Sake Fan – Sake Enthusiast Sam Fairchild Looks at Den Sake - Better Know a Brewer
When Chris asked me to write something (dealer’s choice) for the newsletter, I knew immediately what I wanted to cover. My taste in sake is all over the place; I find myself drawn to different breweries, regions, and styles week to week. Possibly, this is due to an overactive FOMO gland, or perhaps I’m more inconsistent than I’d like to believe. Whatever the case, one of the few constants in my sake fridge is a squat, green bottle with a minimalist label from an American craft brewery.
Den sake (The word “Den” means rice paddy in Japanese) is made in West Oakland, just on the other side of the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. The building itself - a corrugated metal affair - sits in an industrial complex whose footprint is dominated by the towering kilns of a burlwood furniture maker. They share the lot with a plant nursery, a distillery, an excellent soba shop. The whole area is shot through with artisans and craft shops.
The brewery is compact, with perhaps 1,000 square feet of workspace and about the same in storage. Given the physical constraints of the space and difficulty finding sake brewing equipment in America, every batch is a labor of love.
Oakland, sitting as it does outside of the coastal fog that blankets San Francisco for much of the year, is blessed with prodigious sunshine. Suitable for vitamin D but challenging for the exacting temperature control needed to brew sake. Consequently, most of the operation is sequestered in the cold fermentation room: a cozy space that somehow manages to Tetris in several fermentation tanks, a “fune” with a vast cantilevered beam for pressing sake, pallets of rice, bottling equipment, and stacks of finished product during bottling.
Den is the brainchild of Yoshi Sako. Yoshi-san grew up in Japan but didn’t fall in love with sake until he came to America. Initially a musician (funk bassist, if memory serves), he quickly found the Bay Area, as many do, to be inhospitable to artists. To make ends meet, he began working in the food industry in 2006, eventually becoming a sake buyer for restaurants and then a sake sommelier. In 2017, he returned to the creative well, this time literally, as a sake brewer. He apprenticed at Shiokawa Brewery (makers of the excellent Cowboy Yamahai) and Kubota Brewery in Niigata and Kanagawa prefectures, respectively. Armed with years of experience as a professional sake connoisseur and a greater understanding of the brewing process, he founded Den to make sake that pairs with the diverse flavors of California.
The barrier to entry was high. Aside from significant differences between local rice (Den primarily uses a table rice called Cal-Hikari grown in the Sacramento Valley) and Japanese sake rice, the softer water (Oakland draws from the Mokelumne watershed in the foothills of the Sierras nearly 100 miles away) meant he had to adapt his brewing process quite a bit.
Yoshi’s biggest challenges, though, have been less controllable: “[The] frequent droughts in California” and the sky-high prices in the Bay. “Everything is so costly here: rent, labor, cost of goods,” Yoshi told me recently, “[and there are] no sake brewing equipment manufacturers in the US (we made almost everything by our hands except tanks).”
Despite, or perhaps in partnership with, these challenges, Yoshi has now produced eighteen batches of Den’s flagship sake (a junmai with subtle, fruity ginjo notes) and nearly as many of Blanc (Den Sake’s wine-like sibling made with white koji that produces citric acid), four batches of Den Red Label (made using locally grown Yamadanishiki rice), and a smattering of small-batch unique styles: a low-polishing rate junmai (Den 90), and recently his first batch of Kimoto. He is eager to try his hand at others as well, “I would love to try Kioke-shikomi (wood barrel fermentation), usage of wild (ambient) yeast, making super dry sake, doing some sort of collaboration with brewers who I admire.”
Yoshi has accomplished all of this mainly on his own, though crucially, he has operational help from partner Matt. He also draws support from Lani, both a business and life partner, whom he met while working as a sake somm at Yuzuki Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission district. Both are supportive and tireless right-hands who share Yoshi’s vision for producing high-quality, food-friendly sake batch after batch.
During bottling runs, Den also fills up with a small army of volunteers, of which I have been privileged to be a part twice. While volunteering, I was struck by the personae who answered the call: chefs, retirees, musicians, craftspeople, tech workers, and sake-obsessives like myself: all washing bottles, hand-twisting caps, sealing, and boxing shoulder-to-shoulder to a funk and soul-heavy playlist. Den’s fans are drawn from a diverse array.
This miasma of creative energy and Yoshi’s tireless efforts yield some of the most exciting sake you can buy. Bright acidity and complex flavors (yuzu, berries, lactic notes, and rich umami) give way to a short finish (in Japanese, this would be referred to as “Kire” or cut finish). Each batch is slightly different as Yoshi endlessly tweaks the process; in fact at tastings Den will sometimes bring bottles from previous batches to highlight the changing nature of their sake. But they all have one thing in common: a balance of flavors that is as pleasing to the palate as it is difficult to achieve.
Oh, and those distinct squat 500mL bottles? Yoshi says they’re a “good size for couples who don't want to drink a large bottle.” Thoughtful, to be sure.
The author in his happy place
Photo: Sam Fairchild