Sake consists of the same four to five ingredients and there are no exceptions, according to Japan’s purity laws for craft sake. As it turns out, there’s a wide array of flavors that can be derived from this minimal formula—the pages of Greg Beck’s craft sake menu prove this, as they detail dozens of flavors in his selection of about 80 unique bottles from Japan.
Beck—a certified sake sommelier and owner of Sake Secret in Long Beach—is on a mission to share the gospel of this ancient alcoholic beverage.
“What you know as the flavor of sake is likely just one possible thing. It’s usually rice-y booze-y, overheated—that’s what we’re used to drinking here,” Beck told the Post. “That’s just one spot on a wide spectrum of flavor.”
After running his successful pop-up for more than a year—tucked inside Long Beach Beer Lab on the Westside—he signed the lease for Sake Secret’s future brick-and-mortar on Wednesday: 460 Pine Ave., which previously housed Romeo Chocolates. He expects it to open this summer, of course, after a laundry list of permits and bureaucratic to-dos are checked off.
Landing the Downtown location came after Beck spent years living in Japan, where he learned to speak Japanese fluently while working for the Japanese government. He’s taken a slow and fiscally careful approach to get here. But now that he’s got the storefront and funding from both his Kickstarter campaign, which surpassed his $50,000 goal by raising $64,030, and a grant from the state of California, he’s eager to educate Long Beach about sake and its history.
In and around Long Beach, Beck will tell you there are plenty of breweries and wine bars to go around. But his pop-up shop, Sake Secret, is the only one of its kind in Los Angeles County.
“Any tiny town in Japan is going to have a sake shop, no matter how tiny the village is. And any big city in Japan is going to have Western wine shops,” Beck explained from behind his sake bar on Thursday evening. “You come here and any tiny town in America is going to have a wine shop. But in all of LA County, there isn’t a single sake shop. Isn’t that weird?”
One might argue that Beck’s specialty shop is not much of a “secret” now, as he has gained quite the following, but he says the name is mostly tongue and cheek.
“People often feel sheepish and embarrassed when they ask questions, as if they should know more about it already. It’s almost treated like a secret,” he said. “‘Sake Secret’ rolls off the tongue easily, but it’s also a metaphor. Sake shouldn’t be a secret. The secrets of sake are free.”
Beck encourages anyone who wants to learn more to visit him at his pop-up bar. From dry to sweet, from junmai-shu to ginjo-shu, from hot to cold, there are several different types of sake, or nihon-shu as it’s referred to in Japan. “Sake,” in Japanese simply refers to all alcoholic beverages.
“When it comes to selection throughout Southern California, there really isn’t any place that can rival what Greg does and that’s just from a product standpoint,” said Eric Imamura, a fellow sake sommelier sitting behind Beck’s bar on Thursday. “When it comes to the person that’s actually presenting the product, nobody has this guy’s passion, his knowledge and really the ability to connect.”
Beck organizes the pages of his extensive menus by flavor profile rather than style.
“Most people are beginners, and they don’t know one style from another, so what matters to them are the flavors,” he said, flipping through the pages. For example, he said “bright, juicy and plush are more for a craft beer drinker, like someone who’s used to having big, bold, less-refined flavors that kind of hit you in the face with a big punch of flavor.”
When Beck first arrived in Japan as a 20-year-old exchange student, he felt like a kid in a candy shop, suddenly able to try a variety of Japanese beverages that he would ordinarily have had to wait another year to legally imbibe back in the States.
Beck was so taken with Japan that he immediately moved back there after graduating from the University of Arizona in 2006 to teach English. He lived there for five years. And while he recalls drinking sake bombs during his stay as a college student, it was really the year he moved that he fell down the umami rabbit hole.
Saijō Sake Festival in Hiroshima Prefecture, where Beck lived for five years, is the place that he said really opened his eyes, or palette really, to Japanese brewers’ ability to dexterously create complex flavor profiles in their sake.
“That’s when I started to slow down and ask questions. The brewers that came to the festival to pour sake were coming from different parts of Japan, and I was like, ‘Why is yours like this?’ And they’d say, ‘Well we have different water and it gives you a softer, cleaner mouthfeel or we have a lot of minerality and that gives it more complexity,’” Beck explained.
After attending Saijō, he became a well of curiosity. As time went on, he found himself asking questions that were often too difficult for the average restaurant server or bartender to answer.
Some 18 years after Beck first tried sake in Japan, he would open Sake Secret within the Long Beach Beer Lab. Tucked in the corner of the lab, surrounded by stacked wine barrels and a row of clinking pinball machines, you’ll find Beck’s shop, with a rotating menu of nearly 80 sakes, all of which are Japanese.
Most folks who aren’t from Japan tend to think of sake as the hot rice wine beverage that is always paired with sushi. According to Beck, this is a misconception—the “secret” of sake for many.
“On one end of the spectrum, sake can be fruity, floral, delicate, ethereal, and with uber light bodies, as if you’re sipping on a cloud,” he told the Post. “And then, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s super caramel and mushroom flavors.”
Typically, light-bodied traditional sake pairs well with sushi, Beck says. Often “full body, viscous sake will have you like, ‘I need to eat this with a cheeseburger or smoke a cigar.’ It’s so strong. You would never have sushi with that.”
In fact, Beck predicts that cheese and sake will be America’s next craze. Long Beachers will be able to find out by ordering a charcuterie board at his shop as they sip sake this summer.
Beck envisions both a hospitable and educational environment for his future Downtown location, where he will offer his revolving menu of Japanese sake, snacks, shochu and some newer American-made sake brands. He hopes to keep sharing sake’s spectrum of flavor, as well as its rich history, which he’s spent most of his life learning.
Most of all, Beck wants his customers to feel that they are in good hands in terms of recommendations. He’s also sensitive about affordability as, he notes, he did not grow up in a wealthy household. Beck’s pricing for the bottles in his shop ranges from $600 to $24 or even $6 for 6 ounce vessels.
“Before you drop $100 on a really nice bottle or even just $50—because $50 is a lot to a lot of people—I want you to be able to taste it,” he said.
“There’s so many people whose first experience [with sake] was just terrible, … and I have to completely reshape that for you.”
Until Sake Secret opens Downtown, Beck’s shop will remain open at the Long Beach Beer Lab, Thursday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. and on Sundays from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.