Sequoia Sake has crossed continents, cultures, and generations in pursuit of making the tastiest, freshest, most interesting sake in the Bay Area.
Launched by husband-and-wife team Jake Myrick and Noriko Kamei, who met while living in Japan, Sequoia Sake is San Francisco’s first and only micro-sake brewery. In a short span of seven years, Myrick and Kamei have made an indelible mark on the sector by dedicating themselves to the labor-intensive craft of producing natural fresh sake, sourced from local ingredients and grounded in ancient Japanese techniques.
Myrick and Kamei have steadily expanded their offerings over the years, from two styles (nama and genshu) to more than 12 (including special styles just for club members) in 2021, including two products developed by their daughter Olivia.
“When we set up shop in 2014, there were 11 North American micro sake breweries,” said Myrick. “As of March 2021, there are over 31, not counting the four big producers, like Takara in Berkeley.”
This growth is most likely due to the increasing popularity of craft brewing and the growth of organic, natural beverages and wines in the US. Sequoia specializes in handcrafting unpasteurized and lightly pasteurized sake that is made from only four ingredients: water from Hetch Hetchy, rice from the Sacramento Valley, koji (a fungus like a mushroom that grows in the rice kernal), and yeast.
American-born Myrick and Japan-born Kamei were inspired to begin this labor of love in 2011, when they moved back to San Francisco after spending a decade in Japan. When they returned, they were disappointed that they couldn’t find namazake (raw) sake, which needs to be kept cold, making it more difficult to distribute than pasteurized sake.
Leveraging their savings from careers in the IT sector, the couple decided to fill the gap in the marketplace themselves. Neither had training in sake production, but having started 10 companies, Myrick knew how to get a business off the ground. He also knew a lot about sake.
“My IT job allowed me to visit almost every major city in Japan,” said Myrick. “In each city, I would visit the local sake breweries. By 2009, I had visited over 200 and got to know several of them fairly well.”
The relationships he built during those years came in handy when starting Sequoia. Myrick and Kamei leaned on friends to help set up trainings in sake brewing in both Japan and San Francisco. One friend, Warren Pfahl, became the third founder of the business, spearheading the task of building the brewery infrastructure.
“In Japan, it takes an average of 20 years to get fully trained before you are allowed to take the license exam to produce sake,” said Myrick. “So, we split the duties among the three of us. Noriko focused on the koji-making process. I focused on the fermentation and business side of the business. And because there is no sake equipment industry here in America—and much of it is specialized—Warren had to learn how to fabricate almost all of it. He built everything from fermentation tanks to stirring poles.”
The small but mighty team secured a location in the Bayview neighborhood for their brewery and produced their first batch of sake in 2014. They started with namakaze, or “nama”-style sake, which must be kept cold at 45 degrees. It soon became a hit in the Bay Area and remains their most popular product in the region.
In 2016, they decided to expand distribution to Los Angeles, which meant they needed to produce a shelf-stable sake.
“The biggest markets for sake in North America are New York City, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area,” said Myrick. “To service the LA market, we developed the Coastal brand, which can be shipped at room temperature. It is bottle-pasteurized, which is a more gentle process than the twice-pasteurized process used for 99% of sake distributed in North America. The bottle-pasteurization process takes the flavor off the top and bottom and condenses it into the center, making a softer yet more complex sake. Nama or unpasteurized sake is a bigger bolder sake flavor.”
Myrick and Kamei continue to experiment with new styles of sake to add to their product line. They’ve also received assistance from their 24-year-old daughter, Olivia, who helped her parents with the business throughout high school and subsequently studied food chemistry and food fermentation in college. After her first year, she decided to go to Japan to learn more about producing sake.
“We asked a good friend of ours in Japan to help Olivia get an internship at a sake brewery,” said Myrick. “She was fortunate enough to work at two of the top breweries in Japan for two years. Upon coming back to San Francisco she went back to college locally, so we asked her to help out occasionally. Then one day she announced that she wanted to make her own sake.”
Olivia started by creating a Halloween-themed sake for friends called “Bad Cat Good Sake.” Myrick made it available to Sequoia Club members, and the first batch quickly sold out. Olivia made a second, larger batch in 2020, and it sold out in just two days.
Success in hand, Olivia created a second label in 2020, named “Hazy Delight.” An homage to her hometown of San Francisco, it is slightly cloudy (or foggy) and has a label designed by her dad that evokes Haight-Ashbury hippiedom. She continues to develop new sake styles and helps out with the business, including creating educational YouTube videos.
More new styles of Sequoia sake are on the horizon as this family of brewers begins using a rice varietal, called Caloro/Sequoia, that they spent seven years developing with UC Davis.
“With the Caloro/Sequoia sake rice we are given another ingredient than what’s in the commonly used Calrose rice,” said Myrick. “Why would anyone spend seven years of time, money, and government red tape to develop a new rice? It could be compared to asking a winery to make all their wine from just one variety of grape. That is the simple answer. The more complex answer is the two rice grains themselves are very different, and this has a big impact on the flavors and quality of sake we can produce.”
Myrick and Kamei are looking forward to pandemic restrictions being lifted so they can welcome people back to their brewery and continue sharing their love of sake. Over the years they have trained 3,000 restaurant workers and offered tastings to thousands of customers, including 500 virtual tasting tours in the past 12 months.
“Being able to see, smell, and taste the process of making sake is really the best way to love it,” said Myrick. “We miss seeing our customers’ faces light up when they taste our sake. Sake—to both of us—is a love and passion, and we hope that by making it as accessible as possible others will gain a better understanding about sake and learn to love as we do.”