Two new session sake releases marks the beginning of canned sake for Setting Sun Sake.
This week, I cracked open a cold one. Pulled the tab of a 12-ounce can and heard that satisfying cshhht sound that usually presages enjoyment of an ale or lager. Except it wasn’t beer inside, rather a single serving of sake. San Diego’s own Setting Sun Sake Brewing Co. has introduced its first sakes in cans.
8680 Miralani Drive #120, San Diego
Setting Sun emerged back in 2016, as a Miramar nanobrewery intent on plying a craft beer ethos to the Japanese brewing traditions. Although people often refer to sake as rice wine, co-founder Josh Hembree, was always quick to point out that it’s actually a cereal beverage, brewed from grain, and therefore more analogous to beer.
Packaged in 12-ounce cans of aluminum, the resemblance becomes more apparent. Whereas traditional sakes do typically match the potency of wine — somewhere in the vicinity of 14 percent alcohol by volume — Setting Sun’s canned sakes rate closer to a double IPA, measuring 8-percent. And while traditional sakes tend to be poured almost ceremonially, from 60-ounce bottles, to be shared over a sushi dinner, for example, these are labeled as session sakes, meant to be enjoyed under the same circumstances as a refreshing beer.
While sake doesn’t retain a head of foam like beer, there is a little fizz here. As Hembree puts it, “They’re lightly carbonated… just enough to give the can a little squeeze, so it doesn’t feel soft.” Bubbles also open up the flavors contained within.
And flavor is where these canned sakes distinguish themselves. Though Setting Sun initially garnered national press for such tactics as flavoring its sake with hops, these sakes go in a different direction. Here, the mild sweetness of sake is complemented with sweet adjuncts, and balanced with teas. So the Arizona iced tea-inspired Arizona Bae, tastes like a petulant peach and matcha green tea. While Lil’ Cloudy imbues unfiltered nigori sake with vanilla and chai spice. “Flip to enjoy cloudy,” reads the label, an instruction toward getting a clouded, creamy appearance.
Each can’s label also highlights another relevant way sake differs from beer: it’s gluten free. Which has prompted retailers Hembree has worked with to place it away from beer, in the same category as popular beer alternatives including hard seltzers and hard kombucha.
“Immediately, I’m upset that I’m in this other category,” says the beer industry veteran, “But they’re like, No, it’s our biggest growing category!”
Canned session sake has much more body than hard seltzer, and far less acidity than kombucha, so the rapid growth of gluten free beer alternatives could mean further expansion is imminent for Setting Sun. The sake brewer has already expanded its production more than eight-fold in four years, secured distribution as far away as Montana, and ships direct to consumer orders to 39 states.
Its next canned product could endear it to yet another growing category: ready to drink cocktails. At Setting Sun’s Miralani Drive tasting room, the sake cocktail program spearheaded by tasting room manager Kim Roxas has yielded a fan-favorite, dubbed Citra & Citrus. It mixes zests of lemon, lime, and orange with thyme and Citra hops. Which means hopped sake in a can could be coming soon.