By Alison Geisler
12:10 PM EDT, April 10, 2013
No one really bats an eye anymore when someone tells you they've been brewing beer in their garage. Or basement. Or kitchen. Homebrewing is super popular these days, what with the rise in popularity of craft beers and the notion that beer doesn't have to be only for chugging and frat boys. But what would your reaction be if someone you knew said they were going to make their own sake? Probably a mix of puzzlement and disbelief, to start. Sake (sometimes called "rice wine") is brewed in a manner akin to beer, thus making it entirely within the realm of reasonable homebrewing efforts. For New Havener Chris Dircks, brewing his own sake has become more than just a hobby.
Dircks has been brewing and perfecting his sake over the last two years. The operation has evolved from an idea to an experiment to tweeking a recipe to a fully formed and packaged business idea in a very short time, practically speaking. He's calling his product Oktopusake, a name that has more significance than you may realize. The brewing process is pretty manageable, requiring only four ingredients and some time. Oktopusake is a junmai, the simplest form of sake, and is made from water, yeast, rice and koji, aka Aspergillus oryzae-ified rice. "You're looking at something that's created by putting four things in a big vat and waiting for two weeks and filtering it out," says Dircks.
"My family's always been kind of entrepreneurial," Dircks says. His brother, who has a successful ad agency on Long Island, has designed the packaging and website for Oktopusake, incorporating octopus-esque imagery and employing the number eight. Oktopusake is the first product launched by 8th Square Brewing, the company Dircks started once his sake idea started to become a reality. He began toying around with making sake somewhere within New Haven's 8th square, and started with an eight-fold filtration system for his early batches. Octopuses have eight legs. "It was meant to be," he says.
But don't assume Dircks is just trying to make money by tapping into an unfilled market niche. He hopes to encourage people who might not be sake drinkers, and those who only drink sake while dining at Japanese restaurants, to embrace sake as a drink option for any occasion. "We always had a bottle of wine in the fridge, a six-pack of beer and a bottle of sake," Dircks says of his family's well-rounded approach to adult beverages. "I've always looked for opportunities to buy it and drink it, even if it wasn't in a sushi place," he says. But it's really his love of New Haven that's spurred him to try to pin the Elm City on the sake map.
"It's a great little city, and I'm tired of it being associated with the high crime rate and crap like that," says Dircks. A sake brewery in New Haven would be the first of its kind in New England, and the only independent sake brewery west of Austin, Texas, where the country's sole independent sake brewery is located. Brewing sake in Texas makes sense, as Texas produces a lot of rice as it is. "I'm sure somebody was sitting around saying 'What the hell do we do with all this rice?'" he says of Austin. The only other breweries are in Oregon and California, but they're owned and operated by Japanese companies. "Austin's got that whole 'Stay Weird' thing, so why not something quirky about New Haven?" he says.
Dircks has been meeting with city departments and Project Storefronts to figure out ways to introduce New Haven to Oktopusake before its official commercial launch. He's also been talking to folks at some of New Haven's popular downtown restaurants, hoping to add Oktopusake to their menu when the time is right. He's been in touch with Bun Lai of Miya's Sushi, who is known for being very invested in the New Haven community as well. He's seen an attempt at a sake start-up down in North Carolina fail to gain enough funding from Kickstarter campaigns, so he's focusing his energies on community building and local awareness rather than just raising money and setting up shop.
Once Oktopusake works its way into local restaurants and liquor stores, Dircks is planning other 8th Square Brewing sake products. One of these sakes is an unfiltered version of Oktopusake. He also has aged Oktopusake and a commemorative batch made with squid ink in mind, too.
Dircks plans to officially launch Oktopusake this year, as 2013 is the Year of the Octopus. Ducks must be placed into rows, T's crossed, I's dotted, and papers signed before Oktopusake will be waiting for you to buy it and take it home. In the meantime, Dircks is going to continue working with the Economic Development Corporation of New Haven, the city, and the community to help push New Haven to the front of your mind when you think about sake. Keep up with Oktopusake online at oktopusake.com, or by following Dircks on Twitter @oktopusake.
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