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If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about sake, otherwise known as Japanese rice wine, you’re not alone.
Thankfully for us Bostonians, Alyssa DiPasquale is here to help.
A Northborough native, 38-year-old DiPasquale is the owner of The Koji Club — Boston’s first-ever sake bar.
She opened her cozy, inviting new hangout spot last month at 525 Western Ave, Suite #6 in Brighton with a mission to help Boston fall in love with sake.
DiPasquale has worked in the restaurant industry for 13 years. She started as a hostess at O Ya Japanese restaurant in Boston, quickly moving to a management position, and finally to a director-level communications position.
It was working at O Ya that spurned DiPasquale’s love of sake.
“It was definitely my passion and something that I really felt connected to,” she said. “I’m half Japanese, so I was learning a lot about myself and Japanese culture. At the same time, I was learning more about the beverage, which was fascinating.”
Over the years, DiPasquale decided to dig deeper and take some formal courses in sake. The first she completed in New York City in 2011. Then, she decided she also wanted to complete the second course and get her advanced certification, but that course was only offered in Japan.
So in 2013, DiPasquale traveled to Japan to further her sake studies. She said she learned the ins and outs of sake, from the brewing process to how brewers create different flavors.
“It was a life-changing experience for me to be able to experience Japan, but also to go to breweries firsthand for the first time,” she said.
Though DiPasquale said she’d always wanted to own a business, it was a young Japanese sake brewer that inspired her to take the leap and get started.
She said one day a young brewer from one of her favorite sake breweries in Japan happened to come into O Ya, and it caught her off guard.
“I guess I pictured Japanese sake brewers all looking like my grandpa, who’s an older Japanese man,” she said. “…And instead, this guy walked in, this Japanese guy who was literally my age. And it kind of blew my mind.”
DiPasquale started chatting with the man, who told her about his family’s sake business, how it’d been in his family for a long time, and how he inherited it from his father.
Once DiPasquale was off work, the two of them went around the corner for a slice of pizza and drank sake together.
“It made the history of sake and sake brewing feel really tangible to me, and I felt like a real part of it,” she said. “Because this person, this brewer on the other side of the world, who’s my age, had the same mission that I did, of making people fall in love with sake.”
For those unfamiliar with sake, it’s made of just four ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and koji — the namesake of DiPasquale’s bar. Koji is actually a mold that converts the starch in the rice to sugar. The yeast then turns the sugar into alcohol.
DiPasquale said there are three main categories of sake: Junmai Daiginjo, Junmai Ginjo, and Junmai. The difference between these categories, she said, is the milling ratio.
Junmai Daiginjo is a sake where the rice grain has been milled down to 50% or less, DiPasquale said. It’s typically more expensive than other sakes.
Junmai Ginjo is a sake where the rice grain has been milled down to 60% or less of the original product. DiPasquale said this category has a wide range of flavors and is featured heavily at The Koji Club.
The final category, Junmai, is a sake where the rice grain has been milled down to 70% or less of the original product. DiPasquale said these sakes have a stronger rice flavor.
At the Koji Club, DiPasquale said, she likes to offer lots of specialty sakes that go beyond the three major categories. She said about half her sake is from the three major categories, and the other half is specialty sake.
She said she also changes the sake seasonally to allow people to try different types and experience them in the most appropriate setting.
“If it’s gorgeous and sunny and 90 degrees outside in the middle of summer, there’s a sake for that occasion,” she said. “But if it’s cold and blizzarding in the middle of winter, there’s sake for that occasion too.”
Unfortunately for DiPasquale, the moment she decided to finally strike out on her own was in February 2020, just before COVID-19 hit. But she didn’t let that discourage her.
Rebel, Rebel, a feminist bar in Somerville, hosted The Koji Club as a pop-up for a few months, and then OddFellows Ice Cream in Chestnut Hill hosted her for about a year, allowing the bar to build up a customer base.
During that time she also started a monthly sake subscription service called The Koji Club. DiPasquale said the subscription service is currently on hiatus, but should be back up and running in the next few months.
After searching around for a place to set up shop, DiPasquale signed a lease for her current place on the Charles River Speedway in Brighton in July 2021. Due to supply shortages, it took until February for her to be ready to open, but now The Koji Club is welcoming in eager guests.
The bar is small, with just 16 seats, but DiPasquale also has a covered patio space. She said she wasn’t disappointed by the small space, as it’s about the size of a bar you might find in Kyoto, Japan.
The Koji Club is open 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 12 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturdays, and offers ticketed tastings on Sundays.
“We’ve had such a warm welcome from the Allston-Brighton community,” she said. “It has been such a wonderful neighborhood to be a part of, and we feel very supported by them and I hope that feeling is mutual.”
To learn more about The Koji Club, visit its website.
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