Would you believe me if I told you that Arkansas will soon be one of the most exciting places for homegrown sake? Or if I told you that sake that takes inspiration from IPAs, from pét-nats and from Champagne-style blending is now filling out a new progressive fringe for the beverage? Sake makers may still have a way to go before achieving their dream of parity with wine, sure, but in the meantime, they’ve looked beyond the beverage’s own traditions to capture a new generation of drinkers.
“Sake has the potential to really be this big, disrupting force in the drink industry in a major way,” says Ben Bell, who, along with his partner Matt Bell, recently launched Origami Sake in Little Rock, Arkansas.
What this disruption looks like, at least in part, is a growing number of hybrid styles that marry the techniques and ingredients used in brewing and winemaking to create something wholly unique. Consider Matsuse Brewery, which has taken inspiration from nonvintage, blended Champagne to conjure a sense of place through a mix of vintages, rice varieties, waters and yeasts. Brooklyn Kura, meanwhile, has taken to borrowing from both beer, with the use of dry-hopping, and wine, by way of employing a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Each of the styles acts as a beverage bridge from one culture to another—a gateway to Japan’s ancient sake culture.
“We’re all trying things out,” says Ben Bell. While he plans to stick to traditional sake brewing, he likes the visibility that international collaborations and hybrid styles of sake bring to the scene. What matters most, he says, is, “Is the sake good?”
There are so many of these “alt sakes” arriving on the market, both in Japan and abroad, that it’s hard to single out just a few. But here’s a look at some of the categories and bottles to seek out.
Since joining forces with co-founder Brian Polen to launch Brooklyn Kura in 2018, head brewer Brandon Doughan, who once worked as a biochemist developing drugs for medical use, says his goal has been to master the art of traditional sake brewing. But he also recognizes the utility of making products that will attract new fans. Hence experiments like Occidental, a sake dry-hopped with Citra and Galaxy varieties—the “sexy, showy IPA hops”—to conjure the bright floral notes of the IPA without the bitterness. It’s a juicy, fruity, sake that’s a koji-driven call to the patio. “Occidental is a great way to get the IPA folks who are looking for the next new beer thing to come and look at sake,” says Doughan. “It’s a huge rabbit hole if you want to geek out on it.” In Japan, producers like Heiwa Brewery and haccoba craft brewery have created their own versions of hopped sakes, with the latter brewery using a local flower closely related to hops.
For more than a decade now, Japanese sake brewers have applied themselves to mastering the art of sparkling sakes, known as awazake. Nagai Brewery owner-brewer Noriyoshi Nagai perfected his Champagne-method, floral and fine-bubbled Mizubasho Pure after 500 attempts. Today, everyone from leading brand Hakkaisan to the all-natural Terada Honke makes some type of sparkling sake. In 2017, Masumi Brewery introduced its popular Origarami as a less-expensive, nondisgorged version of its clear sparkling sake. Only later did brewery president Naotaka Miyasaka realize that the closest equivalent to this in the wine world was the increasingly popular pét-nat. The parallel paid off: In 2020, Origarami helped Masumi land a new distributor in France, where it previously had been hard for traditional sake styles to gain traction. Likewise, when Nanbu Bijin Brewery’s Kosuke Kuji unveiled his pét-nat–inspired sparkling AWA sake in France last year, the country’s top sommelier, Xavier Thuizat, praised its dense, foamy head, exotic French poppy nose and refreshing mouthfeel, suggesting a pairing with bouillabaisse. “When I tell people there’s no secondary bottle fermentation, no yeast or sugar added in the bottle, they’re shocked,” says Kuji.
Champagne-style blending is hardly new to sake-making; the venerable Sohomare has been doing it for years, and the tradition goes back even further in time. But a new wave of cuvées by both Japanese and foreign artisans is putting a modern shine on the style. Combining his love for Japan with his roots in luxury Champagne, former Dom Pérignon cellar master Richard Geoffroy has partnered with Masuda Brewery to create IWA sake, brewed with three different types of sake rice and five strains of yeast.
The organic counterpart to IWA is Matsuse Brewery’s Cuvée Mosaic, the second vintage of a series that grew out of conversations between head brewer Keizo Ishida and the Bay Area natural wine and sake seller Alex Bernardo. Matsuse’s Ishida is among the Japanese sake makers striving to articulate a sake style that can rival the terroir-driven brilliance of a grand cru Burgundy wine. Just as he prefers multivintage blended Champagnes to single-vineyard Champagnes, he wanted to create complexity and depth by blending his own sakes. His Mosaic combines bottled and tank-pasteurized sakes brewed with five rice varieties, four spontaneous yeast strains and three types of water. Rather than expressing his own personality, Ishida hopes to capture the “gentle, authentic quality of our quiet rural landscape in Shiga prefecture.” Meanwhile, in France, Wakaze Brewery is putting its own spin on wine-influenced sake by brewing with wine yeast and local Camargue rice.
A Tour of “Alt Sake”
Brooklyn Kura Occidental
Head brewer Brandon Doughan’s bid to turn the heads of IPA lovers, this sake is infused with hops after fermentation for a bright, citrusy fruitiness and a floral, faintly yeasty aroma. The rosé color is a bonus; Doughan’s theory is that its original green hue turns pink as the alcohol in the sake pulls out the hops’ chlorophyll.
Matsuse Brewery Cuvée Mosaic
Made with a blend of rice varieties, polishing ratios, different harvest years and different water sources (including limestone water from Mount Ibuki), this sake is meant to test the boundaries of sake expression. It’s round, with a long midpalate and notes of mineral and stone fruits. Warming it will accentuate its layered complexity.
Iwa Sake of Japan IWA
Dom Pérignon cellar master Richard Geoffroy has created this assemblage with three rice varieties and five yeast strains (including a wine yeast) to create a sake that is fruity and savory, silky and layered, with a long finish. Firmly in the global luxury brand category, it’s been embraced by Michelin-starred chefs.
Terada Honke Brewery Daigo no Shizuku
Daigo no Shizuku is this all-natural sake maker’s version of bodaimoto, or “monk starter,” a sour-water starter invented by Buddhist monks in Nara (a precursor to the laborious kimoto method, which relies on rounds of pole-mashing to promote the development of natural lactic acid and ambient microbes). The resulting sake is brightly acidic and creamy, with a lactic effervescence.
- Price: $45
- ABV: 11% to 15%
Nanbu Bijin Brewery AWA
Nanbu Bijin owner and brewer Kosuke Kuji wanted to make a sake fit for toasting, and this is precisely that. AWA combines floral ginjo aromas with candied fruit, a dry mouthfeel and fine Champagne-like bubbles.