What happens when craft brewers apply their experience to sake? That's what Josh Hembree and Keldon Warwick Premuda are trying to find out with the launch of Setting Sun Sake Brewing Co. The Miramar sake company opened in August with a small variety of sake options, including craft beer–inspired concoctions like fruited and dry-hopped takes.
Hembree and Premuda met working together at Stone Brewing. Premuda still works there, while Hembree has been employed by a succession of breweries the past decade, including a current gig with Belching Beaver, and previous engagements with Fuller's Brewery in London and Munich's Paulaner. He says the difference in quality drinking these European beers fresh versus in bottles beaten up by the long import process inspired him.
"Craft beer has shown that fresh beer just tastes better," Hembree says, "With that kind of mindset, I thought, sake must be the same."
Starting a sake business isn't quite the same as starting in beer. Setting Sun had to acquire a winemaker's license from the state of California, but a beer brewer's certificate from the federal government. While the two-month sake-making process combines elements of both, "I consider it beer," Hembree says, "Because it's a fermented cereal beverage."
That cereal, of course, is rice. Japanese producers use varieties grown specifically for sake. But part of Setting Sun's ethos is sourcing locally, so it uses Calrose rice. "It was actually bred to grow here in California," Hembree explains, "It definitely has different qualities than those classic sake rice strains. But because I believe that Calrose personifies California…my rice comes from the Sacramento Valley."
However, sake rice requires more milling than what we find at the grocery store, which has 20-30% of its hull and bran polished away (a higher polish results in white versus brown rice). "I have 40 percent of it polished away," Hembree notes, "to make sure I have the cleanest, purest sugar source possible." This produces the sake standard known as ginjo grade.
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Setting Sun specializes in what's known as nama sake, which literally means raw or fresh, and specifically refers to the fact it's unpasteurized. As Hembree tells it, the development of pasteurized sake in Japan loosely mirrors the pre-craft homogenization of the beer industry in the U.S. Originally, he recounts, "every prefecture would have a different water source, it would have a different rice. It was very local — it was very craft. As industry took over, they started producing larger amounts, and to make sure it would travel, they would pasteurize it, and you'd lose a lot of flavor."
Hembree and Premuda are self-taught, learning from books, internet research, and questioning any sake expert willing to speak with them — not many considering there are about as many sake producers in the U.S. as there are breweries in Miramar.
At a recent sake festival held in San Francisco, Setting Sun's dry-hopped fresh sake stirred up plenty of conversation, even as some of the Japanese sake makers disparaged the nontraditional effort. "It's just not something that's done," Hembree recounts, but these craft brewers weren't dissuaded. "Just because it's not done, doesn't mean it shouldn't be done."