Sake Surprise

North American Sake Brewery brings the taste of Japan to Charlottesville.

A decade ago, while in Tokyo on business, Andrew Centofante’s life changed. “I tried all these different sakes, and it kind of blew my mind,” he recalls. “I love craft beer, craft cider, and spirits. And it was one of those moments: ‘Why don’t I think about sake in the same way?”

Now Centofante thinks about sake daily. As owner of North American Sake Brewery, one of about 25 such places in the U.S., he shepherds the product from dry rice through steaming and fermentation, serving it with rice bowls and ramen in Charlottesville’s funky Ix Art Park. 

He first learned to make sake by watching YouTube videos, but each new batch brought questions. When he emailed a fifth-generation sake maker in Osaka, Japan, for advice, the company invited him for an apprenticeship. “I was on a plane the next week.”

Opened in 2018, the brewery has built a devoted fan base, including the Japanese ambassador to the United States, Koji Tomita. When he visited in 2021, Tomita enjoyed it so much that Centofante’s sake is now served at the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C.

Sake generally has a higher alcohol content than wine. And while mass-market versions can have a rough finish, Centofante’s sake is much smoother. Offerings range from cloudy, to sweet, or bone dry and can be ordered by the glass, bottle, or in tasters. There’s also beer on tap for the sake-wary.

A sake evangelist, Centofante is now co-founding a national trade association to support other U.S. makers. And while it’s still a niche beverage, he says sake’s popularity here is on the rise.  

Although he has deep respect for sake traditions, he doesn’t take himself (or his beverages) too seriously. His bottles have names like Big Baby, Quiet Giant, and Serenity Now!—inspired by a Seinfeld episode. He also sells sake seltzers and slushies.

Centofante’s dad, Joe, helped build the brewery’s tasting room, and hauled countless bags of rice to the production area. He remembers when the sake master who taught his son visited from Japan, to check on his former student. 

After sipping his way through the products, he solemnly offered his judgment. Says Joe, “He turned to me and said: ‘Andrew is a toji,’—a master brewer.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue.

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