At first sip, Bingo Beer Co.’s Dry Crispy delivers on exactly what its name promises. It’s bone dry and refreshing, with a touch of fruity character to counteract the oppressively hot and humid summers in and around its Richmond, Virginia home base. But what may not be readily apparent is the unconventional ingredient that enables the beer to achieve its signature character: koji, the mold that’s the heart and soul of sake (as well as the Japanese spirit shochu and foods like miso and soy sauce).
In its effort to emulate the typical lagers of Japan and Southeast Asia, the Bingo team five years ago turned to Charlottesville-based North American Sake Brewery, which provided the Richmond brewery with komekoji—rice inoculated with the prized fungus.
Specifically, it was aspergillus oryzae, better known as yellow koji, the type most commonly used for sake. Much as the malting process does for barley, koji produces the enzymes necessary to break down rice starches into fermentable sugars. The Bingo team added the koji rice to the mash tun, which helped increase conversion in the mash and produce a strikingly dry beer, which the brewery dubbed Dry Crispy. Lemondrop and Huell Melon hops round out the recipe with a bit of fruitiness.
“The goal with the hop flavor was to be reminiscent of some of those melon and citrusy notes that you get in sake, while obviously still being a beer,” says Bingo founder and co-owner Jay Bayer.
Bayer notes that Dry Crispy has been a hit in the taproom and has remained an annual offering.
“We made the koji here, took a little drive out to the brewery, did a brew day with them and it just turned out really fantastic,” recalls Andrew Centofante, founder and head brewer at North American Sake Brewery.
The Bingo/North American Sake collab is far from unique. There’s a movement among the growing—yet still comparatively minuscule—number of craft sake breweries in the U.S. and other Western countries to attract more beer drinkers into their fledgling booze segment through crossovers and collaborations. North American Sake itself has forged similar partnerships with its fellow Charlottesvillians, Three Notch’d Brewery Co. and Rockfish Brewing Co., as well as AB InBev-owned Devils Backbone of Roseland, Virginia.
Ben’s American Sake traveled a similar route for its Japanese Dry Rice Lager, whose inspiration came from a decidedly un-lager-like place: Brut IPAs. “I had been in the beer industry in Portland, Oregon and was aware of [the Brut IPA] trend in the industry at the time,” remembers the Asheville, North Carolina sake maker’s head brewer Patrick Shearer. “I got to thinking about the enzymes that naturally occur in koji and was curious how they could be used in beer.”
Luckily, his new work neighbor was Peter Batinski, the pilot and specialty brewer at Hi-Wire Brewing.
“He was eager to play around and see what we could come up with,” Shearer notes.
Shearer pitched the idea of a light lager that would have a full body, thanks to the umami influence from the koji.
“We grew the koji for the beer and Peter handled the rest,” Shearer adds.
Ben’s used a koji spore called Hi-G that’s known for producing a great deal of glucoamylase, an enzyme that’s highly effective in breaking the bonds of connected glucose molecules in starches.
“The finished koji was then put into the fermenter, cold side, and then the wort was knocked out on top of the koji and then fermented on it,” he explains in an email. “This seems to be a unique approach, as other beer/sake collabs usually use the koji on the hot side, in the mash, and then deactivate the enzymes during boil. We wanted to maximize the flavor and enzyme contribution of the koji by giving it as much time as possible.”
It must’ve worked because Japanese Dry Rice Lager earned a gold medal in the experimental beer category at the Great American Beer Festival in 2021.
Koji-based beers are also a regular menu item at Rice Vice, the East Nashville, Tennessee tasting room that Proper Sake Co. opened in 2022 after it moved from the downtown location it had occupied since 2017.
“Back in our old location, we really just needed something a little lower ABV [than sake] to keep people at the bar stool a little longer,” remembers Proper Sake founder and CEO Byron Stithem. “Plus, I really like drinking crisp lagers, especially the Japanese variety. I wanted to incorporate koji because it’s a really important ingredient for us.”
That project became Koji Gold lager, which Proper initially produced in-house but has since scaled up via local contract brewer, The Nations Brewing Co. Stithem continues to brew smaller-production and one-off beers onsite, crafting everything from pale ales and porters to a range of sours with different varieties of koji.
“We also started incorporating it on the cold side, essentially dry-hopping with koji, and with hops as well,” Stithem reveals. “There’s a very specific trait that it gives to the dry hops that’s really interesting and I’ll certainly be exploring more of that when I get the moment…There are plenty of hops that fall into the more juicy, danker category, but with those [hop varieties] in particular, [koji] brings out [their] overripe subtropical elements.”
When combined with Mosaic hops, for instance, koji amplifies notes of dragon fruit and papaya.
Sake/beer hybrids certainly aren’t exclusive to the new wave of American sake brewers, as producers overseas have been having quite a bit of fun in the space for some time.
About seven years ago, Kanpai London Craft Sake Brewery and nearby Brick Brewery, teamed up to create Mottainai, a 6.7% ABV American-style pale ale. Mottainai, which very loosely translates to “waste not, want not,” used some of Kanpai’s kasu—the fermented lees left over from the sake pressing process. It’s packed with many of the essential enzymes necessary for saccharification and imparts a distinct fruity character to the resulting beer.
Since then, Kanpai has continued to live the “waste not, want not” ethos through a series of similar kasu-based collabs with London-based By the Horns Brewing Co., The Truman Brewery and Beavertown Brewery.
In 2019, Beavertown released Onna-Bugeisha, a barrel-fermented, barrel-aged wild, rice lager made with Kanpai’s kasu. It was part of Beavertown’s Tempus Project barrel series.
“That one was nice and funky, with a natural wine vibe,” says Tom Wilson, co-founder, with wife Lucy, of Kanpai London Craft Sake. “Thankfully they have quite a big marketing engine. I remember speaking to one of the senior guys at Beavertown, and he said that was their best-selling Tempus Project. It’s a good way of getting the brand and the name out.”
And, more importantly, it helps bridge a knowledge gap between beer drinkers and a category that can often be confounding to many of them.
“One of the main reasons I wanted to do sake/beer collabs was to get crossover with beer drinkers,” says Ben’s American Sake’s Shearer. “I’ve felt that craft beer drinkers are a bit more adventurous and are willing to try a wider range of beverages than wine drinkers or spirit drinkers.”
Wilson concurs, noting that Kanpai’s collaborations have definitely put his brewery, and sake in general, on beer drinkers’ map.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” Wilson says, “but it helps.”
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