REBOOT IN A BOTTLE: High tech meets low tech at Sequoia Sake
The room is all glinting steel and sharp angles. I’m inside a swath of boxy industrial beige in the Bayview, between concrete walls and a cluster of steel cylinders, feeling skeptical and lost because I’m here for something alive and delicious. I’d think there were no signs of life here at all, and there aren’t really, unless you happen in on a rare day and catch a man behind a hermetically sealed door, standing over a Coleman cooler, massaging a pile of mold.
This is Jake Myrick, the cofounder of Sequoia Sake. He is tall and quiet looking, with blue eyes and a haze of red hair. Everything around him belies his former life but the Bluetooth headset around his neck. He founded “about ten” software companies before moving into the food industry, and now he spends his days fermenting rice water because a decade in Japan infected him with love for a kind of sake that couldn’t be found in California.
This is odd, considering that Northern California is home to most of the country’s largest sake breweries—Takara, Ozeki, Yaegaki and Gekkeikan—who moved here in the 1970s to reap rice from the clay-rich Sacramento Valley. The sake was meant to be exported, and it was, but Japanese restaurants here pulled it closer to the mainstream and those breweries have been doing steady business ever since.
But still, sake made for export is almost always pasteurized, and the sake Myrick wanted was alive, evolving, untouched by heat or filters. One name for this sake is nama, which refers to anything from “fresh” to “draft” to “totally unpasteurized,” and he couldn’t even find a good import because unpasteurized sake dies in the bottle after three months—the least amount of time it would take to ship from Japan. Japanese regulations practically prohibit unpasteurized exports anyway, and stateside brewers had no market for it or interest in making it.
And so, Myrick did what any serial entrepreneur is compelled to do: he cleared out some brewing space in his garage, gave an old childhood friend and business partner a call, and roped his wife into the business partnership. After a few apprenticeships with masters, Myrick launched Sequoia Sake with Warren Pfahl and Noriko Kamei.
Two years later, he is massaging a fungus called koji into steamed rice, gradually starving it of humidity to force the mold deeper into the heart of each kernel, where it works its alchemy. He does this because he believes sake is best drunk close to the source, and there is no better source than right here: in a small triangular microclimate that stays around 64°F. all year round, close to the Sacramento rice valleys where the rice gene pool is a perfect but accidental hybrid of rice for eating and rice for sake, both brought by Japanese farmers in the 1920s. Add to that the Yosemite watershed and an enthusiastic restaurant scene, and you’ve got fertile ground for a sake business.
Myrick knows business, but making food and handling mold for a living was brand new. He grew accustomed to the moods of koji, which converts the starch in rice to sugar, comprising one half of sake’s unusual three-stage, parallel fermentation process in which yeast eats sugar as the mold creates it. The starch in rice is at the center of the grain, so sake makers mill rice to about 60% of its original size—or 49% if you’re Jake Myrick and you’re making premium sake in San Francisco as a tribute to the Niners—in order to shave off the proteins and minerals that make rice nutritious but not so tasty as a brew.
Myrick manipulates the humidity in the chamber of moldy steamed rice the way vintners flood and starve their vines: add water to feed your organism, then coax its growth by depriving it slowly, forcing the roots deeper into the natural food source. For koji, that food is the water and starch at the very center of the grain. From there, the rest is a balancing act. Koji and yeast are simultaneously active, but they thrive in opposite environments. It’s up to Myrick to stir the porridge just enough to keep it cool enough for the koji and aerated enough for the yeast. The rest is mostly analytics and project management, which may as well be Candy Crush for a software engineer.
After 20 days, the porridge is bagged and “gently” pressed under three to five tons of pressure, or bagged and dripped for a premium yield called daiginjo, which Myrick chaperones by sleeping in the brewery.
From that pressing come three kinds of pure, dry sake: nama, genshu and nigori. Technically it’s all nama, but the one that’s classified this way is diluted to about 15% with water, which makes for lighter and easier drinking. Genshu is straight from the tank and ranks higher in alcohol (15%–18%) and nigori is a creamy opaque variety made by Myrick’s wife, and business partner, Noriko Kamei, into which some of the lees have been added back.
The nama is made with a yeast that produces fruit tones, and it morphs like a good winelike companion to oysters, and fish and delicate proteins. The genshu is bigger: floral, peppery and better sipped than drunk. The rice dregs give nigori more texture, and the flavor opens up to a rich, silky butteriness as it warms to room temperature.
But all of them have one distinct feature: movement. A light effervescence that I mistook for carbonation before Myrick reminded me, that’s what a living drink tastes like. It dances on your tongue and shows you that if fungus in your food is wrong, there’s no sense in being right.