of course less sake rice here grow in the United States. And, uh, also equipment-wise there’s no, uh, company sells sake brewing equipment here. So I definitely need to use something from a wine world, or beer world or something totally different. So, equipment sourcing was I think it’s, it was the hardest part for me.
Timothy Sullivan: 11:26
so you had to improvise a little bit and like make things up as you went along.
Yoshihiro Sako: 11:32
Yeah. Um, I built a koji room koji table koji boxes Um, The kaibo that mixing pole using Himalayan cedar and bamboo.
Timothy Sullivan: 11:46
they don’t sell them that true value hardware down the street.
Yoshihiro Sako: 11:49
John Puma: 11:53
They’re not available at home Depot. I don’t know why.
Yoshihiro Sako: 11:56
Yeah. Yeah. So, uh, yeah, I think a lot of the stuff I made. By myself and I enjoy it, actually, those woodworking part as well.
Timothy Sullivan: 12:08
Yeah, well, one thing we all want is to grow the sake industry, you know, wherever you’re making sake in the world. I think everyone wants this industry to grow from your point of view, as a sake maker. What do you think are some of the important things that need to be done in the industry to help the industry grow?
Yoshihiro Sako: 12:29
I think education is very important. I think, as you guys know, wine has been developed a very academic way, sommelier system and the, a lot of those kind of like a education system. I think that kind of educational system, uh, it leads. A lot of people into like serious drinker, sake. Well, not like a developed like that, like wine, I think in Japan, you know, those kind of academic way of introducing sake was not happening in Japan. And I think those are very strong, especially. When I live in United States, I feel that strengths of those, academic power or academically understanding kind of like, uh, exposure. That’s probably very powerful. but for some reason when I’m in Japan, I didn’t really feel it. And every time I go back to Japan, I don’t really feel it. So people really don’t, use. Those academic way of enjoying like beverage in Japan. Probably not as much as the United States, at least, but here, definitely those academic way is very important. So education is probably, I think the most important part.
John Puma: 13:48
Well, it is a customary on our show here to drink Sake That’s what we do on sake revolution. We talk about Sake and then we drink Sake a bit. And, uh, we are fortunate enough to have a few bottles. shipped over here from California. It’s a Den Batch Number 11.
Timothy Sullivan: 14:09
Yeah, I can give the, the stats that we have for this Yoshi and let you know, the bottle that we have, and then as we taste it, maybe you can guide us a little bit through this. So this is, Junmai sake single pasteurization it’s, seimaibuai our rice milling percentage is 70%. And the alcohol percentage here, it says 16.7. And the sake rice is Calhikari Rice. …rue and Forsman ranch. That’s the source of the rice. Is that correct?
Yoshihiro Sako: 14:45
Timothy Sullivan: 14:46
Yeah. And John and I are both drinking batch 11. So you have the batch labeled on all your
John Puma: 14:53
I love that by the way.
Yoshihiro Sako: 14:56
Awesome. Thank you.
John Puma: 14:58
So actually I’m not very familiar with, Calhikari. Most of the, North American breweries that I’ve encountered have been using either Calrose or sometimes they get Yamada Nishiki that’s grown in the U S the calhikari is going to be a new experience for me.
Yoshihiro Sako: 15:15
I think, uh, I think we are the only one using a calhikari rice to make sake I think, in the world, I think for now, and that that’s a cross breed of a koshikikari akita komachi and the calrose But it was, it was born in California.
John Puma: 15:33
Very interesting. I like that.
Timothy Sullivan: 15:35
okay. I’m going to go ahead and pour my sample of the Den Junmai batch 11 Now I noticed in the glass, there is just, just a hint of some color here. Do you do charcoal filtering to your sake
Yoshihiro Sako: 15:54
I don’t so Muroka and, uh, almost Genshu but, uh, add a little water.
Timothy Sullivan: 16:05
Now the aroma is very subtle. It’s not explosive and super, super bombastic aroma. Is that something you are going for a little more restrained?
Yoshihiro Sako: 16:16
Yeah, just a little bit of aromatic the character. That’s what I want. And, uh, you know, I think it easy to do the pairing, and if there’s too much aroma, you know, that’s definitely picks only certain kind of food, but I think that this can be much more versatile.
Timothy Sullivan: 16:34
well, giving it a first sip. One of the first things I noticed is that there’s a, there’s a richness to the texture. Yeah. Some sakes that have that restrained aroma are almost like water on the palate And they’re very light, you know, sakes from Niigata for example, you know, they’re very light clean, but this has a restrained aroma, but when it hits the palate, there’s a richness and it coats the palate a little bit. And there’s a brightness on the finish. So I can see where what you were talking about before wanting to be more food friendly and how this structure would stand up more to non-Japanese foods.
Yoshihiro Sako: 17:11
Wow. Great description. Thank you.
John Puma: 17:13
Yeah, it does. This shares a lot of qualities that we’ve encountered in other Sakes that are very, Western food friendly and doing a really, I just, I want to have dinner all over again. Uh, this is, this does definitely comes across that way to me.
Timothy Sullivan: 17:30
Yeah. Can we talk a little bit about the sweetness and dryness of the sake for me? This batch 11. I don’t know what the SMV is, but it’s not coming across as that. Sweet at all
Yoshihiro Sako: 17:42
right? Yeah. Yeah, one time I made a little bit sweeter style, but I think I tend to like dry style. And, uh, so this SMV is actually, it’s a positive 3.3 Um, but it’s feels like it’s drier than that number actually. And, uh, acidy acidity level is a 2.6. It’s pretty high acidity.
John Puma: 18:08
that that probably adds to the precived dryness a little bit too
Yoshihiro Sako: 18:13
Right, right. I think so. So a lot of the times, you guys probably know about the, if the sake has super high acidity, usually they, make it sweeter to balance it out. Uh, like a good riesling as well, you know, riesling has super high acidity, but, uh, instead, A lot of the times you riesling also becomes kind of sweeter too, to balance out. Um, but then I just didn’t want just a lots of sweetness So, uh, I think for acidity of 2.6, it can be sweeter. But, I made little bit dryer because I liked drier style.
Timothy Sullivan: 18:54
2.6 rating for acidity is much higher than you would normally find in Japan.
John Puma: 19:01
Yeah, that is very high.
Timothy Sullivan: 19:03
I mean, on average it would be usually between 1.0 and 2.0, so going up to 2.6 is noticeably higher than the average style that you’d get in Japan. And You mentioned before about your background, studying wine and your love of wine. Do you think that that higher acidity and the need and the want to pair with non-Japanese food that choice to have the acidity come out so much higher?
Yoshihiro Sako: 19:32
I think so. I strongly believe that. Yeah. And also, according to my som friends, uh, they also love that acidity. And some of them actually mentioned that they picked Den for their restaurant. because of the acidity
John Puma: 19:49
I think that a lot of, North American Sake brewers try to emulate that more floral, that more fruity sweeter style. And I like that. You’re just, you’re going in a different direction and saying, no, no, no. I want to make something that’s dryer. It’s a, man’s going to pair more aggressively with food. This is going to really go nicely with a lot of really good dishes. Is there anything in particular for this particular bottle that we have today that you would recommend, uh, pairing with?
Yoshihiro Sako: 20:12
Hmm. Yeah. Like pair, well, I like drinking there’s with something like, even if it’s meat, like a chicken or with the, uh, some kind of chimichurri sauce. Something like gremolata sauce, or, you know, something like an with a little acidity to it. If you put those sauce onto the, even like a steak or chicken, you know, that pair really well together and a pesto sauce is pretty good with this sake as well
John Puma: 20:40
I’ve got some of that in the house. So I have to try that soon.
Timothy Sullivan: 20:44
Yeah. And you’re, like ground zero you’re in Oakland, California. You have so much. Good food and great restaurants around you. It must be really fun to try your sake with all the different resturants
Yoshihiro Sako: 20:58
Yeah, that’s a really, it’s a really fun and it’s very, uh, I really appreciate all those kinds of supportive from the especially local people, local restaurants, and, we are close to Napa as well. So, you know, Some of the Napa restaurants also, carry Den and the pair with non-Japanese food. Uh, that’s super exciting. And also my wife Lani, she’s, uh, half Japanese, half American. So she cooks a lot of different style food. Some are sometimes the traditional Japanese and sometimes California influenced food and, uh, Those stuff every day, you know, it’s very enjoyable to drink sake with kind of new dish and they just find out, wow, this dish really go well with my sake You know, it’s a really fun.
Timothy Sullivan: 21:44
that’s fantastic. Well, I’ve really enjoyed tasting your Junmai sake It’s really, really good. Yeah. I understand why it’s selling out every time you make it, Do you have any plans to increase your production or are you going to stay with your current production size?
Yoshihiro Sako: 22:00
Yeah. Yeah. Actually we are actually, I can we keep expanding little by little, each batch and the next batch, we will expand a little more again. And, yeah, initially we were thinking about just, moving to a bigger location and, having a tasting room inside and, but, you know, Because of this pandemic thing, we kind of like a little bit backed off and the, we changed our plan. Then we kind of decided to stay in the same location, but, keep expanding our production scale, little by little
Timothy Sullivan: 22:32
Yeah. So maybe, maybe you can tell us, uh, how people can get in touch with you. If they’re interested in learning more about your if they want to order your
Yoshihiro Sako: 22:45
okay. like I said, we started shipping within California, direct from, from Den sake brewery. So. You know, people who live in inside California, you can go to our website, Densakebrewery.com and you can order through that. And, uh, if you live outside of California, uh, like place like Umami Mart in Oakland or True Sake in San Francisco, they ship outside, the California.
John Puma: 23:16
and, uh, for listeners at home, that’s exactly how we got our hands on this.
Timothy Sullivan: 23:21
And we’ll have, we’ll have all that in the tasting notes. So you can visit, Sakerevolution.com and we’ll have all the links for you to visit, ,Den sake brewery website and get the sake for yourself.
Yoshihiro Sako: 23:32
great. Thank you so much, guys.
John Puma: 23:35
Yoshi thank you so much for joining us and giving us a little insight into how your brewery came about and what you guys are, all, what you guys are up to and what you’re all about over there. The Sake is delicious. I really like this. This is,
Yoshihiro Sako: 23:49
nice Great. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, thank you for having me.
Timothy Sullivan: 23:55
Yeah, that’s really great. We appreciate you taking the time so much and, thank you again so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.
Yoshihiro Sako: 24:03
Yeah. Thank you so much.
Timothy Sullivan: 24:04
Well, thank you Yoshi so much. And thank you to all our listeners for tuning in. We really do hope that you’re enjoying our show. If you’d like to show your support for Sake Revolution, one way you could really help us out would be to take a couple of minutes and leave us a written review on Apple podcasts. It’s really one of the best ways you can help us get the word out about our show.
John Puma: 24:24
and please also make sure to subscribe wherever you download your podcasts. So you don’t miss a single episode. And while you’re at it, tell a friend and get them to subscribe. We don’t want them to miss an episode either.
Timothy Sullivan: 24:36
and as always, if you want to learn more about any of the topics or any of the Sake we talked about in today’s episode, all you have to do is visit our website, sakerevolution.com and check out our detailed show notes.
John Puma: 24:48
And if you have sake questions that you need answers topics, you want us to discuss Sake. As you want us to drink North American brewers, you want us to interview. We want to hear from you, reach out to us at [email protected]. So until next time, please remember to keep drinking Sake and Kanpai