When you arrive at the locked gate outside an industrial complex along West San Bernardino in Covina, you may get the sense that you’re the wrong place — until you see a sign with a phone number for Nova Brewing Co. The building, flanked by auto repair shops and a storage facility, is home to a small tasting room, located toward the end of the complex, where you will find people drinking beer and fresh sake in a barebones space that opens to a back alley with wooden benches and barrels. The sake, which Nova brews on-site, is some of the first produced in Los Angeles in more than 70 years.
In the past decade, the popularity and reputation of sake in the United States has markedly increased. Once known mostly by way of inexpensive hot sake and dive-friendly sake bombs, it is finally gaining recognition as a craft beverage with a cultural tradition that deserves as much attention and reverence as wine. Despite the fact that Los Angeles has the second-largest Japanese population in the U.S. and that the number of sake breweries — spread across states like Oregon and Maine — has grown from five in 2000 to more than 20 today, Los Angeles did not have a sake brewery to call its own until Nova opened in 2020.
But Nova isn’t just here to brew sake the way they do in Japan; instead, its owners are on a mission to brew something that reflects California’s drink culture. Nova’s founders, Emiko Tanabe and James Jin, met at the Sake School of America in Downtown LA while studying for their sake sommelier certifications. Their passion for the beverage initially led them to document their adventures tasting sake and visiting breweries around the world with a website and Instagram account called Sake Underground. But eventually, Tanabe and Jin decided that Los Angeles could use its own sake brewery and that they could be the ones to open it.
The duo landed in Covina as the result of both cumbersome government regulations and space availability. Sake regulation in the United States is complicated; a sake brewery requires both beer brewing and winemaking licenses. On the production side, the process resembles beer brewing, but sake is taxed like wine due to its alcohol content. So while a brewery license alone would allow Nova to make sake, they’d need a winery license to sell it. Originally, Emiko wanted to find a location with existing licenses instead of starting from scratch, but finding a place that had both proved difficult. In December 2019, the opportunity came to take over the REV Brewing Company facility, a small operation that at the time already had both a brewery and wine license. For the first few months, Nova kept the doors open, retaining REV’s head brewer and continuing to serve the same beers under the REV name. In the meantime, Jin prepared for Nova’s approach into craft sake brewing.
Nova’s main goal was always to make sake, but unlike in Japan where brewing equipment is readily available, sake brewers in the U.S. have to adapt with beer equipment. There was no large-scale rice steamer they could easily buy in the U.S., and since sake ferments at a lower temperature than beer, Jin had to figure out a solution. In this case, he ran the fermentation tanks inside a walk-in fridge. Adapting the space for sake production took a few months longer than anticipated. In the meantime, he decided to play around with brewing a unique line of beer using sake yeast.
In June 2020, Nova released the Ginjo 7 white label beer, brewed with steamed rice and sake yeast #7, one of the two most popular strains for sake brewing. “I noticed that in terms of the yeast flavor profile, it’s similar to the German or Belgian ale yeast [which] tend to be on the fruity side as well,” says Jin. Since sake yeast thrives in a lower temperature and higher alcoholic environment than beer yeast, they were able to produce quite a range of beers, from stouts to Belgian ales, which, despite the higher ABV, taste lighter and brighter than the usual Imperial Stout or Belgian brown ales. Finally, in August 2020, Nova released its first sake, called Gravity.
At its core, sake brewing involves four key ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and koji — a mold or spore that grows on steamed rice. The rice is typically polished, removing the fat and protein near the surface and retaining the starchy interior. The amount of polishing on the rice depends on the type of sake being made. The rice is then steamed and mixed with koji, which helps break down the starch to sugar. Yeast starter is then made using koji, rice, water, and yeast. Instead of fermenting the entire mixture at once, sake is made by adding smaller amounts of the ingredients over time. This allows the yeast to ferment more and achieve a higher alcohol concentration. After fermentation, brewers separate the liquid by either letting the liquid drip from a cloth bag, using a traditional box-press, or employing a modern machine.
Nova’s sakes are made completely from California-grown Calrose rice, and even the koji is made from local rice. Jin’s decision to use Calrose rice was a philosophical one. Calrose was developed in California and is one of the best-known rice varieties grown in the state. Unlike the short-grain Yamada Nishiki variety, which is most commonly used for sake in Japan, Calrose is a medium-grain rice. “What I always think about when I’m making sake is, ‘Why am I doing this in California?’ It’s so much harder to make sake here than in Japan because the water is completely different, the rice is different,” Jin says. “It’d be easy for us to import Japanese sake rice, but if we start doing that, then we lose our identity as a California sake brewery. If we get everything from Japan, what is the point of being here?”
For Jin, it’s not about importing the best rice, but learning about and utilizing California’s rice variety. For example, Calrose rice absorbs water much more slowly than Yamada Nishiki does, perhaps due to the drier environment it grows in. He also found that Calrose rice produces sake that has more body but doesn’t taste as fruity as sake made with Yamada Nishiki rice.
The brewery’s first sake, Gravity, gets its name from their filtering process, which is a drip method that uses gravity to separate the liquid (called shizuku in Japanese). The yield is low, but it extracts out only the best parts of the sake. “Depending on how you press sake, the flavor changes drastically,” says Jin. The sake filtered by the drip method tends to taste the most fresh and aromatic. By contrast, aggressively pressing sake using a machine can introduce unwanted flavors from the lees (the rice and yeast sediment).
Nova’s latest release, called Eclipse, is sake made using both yellow koji and black koji. Yellow and black koji are actually two different species of fungus from the same genus that have been cultured and used to make different alcoholic beverages in Japan. Sake is typically made using yellow koji, while black koji is used for awamori, a higher-alcohol distillate indigenous to Okinawa. The black koji allows Nova to extract higher levels of acidity, which, upon first sip, brings to mind a white wine with its overall acidity and drier profile. “Part of our mission is to get people who have no interest in sake to try it and fall in love with it,” says Jin. He was trying to mimic a white wine with the lighter-bodied Eclipse, just like the Ginjo 7 beer was made to entice craft beer drinkers to be more interested in sake.
In its taproom, which reopened this year on March 20, Nova offers a flight where customers can mix and match sake, beer, and even wines produced by a vineyard in Lodi. It gets people in the door, and some imbibers elect to order sake. In the beginning, people were ordering just beer, but lately that ratio has shifted dramatically, with more and more people drinking sake. Currently, sake and beer sales are about equal. By focusing locally, Nova is also able to offer unpasteurized sake, or namazake, which trades off a longer shelf life with a fresher taste.
LA’s sake scene is starting to bloom, with Nova’s brewery joining a handful of other producers in the state, mostly in Northern California. Sawtelle Sake, which is made in Los Angeles and uses California-grown Yamada Nishiki rice, also released its first sake in late 2020. The growing local brewing scene means Californians will have more access to freshly brewed sake. But Jin and Tanabe’s goal extends beyond serving fresh, unpasteurized sake: Nova wants to showcase a breadth of sake brewing. Its lineup also includes an unfiltered traditional farmer’s homebrew called doburoku, which is even creamier and sweeter than nigori, with chunks of rice remaining from the fermentation mixture.
Nova also plans to make seasonal releases using California produce. For Christmas, it released one called hatsukoi, made with California strawberries, as an ode to the tradition in Japan of eating strawberry shortcakes for the holiday. The hatsukoi was a lightly carbonated nigori with strong strawberry notes, and was very well received. Ultimately, Jin and Tanabe are still trying to define what it means to be California sake brewers. “We’re trying to grow the California sake industry, and to do that we have to use California ingredients,” Jin says.
Other than Nova Brewing’s own taproom and online shop, you can find its sake and beer for sale at Blackbeard’s Craft, or at select restaurants including Killer Noodle in Sawtelle and Tonchinkan in Arcadia, depending on availability.