Pennsylvania sake brewery Sango Kura thrives in the Poconos



Pennsylvania sake started flowing in Philadelphia bars recently. Variations of the floral, slightly sweet Japanese drink are in the works in Kensington, sold by the bottle in South Philadelphia and even rolled out in a citywide special at Bing Bing Dim Sum.

Customers guessing the origin of this locally made alcohol might start near the source. After all, a sake brewery in Fishtown wouldn’t surprise anyone.

But this line of sake from Pennsylvania — traditional types like junmai ginjo, taru (cedar-aged), nigori (unfiltered) and namazake (unpasteurized) as well as quintessentially American takes like dry-hopped junmai and aged in bourbon barrels – comes from Sango Koura in the Delaware Water Gap, the gateway to the Poconos.

Sango Kura is one of approximately 20 sake breweries in North America and the only one in the state. While most other American sake breweries are based in or near cities, Sango Kura is 90 minutes or more from its bread-and-butter customers, according to owner and Water Gap native Jay Cooper.

“They live in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, and they run away to the Poconos because they love nature and want to go canoeing or hiking. And they come out and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, we don’t have to eat pizza or cheeseburgers. There is a sake brewery.’

Cooper’s journey to opening a sake brewery and izakaya in this town of some 700 people is a tortuous one. You could trace this back to teenage visits to High Cascade Snowboard Camp on Mount Hood in Oregon, where Cooper first made Japanese friends; or the service jobs he held while studying in Kyoto, where he immersed himself in izakaya cuisine and culture; or his stay in New York, working as a tour guide for the Japan Travel Bureau and immersing himself in Brooklyn; or his eventual return to Mount Hood, where he started Wabi Sabi Kitchen, selling ramen, sushi and fried rice out of a converted 1960s milk truck.

All of these experiences shaped Sango Kura, but he could have existed somewhere else if not for the siren song of family and the forest calling Cooper home.

“I put Wabi Sabi on wheels for a reason. I knew I was going to come back here,” he says during an afternoon hike along Caldeno Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River. As Cooper tumbles down slippery rocks under a waterfall, his 11-month-old daughter, Riley-Sue, smiles from the baby carrier strapped to her dad’s back. These are familiar steps for both. He stops to get remembering summer canoe trips on the Delaware “My dad would bring wooden paddles and put them in the middle of the canoe, like a stack of five of them, and then we would have our bonfire for the night.”

Cooper’s family is entrepreneurial: his brother Chuck owns the river tour company Edge of the Woods Outfitters on the street of Sango Kura, which is next to the farm stand their parents started in 1977. The hodgepodge mutated over the years – “it was literally built beam by beam” – into the Village Farmer & Bakery, best known for the True Love Special, a hot dog and a slice of apple pie.

READ MORE: Take a spin through the Delaware Water Gap, the crown jewel that nearly disappeared

Cooper was still living in Oregon when a longtime Greek restaurant that shared a parking lot with his parents’ bakery went up for sale. Fearing a parking dispute, Susan and Charles Cooper bought the restaurant in 2015. They tried various business setups — hiring chefs, leasing the space — before Cooper told them he planned to come home and to open an izakaya-style restaurant and, possibly, sake. brasserie in the restaurant. (Sango Kura is named after Cooper’s 7-year-old daughter, Lena, whose middle name is Sango, meaning coral in Japanese.)

The idea was received with measured acceptance, Chuck Cooper recalled: “We all sat down and talked about it, and the consensus was, if you can do it, go for it.”

Sango Kura opened in 2018 primarily as an izakaya slinging poke bowls, handmade noodles, fried rice and more through counter service. From the start, the premise was a challenge for some longtime locals. “People here, they’ll tell me straight up that I don’t do Japanese food, because they go to a hibachi buffet and I don’t have General Tso, I don’t have lo mein,” Cooper says. . . Rather than cater to this audience, however, he channeled his life experiences to inform his offerings.

“If you find it on a menu at a small, family-owned izakaya in Japan, you can find it at Sango Kura,” he says.

The restaurant’s sales were sufficient to sustain the early business while Cooper applied for a license. As he prepared to build the brewery, he attended a sake brewers’ summit in Sacramento to further his education, which was limited to home brewing (an illegal practice in Japan). He visited rice paddies and met several Japanese brewers, as well as New England-based sake brewer Todd Bellomy, whom he hired as a consultant to help develop Sango Kura’s first sake recipes.

Cooper spent 2019 building the brewery. With the help of a welder friend from Stroudsburg, he made specialized MacGyver equipment that would otherwise have cost tens of thousands of dollars. To make a batch of sake, Sango Kura washes and soaks 80-200 pounds of rice in laundry bags. The rice is steamed in a board-rigged bagel kettle, then quickly cooled in a sawn-off IBC tote hooked up to a bounce blower. This initiates a two-month process that ends after the sake has been fully fermented, pressed, pasteurized, filtered, and casked or bottled.

Sango Kura released its first sakes in late 2019 — just in time for the pandemic, which could have been a disaster if not for the crowds of Philadelphians and New Yorkers retreating to the Poconos. Customers thronged the restaurant’s many outdoor seats for months. Booming business allowed Cooper to double the brewery’s capacity and bring in Jonah Auteri, an amateur sake brewer turned professional who travels to the Water Gap from Jersey City four days a week.

In the years since Sango Kura opened, Cooper fell in love with and married Melissa Hirschhorn, a Bensalem native and neighbor whom Cooper recruited to run the bar. Their daughter was born in 2021. Hirschhorn still manages front operations and will run an adjacent beer brewery, Rewind Brewing, which will open this summer. (Sango Kura has already embraced beer-sake crossover experiments such as dry-hopped sake and sake brewed with kviek yeast, traditionally used for Norwegian farmhouse beers.)

Although staffing has been a major hurdle for Sango Kura in recent months — “If somebody wants to move to the Poconos and wants a job…” jokes Hirschhorn — business has continued to grow. Cooper began this year self-distributing sake in Bethlehem and Philadelphia, including International Bar, The Bottle Shop, Zama, Yanaga’s Izakaya, Bing Bing Dim Sum, and Nunu and Cheu Fishtown.

Izakaya by Yanaga GM Michael Ego says customers are surprised to be able to order sake from Pennsylvania — especially ones with very special local touches, like Sango Kura’s taru, infused with wood chips made from red cedar trees from ballast. “It’s something that I find amazing to be able to bring from our backyard,” says Ego.

Cheu GM and Beverage Manager Charlie Knodel echoes this, distinguishing namazake from Sango Kura, an unpasteurized sake typically consumed at or near the brewery that made it. (Nama roughly translates to believed or Costs.) “That we are able to present a [namazake] fresh from the source is very special,” says Knodel.

Despite his now frequent trips to Philadelphia, Cooper hadn’t been around for years. He was surprised at how much his dining scene has changed. “I’m super excited to be a part of it now,” he says. “Who knows, maybe one day I will meet the right chef who would like to share a place where Sango Kura can open a tasting room and ask a Japanese chef to make izakaya food.”

It’s an idea many customers have suggested: “Everyone who walks in is like, ‘Man, you gotta come to Williamsburg.’ “Man, you gotta come to Fishtown,” Cooper says as he walks along a pathway overlooking the namesake feature of his hometown.

He launches his usually unspoken reply: “That’s good, but you don’t have this.”

Sango Kura is located at 39 Broad St. in the Delaware Water Gap.

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