Entrepreneur Brews A Sake Revolution
by Thomas MacMillan | Jun 18, 2014 4:38 pm
Posted to: Arts & Culture, Dining, Business/ Economic Development, Food, Upper State Street
Leaving the Wine Thief one day with his favorite palette-pleasing trio—crusty baguette, hunk of Roquefort cheese, bottle of sake—Chris Dircks had a thought; What a shame that more people don’t know the pleasure of the fermented rice brew.
He determined to spread the gospel of sake.
Dircks started brewing his own sake, starting a years-long quest that passed a milestone this past month when he moved his young sake company, Octopusake, into a space at Trolley Square. Dircks joined an eclectic group of entrepreneurs who have taken root in the upper State Street building, even as the landlord seeks to auction it off.
For Dircks, who’s 49, having his own space means he’s another step closer to running a full-fledged sake “nanobrewery,” bringing a “quirky” new product to New Haven, and turning more people on to the pleasures of sipping a carefully brewed cup of cold sake. As he moves forward with his plans, he’s drawing on his years of experience as a biotech, approaching business development the way he might tackle developing new software.
Dircks grew up on Long Island as one of seven kids. He ended up in New Haven in the 1990s, working with a string of biotech startups, first as an IT guy and then as a management and tech consultant.
Meanwhile, Dircks he found himself sake’s praises to anyone who would listen. After his Wine Thief epiphany, his wife got him a make-your-own sake kit for Christmas in 2010, and he began making his own.
“The rice very politely and quietly invited me to” start brewing, Dircks said.
The first batch was disastrous. Gradually Dircks honed his technique until he got results he liked. He developed an elaborate filtration system with tubes that someone referred to as “the octopus.” The name Octopusake was born.
With help from his wife and brother, Dircks started bottling batches of his brew, setting up tastings and beginning marketing. He’s been able to go only so far without a physical address. In order to set up a proper sake brewery, he needs zoning relief, a liquor license, and permission from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Octopusake offers two kinds of sake: junmai, a traditional filtered sake; and nigori, which is cloudy, unfiltered. Dircks has also experimented with a black sake colored with squid ink. The sakes can be taken warm or chilled; Dircks recommends the latter, but he likes it warm on a nippy autumn day.
Although it’s traditionally pronounced sah-kay, Dircks uses the Americanized sah-kee. People often refer to sake as “rice wine” or think of it as a liquor like whiskey or vodka. But it’s created not through distillation, but through a brewing process comparable to that of beer. The key ingredient is koji, rice inoculated with mold.
Dircks aims to have a zero-waste, “eco-friendly” operation. He’s teamed up with a GoatBoy soaps in New Milford, who will take a byproduct of the sake-brewing process, called kasu, and turn it into bar soap.
Sake breweries are a rarity in the United States; Dircks said they’re few and far between on the East Coast. His goal is not just to brew sake, but to brew it in New Haven.
“Let’s do something quirky for New Haven,” he said. “I’m tired of New Haven being the butt of jokes and bad stories in the news.”
Sitting in his gleaming white and starkly empty new space, Dircks said he’s devoting the next year at Octopusake to securing all the required permissions, getting the equipment he needs, and scaling up production until he’s selling to restaurants, liquor stores, and at farmers markets.
He said he’s taking it one step at a time, building the business according to the “agile” model of software development: Set you ultimate goal, then tackle the problems in front of you as they come.
In the meantime, he’s still working his day job. There have been times when he’s almost thrown in the towel, he said, like when his wife lost her job. But every time, something would come up—an email would arrive from someone interested in the product, or he’d get a phone call inviting him to take part in a tasting event.
“The rice was speaking to me again,” he said, “politely and quietly.”