Given how readily U.S. restaurant patrons embrace most things Japanese—consider the nonstop popularity of sushi restaurants, the current ramen noodle shop craze and the emergence of large-format izakaya concepts as hip dining and drinking destinations—it’s no wonder the idea of restaurants built around house-brewed sake seems ready to catch on. It’s a wide-open market where operators who missed out on the craft beer-driven brewpub phenomenon can get in on the ground floor of what might be the next big beverage trend.
Granted, it’s still very early in the game. There are just a handful of sake breweries, artisan or otherwise, in the U.S. SakeOne, located in Forest Grove, OR, and Austin, TX-based Texas Sake Company are the big two. Set to debut this year are sakes from new players Seattle’s Cedar River Brewing Company and the just-about-to-open Blue Current Brewery in Kittery Point, ME.
These four breweries sell sake to restaurants, but are not in the restaurant business.
There is a similar lack of competition in the sake brewpub restaurant category. Just three operations so far, to be exact.
The oldest, Moto-i ramen and sake house, got into the business in 2008. Its menu is much bigger than that of a typical ramen shop. It offers 16 starters and small plates, seven salads, a half-dozen large plates, six steamed bun choices, eight ramen options and four rice dishes. Prices are midlevel, with most items well below that of the Maitake ramen that goes for $16.
Moto-i brews eight different sakes on site, and customers can get them on tap. “Most breweries pasteurize their sake... but we serve nama or namazake,” the restaurant notes on its website. “This is unpasteurized sake and comes out alive and fragrant. We let some sake mature in order to refine the flavors, but for the most part it is served quickly.”
At the moment, Blue Kudzu Sake Company in Asheville, NC, offers customers 60 different U.S. and Japanese sakes and a 24-item menu. Its eclectic offerings include Korean lettuce wraps ($9) tuna tataki ($9), beef pho ($12), an Asian take on shrimp and grits ($13), a kimchi reuben sandwich (10) and a bahn mi ($10).
With federal and state permits now in hand, the company will be releasing its first batches of sake later this year. It will be for sale in both Blue Kudzu’s tasting room and its restaurant.
Blue Kudzu bills itself as “Asheville’s First Sake Kura.” That may be because there’s another sake brewery/restaurant operation in Asheville: Ben’s Tune-Up, whose sake brewery is connected to the dining room. It opened last summer with an eclectic 26-item “Ameriental” menu that includes a $12 burger among its primarily pan-Asian themed choices.
"I wouldn't want to be opening a brewery now," co-owner and brewer Jonathan Robinson told NPR. "Everyone is making beer now, and here a lot of people have been brewing for 20 years. But with sake, we're breaking new ground."
How big the market for sake brewpubs might be remains an unknown. But all the activity stirring in the microbrew sake segment indicates that something is up. When you consider the ever-growing number of U.S. patrons becoming familiar with Japanese food and Japanese restaurant concepts and factor in the vast number of alcoholic beverage drinkers who shun mass-produced beers in favor of craft-brewed versions, we think this nascent segment has a decent shot at success.
Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from rice. Technically, it’s not a wine, being more akin to beer. But check with some experts before you jump headfirst into the sake-making business. “It’s the most difficult thing to brew in the world, hands down,” said Blue Current Brewery founder Dan Ford. Still, if you’re looking for a segment with high barriers to entry that is relatively untouched right now, the sake brewpub is it.