The past decade has seen an explosion in craft beer breweries, wineries, and distilleries across the world. More and more people are creating their own spirits that consumers can't seem to get enough of. Even sake, the fermented rice drink that hails from Japan, is being made for new generations in small breweries throughout the U.S.
New Orleans is the home of the newest sake brewery in America: Wetlands Sake. Started by two friends and refined by an expert team of trained sake brewers, Wetlands Sake is sure to make a splash in the sake scene and the craft spirits scene here and afar.
The concept for Wetlands Sake started in 2018 when two long-time friends went out for a meal. Director of Marketing Katrina Matthews told the tale, "Nan Wallis had just returned from a trip to New York City, and she and her friend Lindsey Brower were having dinner together. Nan was commenting about how she noticed sake sections on the spirits menus in New York. They were wondering why it isn't more common in Louisiana, where rice is a huge industry. It's the nation's third largest producer of rice behind California and Arkansas. They left the conversation at that. Then two weeks later, Lindsey comes home to find a bag of rice on her doorstep with a note that said, 'You're right. Somebody should do this.' Nan had spent those two weeks doing a deep dive of research into why isn't it done here. She found that nobody had done it because the kind of rice that you need doesn't exist here yet. But she thought that making sake was possible."
Nan and Lindsey began searching for a rice farmer that might have the type of short-grain rice needed to make sake. Most of the rice grown in Louisiana is long-grain or medium-grain, and those types don't have the proper amounts of starch and protein to create a fermented beverage. Katrina continued, "They contacted the LSU Ag Center Rice Research Station in Crowley. The station told them that they didn't have it. Then one day when Nan and Lindsey felt disheartened, they got a call from LSU Ag Center, who told them that they did develop a short-grain rice back in 2003 for another project, but they didn't end up growing it."
Thrilled by the news, Nan asked the LSU Ag Center to grow a couple of pounds of it so that she could send it off to be tested to see if it could make a proper sake. It could be done, but there was a catch. "The Ag Center explained that the minimum order they can do is 7,000 pounds. They either had to commit to the idea or abandon it, so they committed to getting 7,000 pounds. Fortunately, it worked out because they might have been left with thousands of pounds of sushi rice!"
The rice was viable, so Nan and Lindsey invested in a brewery on Orange Street in the Lower Garden District, which was completed in 2020. The ladies assembled a team of experienced brewers, and they hired expert sake brewers to come into town to train their staff on the process of brewing sake.
"Brewing sake is not exactly like brewing beer. It's very cerebral and esoteric. It's very fussy and it takes forever. It's something that you have to have your hands on every single day in the brewing process, which takes about five weeks. We learned these practices directly from people who trained in Japan, and we pay homage through our techniques," Katrina said. The brewery and taproom is air-conditioned, unlike most beer breweries and distilleries, due to the delicate nature of koji, an enzyme-secreting fungus used to ferment the rice.
While Wetlands Sake is a business built on consumption, the team has a strong mindset of giving. You can enjoy the brand's drinks more knowing that you are supporting local farms, animals, and land.
"In conjunction with the idea that our owners Nan and Lindsey wanted to use local resources, as they were doing their research about how rice is grown and cultivated in the state, they began to understand the vital importance of wetlands. Both Nan and Lindsey are New Orleans natives, and they know the region and the resources. They understand already the importance of the wetlands as it relates to hurricane protection and habitats, then they learned how it works in conjunction to rice. It became very important to them to pay it forward to the land. That's where the idea of wetland conservation came into play, so they donate 2% of the profits to wetland conservation funds. It's a symbiotic relationship: people who drink it are supporting the land." Like many breweries, Wetlands Sake donates spent grains used in the making of the product to local farms for animal feed. "We give our spent rice called kasu to a local farmer called The Reverend. He collects the kasu for his pigs, and he said his pigs are so happy with it," Katrina said, smiling.
The Wetlands Sake Taproom is a welcome addition to the bustling brewery scene in New Orleans. The four flagship drinks (Filtered Sake, Unfiltered Sake, Sparkling Passion Fruit Sake, and Sparkling Blood Orange Sake) will be featured along with experimental small batch flavors only available on tap. Katrina concluded, "It's going to look very similar to a brewery or winery with tastings, but with fun and unique things like a slushie machine!"
Wetlands Sake Taproom will be opening in 2021 at 634 Orange St.