American Born Sake Series: Brooklyn Kura
Brandon Doughan and Brian Polen, co-founders of Brooklyn Kura.
I am a proud ABJ (American Born Japanese). So when I see a new ABS (American Born Sake) on the market, I'm rooting for them. In the eyes of others, ABS' might be hard to categorize, are marginalized, or considered inauthentic, but they have the same spirit as any American – resourceful and innovative, with an optimistic outlook to boot.
Kayoko and I have been fans of Brooklyn Kura since they opened their brewery in 2018. I visited their brewery for the first time in June 2018. Although 2018 doesn't seem like long ago, Brooklyn Kura has been in the sake-making game the longest out of the three breweries we are introducing this month.
Brooklyn Kura tap room
Brandon Doughan, co-founder and brewmaster, kindly gave me a tour of their brewery and let me taste some of their ori. It was a treat! Since then, we've had their sake on tap at our bar in Oakland, and have collaborated on a Zoom event in the midst of the pandemic.
In addition to featuring their sakes for Sake Gumi this month, Kayoko and I are inviting everyone to join us for a Tour + Tasting at Brooklyn Kura on April 14. That's right, Kayoko and I are taking the ABS theme on the road!
In preparation for the release of these sakes and of the event, we asked Brandon and Brian Polen (Co-founder and President) some questions we had about the history of the brewery and their thoughts about where sake is headed in the U.S.
Can you tell me what you do at Brooklyn Kura?
Brian: I try to keep us in business and growing.
Brandon: I make the sake.
How did you get into sake making in the U.S.? What did you do before entering the sake industry?
Brian: My prior life was working for a big company running technology, product and analytics teams. I fell in love with sake and sake making while traveling in Japan.
Brandon: I previously worked in research science which helped me develop a deep curiosity for fermentation. Sake making is fascinating and hooked me early on.
What is the concept behind BK? What would you say sets you apart from other sake breweries?
Sake is wonderful and more people should be drinking it. We want to produce the best sake we can while being respectful of tradition. More importantly, we want people to be able to see and experience the skill and craftsmanship that goes into sake making. From there, they can more easily draw parallels to beer, wine and craft spirits.
Why did you choose your location as the site of the brewery?
New York City, and Brooklyn in particular, is an exciting and dynamic market. Consumers have access to the best things made around the world. Additionally, it is a large sake market with a vibrant sake community!
We also have fantastic water in NYC. Our sakes highlight that fact.
I imagine you get a lot of people who come to the tap room who are new to sake (just like we do at Umami Mart). How do you introduce your sakes to these folks?
Sake is good. We take a lot of care and pride in making it. We try to keep the experience simple (white wine glasses, the words we use to describe it, etc.) in an effort to let the sake speak for itself.
What are some challenges that you face as a sake maker in the U.S.?
There are many, from the supply chain through distribution. Ultimately, we rely on a network of talented people, trial and error, and great customers to make steady progress.
We really try to focus on the quality of what we do, to be active and considerate members of the sake community, be open and transparent about what we are trying to achieve, and keep it fun.
Brandon spreading out the rice for koji making.
Where do you think sake in the U.S. is headed?
Sake will become an everyday category!
How do you think the taste profiles of U.S. sake vs. Japanese sake differ?
There is a huge range in what is being produced in both the US and Japan, which makes it difficult to compare. In the end, different agriculture, equipment, and brewing techniques will develop!
We'd like to continue to excite people about the sake category, the sake we make, and highlight that super premium sakes do not need to be made in Japan.
Let's dig deeper and learn a little bit more about the specific bottles we are offering to members this month. Level 1 members will be getting the Number Fourteen Junmai Ginjo and level 2 members will be getting the Catskills Junmai Daiginjo Namachozo Genshu.
I've always been curious about your labels – they are memorable and iconic. Who designed the labels?
The labels were designed by LMNOP Creative. They are intended to be simple, beautiful and familiar. The Catskills label has additional adornment because of the incremental effort and energy that goes into making it.
Various Brooklyn Kura bottles. Catskills Junmai Daiginjo Namachozo Genshu Limited Release in the middle.
Please describe how the Number Fourteen came to be.
The name comes from the fact that it's a version of our fourteenth recipe. Considered our classic, Number Fourteen, is a junmai ginjo namazake. Intended to be served locally, chilled, and enjoyed soon after the fermentation process ends. We use a blend of Calrose and Yamada Nishiki rice milled to more than 60% and fermented cold and slow. The result is a fresh, crisp, light and aromatic sake with a dry finish.
We are very excited to be the only place to offer the limited edition Catskills Junmai Daiginjo on the west coast. Can you give us some background on this sake?
Catskill is our second Daiginjo (our first was in collaboration with Nanbu Bijin – a 6th generation brewery in Iwate Prefecture). Daiginjo is considered a super premium style of sake due to the effort, time, and cost that goes into its production. We used 100% sake brewers rice (Yamada Nishiki), a single modern (non-foaming) yeast, and didn't let the fermentation go above eleven degrees celsius. The result is intended to be delicate and luxurious.
What are your favorite pairings with these sakes?
Everyday drinking AND Italian food.
What temperature do you recommend having these sakes at?
White wine temps with white wine glasses.
Can interested sake enthusiasts visit your brewery for a tour and/or other offerings?
Yes, come visit our brewery and tap room at Industry City, Courtyard 5/6, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Thank you so much for your time Brian and Brandon! Kayoko and I look forward to seeing you on April 14 at your brewery. It'll be refreshing to see each other in person, after all these years corresponding through screens!