With more than 100 microbreweries in the region, there's no doubt San Diego has embraced craft beer. Now two breweries are banking on sake as the next progression for artisan alcohol.
Kuracali Sake & Beer Brewery opened in San Marcos nearly a year ago, and Setting Sun Sake Brewing Co. is set to open in Miramar in April. Both specialize in the Japanese drink, which also is known as rice wine.
Though the state classifies sake as wine, it's made from a grain and brewed, like beer. (Federal regulators categorize it like beer.)
Kuracali proprietor Chuck Perkins said he believes there is a niche for craft versions of the drink, given the region's enthusiastic support of craft beers.
"Craft beer drinkers are explorers," said Perkins, the brewer and self-described "mad scientist" behind the sake bar, which is tucked away in an industrial park in the west side of the city.
A computer network engineer by day, Perkins has been home-brewing beer for about 15 years and expanded into sake five years ago. Three years ago, he leased the 1,200-square-foot suite on Bosstick Street and started chasing state and federal permits. Last January, he rolled up the doors and started serving beer. Three months later, he added sake to the menu.
Kuracali's tasting rooms - one for beer and another for sake - are tiny, perhaps a dozen seats in all. Perkins brews a 10-gallon batch of sake every two weeks but plans to increase his batch sizes to 100 gallons next month.
He doesn't advertise but says "social media has been good to me." Yelp reviewers have been fans, giving the place 4.5 our of 5 stars. One called the sake "hands down the best." Another called it "the best sake you've ever had."
"I could hug them all," Perkins said of the reviewers, who he said were strangers who stopped by just to give his sake a try.
Kuracali's name is a mashup: Perkins said "kura" is a Japanese term for a sake brewery, "cali" is short for California.
The brewery is listed on Hops Highway, the marketing moniker for the roughly three dozen craft breweries and brew pubs along state Route 78. The region's still-young craft brewing industry pours about $185 million into North County's economy, according to a report commissioned last year by the San Diego North Economic Development Council.
Other brewers are also dipping into the sake business. After three years of prep work, Setting Sun Sake owners Josh Hembree and Keldon Premuda hope to begin brewing in February and start serving sake in April at their pub on Miralani Drive in Miramar.
"We are chomping at the bit trying to get open because of the demand," Premuda said this week, adding he thinks craft beer customers will welcome sake. "There's almost like a renaissance of restaurants and craft culture."
Premuda said that one of the biggest challenges with introducing sake to people is "trying to explain the simple fact that sake is a brew. The common misconception is that it is distilled."
Sake recipes are often guarded secrets. Premuda called the systematic, mathematical steps that go into creating the drink a "sacred geometry."
Both men have a few years of employment in the microbrewery industry on their resume. Hembree, the brew guru who makes Setting Sun's sake, said he is "a beer fanatic" but "wanted to shake it up" by offering something new.
"We are reaching an over-stimulation point with craft beer," Hembree said. "I think sake could find a home here.
"Also, I am really just doing it because I want to do it," he said. "If three people like it, then I have won. I'm not in it for the ... money. I'm in it for the art."