The first step was making sake at home, said Mr. Polen, and “it was better than we expected it to be,” especially the sakes made by Mr. Doughan. He had both a rigorous science background and 20 years of home-brewing experience, including experimentation with soy sauce, which is also made with a type of koji.
Mr. Doughan moved to Brooklyn in 2016, and last September they started outfitting their soaring space in the Industry City warehouse complex in Sunset Park. (Kura refers to a warehouse where products like sake are traditionally made.) Their fellow tenants now share the roasted-chestnut-and-mushroom perfume of Aspergillus oryzae, or koji, growing on steamed, polished rice.
Though it has the alcohol content of wine, sake is brewed more like a beer: Rice implanted with koji mold is slowly mixed with yeast, water and more steamed rice, then fermented for several weeks. It’s usually pressed to remove most but not all of the solids, after which it can be aged or filtered further.
The heart of the monthlong process is culturing the koji, Mr. Doughan said. It’s a multiday, labor-intensive undertaking that begins when he shakes flakes of mold over mini-mountains of washed and steamed rice grown specifically for sake-making.
Mr. Doughan and Mr. Polen plan to start with more traditional sake styles — still new to most Americans — using their taproom to highlight how they’re made. There, they serve shiboritate, or freshly pressed sake, and orizake, a pre-pressed sake still cloudy and creamy with microscopic particles of rice. They even let customers buy a clay mug of moromi, a thick, tart drink with still-discernible grains straight from the fermenting tank. (Mr. Doughan eventually plans to also make more experimental styles, he said, citing the dry-hopped sake made by Setting Sun Sake Brewing Co. in San Diego.)
John Gauntner, the Tokyo sake educator who is considered one of the foremost English-language experts on the drink, appreciates their initial focus on the basics. Brooklyn Kura’s sake was “very, very good,” he wrote in an email, but he was “most impressed that the brewer there wants to get his process down first, reproducibility, and then work on tweaking it to make it better.”
Though Mr. Polen attended Mr. Gauntner’s sommelier seminars, Mr. Doughan is mainly self-taught, with previously unavailable help from YouTube videos and WhatsApp discussions with Japanese brewers. He also served a weeklong internship at a traditional brewery in Japan, and a short stint at the 21-year-old SakeOne brewery in Oregon.
Other brewers around the country have been following their own paths, and Brooklyn Kura likely won’t be the sole sake maker here for long. A company called SakeBrooklyn is working to find a space by the beginning of next year, and the Japanese producer Asahi Shuzo will soon break ground on a large-scale brewery in Hyde Park, N.Y. near the Culinary Institute of America, which will work with them to develop a sake education program.
It’s all evidence of the drink’s growing presence in the United States, said Timothy Sullivan, a sake educator and a founder of the new American Sake Association. The group will officially incorporate later this year with the aim of linking brewers, buyers, sommeliers and others in the industry.
Stronger connections are good news for Mr. Doughan. “The first thing I learned about sake brewing,” he said, “is I’ll be learning about it for the rest of my life.”
Brooklyn Kura, 68 34th Street (Third Avenue), Sunset Park, Brooklyn; 347-766-1601; brooklynkura.com.
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