You can take the boy out of Keonji, Tokyo, but you can’t take Koenji out of the boy.
The “boy” of which I speak is Shinobu Kato, a former IT man for the American automotive industry who is (fingers crossed) about a month away from opening, right here in Bushwick, what will be only the second sake brewery in New York City. His choice of neighborhood makes sense for a couple of reasons: Koenji is Tokyo’s answer to the world’s great “hipster” neighborhoods, places like The Mission District, Silverlake, Shoreditch and, yes, Bushwick. There is also the fact that Bushwick was, at one time, a major center, some say the center, of brewing in America.
While Kato’s nascent brewery – whose inaugural batch of sake waits only for a frustratingly long governmental light to wink from red to green – flies proudly the “craft” flag, the young Shinobu Kato was, once upon a time, just like any other callow young amateur clumsily imbibing the cheapest frog piss he could get his hands on. He drank so much bad sake, in fact, that he swore off the beverage for a goodly portion of his 20s. This honest relationship to sake highlights a central difference between how the tipple is perceived here as opposed to Japan, where it is quotidian as beer.
“I have nothing against [low grade sake],” said the cheerful, bespectacled Kato one afternoon in his tiny space near the intersection of Flushing and Wilson. “It’s like the stuff I used to drink in college in Tokyo, like your King Cobra or whatever. After several horrible, horrible hangovers you eventually move on to something better. But good sake isn’t as accessible here, and when it is, it’s very expensive.”
Kato’s first stateside stop after leaving Japan behind a decade-and-a-half ago was the University of Maryland’s business school. After graduating, he moved to Nashville for an IT job, and it was there, over the course of a ten-year residency in the land of Dolly Parton and Jack Daniels, that he began brewing sake.
“Every time I had a party at my house, I cooked Japanese food,” explained Kato. “But there was no good sake to pair my food with; I didn’t have the budget for the good stuff. So I started brewing my own, right there in my kitchen. Eventually, it got to a point where people were requesting bottles of my sake for different social functions.”
That was six years ago. Since then, his operation, as yet non-commercial, has slowly metastasized to its current dimensions – which are still microscopic by commercial brewing standards. In fact, Shinobu is, as of this article, Kato Sake Work’s only employee. Every sake-making process is done by his own hand. These include steaming, koji mold-inoculation, pressing, filtering and pasteurizing, all of which need close monitoring.
Aside from a rigorous application of centuries-old technique, Shinobu also seems intent on maintaining a healthy distance between both his brand and brewery and the tendency in stateside sake culture towards rarification.
Shinobu’s un-pretentious attitude towards sake, to hear him tell it, comes directly from not only the culture at large, but from his immediate family – in particular, his grandmother, who comes across as a feisty, Maude-like figure none too interested in the fetishistic behavior rampant in high-end drinking culture.
“My grandma drank a lot,” smiled Shinobu. “But we didn’t know it until her funeral! All her friends came and told us how much sake she could drink. She used to go out in the evening, and we figured she was going to neighborhood community meetings, but it turns out she was drinking. And when I finally had the chance to drink with her, she said, ‘Don’t you dare give me sake in a tiny little cup!’”
On my visit, two glasses, generously proportioned in sake terms as per the druthers of his grandmother, were set in front of me; one was filled with nigori, which while unfiltered wasn’t as chalky or sweet as that particular variety can be; and a junmai, a kind of sake that, while filtered, nevertheless retains a bracing earthiness and pairs well with a variety of food. Both were well-balanced and dry, with just enough potency to keep you drinking at a steady but cautious clip. Those two, together with a nama (unpasteurized), will form the backbone of Kato’s sake portfolio, although taproom visitors may occasionally be treated to one-off, season-based brews.
More than just offer Brooklyn-manufactured, authentic sake, Shinobu seems determined to knock the beverage, and wider Japanese culture, off the pedestal it occupies here in the U.S. Because while newly minted sake “sommeliers” at wallet-busting Japanese restaurants here ape the bloviations of their viticultural counterparts, the Japanese themselves don’t necessarily show the same reverence. According to Kato, it’s perfectly acceptable in Japan to get sake drunk on the street – or on a bus or train, for that matter.
“Even the grownups drink like U.S. college kids and puke in the street,” said Kato.
The snacks available at Kato’s tasting counter are offered in a similarly iconoclastic spirit. They include different varieties (from pizza to beef tongue) of humble but insanely addictive umaibo, which translates to “tasty bar.” Also, paper containers of instant Japanese curry are stocked nearby, needing for their consumption only boiling water from an electric kettle.
“Again, it’s me saying ‘Sake is casual,’” said Kato. “You don’t automatically need expensive food to go with it.”
“And remember that in Japan, sake is as casual as beer. You go to an izakaya and they have a nice selection of sake, but you don’t have to know all the terroir, vintage, etcetera,” laughed Kato.
To keep tabs on Kato Sake Works and its as-yet-undetermined opening date (Shinobu is hoping for early January), follow him on Facebook and Instagram. Drop-ins are also welcome. Go to 5 Central Ave., Brooklyn, most weekdays.
Cover image: Owner/brewer Shinobu Kato and his Bushwick sake operation, ready for action pending permits. Courtesy of Shinobu Kato.
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