Jeff James at his brewery on Phinney Ridge.
Ever try locally brewed sake?
Local sake brewer shares a cup
“I discovered Nigori and ever since then, I’ve brewed sake,” said Jeff James, owner of Cedar River Brewing Company, a Phinney based Sake brewery.
Many Seattle residents may know his sake from Bloom, Mashiko, Miyabi 45th and
“I’ve been brewing for almost five years but just started distributing in October,” said James.
The brewery is named for the Cedar River, part of the local water source, and is a
“pastoral” aspect that lends to the tradition of sake.
A resident of West Seattle, James said he had an eye out for his current brewery
location for months and finally found it in Phinney.
James offers three different types of Sake: Nama, Junmai and Nigori. All three have a distinct character and flavor.
He brews the sake by starting with rice that has been milled past most rice
people use for cooking. It’s called Calrose Rice and has been milled to reveal a deeper core so that more of the starch is readily extracted. He combines the rice with his pre-made kojo, which is a mold that turns the starch into sugar for the yeast to consume. He has a separated sterile room where he cultures his kogi. James uses simple ingredients: rice, water and yeast, and yeast. The process is much like brewing beer and takes about a month. After its finished the koji is either strained away or kept along with the solution to add flavors.
James brews three unique styles of sake. He uses traditional techniques to brew with each batch imparting different aspects of the rice showing off the breadth of rice flavor. He uses a 40 gallon steel brew pot for each batch, though each batch is 53 gallons. The fermenter is almost as big as him. Furthermore, James uses filtered tap water to make his sake.
Of the three, the Nigori is sweeter with floral, fruity sweet notes. However, because of the method of brewing with the addition of koji in the bottle, it imparts additional fruity flavors and has a more “zingy” flavor. It’s cloudy and the flavor of the rice is preserved.
The Nama style sake was the first James produced and is unpasteurized, so the koji remains in the bottle. The Junmai is very complex and the most labor intensive of James’ varieties. It’s unfiltered so much of the koji remains in the bottle, making it cloudy. The pasteurization process is skipped, which imparts more rice flavor.
James was a beer brewer originally. He was inspired after a night of sushi and sake. He tasted Nigori and fell in love. As a beer brewer he realized sake is a fermented
beverage and not a distilled product; and so he thought that he’d be able to brew it at home.
“In the west its uncommon for people to brew sake so there is not a lot of information out there,” said James.
James said he found a book called "Sake USA" about brewing sakes by Portland-based beer and sake brewer, Fred Eckhardt.
James said that early on in learning how to brew sake, Eckhardt’s book helped a lot. He told the Ballard News-Tribune that after botching a sake batch, he emailed Eckhardt and he was happy to be guided through the process to save the batch.
With lots of trial and error since then, James has streamlined toward a successful sake recipes that people are enjoying.
James has a degree from the University of Washington in mathematics and philosophy. He used to be in the IT industry but after getting laid off he went to work part time for the family commercial real-estate business. With the part-time hours, James had more free time and so he started to think a brewery would be a fine enterprise.
Since his opening in 2013, four restaurants and three bottle shops carry his sake. He hopes to "organically” grow as more people discover his wine. He would like to eventually move to a larger local space, hopefully as the business grows. Bloom in Ballard serves Cedar River Brewery Sake and also uses the leftover rice, or lees, in their umami packed broth.
“Every one seems to like the sake and it's only going to get better. … It’s a slow process but I want to do it right and let it happen organically while letting the wine speak for itself."