MEDFIELD — A long time ago in a land far, far away, humans discovered that a beautifully nuanced alcoholic beverage could be made from fermented rice. Japanese sake has been in existence at least since the 3rd century CE, when we find the first written record of it, according to Brittanica.
In May 2022, right here in Massachusetts, Farthest Star Sake opened its doors to the public. The sci-fi-themed brewery and taproom is filled with gleaming steel tanks, conveyor belts, machinery for bottling. These are the tools and apparatuses of modern-day sake making. But the essential process remains the same.
“I’m a huge sci-fi nerd,” says owner Todd Bellomy, who previously was the brewer at Waltham’s now-closed Dovetail Sake. “All of my favorite science fiction is futuristic but ancient at the same time: It was a long time ago, but they had spaceships! Sake is in the same place. It’s an ancient beverage, but it’s the next thing on the horizon, as far as I’m concerned.”
He’s not alone in this belief. While sake still constitutes just a sliver of overall alcohol sales in the United States, its presence in this country is growing. A report by research group the Insight Partners predicts that the global sake market, valued at more than $9 billion in 2019, will reach $13 billion by 2027. Sake consumption in Japan has been dropping for decades; an increase in exports is what’s driving the growth, with the United States leading the way. That interest is reflected on the local food scene, with restaurants including Cafe Sushi, Momi Nonmi, and O Ya deepening their sake programs and educating consumers about the beverage. Earlier this year, Boston’s first bar dedicated to sake opened — the Koji Club, located in Brighton.
Farthest Star Sake is among a handful of breweries at the forefront of a domestic industry — also small, also burgeoning. The Sake Brewers Association of North America, itself only founded in 2019, represents most of the domestic sake producers. “We recognize this is a developing industry,” says president Weston Konishi. “Most of our brewers have been in operations for, I’d say, less than five years. But we’re growing, and there are brewers all across the United States. We have members all the way from Hawaii to New Orleans, and we represent Mexican and Canadian brewers as well. There are roughly 20 sake breweries in North America. Farthest Star is one of the newer ones to come online. We’re really excited about that.”
At Farthest Star Sake, Bellomy and employee Daniel Moon started brewing in late March, opening the taproom over Memorial Day weekend. The total space is 6,000 square feet, with 4,500 of that devoted to the brewery. Visitors can see the operations from the taproom, starting with a view into the koji room, an enclosure sided with recycled refrigeration panels. This is where rice gets inoculated with koji, a.k.a. Aspergillus oryzae, the mold that helps convert the grains’ starch into sugar for fermentation.
“Koji’s a little mysterious,” Bellomy says. “We put a giant double-pane window in so people can see.” Along the walls of the koji room are handsome wood tables built to order, featuring movable dividers and mesh bottoms. They also function as scales. Once rice has been washed, soaked, steamed, and cooled a bit, it is transferred to these tables, which have been lined with cloth. There it gets inoculated with koji spores, beginning a two-day process of monitoring, mixing, and managing heat and moisture.
“The first day is real easy. I can go home and get a good night’s sleep,” Bellomy says. “The second day is basically 24 hours straight. I’ve got a cot and sleeping bag here, and I’ll sleep for an hour or 90 minutes, then get up, mix the koji, and slough off the moisture.” As the mold grows, it creates heat; if it gets too hot, the temperature will kill the koji. The room is outfitted with fans that come on automatically when needed.
Eventually, the koji-inoculated rice is combined with additional steamed rice, water, and yeast; fermented; and pressed in a machine that looks like a giant mechanized accordion. “When you brew it, you’re breaking down rice and fermenting at same time, so all the stuff is still in there. You have to press it out,” Bellomy explains. Right now, Farthest Star Sake is making sake in 500-liter tanks, but the plan is to grow the business quickly. Bellomy and Moon recently began experimenting with the bottling line, and the process is running more smoothly than they expected. They plan to offer single-serve 7-ounce bottles for consumers and kegs for restaurants. Bellomy hopes to start making sake in larger, 2,000-liter tanks sometime in July. “Each one will make 300 cases of sake,” he says. “We’re gonna go big or go home.”
Bellomy got interested in sake while living in Japan. He had studied Japanese and linguistics at UMass-Amherst, but “it was the typical American thing where I couldn’t work hard enough to pay for school and do school at same time,” he says. So he dropped out, quit his job, and went to live in the Kanto region — Saitama, Shizuoka, Tokyo — for four years. When he returned, he got his degree, then a desk job working for Boston Beer Company. “It was the only corporate job I’ve ever had,” he says. He learned a lot, but he wanted to create something of his own. He started home-brewing sake using Japanese textbooks; he’d use his vacation time to go to Japan and work at sake breweries. When Dovetail, Massachusetts’s first sake brewery, opened, he became the brewer.
That experience offered proof of concept for Farthest Star Sake. “We had 100 accounts. I knew people wanted local sake and it would sell. Dovetail was the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “Massachusetts has about 1,400 Asian restaurants that have liquor licenses, and we’re their only local sake option. That’s the low-hanging fruit.” Bellomy hopes sake — which pairs beautifully with all kinds of food — will find a broader audience. To that end, Farthest Star features occasional pop-ups, serving everything from Indian food to doughnuts. (It also has a vending machine stocked with Japanese snacks.)
“I’m looking for a taco pop-up, a fried chicken sandwich popup. We want to have everybody in here. We want to challenge everyone’s notions about sake,” Bellomy says. “I’ve lost track of how many people come in here and are like, ‘I’ve never had sake before.’ People just don’t know what sake is.”
At Farthest Star, it is delicious, perfectly fresh, and bursting with flavor. The brewery makes traditional, unpasteurized namazake. A version called X-1 is filtered, relatively clear, with notes of fruit and spice. X-2 is cloudy and sweeter. Bellomy also experiments with flavored sake, changing varieties up frequently. I taste the Cherry 2000, flavored with tart and black cherries, and a maple sake called Monsters Are Due. Bellomy pours a bit in a coffee cup and warms it in the microwave for me. I finally understand the doughnut pop-up. I’m also suddenly craving pancakes. These flavored versions are smart, a good entryway for novice consumers. They also still taste like sake. “We don’t want it to be a focus. Sake is our focus. I don’t want the flavors to overtake that,” Bellomy says.
James Mark, chef-owner of sake-centric restaurant Big King in Providence, likens this moment in domestic sake to craft beer in its early days. (Big King is closing July 2, with Mark moving into a job in the sake industry.) Before America went crazy for craft beer, there were beer bars that brought over expensive stuff from far away. “It was delicious, but it was expensive. When breweries started popping up in every state, suddenly high-quality, fresh beer became much more approachable and affordable,” he says. One of imported sake’s main barriers is cost, which is rising. “The high-quality stuff needs to be shipped refrigerated. It costs like $45,000 to ship a 40-foot container. It was $10,000 five years ago. Wholesale, it costs $3 more a bottle. With that limitation, I think there’s always going to be a hard cap on how far sake can spread for the average consumer, because of the financial barrier.”
Domestic production is one answer to that part of the equation, at least. Japanese breweries have long had a presence in California, but they are beginning to invest in the United States in other ways. Last year, Niigata’s Hakkaisan Brewery and New York brewer Brooklyn Kura announced a partnership. Asahi Shuzo, which makes Dassai sake, is constructing a brewery in Hyde Park, N.Y., right near the Culinary Institute of America. Like Farthest Star Sake, it will use rice from Isbell Farms in Arkansas, one of two US outfits (the other is in California) that grows grains used for making sake.
Almost 100 years old, Isbell Farms began growing the Yamada Nishiki variety as an experiment. “It didn’t look like it was going to be much fun to grow. It was really tall and fell over,” says co-owner Chris Isbell with a laugh. A few years later, around 2007, he got a call from Japanese-owned Takara, the biggest brewery in the United States. Could he try growing it for them? From there, it took off. Blake Richardson, of Minneapolis sake brewpub Moto-I, came to visit. He had the special kind of mill used for sake rice. Isbell Farms starting sending rice to his Minnesota Rice and Milling, which would then send the rice out to craft brewers. “The craft sake brewers are growing like the craft beer brewers were growing a few years ago. They keep popping up and popping up, so we’re supplying them with the rice,” Isbell says. Isbell Farms has the land and the seed to do it; they’ll stop growing some of their long-grain rice to make more room for sake rice. There’s also a possible Arkansas mill in the works, in partnership with Richardson. It just makes sense. “We are able to meet demand, but we’re having an increase. It’s not a huge market, but it has a lot of potential.”
In Medfield, Farthest Star Sake is betting on that. “People want local, fresh sake,” Bellomy says. “We’ve proven that. So now it’s time to give it to them.”
120 N. Meadows Road, Medfield, www.fartheststarsake.com
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.