The oldest sake factory in the United States and the oldest full-scale commercial brewery in San Benito County have made local history with their first collaboration. The owners of Brewery Twenty Five, Fran and Sean Fitzharris, have been working with Ozeki Sake production director Yoji Ogawa and production manager Ken Horie to produce Cozy Brew (4% ABV), a refreshing Japanese-style rice lager.
“Connecting the two cultures is a big thing for me,” Sean said. “We have a shared understanding and a love for fermentation, although we ferment products differently. I think we really learned from each other and we were very inquisitive of each other, asking questions about our different processes.”
The idea of collaborating had been in the works for a couple of years and was spurred on by a tour the Fitzharrises took of the Oseki Sake Factory in Hollister, which was founded in 1979.
“It was really cool to have the experience of that tour,” Sean said. “That a sake factory even exists in Hollister is a huge thing that not a lot of people know about. It has been a very humbling experience to work with them because they’re very well-known in the sake world.”
Ogawa came up with the name Cozy Brew, which is a play on koji- a type of processed rice used in the making of sake. During the early stages of production, rice is polished to remove at least 30% of rice’s outer layer, which reduces bitterness in the final product. The polished rice is soaked and steamed, then infused with mold and placed in a sauna-like room. Churned several times a day with a large paddle, the rice puffs up into popcorn-like clumps as it becomes infected by the mold.
“I wanted to work with them for a long time,” Ogawa said, “and I wanted to use koji rice, but koji is pure white and has a pure taste. So I thought if we roasted it, it would be good for making beer.”
Working in small batches, Horie hand-roasted dried koji rice until it was a light golden brown.
“Each batch took 40 or 50 minutes in the pan,” Horie said. “I would look at the color and look at how it smells and tastes until it was right. It took about three days to roast all of it.”
The process gives the rice clumps a pleasant nutty and slightly caramel taste that, with the addition of a bit of salt, could be a great snack food.
Sean worked out the proportions of rice to other ingredients, settling on 200 pounds of pilsner malt to 100 pounds of koji rice.
“With rice, you have to be careful about how much you use,” Sean said. “If you use too much, it can become a problem when you run it off into the kettle—it can become too sticky for the liquid to get through it. We decided to go with about 33% and see what kind of flavor we got from it.”
Sean also decided to use Sorachi Ace hops, developed in Japan for Sapporo, which lends lemon and herb notes.
“We brewed like we normally brew, with that little bit of hop addition,” Sean said. “We chose Sorachi Ace because we wanted to kind of keep to the Japanese theme. Since it is a lager, we didn’t really want it to be a bitter beer, but we did want to have a little bit of hop backbone.”
The resulting beer is very clean and very refreshing. The caramel flavor profile of the koji carries nicely into the aroma and flavor of the beer, giving it an initial sweetness that gives way to a moment of light bitterness that almost immediately fades away to a smooth finish. It is a very nicely rounded, light beer—Horie described it as a dangerous beer because it is so easy to drink.
People already familiar with sake will be able to pick up hints of brewed rice dryness in the texture and flavor that swirl through the beer. But there is also an earthy herbal quality that comes from the hops that ground the beer and give it a nice balance.
Obviously happy with the finished product, the brewers and sake makers are planning another collaboration soon.
“It’s been really great working with Yoji and Ken and the whole team at Oseki,” Sean said. “We’ll talk about what characteristics we’re looking for and then design a beer around that, possibly an IPA. But we are definitely going to do something else together.”
Cozy Brew is available at the following locations:
On draft and in 16 oz cans:
- Inaka Japanese Restaurant in San Juan Bautista
On draft only:
- Bear’s Hideaway in San Juan Bautista
- 18th Barrel in San Juan Bautista
- Mad Pursuit in Hollister
In 16 oz. cans only:
- Windmill Market in San Juan Bautista
- Crave Wine Co. in Hollister
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BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Hollister Super and Windmill Market, for helping to expand the Eat, Drink, Savor series and give our readers the stories that interest them. Hollister Super (two stores in Hollister) and Windmill Market (in San Juan Bautista) support reporting on the inspired and creative people behind the many delicious food and drink products made in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.