Proper Saké Co.
Nashville’s sake makers
Story by Lisa Waterman Gray
Photos by Alex Crawford Photography and Hannah Deits
Byron Stithem’s love of all things fermented inspired him to open Proper Saké Co. brewery and tasting room in Nashville’s thriving Pie Town neighborhood in 2016. Today, the company that Stithem and business partner, Bryson Aust, run is doing so well that a larger, adjacent facility is planned to open in May.
Kansas City-area native Stithem moved to New York City to work with a record label. When this initial opportunity proved short-lived, he started working in different neighborhood restaurants. At The Clover Club, he experienced the craft cocktail movement. New York City is where he learned about sake and experimented with fermentation in multiple foods and beverages, too.
Stithem’s culinary knowledge grew stronger during restaurant stints at Dinner Lab, Inc. (which was in New Orleans but no longer operating), and Husk Nashville. From these he launched into some restaurant consulting gigs.
But Stithem couldn’t shake his love of sake. He pursued sake-making training in Japan. During one of his early visits he was required to stay with the sake maker’s family for more than two weeks, while learning to make the traditional Japanese beverage. Overall, Stithem has made five brewery research and training trips to Japan.
“Given my background and interest in knowing the nuts and bolts of pretty much anything in food and beverage, understanding the nuances of sake helps me to understand my finished product,” he says. “In the American South there really was no other way to get to know sake. I made my first batch a little over nine years ago and, to my surprise, it was really very drinkable.”
Proper Saké Co. continues to employ exacting Japanese standards when crafting each variety of sake. This mindset and method ensure that the company provides optimal quality and drinkability for fans in Nashville and beyond. Sake-grade rice from Arkansas that is milled in Minnesota has a more concentric starch content so that it can be milled a little further than table rice can. Three additional, classic sake ingredients include yeast sourced from a local provider, specialty water, and delicate koji.
An ion exchange water softener wipes out the original character of local water. Then a certain amount of mineral content is added back in, to create the best possible water and mimic what the Japanese call “Miyamizu.”
But koji is the most important ingredient in the process. “It has enzymes present that change the starches into sugars, which then convert into alcohol,” says Stithem. “An average batch of sake rice will be 30 percent koji. Most people don’t store koji, for any period of time.” The process of making sake yields the world’s highest naturally-brewed alcohol by volume (ABV) beverage.
“Sake is tannin- and sulfite-free and it may be somewhat of a ‘living’ beverage,” says Stithem. “Just like pretty much any other beverage, there’s a wide variety of styles available. Because of the sheer volume of umami that sake offers it is, inherently, a little more versatile and fights less with food” than other alcoholic beverages.
Proper Sake Co.’s website describes its sake as a “…symmetry of historical reverence and modern technique. Our aim is to continue experimenting with both classical and innovative methods, to please purists and newcomers alike.” It creates small batches of sake before handpicking the right brew and then sending it out at the peak of freshness.
Proper Saké’s new space is the work of Stithem and his father-in-law, who are building as much of the architecture and seating together as possible. The facility will exude a modern, understated aesthetic with plenty of light-colored wood, a look that is meant to reflect Stithem’s latest visit to Kyoto. “And we want to incorporate a record bar element as well,” he says.
Today, Proper Saké distributes three sake varieties (including one sparkling version), with four to seven others available in-house. Its well-established sake varieties include The Diplomat Unfiltered, Grand Parlay, and The Diplomat Junmai, which is considered a traditional brew and is crafted to satisfy a wide audience with its complexity, sweet balance, and buttery texture.
Proper Saké currently ships products to five states and to Washington, D.C. The partners would like to begin canning sake. “We’ve also started brewing a beer with koji, and packaging and distributing that into all of our markets,” says Stithem. Is it any wonder that he now has little remaining time for restaurant consulting?
Plan A Trip
Proper Saké Co.
628 Ewing Avenue
Nashville, TN 37203
Nashville’s Pie Town neighborhood has been reinventing itself for more than five years. In addition to Proper Saké, Pie Town visitors can pair craft beer with a burger or wings, at Tennessee Brew Works—often with a side of live music. And wine lovers can savor dishes inspired by Italian, French, Spanish or Middle Eastern cultures alongside favorite vintages, at the neighborhood’s City Winery.
Previously a restaurant cook and a professional baker, as well as a catering and a cooking school assistant, Lisa Waterman Gray has written food-focused stories for dozens of publications for local, national, and international audiences. Based on the Kansas side of the Kansas City area, she loves getting a ‘taste’ of every destination and telling the stories behind those flavors. Learn more at www.lisawatermangray.com.