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Civil Eats TV: Women Brewing Change at Sequoia Sake

Craft sake making—both in Japan and abroad—is still a very male-dominated world; for now, there are only three women brewers in the U.S., and two of them happen to work at Sequoia Sake in San Francisco.

Noriko Kamei, her husband, Jake Myrick, and their daughter Olivia Kamei Myrick, 26, make sake together by hand in the first New World brewery to produce a second-generation heir. Kamei and Myrick share head brewer duties, and Kamei Myrick has already produced several sakes of her own. Instead of feeling outnumbered that two-thirds of his business is made up of women, Myrick says, “I’m proud that both of the women in my life are making sake.”

Noriko Kamei, Jake Myrick, and Olivia Kamei Myrick at Sequioa Sake.

During the 10 years they lived in Japan as tech entrepreneurs, Myrick and Kamei discovered the unique appeal of nama, or unpasteurized sakes, which tend to be brighter and fresher tasting because of the living microbes they contain. Myrick was fascinated by sake brewers’ ability to produce a wide range of flavor profiles from just rice, water, and yeast. When they returned to the U.S., they missed those fresh sakes and decided to make sake brewing their next start-up business, launching Sequoia in 2014.

Sake is the more-than-2,000-year-old national drink of Japan, an agricultural product with roots in mythology and the Japanese Shinto religion.

From their 2,500-square-foot brewery in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, the three make 12 different kinds of sake, most of them unpasteurized and all with organic rice. Kamei handles the most difficult aspect of the work, which is making the koji, the fungus-inoculated steamed rice that is the blueprint for the sake she envisions in her head. The koji spores are added to the yeast starter, or shubo, which touches off the conversion of starch to fermentable sugars.

To this base, they add three rounds of steamed rice, water, and yeast then they filter the sake, sometimes pasteurize it, and bottle it. Kamei loves the trial and error aspect of her work, as she spends hours noticing and responding to minute changes in the koji. She compares the careful attention it takes to “watching a newborn baby.”

Kamei Myrick considers herself someone who “performs best in jobs that are more physical than mental,” so sake making has been a good match for her. From 2016 to 2018, she spent time in Fukushima Prefecture working as a kurabito, or sake brewery worker, at Miyaizumi Meijo Brewery and Akebono Brewery. As the first female foreign apprentice, and part of a family that runs a brewery in the U.S., she says that the head brewers “did teach me more than they would to some of their own kurabito; they knew I was going back to Sequoia and was committed to making sake.”

Kamei Myrick returned to California, where—to encourage her interest—her dad gave her a 500-liter (132-gallon) fermentation tank to experiment with. Though she likes the flexibility of working in a family business, she is also pursuing studies in food science at San Francisco City College, and her future career path is still taking shape.

Sake’s Origins

Sake is the more-than-2,000-year-old national drink of Japan, an agricultural product with roots in mythology and the Japanese Shinto religion. From about the 10th Century, its brewing was controlled by Buddhist monks; during the Edo Period (1603-1868), production was put in the hands of large landowners and merchant families that served and provided for the ruling Tokugawa clan and its lords.

Hazy sake being poured into a glass

After reaching peak sales in the early 1970s, domestic sake consumption has continually dropped in Japan. Due to government restrictions on sales and the long shutdown of restaurants in Japan, breweries have also suffered during the pandemic. But loss of interest in the drink in its birthplace has been offset by growing global interest. There are more than two dozen craft sake breweries in the U.S., and a half-dozen breweries in California alone.

New Global Sake Makers Spur Innovation

International sake brewers, unfettered by generations of tradition and societal expectations, are taking sake in new directions. For Kamei Myrick, that means a distinctly San Francisco-leaning direction. In 2020, she created her own sake, Hazy Delight, which is a soft-textured and refreshing usu nigori, or lightly filtered sake.

She selected its name due to its slightly cloudy texture, but also to evoke—through the vibrating neon image of a purple daisy on the label—the early cannabis culture of the 1960s Haight-Ashbury district. The nigori’s more-savory-than-usual quality means it pairs well with goat cheese from the Marin Headlands or North Beach pesto pizza. Hazy Delight proved so popular that it has become part of the regular lineup of Sequoia sakes.

Now, Kamei Myrick, who loved the developing and marketing aspect of that project, is thinking about two more bottles she can brew to form a trio of San Francisco-themed sakes. One will be a hiyaoroshi summer-aged sake that she hopes will express the cool San Francisco summer through an added savory quality. The other is a more labor-intensive kimoto-style sake, which relies on native yeast and lactic acid.

Noriko Kamei sampling a Sequoia Sake.

Noriko Kamei sampling a Sequoia Sake.

She envisions its high acidity and robust flavor as a good expression of the city’s own fermentation culture, which ranges from sourdough bread to third-wave coffee. “I’m a huge fan of fermentation,” says Kamei Myrick. “It’s really beautiful to live and work with microorganisms to create something like sake that brings people together.”

Sake Rice Growing in California, Questions of Sustainability

As interest in sake making and drinking in the U.S. has grown, so has the need to source sakamai, or sake rice. Myrick and Kamei work with fifth-generation Sacramento Valley organic rice farmer Michael Van Dyke, who grows five acres of Calrose M105—a hybrid bred both for its early maturing quality and high stable milling rate—for them. Its shorter growing season requires less water, an important quality in a state now suffering its third year of a historic drought.

Calrose is a table rice rather than a sakamai, one of 115 or so varieties grown specifically for sake making. This is not necessarily a negative. Even in Japan, more craft brewers are featuring sakes brewed with less expensive table rice as advances in brewing technology and know-how have helped offset differences between the two types of rice.

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