Japanese Ambassador to the United States Tomita Koji toured the North American Sake Brewery in Charlottesville on Tuesday, sampling the brewery’s sake only a few days before the brewery’s third anniversary.
North American Sake Brewery is the only sake brewery in Virginia and one of only around 20 across the country. The brewery is located in IX Art Park and serves its sake, a Japanese alcoholic beverage brewed from fermented rice, as well as Japanese cuisine in its tasting and dining room.
Andrew Centofante is the owner and head brewer at North American Sake Brewery and the board chairman of the Sake Brewers Association of North American. Through his position with the association, Centofante was able to coordinate Tomita’s visit.
“We as an association are built to help build the sake industry in the U.S. It’s a really small and niche industry, but we’re growing quickly. We were able to coordinate this visit with the Embassy of Japan and we’ve done some partnerships with them in the past, so it was great to have them come down,” Centofante said.
All of North American Sake Brewery’s sake is made right in the Charlottesville location.
“We produce our sake here, as well as distribute it throughout Virginia. We’re hopefully opening up to some more states soon, so we’re trying to kind of grow our reach as much as we can,” Centofante said.
Centofante led Tomita on a tour of the brewery before leading a tasting in the brewery’s dining room.
“Of course it was nerve-racking to have your product in the hands of the Japanese ambassador, but it was worth it to see his face when he lit up tasting it, so it was great,” Centofante said.
Though sake is sometimes compared to wine, it is brewed rather than distilled. Rice is steamed to unlock the natural flavors of the rice. The goal of rice steaming is to soften and gelatinize the grain so that during fermentation the rice starches can be broken down.
The next step is to create koji, a yeast-like fungi. This process malts the rice grains, which converts the starch in the rice into sugar. The koji is spread onto the grains and grown over two days in a specialized cedar room. This keeps the rice warm and moist during the process to ensure growth.
When koji making is complete, it is added into tanks with more steamed rice, water and yeast. The mash is fermented for anywhere between 20-60 days at a cold temperature to tease out the best flavor and aroma. During this process the koji continually breaks down the rice while the yeast converts sugars to alcohol, reaching 16-20% alcohol by volume (ABV).
When the mash is complete, the rice must be separated from the finished sake through filtration before it is bottled.
Tomita sampled each of the brewery’s five award-winning sake varieties during the tasting, including the Olympus sake, which Centofante created specially in honor of the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer. As a former gymnast, Centofante is a big fan of the Olympics and said he wanted to honor his love for the event as well as his love for Japanese culture with the specialty beverage.
Centofante said he discovered sake on a trip to Japan and wanted to learn how to brew it himself. He reached out to a sake brewer in Japan that he found through YouTube and within three weeks was on a plane back to Japan to learn how to brew sake.
“I fell in love with both the beverage itself and the Japanese culture, so it’s been just a wonderful synergy for me and awesome to be able to bring that passion to life,” Centofante said.
In an area known for its wine, cider and beer, Centofante hopes people will be inspired to come out to North American Sake Brewery and try something different. The brewery will celebrate its third anniversary as well as World Sake Day on Friday.
“We kind of knew we fit in well with these other kinds of [watering ] holes, but you know, we’re a little different. We’re a very different atmosphere than some of the wineries … we are a little bit funky, a little bit different,” Centofante said.
Centofante told Tomita he often works late into the night in the brewery to personally perfect his brews, but his passion to make authentic sake keeps him going. Centofante’s goal is to one day serve his own sake in Japan.
“I love sake so much. I think it’s the most delicious drink in the world. It’s worth it for me to put in the late nights and long hours,” Centofante said.
North American Sake Brewing offers tours to the public upon request. Interested participants can call 434-767-8105 or email email@example.com.