Before launching their latest start-up, serial entrepreneur Jake Myrick and his wife Noriko Kamei, two IT specialists, began tinkering in their San Francisco garage in 2010. They bankrolled their small operation from their tech industry savings, and Myrick began knocking on doors to sell their product. This year, they’re adding both hardware and personnel to keep up with growing demand.
Sounds like any number of Bay Area tech start-ups, right? Except that Myrick and Kamei’s product is not the latest digital industry disruptor, it’s the 2,000-year-old traditional fermented rice brew of Japan, sake.
Nearly five years after launching Sequoia Sake, their Bayview district microbrewery produces 1,600 liters per year and their sake is served in 75 restaurants and retail shops throughout the Bay Area. Sequoia’s Coastal Ginjo label pulled down a surprising “commended” award in the 2017 International Wine Challenge, where the best sakes in the world compete for recognition. The award is given to contestants who missed out on a gold, silver, or bronze but are “considered noteworthy” by judges. For sake fans, one of the draws of a local premium brewery is access to fresh and lively unpasteurized namazake, which can be difficult to ship because of its short shelf life and refrigeration demands. Sequoia’s soft, pear-nosed nama is its most popular style.
The couple is part of a growing number of new sake brewers setting up shop outside of Japan, seduced by the ancient, hands-on nature of traditional sake making, the high-quality (and cost) of premium sake imports today and a hot market for craft beverages. Aficionados can now find sake brewed everywhere from Norway to New Zealand and at two dozen domestic breweries that stretch from Arizona to Maine.
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On a recent visit to Sequoia’s 2,500-square-foot brewery, Myrick and his only full-time employee, plant scientist and biochemist Dale Aromdee, have just finished adding a batch of steamed rice to a tank of main mash when Kamei returns from a drop-off at Good Eggs, the organic grocery delivery service. Lunch — brought from home — is wolfed down in their small office between brewery tasks. Kamei emerges, her head wrapped in a white kerchief, climbs a short ladder to the top of a metal tank, and begins to stir the sake mash to ensure even fermentation. Compared to tanks used even in small Japanese artisanal breweries, it’s toy-sized. Myrick explains that in contrast to larger breweries, keeping every stage of the brewery in one room makes for both an easier workflow and a better visitor experience. “We can almost always a have a batch in-production, so visitors can see, smell and get a full sensory experience.”
Myrick’s first encounter with premium sake came in 1986 after winning a scholarship to study in Osaka. Economically, he says, “I was living on the edge, eating cup ramen, drinking bad sake. Then our professor took us out, and I had my first real daiginjo (an elegant, aromatic class of premium sake).” It blew his mind. He and fellow student Kamei married in 1990, moved to San Francisco, and spent the next ten years as project managers in the tech and non-profit worlds. It was their experience handling the logistics and supply chain side of the business, Myrick says, that makes Sequoia the fiscally sound operation it is today: “People forget that that’s what will kill you,” he notes.
A three-year stint back in Japan stretched to ten as the telecom start-up that Myrick launched took off. The extended stay provided plenty of sake research time. Myrick and Kamei joined a local sake club, visited breweries and learned the basics of sake making. By 2011, the couple and their 15-year-old daughter Olivia were back in San Francisco, experimenting with sake brewing. “We could do this; Stay married and not lose our house,” Myrick calculated.
They hired a sake engineer from Japan to design the brewery and brought in their only partner, Myrick’s childhood friend Warren Pfahl. The two friends had already started three businesses together, and Myrick knew that Pfahl, a master carpenter and ace mechanic, would be instrumental in building out the brewery. “Whatever we couldn’t buy, Warren devised,” says Myrick. Pfahl’s ingenuity was instrumental in creating the doll-sized koji room (where freshly steamed rice is seeded with aspergillus oryzae mold to begin the fermentation process), a copper coil cooling system for the Italian wine tanks they picked up in Napa and a cloud-based brewery monitoring system. They also logged some hands-on sake-making time at a mom-and-pop sake-brewing operation in Fukuoka, Japan.
While Pfahl kept the machinery humming, a natural division of brewing labor evolved between Myrick and Kamei. A Japanese toji, or master brewer, normally oversees all aspects of brewing, from washing and steaming rice to the crucial koji-making stage, and then fermenting, pressing and filtering. At Sequoia, Kamei handles the all-important koji-making while Myrick oversees fermentation and business matters. “We’re both the toji,” he says.
Starting a sake brewery in San Francisco had its advantages. “It’s a mecca for fermentation, foodies and entrepreneurs, and that spirit was beneficial,” says Myrick. Walking into a room and saying, “I come from IT but I’m making sake,” struck potential customers as perfectly normal. San Francisco’s city planning bureaucracy, on the other hand, “nearly broke us,” Myrick says. Various agencies repeatedly rejected their plans, miring the couple in bureaucratic paperwork while the city’s welcome mat lay permanently unfurled for large tech company arrivals and expansions. Relations with the city have warmed since then; now those agencies are all for keeping small manufacturing in the city.
Having slowly built their business one customer at a time, the couple is now experimenting with rice varieties and brewing styles. Like most other domestic sake makers, they brew with California-grown Calrose table rice. They opted for water sourced from the Hetch Hetchy watershed in Yosemite National Park, which they like for its consistency and soft mouthfeel. Kamei was able to source century-old proprietary yeasts and koji molds from Japan, which they use in different combinations.
Last year, they convinced their Sacramento-based rice farmer, Sun Valley Rice, to ramp up experimentation with the Yamada Nishiki variety of rice, highly prized for the elegant, aromatic sake it yields. “Jake would like us to grow a hundred different sake varieties, but we need the market to grow up a little more to support that,” says Erin O’Donnell, Sun Valley’s assistant vice president for global rice trading. She loves working with Myrick and Kamei, she adds, “because they’re creative and passionate about sake, and they’re always giving us feedback and ideas.”
Sequoia’s first batch of refined, daiginjo-style sake (made with rice polished to at least 50 percent of its original size), brewed with Sun Valley Yamada Nishiki rice, went out to its sake club members this year. For the past three years, the couple has also been working with USDA- and UC Davis-affiliated research geneticist Dr. Thomas Thai to try to revive an older strain of the Wataribune variety of rice that Japanese immigrants brought to California in 1906. Today’s ubiquitous Calrose is a descendent of this heirloom Japanese rice, but has been modified over the years to focus on qualities such as yield and pure white color over flavor. Myrick’s hope is that by recovering an older strain of Wataribune rice, he’ll be able to bring back some of its lost flavor and aroma.
Other forms of experimentation are bubbling over like a bullpen full of wild yeast on a bag of sugar. Local distillery Seven Stills took the brewery’s genshu, or undiluted sake, and turned it into shochu, the popular Japanese distilled spirit. This year Sequoia made its third batch of nutty, slightly smoky bourbon barrel-aged sake in partnership with Sonoma County Distilling. Myrick and Kamei have teamed up with Mattheisson wines in Napa to create a 24-month aged sake in both red and white French oak wine barrels. So as not to leave out the craft beer sector, the couple turns over spent koji and yeast from the shizuku, or drip, method of filtering sake to Barebottle Brewing. The sake byproduct is used as a starter for a sake-beer hybrid made with wheat, hops and rice flakes. And Aromdee has been experimenting with different yeasts for the brewery’s yearly issue of holiday sparkling sake.
By keeping their operation lean, small and completely self-financed, Myrick and Kamei are able to avoid the grow-or-die pressure that many start-ups face. And they’ve found unexpected joys along the way. “The most fun and satisfying” part for Myrick, he says, are the friendships he’s forged with local chefs, which have led to monthly chef pop-ups at the brewery. For Kamei, it's the hands-on nature of craft sake making, the demands of “smell, feel and touch,” that she loves best. “What’s important for me is really paying attention,” she says, citing lessons she’s learned from chef friends. “Repeating and perfecting is more important than wild creativity.”
When they started the business, Myrick and Kamei intended it to be a gateway to retirement and an excuse to visit Japan. But it’s grown beyond that, Myrick admits. Like a typical Japanese brewery family, Myrick and Kamei have sent Olivia, now 22, to apprentice at another brewery, Akebono in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima. And like those families, Sequoia’s future, he adds, depends in large measure on whether or not Olivia decides to one day take over the business.
When “Sequoia Sake” was shot earlier this year, Kamei had not told her parents that she’s been brewing sake professionally for the past five years. In her estimation, they’re a little too traditional to be able to handle the news. Even after the episode on the family business airs, she says she has no plans to share the film or her occupation with them.
Sake may have been born in Japan, but for this native daughter and her American-born husband, brewing is a New, not Old World, concern.
Top Image: Green Sequoia Sake bottle | Still from "The Migrant Kitchen" Sequoia Sake