CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – North American Sake Brewery (NAS) is distributing bottled sake throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. North American Sake Brewery, launched in September 2018, is Virginia’s first and only producer of sake, the alcohol made from rice. The brand, co-owned by Jeremy Goldstein and Andrew Centofante, operates a tasting room and brewery in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“This is an exciting time for us,” said Goldstein, the brand’s founder. “We’ve had such a tremendous response to the sake in our own tasting room and brewery, so to be able to go out and take our drink to the rest of Virginia is a real dream for us.”
While NAS makes a multitude of craft sakes in-house for their tasting room and restaurant, they will start by distributing two traditional styles: a bright, bold and unfiltered sake called “Big Baby,” and a smooth, crisp and filtered sake called “Real Magic.”
“These two labels are the heart of what we do,” said Centofante, NAS’s head brewer. “Nearly everything we make is represented in these two sakes, and I know people across Virginia will fall in love withBig Baby and Real Magic just like we have.”
Although it is brewed more like beer, sake is designated as a wine in the Commonwealth, and NAS is using the Virginia Winery Distribution Company (VWDC), a non-profit, non-stock corporation set up by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to provide wholesale distribution services for Virginia wineries.
Several Virginia restaurants and retailers are already carrying NAS sakes, including Common House, Wine Warehouse and The Virginia Shop in Charlottesville, as well as Planet Wine, Fern Street Gourmet and the Department of Beer and Wine in Alexandria.
About North American Sake Brewery
North American Sake Brewery (NAS) is Virginia’s first and only sake producer and one of a handful of sake breweries in the United States. Offering a variety of filtered and unfiltered sake brews all made in its Charlottesville headquarters, NAS serves tasting flights, full pours and bottles to go, as well as a full menu from the onsite Asian Smokehouse. For more information, visit NAS at pourmeone.com, and follow on Instagram (@NorthAmericanSake) and Facebook at Facebook.com/NorthAmericanSake.
Undoubtedly, the question I receive the most about my business is some form of “How in the heck did you get into sake?” It’s a fair question. For the past 15 or so years, I’ve been in the Entertainment Industry, developing TV shows and writing & producing feature films. My business partner has a background in marketing, branding, and website building. He only moonlighted as a homebrewer. But there’s an old adage that rings true in this instance as it has in other times in my life, and that is, You can’t help who (or what!) you fall in love with.
I grew up in Southern California where you can find a decent hole-in-the-wall sushi joint every few blocks. When I was old enough to drink (or when they believed I was old enough), I would try their hot sake but didn’t think too much of the stuff. It was warm and the beer was cold, and the combo of the two made for an interesting time. It wasn’t bad, exactly; it was alcohol, after all. It just wasn’t very good.
It wasn’t until well into my 30s when I had already moved my home across country to Virginia and I was called back to Los Angeles for business when I first tasted great sake. We had just completed financing for an important film project, and a group of us decided to celebrate at a fancy sushi restaurant. I like to chat people up when I go out. If you’re a complete stranger sitting next to me at dinner, chances are we’ll become well acquainted by the end of the meal. This night, the table next to us had an assortment of small glasses of clear liquid and a smartly dressed Japanese woman guiding them through each taste. It looked like fun, and I asked them about it. The Japanese woman was a brand ambassador for one of the sake companies the restaurant carried, and she informed us that she was also a Sake Sommelier. I knew that “sommelier” was a title earned by experts in the wine field, but I had never heard it applied to sake. I was intrigued and so were my colleagues. The friendly people next to us invited us to join them, and we obliged, pushing our tables together.
By the end of that night, an entire world that had never existed before had opened up for me. Sake wasn’t this crude lukewarm beverage. It was best when fresh and served cold, and there were as many varieties as you might find in wine or craft beer. Most importantly, it was delicious! Why hadn’t I been exposed to this stuff before? Why was sake only served in sushi restaurants? I drink pretty much anything put in front of me – wine, beer, whiskey, and so on. Why wouldn’t sake make the rotation?
So many questions swirled around in my head, and they didn’t stop for several weeks. When I returned to my home in Charlottesville, I called my friend Andrew, who I enjoyed hanging out with and imbibing the good stuff from time to time. We talked about sake. I shared my recent experience, and he shared similar experiences during his travels to Japan. We found some pricey bottles of sake, chilled them, and drank through the night, exploring the variety and complex flavors. We started doing this often, seeking out new brands and styles, and began to learn more and more about this ancient and elusive drink. We couldn’t get enough and the further we started to dig, the more we wanted to imbibe.
“I wonder how you make this stuff,” Andrew mused aloud one night, and it was that seven word sentence that sent us on our multi-year journey of homebrewing trials and errors, tastings and parties, and ultimately to building the North American Sake Brewery.
A filmmaker and a web developer – a Jew and an Italian – an unlikely duo filled with gratitude and reverence for the ancient traditions of Japan, the people who have helped guide us to today, and the bright future that lay ahead.
Andrew and I were invited by the Embassy of Japan to attend a private sake tasting at The Smithsonian in D.C. That sentence is pretty surreal to me, its was quite the surprise to be invited to one of the most treasured and prestigious institutions in all of the world for a film on sake and a night of sake tasting.
Our brewery was recently featured in a number of newspapers throughout our region, as well as parts of Asia. Someone at the Embassy must have caught wind, found our website, and sent us an Evite to the event. It was, in fact, as most things have been from our Japanese friends and colleagues, quite thoughtful and generous of them.
We arrived early so we could meet our friend, Bernie Baskin, who lives in D.C. and is helping to form the Sake Brewers Association of North America (SBANA). He was also invited to the event, and the three of us mingled with some of the early invitees. We learned that we’d first watch a documentary called Kampai: For the Love of Sake, which features three men living in Japan whose lives are deeply entrenched in the sake world. They are John Gauntner, known as the “Sake Evangelist” and a teacher of ours when we became Certified as Sake Professionals; Philip Harper, the only non-Japanese toji (head brewer) in a Japanese-based sake brewery; and Kosuke Kuji, an effervescent personality and fifth generation toji at Nanbu Bijin Sake Brewery. Kuji was in the building for the event.
The screening was packed, so packed that we learned 30 to 40 people had to be turned away. After the film, Kuji hopped on stage and gave an enthusiastic speech about his love for sake. It’s hard to not be inspired by his vibe. He is a force of personality in the best possible way. Then, we all convened to the Freer Gallery of Art hallways where nibbles were served and several stations of kimono-wearing servers poured cold, craft sake to the parched throng. It was hard not to feel a mix of excitement for how many people were at the event, but also a bit like a sardine for how many people were at the event. Nonetheless, if you stuck your hand out far enough towards a filling station it would return to you with either snacks or sake. We did this
Members of the Embassy made their rounds and were incredibly pleased we made the trip. The Ambassador wasn’t present, but many of the key members of his staff greeted us. It was as warm a welcome as one could have enjoyed. We exchanged business cards and pleasantries and made plans to visit one another. Maybe we would even work together soon?
We had to leave the event early due to the long drive home and there was a slight tinge of sadness coupled with that intoxicating buzz of having made new friends. On the drive, we talked about the future of our business and what exciting prospects lay ahead.
We got home well after midnight and only had a brief night’s sleep because there were things to do early in the brewery. The next morning was a bit of a blur. Andrew turned some Zeppelin up loud and got to work. A few hours into the day – maybe about 10 a.m. – I noticed a young Japanese couple had walked into the tasting room. They looked lost, and I asked if I could help them. The smiling woman approached and said, “We’re from the Embassy.”
They had been sent to purchase bottles of our sake to bring back to the Embassy of Japan. It floored me this continuation of friendship, this incredibly kind gesture. We tried to give them a case of sake for free, but they wouldn’t accept it. We found some middle ground, and I walked them to their car. I noticed it had Diplomatic license plates, and I thought that was cool. These two young people delivering a case of North American Sake Brewery sake back to their bosses. Maybe they’ll drink it at a party. Maybe the Ambassador will be there. Maybe they’ll even think it’s pretty good.
With growing demand for sake in the United States, evidenced by a near doubling of Japan’s sake exports to the country over the past decade, American craft brewers are also getting in on the act — and giving Japan’s “drink of the gods” their own twist.
North American Sake Brewery in Charlottesville, Virginia, is the latest in a wave of craft sake producers in the United States, the world’s largest consumer of this rice-based alcohol outside Japan.
Since its launch last August, the brewery has mainly catered to Charlottesville residents but will soon be able to distribute its products to about 40 U.S. states including California, New York and Texas, said co-founder Jeremy Goldstein.
“Japanese sake brewers are targeting the United States as the place for the most growth. I think that says a lot about where we’re heading,” Goldstein said in an interview.
According to Japanese government data, the value of Japan’s sake exports expanded 20 percent in 2017 from a year earlier to a record 18.68 billion yen (about $170 million). Of the total, shipments to the United States — the biggest market — came to 6.04 billion yen, up 1.7 times from the 2007 level.
“And in the U.S., what drives the future of the sake business is not just the traditional but the experimental,” said Goldstein. “Look at the craft beer industry and how they play with different flavor profiles and infusions. This is where we are going. This is how we grow.”
Including the Charlottesville operation, there are 21 sake breweries in the United States, up from an estimated five in 2000, according to Timothy Sullivan, a New York-based sake expert who is the founder of UrbanSake.com, a sake information and review site.
The growing popularity of sake — and the increasing number of breweries — in the United States reflects the rise of Japanese food culture in the country, say American sake experts.
(Jeremy Goldstein (R) and Andrew Centofante, co-founders of North American Sake Brewery)
“Over the past five years I have seen an increase in demand for many Japanese ingredients — fish, meat, produce and Japanese seasonings — from everyone from Michelin star chefs to your local neighborhood spot,” said Jessica Joly, a New York-based sake sommelier.
“With all this hype comes a demand for a Japanese beverage as well, which is sake,” said Joly, who was named “Miss Sake USA” in 2016 by the Miss Sake Association in Japan for her role in promoting Japan’s fermented rice beverage in the United States.
“Sake continues to grow in sales each year and most likely will continue to rise in the years ahead,” she said.
Forgoing his career as a film writer, Goldstein started a sake venture four years ago in Charlottesville — the first of its kind in Virginia — with his business partner and chief brewer Andrew Centofante.
Goldstein said he became a sake “fanatic” after tasting “good craft sake for the first time” at a high-end restaurant in Los Angeles, his hometown.
As Centofante began brewing sake at home on a trial basis, he and Goldstein visited U.S. craft sake breweries such as Blue Current Brewery in Maine, Brooklyn Kura in New York, SakeOne in Oregon, Ben’s Tune Up in North Carolina and Proper Sake Co. in Tennessee.
“We visited sake breweries in the U.S., asked them questions, brewed with them and learned a little bit about how it’s made,” said Centofante, a Virginia native who left his marketing career behind for the new venture.
Using California-grown Calrose and Arkansas-grown Yamada Nishiki rice, the Charlottesville brewery’s current annual production capacity is 43.2 kiloliters — or 54,000 750-milliliter bottles. This year, it aims to sell 50,000 bottles of six varieties of sake.
Experts have heralded the emergence of American breweries such as North American Sake Brewery and Brooklyn Kura that supply locally-made sake to U.S. consumers.
“They are not trying to create a replica of Japanese sake,” Joly said. “They are taking inspiration and techniques, but creating their own brand of sake.”
“What makes American sake unique is that many sake brewers come from craft beer brewing, which definitely adds to the unique styles of American craft sake,” she said. “You might see some sake with added flavoring or simply dry hops added, which you would never see in Japan.”
While the number of American sake breweries is expected to increase, partly due to the interest among more craft beer brewers in making sake, experts believe the Japanese sake industry does not view American players as rivals in the U.S. market but as entities with which they can coexist.
“So far, the Japanese industry, including the government, is quite supportive of sake brewing overseas,” said John Gauntner, a Japan-based sake expert known as “the Sake Guy” and “the Sake Evangelist.”
“I think that this is because they know that it will help the awareness of sake to grow,” he said. “It will also help sake made in Japan to become more appreciated and sell better.”
Sharing Gauntner’s view, Joly said that unlike past generations of sake brewers, the younger generation of sake brewers in Japan, the United States and elsewhere are much more adventurous and curious about taking a different approach to sake.
“This is just the beginning,” she said. “I’m excited to see what the next five to 10 years will look like.”