This story and video are a co-production of Civil Eats and Edible Communities.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
This season, the local irrigation board has limited Van Dyke’s water use to only 600 of his 2,000 acres of rice fields, well below his 50 to 60 percent planting rate per year. “Normally there are ups and downs in the water supply, and if you’re down a year, then you experience two or three good ones. But when you start stacking those [bad years] back to back, it’s tight. You have to look for every opportunity to cut costs,” he says.
Although many view rice as one of the worst water guzzling crops the state, Van Dyke notes that this perception—partially formed by the image of flooded rice fields—is not wholly accurate. Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at U.C. Davis, explains this perception gap.
“The soils rice are grown on—very heavy clay soils—in California are not suited to a lot of other crops.”
Rice “will rank very high” in water use if only the total amount of applied water is taken into account,” he explains, “but so much of that water is returned to groundwater or streams.” Of 60 inches of water applied to a rice field, the “evapotranspiration,” or total loss of water from land surface to the atmosphere, is 34 inches, which he estimates places the crop in about the middle of California agriculture products ranked by water usage.
Van Dyke’s soil is composed of light red clay with a layer of hard pan (compacted sandstone that prevent drainage). Unfit for most other crops because of its poor drainage, hard pan can result in natural water tables well suited to rice farming.
Yet some who see flooded rice fields might still wonder whether this is a sustainable crop for a drought-plagued state. Bruce Linquist, a U.C. Davis cooperative extension professor and rice expert, says, “I’m sure that’s on a lot of people’s minds, but there’s not a lot of data supporting this. The soils rice are grown on—very heavy clay soils—in California are not suited to a lot of other crops.” And he points to the valuable ecosystem services the fields provide, most importantly winter habitats for migrating birds.
“You need a certain amount of rice land to support that kind of habitat,” Linquist adds. The heavy black adobe clay Linquist is referring to, says Van Dyke, “is technically a better soil [for rice growing],” but he prefers the red clay of his farm because it allows him to practice a drill seeding method that minimizes both water use and topsoil disturbance.
Both Van Dyke and Myrick point to the vast tracts of California farmland devoted to nut and pomegranate trees, which they consider far less sustainable than rice. Tree planting “almost always affects the groundwater,” says Van Dyke, because of the trees’ thirsty and deep roots, which tap underground sources of water in addition to benefitting from irrigation from drip lines and micro sprinklers. And they point to the fact that the flooding of rice fields can help replenish groundwater.
Myrick adds of nut tree farmers: “They want fields to be dry, and we want them to be wet. Wet is a better ecological environment. Pumping water out changes the ecosystem. Look at Houston, [Texas]; it used to be a big rice producer because the clay soil of those delta wetlands are meant to hold water.” Now drained and converted to housing, the land has lost its ability to act like a sponge and absorb excess storm water, leading to catastrophic flooding and loss of property and life. Although rice may be better for flood mitigation than nut and pomegranate trees, Lund says that in measurements of evapotranspiration, the three crops’ water usage is similar.
Sequoia’s legacy may ultimately be cemented by such ground-breaking work, yet Myrick and Kamei still don’t know for sure if their daughter will choose to carry on the family business.
Water rights play a role in farm viability during drought, but Van Dyke says it’s not so much an issue for his farm, which does not have access to generous historic water rights, but can use some surface water from the nearby Bear River as well as groundwater. Linquist points out that water rights don’t mean a lot “if you don’t have the water” to dole out. This year, in particular, more than half of California’s rice fields are estimated to be left barren without harvest.
In the end, what disturbs Van Dyke’s sleep the most is not drought or climate change, but the encroachment of well-funded developers. Urban development spreading north from Sacramento is “taking us over,” he says. “That’s all high-dollar per acre compared to farming,” he says; that difference in land valuation often results in farmland being paved over.
In the face of an uncertain future for California rice farming as climate change advances, Jake Myrick has been working on what he hopes will be his own legacy, a project with Dr. Thomas Tai, a research geneticist at USDA-ARS Crops Pathology and Genetics Research Unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Japanese rice experts from the sprawling Iida Group Holdings conglomerate, which includes a Northern California-based rice milling subsidiary. Their goal: to breed a drought-tolerant, heat-resistant rice, just as agronomists and farmers in Japan are attempting to do. Their efforts center on reviving an older strain of the Wataribune variety that Japanese immigrants brought to California in 1906.
Today’s ubiquitous Calrose variety is a descendent of this heirloom Japanese rice, but it has been modified over the years to focus on qualities such as yield and pure white color over flavor. Myrick’s hope is that by recovering an older strain of Wataribune, he’ll be able to bring back some of its lost flavor and aroma.
At the same time, Myrick has been working with U.C. Davis to include sake brewing in their master brewing classes. Stalled by the pandemic, he hopes the program will get back on track to create a “cross-pollination, a wine and sake exchange” that could bring more innovation to the U.S. sake-making and -marketing landscape.
Sequoia’s legacy may ultimately be cemented by such ground-breaking work, yet Myrick and Kamei still don’t know for sure if their daughter will choose to carry on the family business. Though she watched her parents launch the business as a teenager and began helping out when she was 17, Myrick concedes that making sake is not the most secure vocation to envision for one’s child.
Kamei Myrick’s food science studies could end up exerting a bigger pull. Juggling her school work and brewing “has been difficult” for the family, Myrick admits. But he adds, with the hard-won optimism of a parent determined not to curtail their child’s freedom, “I’m loving this while it lasts.”
Photos and video credit: Mizzica Films.
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