Dennis Khuu (left) and Tina Nguyen celebrate their 1-year anniversary with glasses of Heiwa Shuzo Nigori sake at Daytrip in Oakland.
All signs are pointing to a sake boom. As the Japanese drink becomes easier to find, Bay Area beverage directors, sommeliers and other industry experts are promoting it to a wider audience.
For a long time, sake in the U.S. was mostly confined to Japanese restaurants, and most of what was served was cheap, mass-produced “hot sake.” But now, higher-quality versions are emerging. The alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice is becoming extremely popular in non-Japanese restaurants like Oakland’s Daytrip and wine shops like Oakland Yard, as drinkers discover its complex flavors, aromas and versatile food-pairing potential.
In fact, sake is practically mandatory at newer, trendier restaurants. “Any ambitious beverage program that’s focusing especially on fermented beverages, if it’s not including sake, then it feels sort of lazy to me,” said Jenny Eagleton, beverage director at Daytrip.
Beverage director Jenny Eagleton has a large selection of sake available at Daytrip.
Rice-based alcohol traditions are thousands of years old, and even modern sake production dates back generations, with some commercial sake breweries opening in Japan as early as the 14th century. But for much of the 20th century, the main type of sake exported to the U.S. was the divisive “hot sake” that “garnered a bad stigma due to its poor production,” according to Eduardo Dingler, vice president of wine at Wine Access, a wine curation and education site. These warmed-up sakes — as hot as 212 degrees — are usually pasteurized, and the temperature can mask bitter flavors. The popularity of hot sake “sacrificed the quality of sake,” according to Angel Davis, owner of the San Francisco wine shop Millay.
Now, unpasteurized sake, or Nama, is fueling a renaissance. This version of sake needs to be refrigerated to preserve its delicate aroma and is always served cool. As more Nama is being imported into the U.S., wine shops, such as Millay, are starting to see an uptick in sake sales.
“I’m noticing that my sake pours are selling more than some of my wine pours,” said Davis. “I think there is a new interest in sake because of young people wanting to try new things and discover something else besides wine.”
A shelf of sake at S.F. bottle shop Millay, where sake sales are outpacing wine sales.
Sales of sake in the U.S. grew 5.3% by volume in 2021, according to analyst IWSR, and by more than 7% during the last five years. They’re projected to grow by 2.4% annually through 2026.
Sake has felt inaccessible to many U.S. drinkers for a long time, in part because of the many misconceptions about its production process and the complicated nature of its subcategories. There may also be a language barrier as non-Japanese-speaking customers try to understand the difference between styles such as Junmai, Nigori and Daiginjo on bottle labels.
But as more Bay Area drinkers become curious about the processes behind fermented beverages like wine, they’re also becoming more curious about sake. While the production of sake is similar to that of wine, its fermentation process is much more complicated. The process includes water, yeast, rice and koji, a fungus that is also present in products like soy sauce and miso.
Owner Angel Davis pours Narutotai Ginjo Nama Genshu sake at Millay in San Francisco.
“Because Americans have this relationship with hot sake, a lot of people believe that sake is distilled,” said Jake Myrick, co-founder of Sequoia Sake, the first sake brewery in San Francisco. Actually, he explained, it’s fermented.
Specifically, the sake fermentation process is called parallel fermentation. Two things are happening at once: Starch (rice) is being converted into sugar, and sugar is being converted into alcohol. The koji mold contains enzymes that convert the rice into fermentable sugars.
Koji helps provide sake with its distinctive flavor. “Sake begins and ends with koji because it provides the magic that this drink displays,” said Wine Access’ Dingler.
Noriko Kamei works with steamed rice to produce sake at Sequoia Sake in San Francisco.
While the fermentation is unique, the sensory appreciation of enjoying a glass of sake is similar to that of wine. Young, unaged sake, which ranges from a few months to a couple of years, exhibits a clear color and fresh flavors. After it has aged for a few years, it may take on a butterscotch color, similar to the way an aged red wine begins to look browner. And generally, the darker the color, the more savory the sake tastes.
For those who are unfamiliar with sake, it’s best to start with Junmai, which showcases the pure flavors of the rice, or Ginjo, another light, floral style.
Many sakes can last much longer than most wines once they’re open. After cracking a bottle of sake, you can keep it up to one or two weeks as it is less sensitive than wine to oxidation, according to Dingler. Consider storing your sake bottle as if you were storing white wine, in a dark place with a regulated cool temperature.
Amabuki Junmai Ginjo sake at Millay in S.F.
Part of its new popularity may be because sake is in fact lower in alcohol content than many spirits, generally in the 12%-20% range. That makes it an appealing alternative to cocktails for those trying to reduce their alcohol consumption. Notably, many restaurants like Daytrip are now serving sake in a wine glass as opposed to the carafes and small, shot-glass-size cups that are traditional. That glassware helps it appeal to wine drinkers, according to Dingler.
But what really excites beverage industry experts are the food pairings. The possibilities are endless since the flavors of sake range from savory to creamy to acidic. Most importantly, it has very little to no tannin, which makes it harmonious with lighter fare like fish or vegetables that red wines could overpower.
These days, sake is being served not only with Japanese food, but also with Mexican, Italian and French. Or with the unusually savory, flavor-packed cuisine at a restaurant like Daytrip.
The miso butter pasta at Daytrip is a great pairing with sake.
“We describe ourselves as a fermented-driven restaurant and our food reflects this,” said Daytrip’s Eagleton. Sake is a natural match for the menu. “We always have a miso butter pasta that is on the menu that pairs very well with our sake because of the koji that is present in both the sake and miso.”
Even industry experts like Davis, of Millay, can be shocked by sake’s food pairing potential.
“I was with a group of people for a tasting,” she said. “They started with grazing over a cheese board, ate some blue cheese. And then it turned into a chocolate tasting. And I was like, wait … what the hell is going on? This is insane.”
Elgin Nelson is a former San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: food@sfchronicle.com
Elgin Nelson is the newsroom’s Food & Wine intern. Nelson is from Phoenix, Ariz., and is in his second year at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. His studies include longform narratives and photojournalism surrounding the arts.
Before graduate school, Nelson interned at VinePair, a digital publication that covers the alcohol beverage industry. He also interned at Firelight Films, where he worked as a research and production intern.

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