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Nova Brewing CompanyCo-Founder Emiko Tanabe holding up the peace sign and James Jin (in the mask) with their team.

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. 

I first became aware of Nova Brewing Company a year ago when Kayoko's brother texted saying he visited a new brewery in Covina, California. And then I started hearing about them everywhere. They received a glowing review on the LA Times which I was happy to see, as sake hardly gets any kind of major press.

Because no one was offering it in Northern California, I emailed the brewery and got a gracious reply from co-founders Emiko Tanabe and James Jin that they could send me a couple bottles of their sakes. When they arrived, I marveled at the stark designs on the labels. It was a perfect blend of wabi-sabi meats Sea Ranch. It reminded me of something that would appear in the kitchen of the character Nobuko Miyamoto played in the Juzo Itami film, A Quiet Life.

I am very excited that I can include their sakes for this month's Sake Gumi offering. To accompany the release, I wanted to learn more about their journey.

Co-founder, Emiko Tanabe, was kind enough to take some time out of her schedule to answer my questions.

How did you get into sake making in the U.S.? 
I am from Niigata, Japan and came to the U.S. about seven years ago. Besides running this business, I also have a couple other businesses including running a supplement business in Japan and also selling Japanese food products in the U.S.
I got into the sake industry because I wanted to promote Japanese food and drink here in the U.S. I noticed that the sake industry is growing here, and saw potential for craft sake in Los Angeles. I felt that not enough people appreciate and understand sake. I wanted to learn more about sake so I took the kikizakeshi (sake sommelier certification) course at Sake School of America and that’s where I met James.
James also had a lot of interest in sake but always had more interest in the production side. He was home brewing beer and sake. We eventually decided to team up and start a small craft sake brewery here in LA.

James is the head brewer (as well as a co-founder) and is in charge of the day-to-day operations, and production at the brewery.

What is the concept behind your brewery? What would you say sets you apart from other sake breweries?

We consider ourself a small batch progressive experimental brewery, meaning we don’t produce big batches of just one type of sake. Although we have our two signature sakes GRAVITY and ECLIPSE, we also like to explore unusual and uncommon styles such as doburoku, origarami, shiboritate nama, sparkling sake, etc. We like to take old-age styles like kimoto or doburoku and present it in a modern way.

Nova Brewing CompanyCo-founder and head brewer James Jin

Why did you choose your location as the site of the brewery?
We knew when we decided to start a sake brewery in LA area that we would have to use reverse osmosis to filter the water, analyze what’s in the water and add minerals to the water if something was deficient.

In LA, acquiring license to manufacture alcohol can be very expensive and difficult so we had to look for a space that would make things easier. We were looking for a space everywhere in the LA and Orange County area and came across a winery-brewery where the owner was looking to retire. The space came with a tasting room, wine and beer equipment, and a wine and beer manufacturing license. That made it a lot easier and quicker for us to turn it into a sake brewery and tasting room. We got lucky, although the place came with its own challenges and issues.

How do you introduce your sakes to people who don't know anything about sake? 

We introduce our sake as wine-like beverage made of rice. We make a modern and fresh style of sake that is higher in acidity compared to traditional sake, a bit sweeter and best served like a glass of white wine. We do not use any additives or clarifying agents so we also stress the fact that it’s all-natural and handmade.

What are some challenges that you face as a sake maker in the U.S.?

Lack of sake brewing equipment and raw material suppliers is the biggest challenge we face. Because we are privately owned with no investors, we could not afford to import sake brewing equipment from Japan. So we had to improvise and make things from what we have available locally. Some brewers have a background in carpentry, engineering, or science, but we came from corporate backgrounds, so our brewer first struggled to efficiently make sake with no sake equipment. But he used his imagination to build things from materials from Home Depot, Amazon, and restaurant supply stores and was able to somehow brew sake. He built the koji room, distiller for analyzing alcohol levels, the keg washer, a glycol chilling system, and an original system for pressing sake using a vacuum pump used in wine pressing. Although these are big challenges, it’s very rewarding when something we built works to produce a bottle of sake in the end.

How do you think the taste profiles of U.S. sake vs. Japanese sake differ?

U.S. craft sake is a very young industry with most brewers having a lot less experience than they do in Japan where most breweries are at least 100 years old. Therefore, we see U.S. craft sake as being generally unrefined and inconsistent compared to Japanese sake. We don’t see this as a bad thing. Instead, it gives us the flexibility and freedom to constantly try something new in every batch to innovate and make progress. That’s why we focus on less processed styles like nama (unpasteurized) and muroka (non-carbon filtered). We are also not a fan of using imported rice strains, or popular rice strains like Yamada Nishiki as we think we would lose our identity, so we have to try to make best quality sake as possible with rice that has a history here in California. California rice has smaller shinpaku (starchy core), so the rice flavor and amino acids can be more present compared to Japanese sake rice with large shinpaku that allows the esters produced by the yeast to be a lot more present. 

What is your favorite thing about sake-making? 

Koji-making – smelling, seeing and tasting the fungus growing on the rice is an experience not many people experience and appreciate.

Nova Brewing CompanyKoji-making at Nova Brewing Company

This month, level 2 members will be getting a bottle of Gravity. We'd love to know more about this sake.

What is the concept behind these sakes?

For Gravity, the concept is as the name suggests, it’s made using gravity –allowing nature to do its job. It is a shizuku sake, made by the drip pressing method of hanging the moromi in the air and collecting only the arabashiri (first run-off) and nakadori (middle press) portion of the sake. This method avoids any harshness and off-flavor you would get from the seme (final press) you would get when the moromi is crushed. It is a muroka nama genshu style which emphasizes sake in its natural form. The artwork is made by a local LA artist using a Japanese marbling technique called suminagashi where ink is dripped on the surface of the water and naturally forming rings. We took a part of the art piece that reminds us of the California coast.

Nova Brewing Company

Is there anything funny, interesting, or unusual to note about the production or history regarding this sake?

This sake is inspired by one of James’ favorite sake called Stella Junmai Daiginjo (also a muroka shizuku) from the brewery he trained at, Inaba Shuzo in Ibaraki Prefecture. He used to sell Stella sake when he was a sake specialist and always enjoyed explaining to people about the “drip method” where the fermented rice mash called moromi is hung in the air and is pressed using “gravity.” Being a space geek, James knew since then that one day if he made a shizuku sake, he wanted to name his sake “Gravity.”

What are some aromas and tasting notes you have for this sake?

On the nose you get melon, yellow apple and unripe banana with a little steamed rice. Due to the fact that it is a genshu (undiluted), we wanted the sake to start with a little sweetness so that it would mellow out the high ABV and finish dry. The high acidity balances the sweetness to create a juicy mouthfeel.

What are your favorite pairings with this sake?

Smoked pork roast, carbonara spaghetti, char-grilled saba (mackerel) or smoked salmon. I also love it with French brie cheese. 

What temperature do you recommend having this sake at? 

40-42°F (chilled) in white wine glass.

Can you share some unique or interesting reactions of this sake from your customers that you never thought of or didn't expect?

Being in an area where there never was a modern craft sake brewery, and most people having experienced sake as an ethanol alcohol tasting hot beverage that gets dumped in beer, many of our customers say, “this is the best sake I’ve ever had.” We try our best, but of course we don’t think we make the best sake or expect people to think we make the best sake, and we would never compare ourselves to the masterpieces made in Japan, but to see people who never tried premium sake enjoy it and take home their first bottle of sake home makes everything worth it.

Can interested sake enthusiasts visit your brewery for a tour and tasting?

We believe the whole point of there being a craft sake brewery is for people to visit, see, smell and taste how sake is made. We always accept tours with appointments. Our tasting room is also regularly open with business hours available on our site. Please email us at cheers@novabrewingco.com or DM us on our instagram @novabrewingco to schedule an appointment or feel free to visit for a tasting during our business hours.

Nova Brewing CompanyThe tap room at Nova Brewing Company

What are some plans you have for 2022 and beyond? Anything new or exciting?

We have plans to experiment more with koji as we have done with making black koji and koji with cacao nibs. We also have tested more than five different American woods for taruzake. We have also been experimenting with Yamahai and Kimoto shubo methods. We also have several collaborations planned with L.A. local fruit farmers.

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That all sounds very exciting and we look forward to following what you do from Oakland! And next time we are in L.A. we'll be sure to visit your tap room!