A sake brewery is thriving in the Poconos
Water Gap native Jay Cooper built Sango Kura in a former Greek diner "one bowl of noodles at a time." The brewery makes nine styles, including dry-hopped, bourbon barrel- and cedar-aged.
Pennsylvania sake started flowing in Philly bars recently. Variations of the floral, faintly sweet Japanese beverage are on draft in Kensington, sold by the bottle in South Philly, and even deployed in a citywide special at Bing Bing Dim Sum.
Customers guessing at the origin of this locally made spirit might start close to the source. After all, a sake brewery in Fishtown would surprise no one.
But this lineup of Pennsylvania sake — traditional types like junmai ginjo, taru (cedar-aged), nigori (unfiltered), and namazake (unpastuerized) as well as distinctly American takes like dry-hopped and bourbon barrel-aged junmai — hails from Sango Kura in Delaware Water Gap, the gateway to the Poconos.
Sango Kura is one of roughly 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 sits 90 minutes or more from its bread-and-butter customers, according to owner and Water Gap native Jay Cooper.
“They’re living in Philly and Brooklyn, and they’re escaping to the Poconos because they love nature and they want to get that canoe ride or hike in. And they come out and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, we don’t have to eat pizza or cheeseburgers. There’s a sake brewery.’”
Cooper’s path to opening a sake brewery and izakaya in this town of some 700 residents is a circuitous one. You might trace it to teenage visits to High Cascade Snowboard Camp on Mount Hood in Oregon, where Cooper first made Japanese friends; or to the service-industry jobs he held down while studying in Kyoto, where he became immersed in izakaya food and culture; or to his time living in New York, working as a tour guide for the Japan Travel Bureau and soaking up Brooklyn; or to 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 those experiences shaped Sango Kura, but it might have existed elsewhere if not for the siren song of family and forest calling Cooper back home.
“I put Wabi Sabi on wheels for a reason. I knew I was gonna be back here,” he says on an afternoon hike along Caldeno Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River. As Cooper scrambles down slick rocks beneath a waterfall, his 11-month-old daughter, Riley-Sue, grins from the carrier strapped to her dad’s back. These are familiar steps for both of them. He pauses to remember summertime canoe trips down the Delaware. “My dad would bring wood pallets and put them in the middle of the canoe, like a stack of five of them, and then we had our bonfire for the night.”
An entrepreneurial streak runs in Cooper’s family: His brother Chuck owns the river-tour company Edge of the Woods Outfitters down the street from Sango Kura, which is next-door to the farmstand that their parents opened in 1977. The hodgepodge stand 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.
Cooper was still living in Oregon when a longtime Greek diner 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 configurations — hiring chefs, leasing the space — before Cooper told them he planned to come home and open an izakaya-style restaurant and, eventually, a sake brewery in the diner. (Sango Kura is named after Cooper’s 7-year-old daughter, Lena, whose middle name is Sango, which means coral in Japanese.)
The idea was received with measured acceptance, Chuck Cooper remembers: “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 via counter service. From the start, the premise was a challenge for some longtime locals. “People around here, they’ll tell me straight to my face that I don’t make Japanese food, because they go to a hibachi buffet and I don’t have General Tso’s, I don’t have lo mein,” Cooper says. Rather than cater to that audience, however, he channeled his life experiences to inform his offerings.
“If you’ll find it on a menu at a small mom-and-pop izakaya in Japan, you can find it at Sango Kura,” he says.
The restaurant’s sales were enough to sustain the business early on while Cooper filed for licensing. As he prepared to build out the brewery, he attended a sake brewers’ summit in Sacramento to further his education, which was limited to homebrewing (a practice that’s illegal 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 constructing the brewery. With the help of a welder friend in Stroudsburg, he MacGyvered specialty equipment that would have otherwise cost tens of thousands of dollars. To make a batch of sake, Sango Kura washes and soaks 80 to 200 pounds of rice in laundry bags. The rice is steamed in a jury-rigged bagel kettle, then quickly cooled in a sawed-off IBC tote connected to a bounce-house blower. That kicks off a two-month process that ends after the sake has been fully fermented, pressed, pasteurized, filtered, and kegged or bottled.
Sango Kura released its first sakes in late 2019 — just in time for the pandemic, which may have spelled disaster if not for the throngs of Philadelphians and New Yorkers who retreated to the Poconos. Customers swarmed the restaurant’s copious outdoor seating for months on end. The boost in business allowed Cooper to double the brewery’s capacity and bring on Jonah Auteri, a sake homebrewer-turned-professional who commutes 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 who Cooper recruited to run the bar. Their daughter was born in 2021. Hirschhorn still manages front-of-house operations and will helm an adjacent beer brewery, Rewind Brewing, opening 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 ales.)
Though staffing has been a major hurdle for Sango Kura in recent months — “If anyone wants to move to the Poconos and wants a job…” Hirschhorn jokes — business has continued to expand. Cooper began self-distributing sake to Bethlehem and Philadelphia this year, including at the International Bar, the Bottle Shop, Zama, Izakaya by Yanaga, Bing Bing Dim Sum, as well as Nunu and Cheu Fishtown.
Izakaya by Yanaga GM Michael Ego says customers are surprised they can order Pennsylvania sakes — especially ones with extra-special local touches, like Sango Kura’s taru, infused with wood chips made from Eastern red cedar trees. “That’s something I think is amazing to be able to bring in from our backyard,” Ego says.
Cheu GM and beverage manager Charlie Knodel echoes that, singling out Sango Kura’s namazake, unpasteurized sake typically consumed at or near the brewery that made it. (Nama roughly translates to raw or fresh.) “That we are able to feature a local [namazake] fresh from the source is very special,” Knodel says.
Despite his now-frequent trips to Philly, Cooper hadn’t visited in years. He was surprised by how much its restaurant scene has changed. “I’m super-pumped to be part of it now,” he says. “Who knows, maybe one day I’ll meet the right chef who would like to split a spot where Sango Kura can open a tasting room and have a Japanese chef doing izakaya food.”
It’s an idea many a customer has suggested: “Every single person that comes in, they’re like, ‘Dude, you need to come to Williamsburg.’ ‘Dude, you need to come to Fishtown,’” Cooper says while walking along a trail overlooking his hometown’s namesake feature.
He voices his usually tacit retort: ”That’s fine, but you don’t have this.”
Sango Kura is located at 39 Broad St. in Delaware Water Gap.