People of Sake - 'Jeff James'
Jeff James is the owner and brew master at Cedar River Brewing in Seattle. We have a chat with him to see what he is up to and what is happening in his world of sake.
Jeff – tell us about your background and when and why you decided to start brewing sake.
In 2003 some friends invited me to join them in brewing a batch of beer. It was a lot of fun, and the beer was pretty good! The next year, my family gave me brewing equipment for Christmas and I began my study and practice of brewing in earnest.
Japanese culture and tradition have been fascinating and appealing to me for a long time, but it wasn’t until about seven years ago that I discovered the world of sake beyond the inexpensive hot stuff. At a restaurant, I ordered some nigorizake, and I began to realize how much more there is to sake. Most importantly, the rice lees revealed to me that it is a brewed beverage, not distilled as I had mistakenly assumed. And it was delicious! I began to think; maybe I can brew sake myself.
A year later I brewed my first batch of sake, and it came out tasting pretty good. Soon I started thinking about brewing on a commercial basis. By chance, I stumbled upon an ad for the space that is now our brewery. It was affordable and in a great neighborhood, and the previous occupant was a brewery, so we were pretty confident it would work. We moved in at the end of 2012 and started brewing in the summer of 2013.
Tell us a story about a memorable experience or a time when you had a great time drinking sake.
One of the best times I’ve had drinking sake was attending John Gauntner’s Sake Professional Course when he presented it in Portland, Oregon, in 2010. It was exceptional in so many ways! Over the course of three days, we tasted about 80 different sakes, presented in various different ways to highlight regionality, brewing techniques and ingredients. We had Mr. Gauntner’s expertise to guide us, a large room filled with passionate sake students, and great restaurants in which to gather and continue our studies late into the evening. I learned a lot about sake, and it was a blast!
What different types of sake are you making at the moment?
We currently have four styles in our regular lineup: Junmai, Nama, Nigori, and Taru. Technically, all are junmai sake. As the names suggest, Nama is our unpasteurized sake, Nigori is our cloudy, coarsely pressed sake, and Taru is aged on cedar for a spicy, woody aroma and flavor. Recently we introduced a special release of Nama Nigori, a sparkling, unpasteurized nigori. It’s a big hit at the brewery!
The Taru is quite interesting, what was the idea behind making a Sake like this?
Taruzake is a traditional style which I enjoy, but it’s not very common around Seattle. Before the advent of more modern materials, sake was stored in casks made of Japanese cedar. The casks imparted the spicy, woody aroma and flavor that taruzake is known for. Western Red Cedar is plentiful in this part of the world, and I’ve tasted and brewed some good beer with it. And of course, cedar is part of our name! So it was natural for us to brew a taruzake. It’s been very popular, so we have kept it in our regular lineup.
Currently you guys are using Calrose and also Yeast number #9 – do you have any plans to mix this up in the future? (Is there something you would really love to try and make?)
Until recently, Calrose has been the only rice suitable for sake brewing available to us. However we recently received some Yamada Nishiki from Minnesota Rice and Milling. Many thanks to Blake Richardson and crew there for making it available to us! I’m looking forward to brewing our first batch with it soon.
I’ve brewed with #7 yeast, but wasn’t happy with the results. I’ll try it again someday, but for now I want to focus on working with #9, getting to know it better and getting the best sake possible from it. I recently brewed a couple batches with #901, the low-foam version of #9, and am very pleased with how it turned out! It has a couple advantages over #9, so it may become our mainstay yeast.
I’ve experimented with hopped sake, but it didn’t work very well. I will probably try it again with some different varieties of hops. I’d like to try some fruit infusions too.
Do you brew year round or just in Winter?
We brew year-round, but we try to brew more in the winter and less in the summer. The fermenting and pressing take place in a cold room kept around 45 degrees F (7 degrees C), so we can brew all year, but it gets pretty hot in the rest of the brewery during the summer.
I like your bottles– any reason why you choose these?
Thank you! I chose the shape because it’s similar to the shape of the bottles of some of my favorite brands of sake. The dark brown and dark green colors were a practical as well as aesthetic decision; they help protect the sake from light, which can damage the flavor. Our little 187ml bottles are clear because that’s all we have found in that size. They’re fun because you get a better look at the sake inside, but don’t leave them on the shelf in the sun!
Tell us about the reception/response that your SAKE is receiving?
The reception to our sake has been fantastic and heartwarming. Some truly great restaurants have sought us out because we fit in well with their offerings of local specialties. Many people appreciate us because we are, for now, the only locally brewed sake available. It’s also fun when people see our sign, stop in for a taste not knowing much about sake, and leave with enthusiasm for a new world to explore!
There is a bit of a sake buzz happening at the moment (gaining in popularity) – are you guys feeling this in Seattle as well?
There has definitely been a lot going on involving sake around here. We’ve been getting more visitors to the brewery and seeing more events around town. I think it will really take off in the near future as we see two more breweries open in the area! Tahoma Fuji Sake Brewing Company is right down the street and has been brewing test batches, so we hope to see their sake on shelves and menus soon. I’ve heard from many people that a family-owned brewery from Fukushima is relocating to this area, but I don’t know how soon they will be brewing.
What advice would you give to someone who is into brewing beer and would like to give sake a go?
I would say go for it! The skills and equipment needed for brewing beer will give you most of what you need to brew sake. The only additional equipment you might need would be a steamer able to handle large quantities of rice.
A local sake homebrewer stopped by the brewery yesterday and we had a long chat about brewing. Probably the most important advice I gave to him was to start with good rice and good koji. Check with your local homebrew supply shop. Online, a great place to get supplies is HomeBrewSake.com. They also have a recipe and many informative articles and videos available. Will Auld, the owner of the site, also wrote an excellent book, “Brewing Sake: Release the Toji Within”.
What future plans do you have for the brewery?
We pursue a philosophy I like to call organic growth. The most important thing is to brew the best quality sake we can. We are growing, but not so fast as to compromise the quality of the sake.
After three years, we have almost reached the capacity of our current space and are looking for a larger space. Right now our “tasting room” is the small amount of open space left at the brewery. We plan to have something a little more comfortable after we move.
Another big project in the works is moving from ambient temperature control for our fermenters to more direct temperature control for each tank. This will give us easier and better control and allow more flexibility in the brewing schedule.
Jeff thanks so much for chatting with us – good luck with the brewing and keep making great sake!
Thank you for the opportunity to share what’s going on at Cedar River Brewing Jason!
For more info on Cedar River Brewing - check out their listing here