Swinging Doors — Los Angeles Sake History & Culture

Los Angeles has a long and rich history of alcoholic beverage production and consumption. Wine was introduced by the Spanish as an integral aspect of their mission project. Los Angeles was, in fact, historically the largest wine-producing region in the US. Beer arrived later, its popularity largely dependent on immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe — and transplants from cities where they’d made the beverage popular. In the past decade or so, microbreweries have popped up around the metropolis in numbers never before seen and there are now locally-brewed beers of all kinds (as well as ciders — although perries, sadly, have yet to catch on here). There is also sake breweries and bars; and the sake brewing history is surprisingly long if utterly undocumented. Los Angeles was home to some of the earliest sake brewing, and likely, its largest number of brewers.


WHAT IS SAKE?

When sake was less familiar to non-Japanese Americans, it was usually translated as “rice wine.” Sake is, in fact, a rice beer. There is Japanese rice wine, mirin, although since the Edo period, its mostly been used only in cooking and mirin drinkers are today regarded as desperate and depraved. In Japan, “sake” (or “お酒”) is merely the word for alcohol. Sake drinking is especially popular at weddings and on New Year’s Eve and although I’m fairly certain she never visited Japan, my mother used to pour sake for my siblings and I on that holiday when we were pretty young — which may have something to do with my taste for cheap sake, served warm.

I doubt whether our proximity to the rice belt had anything to do with our underage sake consumption. We lived in Missouri‘s Little Dixie region, which is closer to the Rhineland — Missouri’s wine-producing region — than it is the Bootheel, where much of the nation’s rice is grown. Besides, I don’t think much rice from that region goes into sake production. The same is not true in California, where today rice is grown on about 225,000 hectares of land in and around the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, and where much of that annual two million metric ton yield is Calrose (Oryza sativa O. s. subspecies japonica), a variety used in both sushi making and sake production.


HISTORY

There may’ve been home sake brewing before but the first licensed sake brewery in the US was the Japan Brewing Company, which incorporated in San Francisco on 10 June 1901. It was owned by Hachiro Soejima, who was president of the Japanese Association of America. It was located in Berkeley, in what had previously been the Hofburg Brewery on San Pablo Avenue. The Japan Brewing Company began brewing in 1902.

In 1903, Kinzo Yasuhara arrived in Los Angeles. In 1905, he began brewing sake at a brewery at 219 Jackson Street in Little Tokyo. Soejima and probably Yasuhara used rice grown in Louisiana and Texas as rice wasn’t production wasn’t introduced to California until 1912. By then, the Japan Brewing Company was no more. Yasuhara’s brewery, however, continued to make sake until at least 1917 and maybe until 1919, when Yasuhara switched over to making soy sauce and miso under the brand name, Golden Flowers. The building and its neighbors were all flattened and replaced by parking lot during an expansion of the Civic Center.

It was in 1920 that the US passed a constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition lasted until 1930. In the decade between, the US also passed the Immigration Act of 1924 — also known as “the Japanese Exclusion Act.” As a result, São Paulo overtook Los Angeles as the city with the largest population of Japanese outside of Japan — a distinction which it has retained ever since. Los Angeles remained the capital of Japanese America, however, until Hawaii (and with it, Honolulu) was admitted to the US in 1959.

2444 East 8th Street

AMERICAN SAKE BREWING COMPANY

After the end of Prohibition, there was a boom in breweries — mostly brewing beer but there was at least one sake brewery, American Sake Brewing Company. It opened at 2444 East 8th Street in 1934 in a modest brick factory that today is practically tucked underneath the Golden State Freeway. It was short-lived, though, and in 1935 it was taken over by the Asahi Wine Manufacturing Company, which also brewed sake but which closed before the end of the year — or moved. In 1936, Asahi Wine Manufacturing Company began brewing sake in Seattle, where it remained in operation until 1940.


INTERNMENT

From 19 February 1942 until 20 March 1946, about 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly interred in concentration camps — which meant (among other things) an end to American sake brewing. After internment ended, returning Japanese ignited a mini-boom in speculative sake production. At least three sake breweries opened in the waning years of the 1940s. They perhaps opened too soon. There was still considerable hostility against Japanese Americans in the post-war years. Later sake brewers would benefit, too, from the introduction of Calrose rice in 1948, which would prove suitable for sake production and so popular in South Korea that a blackmarket for it thrived there in the 1970s and ’80s.


LOS ANGELES SAKE BREWING COMPANY, CALIFORNIA SAKE BREWERY COMPANY, CENTRAL SAKE BREWING COMPANY

10706-10708 Burbank

The Los Angeles Sake Brewing Company was somewhat more successful. It began brewing at 716 East 5th Street in 1947. It ended operations in 1949. It’s former site was turned into a parking lot. It was also in 1947 that the John J. DiMarco Brewery, became the California Sake Brewery Company. It also ended operations in 1949. The former location, an innocuous building still stands at 10706-10708 Burbank. The Central Sake Brewing Company opened at 1144 South Central Avenue in 1948. It ended operation in 1950. A small building from 1972 stands there today.

American attitudes toward Japan improved, somewhat, as the crimes of World War II faded into the past. In the 1950s, Japan gave the world Akira Kurosawa and Godzilla, both of which could be seen on exclusively Japanese cinemas in Los Angeles. There were fuel-efficient cars and motorcycles from Honda, Datsun, and Toyota. The 1960s introduced animé from Japan, teenage sansei dance bands, and a Japanese theme park, the Japanese Village and Deer Park, opened in Orange County. In the 1970s, non-Japanese Americans began to discover Japanese cuisine, with Japanese and Japanese American chains like Benihana and Yoshinoya opening their first Los Angeles locations, in the process introducing and popularizing teppanyaki and Japanese fast food for many. The US’s first ramen restaurant, Kouraku, opened in Little Tokyo in 1976 and remains in operation today. With the rise in popularity of Japanese food came a rise in popularity of sake. Global consumption of sake peaked in 1975, with 1.675 million kiloliters drunk globally. One of the big importers of sake was Long Beach resident, Taketsugu “Take” Numano.

Taketsugu “Take” Numano

Numono had arrived in the US in 1963, working as an importer of liquor from Japan as the head of Numano International Inc. As the Japanese economy grew and the value of the yen rose, importing from became more expensive. In 1976, Numano bought Challenge Dairy in Berkeley in a partnership with Curtis M. Rocca. Together they formed Pacific International Rice Mills and began brewing Numano Sake in 1978, with brewmaster Seizaburo Numano overseeing operations. Numano Sake Company was followed by the opening of Ozeki Brewery in San Benito, in 1979. Kyoto‘s Takara Group purchased Numano’s brewery in 1982, which became Takara Sake USA Incorporated and introduced Sho Chiku Bai.

Takara Sake USA introduced the now ubiquitous sake to Southern California at an event that took place in the New Otani in April 1983. Takara later opened an office in Torrance. Americans were consuming almost 4 million liters of sake annually — nearly half of the sake consumed outside of Japan. At the same time, though, Japan — with a population around half the size of the US’s — managed to consume 1.5 billion liters of sake in that same year. By 1985, American sake was outselling imported sake in California with San Francisco then the biggest consumer in California followed by Los Angeles. Today, the San Francisco Bay Area is home to one sake brewery in San Francisco — Sequoia Sake — and in one in OaklandDen Sake.

With the money that he made selling Numano Sake to Takara, Numano formed, with investment from Yaegaki Corporation USA, the American Pacific Rim Company which began brewing at the California Ki-Ippon Brewery in Vernon. Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Company opened a facility in Torrance in 1988 (although no sake is apparently brewed there). Meanwhile, the US’s oldest sake brewery, Honolulu Sake & Ice Cream Company, closed in 1989, three years after it was taken over by Takara. Outside Southern California, three more sake breweries opened in relatively quick succession, Hakusan Sake Brewery in Napa, Geikkeikan Sake Company in Folsom, and Hakushika in Golden, Colorado.

As sake has become more mainstream in the US, sake has increasingly moved away from macrobreweries and J-Town nightclubs and into upscale taprooms and craft sake bars that are more often than not, in recent years, operated by non-Japanese restaurateurs, located outside Japanese enclaves, and promoted on social media sites. Sake House Miro opened in 2002 in the Miracle Mile. Japan’s Baird Brewing Company opened the Harajuku Tap Room in Culver City in 2009. Kevin and Kayla Koo opened the first location of Sake House by Hikari around 2010 in Santa Monica. In 2010, the Sake School of America – 日本酒スクール opened its doors on the border of Little Tokyo and the Arts District. The school serves both sake professionals and enthusiasts. Its curriculum includes not just sake but also shōchū and other Japanese liquors.

In 2018, Don Tahara, Enrique Ramirez, and Mike Gin opened Sake Dojo in Little Tokyo. Also in 2018, James Jin and Emiko Tanabe started a website and Instagram account called Sake Underground. In December 2019, they began brewing sake at their Nova Brewing Company, in Covina, which also has a taproom. Courtney Kaplan and Charles Namba opened OTOTO in 2019 at the edge of Angeleno Heights. Also in 2019, Troy Nakamatsu and Jon Rugg co-founded Sawtelle Sake, a craft sake brewery near Little Osaka. They brewed their first sake in late 2020. In 2020, Gozen Sake Bistro opened in West Hollywood with a pricey omakase menu and focus on craft sake. Other places with sake bars include Kensho, Ki Sushi and Sake Bar, Kiyo Sushi & Sake, Miss Shabu Restaurant & Sake Bar, Nonstop Sushi & Sake Bar, Oops! Sushi & Sake Bar, Red Sake Sushi Bar, and Sake 2 Me Sushi.


SOURCES

“Men From the Mikado’s Realm to Start Business in the College Town” (The San Francisco Call, 1901)

“A History of Sake Brewing in the U.S.” (The Passionate Foodie, 2019)


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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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