For The Saké Of It

How Byron Stithem turned his home-brewed passion project into your new favorite drink

I turn the corner onto Ewing Avenue and pull up to Proper Saké Co. headquarters, a nondescript one-story building just south of downtown in an area rife with scaffolding and the sounds of construction in the distance. Inside Nashville’s first craft saké brewery, though, it’s quiet—almost tranquil—and founder Byron Stithem greets me at the front door.

“Nashville’s been the most welcoming place I could imagine, and especially Nashville now,” he says as we settle onto sofas in the back of the warehouse space, which also houses Carter Creek Microgreens. “It’s leaps and bounds beyond when I moved here in 2003. It’s really cool to see how it’s grown, and it’s really cool to be a part of that too.”

Stithem, who is wearing a Kansas City Royals baseball cap, moved to Nashville from Kansas to go to Belmont University, where he studied music business. He spent a few years tour managing and worked in restaurants to pay the bills while he was home. “At some point, after the first couple years of being on the road so often and not making any money and just getting beat up, you know, you just kind of realize, like, ‘Oh, my passion is not music business in any capacity ever,’” he says, laughing. “It was actually food all this time.”

Stithem’s interest in food—especially fermentation science—led him to New York, where he worked at Brooklyn craft cocktail bar Clover Club. He started in the kitchen but soon moved on to bartending and coming up with new tinctures and bitters to use in drinks. He also began experimenting with home brewing and making his own saké and koji (a kind of fungus used to make saké), miso, soy sauce, and other products.

After moving back to Nashville to raise his now-six-year-old son, he helped open Husk and worked with Dinner Lab. When the latter closed down last year, he decided it was time for a new project and toyed with the idea of opening his own saké brewery. He reached out to his friend and mentor Jason Crockarell, who owns Flavor Catering, to run the idea by him. He was all for it and offered Stithem the space in which Proper Saké Co. now operates. Within a week, Stithem started filing permits.

Nearly a year and a half later, Stithem, thirty-two, now sells to retailers like Woodland Wine Merchant and Craft Brewed, as well as restaurants and bars like Bastion, Sinema, and Lockeland Table. “Those are the types of restaurants who have been the most receptive right off the bat. Obviously they don’t do Japanese food, but it’s also a really good indicator of where the Western market is moving toward accepting saké as just another beverage that you drink just because it’s a Thursday, not because you went to get sushi, you know?”

Much of the saké found in Japanese restaurants in the United States is made with distilled alcohol and has a lighter, less distinct flavor than the kind Proper Saké Co. brews, which consists of just rice, koji, water, and yeast. The rice is washed and steamed, then mixed with the yeast and koji. The ingredients are added in progressively larger quantities as the yeast grows, and then the batch is left to ferment for four to five weeks. After fermentation, the rice solids are separated out, and it’s ready to filter and bottle—though Stithem also brews a version with some of the rice sediment still in the saké. It’s a lengthy, labor-intensive process, and for now Stithem does it all on his own. “Hopefully it becomes unmanageable soon,” he says. “It feels like it is some days [laughs] . . . Yeah, it’s been a real learning experience. A very humbling learning experience.”

Stithem has made it a point to learn from the experts—he takes regular trips to Japan to study and work alongside local saké brewers. He just got back from a two-week stint where he met with the president of the Brewers Association of Japan. He connected Stithem with other brewers all over the country, who all do things a little differently. “There’s obviously a very high-scale, full-operation, mechanized approach, but there’s still so many very traditional breweries that are doing everything by hand,” he says. “So, yeah, there’s a lot of techniques and really cool things I haven’t even scratched the surface on.”

He’s also working on an exchange program of sorts with Japanese brewers who are interested in updating their models, particularly in regard to marketing and approaching the Western market. Saké sales are up worldwide, but in Japan they’re down from years past, partly due to the fact that young people in Japan are more interested in drinks like craft beer, whiskey, and French wines, which have a fuller flavor. “That said,” says Stithem, “the style of saké that we’re trying to do here is a little more in the same vein as those styles of beverages . . . and for that reason, I think they’re infinitely more pairable with Western cuisine and definitely more applicable to the style of beverage that the youth culture of Japan and the food and beverage culture of the Western world are interested in. That’s my hope anyways.”

Proper Saké Co. currently has three varieties in distribution: The Diplomat, which is a balanced, more traditional brew with hints of coconut and vanilla; an unfiltered version of The Diplomat that has a texture almost like almond milk; and The Grand Parlay, which is made with a Belgian Saison yeast typically used to make beer and fortified wine. In many ways, The Grand Parlay encapsulates Stithem’s mission to bring saké into Western culinary contexts in new ways. “It’s a nice marriage of these cultures,” he says. “It’s a really interesting flavor. It tastes more like a crisp Eastern European white wine than a beer, but it also has a lot of nuances that you might find in a Saison-style beer . . . And hopefully it brings some people over into the saké world that wouldn’t have normally thought it was something they wanted to try.”

Because saké isn’t as common in this country—particularly in the South—Stithem hopes to pique local curiosity with a tasting room he opened a few weeks before our conversation. In the intimate space, complete with enclosed booths and a bar that Stithem built out of raw pine lumber with a friend, saké connoisseurs and newcomers alike can try the products, learn about the brewing process, and enjoy special varieties that aren’t always available to the public. In an effort to maintain the integrity of the product, everything in the tasting room is unpasteurized, and the bottles that are distributed to retailers are only minimally pasteurized.

When Stithem talks of sharing his knowledge and products with the public, his excitement is palpable, but he’s also equally eager to learn. He is an avid reader of John Gauntner, one of the world’s foremost saké experts. Gauntner’s repeated references to the proper rice and proper water for brewing saké stuck with Stithem when it came time to name the brewery. “In no way is it me being like, ‘This is the only and appropriate way to make saké,’” he stresses. “And sometimes I feel like, Dammit, I hope people don’t think I’m being a little aggressive with my language. Because it’s meant to be a very humble product and humble offering, and it really is just me trying to put forth the fact that this is all done in what I hope is the most appropriate manner and what is arguably more traditional than what is typically available in the States.”

Before I leave, Stithem shows me the brew room, a small square space in the center of the building with tons of barrels and bottles all neatly aligned along the walls. It’s chilly, and he explains that the room must be climate controlled while the ferment matures. As it grows, it generates heat, and because the tanks aren’t internally regulated, he sometimes has to use ice that is made from the brewing water to bring the temperature back down. He points to the barrels in the corner and tells me that he’s working on some whiskey-barrel-aged saké. He tells me how eateries like Rolf and Daughters and The Catbird Seat have begun using his koji to make cheeses, charcuterie, and other ferments. He’s in his element here, like an Adidas-clad scientist in his lab.

“I guess it’s pretty straightforward,” he says. “I’m the only one in Nashville dumb enough to be making saké right now [laughs]. But I think it’s a cool thing to be doing in Nashville. I’m so lucky that I get to do it.”

Proper Saké Co.’s tasting room is open Fridays 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturdays 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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