UMAMI MART MATSURI FESTIVAL

Since opening in 2015, Sequoia Sake Brewery has been a gem in the heart of the Bay Area. Located just south of Portrero Hill, founders Noriko Kamei and Jake Myrick use their space as a full-scale sake brewery, as well as a venue to host sake tastings. Here they brew all six of their nama (unpasteurized) sakes and their new line of pasteurized sakes called Coastal.

Having access to fresh, truly unpasteurized sake is a rare treat in the U.S. because sakes imported into the U.S. have to be pasteurized at least once (sake is typically pasteurized twice). It is a bit misleading because even if a sake skips one of the two pasteurizations, it can still be called a nama. Because Sequoia nama sakes are made locally, they are completely unpasteurized and therefore referred to as nama-namas (as opposed to just a nama). Nama-namas tend to be very effervescent, lively, fruity and yeasty.

We included the Coastal Junmai Genshu as one of the two bottles offered for Level 1 in Sake Gumi this month to celebrate Noriko Kamei, one of the founders of Sequoia Sake Company. Her enthusiasm for sake is contagious. When I attended the sake tasting at the brewery, she served amazake and sake kasu to all of the attendees which was an “a-ha!” moment for many sake newbies. It’s always a pleasure to be in the presence of her bright and energetic attitude.

We thank Noriko Kamai for taking time out of her busy schedule to tell us more about her sake-making history.

Noriko breaking up the koji inoculated rice. Photo by Sequoia Sake Brewery.

When did Sequoia Sake brewery start?

In the beginning of 2015.

Can you give me a brief history of the brewery?

My business partner and husband Jake and I fell in love with sake while we were living in Japan from 2001-2011. After we moved back to San Francisco, we realized that the type of sake we loved the most, nama-zake (unpasteurized sake), was hard to find locally. So we started home brewing sake in our garage, then a couple years later, decided to turn that into a commercial business. We started building out our current facility in July 2014, started production in January 2015, then started selling products in June 2015.

Sequoia Sake Brewery in San Francisco. Photo by Yoko Kumano.

How did you learn to become a sake brewer? Did you have a brewing mentor?

Initially from books published by the Japan Sake Association. After we started seriously considering opening a brewery, we had a few mentors who helped us get up to speed to start commercial brewing.

What do you think is the best trait to have to lead a team? How do you inspire them?

We don't quite have a "team" yet. The only person I manage is my husband, and vise versa. It's been working out pretty good so far, as we share the same goal and passion for sake.

Can you tell me more about the rice you use for the Coastal Genshu? How do you think rice production is improving for sake brewing in the U.S.?

We currently use Calrose rice, which is most widely grown rice in California. As we have been brewing sake commercially for just over two years, we are not sure if the overall quality or suitability for sake-making has notably improved in recent years. However, we ourselves certainly have learned a lot about the rice and also have built good relationship with the rice community in Sacramento in the past two years. We are now working with a number of farmers to start growing rice that is optimal for making premium sake.

I have heard that there are only 20 other women brewers, is this true? Why do you think it’s important for brewers to come from different backgrounds?

Although I'm not sure about the statistics, the sake industry does seem rather male dominated in both Japan and the States. While I'd feel encouraged if more women brewed sake, I don't think gender really matters. I think it is more important that the industry opens up its door to ANYONE who has passion for making sake, including foreigners and people from different business and cultural backgrounds.

Noriko mixing the fermenting sake. Photo by Sequoia Sake Brewery.

How do you start your day in the morning?

As we are a very small operation, I wear many, many hats, thus, how I start my day is different every day. Some days, I start making koji at 7 am, other days I sleep in or go running and the first thing I do at work may be bookkeeping or posting something on social media. Every day is very different.

How do you end your day in the evening?

End of the day varies, too. Some days, I leave work at 4pm and make some deliveries on my way home. Other days, I stay until 9 pm hosting a private party at our brewery, or stay until midnight for late night koji work.

Noriko Kamei getting sake kasu tasters ready for guests at the brewery tour. Photo by Yoko Kumano.

Thank you Noriko!

*Top photo of Noriko Kamei with fermenting sake, courtesy of Sequoia Sake Brewery