Mirin, Sho Chiku Bai (cooking sake), and sake bombs. This was the extent of my knowledge about modern sake.
Outbidding the likes of Calpico and green tea, sake, the national beverage of Japan, has a long tenure, stretching back to before Japan’s first written history. Nova Brewing Company is here to usher Los Angeles into a new era of sake enjoyment. To provide some insight on the origin of Nova Brewing Company, I sat down with James Jin, the co-founder of Nova Brewing. The following excerpts discuss the hardship of being a small business owner and the process of creating new products in an industry with longstanding traditions.
Yo!: So would you mind giving me just a quick introduction of who you are and your business?
James: My name is James Jin from Nova Brewing Company. I'm the head brewer and co-founder. We opened this business in October of 2019, and are known as one of LA's only craft sake breweries with a Tasting Room in LA, and we try to promote the culture and history of sake.
Yo!: I think it's becoming popular to idealize being a small business owner and a lot of people have a vision of what that means to them like having the freedom to decide your own work hours. Now that you have your own business, what is it actually like?
James: I didn't know that people thought owning a business was freedom. It's more like you're a prisoner to your own business. I guess you can decide your own hours, but then again, all business owners know that we don't have complete freedom. We're working every single day. Especially with fermented products, things are waiting for you. You can’t just leave them alone. You have to spend time and be there when you need to be.
Yo!: Did you have an idea of what it would be like to own a business? How did it line up with what you thought it would be?
James: Sake fermentation is a bit different from running a restaurant or a cafe. We're trying to make a historical Japanese beverage in the middle of nowhere in LA County. We knew that it was going to be difficult finding supplies and the right ingredients, especially the water, as the water quality here is very different from that of Japan. And financially, we don't have any investors. This business is owned by just me and my wife, so there are a lot of challenges. I expected a challenge but after you start a business, it really hits you how hard it is, how much effort and time you have to invest to actually face these challenges. It just becomes more real. But for us, what makes everything worth it is the one person that always thought that sake was just a strong alcoholic beverage coming and enjoying our sake and taking home a bottle. That makes everything worth it in the end.
Yo!: Did you always want to create your own business? Or did you prioritize the product first, wanting to do something related to sake, but not necessarily making your own business?
James: Emiko (the other co-founder of Nova Brewing Company) is more of the businesswoman. She wanted to promote Japanese food and drink but didn't exactly know what she wanted to sell. But I knew that I wanted to get into the sake industry. I studied sake and started home brewing it. I realized that there are sake breweries in New York, San Francisco, San Diego, and even Virginia and Pennsylvania, but LA doesn't have a sake brewery. It just didn't make sense to me. I met Emiko, at Sake School of America, where we were both studying to become sake sommeliers. We both wanted to create a place where people can taste different, locally made sake. So I was more focused on what I wanted to make and she wanted to start a business.
Yo!: So as the product guy, would you mind walking me through the process of creating a new product?
James: Good question. It depends on what I'm making. Sake will be mostly inspired by sake that I like from Japan. For example, one of the sakes that I like was called Stella from Japan. And that's the brewery where I actually went to train to make sake and they use the technique of hanging bags in the air to get the sake to drip out. I really liked that technique so that's where the name of my sake, “Gravity,'' comes from. So for sake, I’ll be inspired by Japanese sake and put my own twist on it.
As for beer, I'm a home chef, so I like to cook a lot. I have a stout on tap right now called Hojicha Stout. I came up with this idea because there's a hojicha KitKat flavor in Japan that I like. And then I was like, what goes well with hojicha? Chocolate. And that's why I decided to mix those flavors. So I like to have fun with the beer that I make. They are based on things that I like to eat or drink in my regular daily life. Then I go to the computer and punch in numbers for how much grain to use, how much hops to use, what type of water profile you want, what percent alcohol you want.
Yo!: Obviously, making sake is a very old and traditional process. How do you create a new sake experience? I can imagine it being very difficult to juggle respect for the culture and innovation that makes a product sell.
James: That's a very good question. Some people are used to the old style of sake, but right now in Japan, the younger generation is into light sake, similar to wine, with higher acidity and more sweetness. Companies these days are just throwing in fruit flavoring and carbonation. This might be frowned upon by older sake drinkers in Japan, but selling to younger people is what’s important. I don't do that myself, but I like to draw a nice balance between respecting the history of sake and coming up with a more modern flavor profile to be able to attract the younger generation.
I like to take an old style of sake and present it in a modern way so that it attracts younger people. For example, I have a product called doburoku. Doburoku is a type of sake that's completely unfiltered, so people might have a negative opinion of it. But this style of sake is drinken in the countryside, where they used to just ferment rice in pots and scoop it up to drink because they didn’t know how to purify it. It's a completely different style of sake that is raw and rustic, and is very creamy and chunky; it is not meant to be a well refined style of sake.
We were the first ones to introduce the style of sake to America. And we actually had a lot of fun doing it. We bottled it in a thick, pressurized bottle, so that it blows up when you open it because it's still fermenting in the bottle, producing carbonation like champagne. People really had fun with it. We had stories of people saying they had doburoku all over their kitchen ceiling. We didn't want to get sued, so we stopped selling the bottle, but we still serve it here. And when I open it, you can see the bubbles rising, trying to escape from the bottle. So it's a fun experience to drink sake. I like to respect history and introduce new and modern ways of thinking.
Yo!: How has your Asian American identity influenced any of your decisions?
James: I mean, I grew up with my share of prejudice growing up in LA, so I have a strong opinion about Asian identity and what we faced growing up here, but for me, business is business. The sake industry in general is just not appreciated that much but using rice is our history. It's in our veins, our DNA. Makgeolli is also made from rice. There are a lot of beer breweries and wineries in California, but not very many sake breweries, so not many people understand it yet. But we're trying to work on that. Our job is to get more people to enjoy it. And not only to the Asian community.
I just want people to be more open minded about old Asian drinks. And even though it may not be their favorite thing, because it is part of Asian history and culture, they’re open to trying it.