Recently, I attended what may have been my eighth brewery blessing. A long time back, I had observed Catholic and Episcopalian brewery blessings. They were interesting ceremonies. Christians have been blessing breweries and wineries for well over a thousand years. Most Christians take a relaxed view of modest drinking; blessing an alcohol production establishment is not uncommon.
I remember Portland’s Cartwright Brewing in 1982. Winemaker Charles Coury, Oregon’s first brewer, was on the verge of failure, mostly because he was too recent on the scene, brewing and trying to bottle the wrong beer. He was a born-again Christian. He held a brewery blessing as he brewed his last brew. He “pre-sold” the whole brew to we members of the Oregon Brew Crew homebrew group. A number of us each purchased a case of that beer, in advance, for $24. We wanted him to succeed. He had that brew blessed and we all wished him well, to little avail. The county sheriff auctioned off those cases on New Years Day of 1982. Coury’s prayers were, and were not, answered. A few of us had picked up our cases early in that last week, but the county sheriff auctioned what was left for a dollar a case to pay off Coury’s county tax obligations.
Coury’s prayers were answered several months later, when that beer fell to an infection he had not foreseen. Believe it or not, that infection produced one of the best Belgian brews I’ve ever tasted! His prayers had indeed been answered, but not in any way to help him. He probably never actually tasted his best brew since it matured some time after he had closed shop. God had been good to him, but not in the way he’d wanted. Moreover, most American beer drinkers were not yet ready for the Belgian revolution that we have going these days.
My last several brewery blessings were vastly different from Coury’s. These were SakéOne sake brewery’s (Forest Grove, OR) annual blessings by an American Shinto priest from his Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Granite Falls, WA.
Rev. Koichi Barrish (a handsome, bearded Caucasian Shinto priest trained in Japan) appeared in full Shinto regalia: white kimono, purple apron, black patent wooden slippers and the traditional tall black hat. He was there to perform the Shinto purification ceremony Shobaihanjokikan. Although he speaks flawless Japanese, he made some astute comments in English concerning his religion, indeed, and religion in general.
He began the ceremony by explaining the various entities, especially kami-sama or head of earthly powers, which he invited into the outdoor area around the saké brewery building, where he had assembled a beautiful, but temporary, wood altar. It was the traditional Shinto Okuda, with a mirror (no wooden images of gods in that religion) as its centerpiece. There were offerings of rice, saké and special salt on a shelf below the altar. He was armed with a harai-gushi—a broom-shaped purification wand.
Rev. Barrish told us that there is no Shinto ceremony conducted without saké on the altar. Indeed, he characterized saké as entertainment for the Kami, or divine powers of heaven and earth. Now there’s a concept I find agreeable.
We offer God an alcohol libation as entertainment! I have worked for several Christian organizations, and despite the first miracle of Christ, they never offered any entertaining libations at our staff meetings. We all know about Islam. No entertainment of any kind with those folks, this despite the relatively mild injunction of the Koran, to simply avoid alcohol before prayer. As for Judaism, we always had wine at our staff meetings and at employee gatherings, so it would seem that the God of Abraham does indeed welcome entertainment. As for Buddhism, one has only to refrain from alcohol abuse, the “middle way” between shunning and abusing. Zen priests have been known to stack their empty saké bottles in front of the temple, so that parishioners would be fully informed as to the moral flaws of their teachers—entertainment for the Divine to be sure.
The ceremony consisted of chants and bows and hand claps, followed by a rice and salt offering, sacred prayers (in Japanese) and purification of the building by throwing special salt and emptying a bottle of saké to spray over each of the brewery’s four corners. We spectators followed along, bowing at appropriate times, to its termination with an offering of tamagushi—evergreen branches—and closing with the traditional tessen ceremony.
Afterwards, we (about 150 of us) gathered together in SakéOne’s spacious picnic area to partake of sushi, homemade cookies and some of SakéOne’s best saké, including a very rare, unlabeled, full-strength (20 percent alcohol by volume) nama (unpasteurized) first run ginjo saké. It was spectacular and memorable, especially when served deeply chilled.
Arabashiri (although SakéOne does not call it that) is only occasionally available at any saké brewery. Arabashiri is produced by drawing off fresh saké at the end of the main moromi ferment with a light press and separation from solids) and it is always at genshu (full) strength. American-owned SakéOne, is a thoroughly modern, fiercely antiseptic, facility with touch-screen computerized operations. They offer several fine, award-winning saké labels found across the country in most places where saké is sold. These are fine examples of the great beer called saké.
Most of SakéOne’s production is reasonably priced at around $10 to $15 for a beautiful cobalt blue 750ml bottle containing some of America’s finest sake. All are junmai (rice only, as required by U.S. law) and best served chilled. Unfortunately, most of SakéOne’s production is kept at a relatively low 14 percent alcohol by volume level, because it is marketed as a wine in most of the country; whereas one expects saké to be at the same level as that in Japan, 15 to 16 percent alcohol by volume.
It should be noted that we are in the “chilled” saké season which started March 3rd and continues until November 11th, after which saké is expected to be served warm at about 110 to 119 degrees F.
SakéOne’s Momokawa Silver, Diamond and Ruby, at 14 percent alcohol by volume, are fine examples of ginjo (premium saké from high-quality rice polished to less than 60 percent) with muted aromatics and an estery tail. Another favorite of mine is Momokawa Pearl Nigori Genshu, a fine dessert saké, a bit sweet with hints of coconut. But their pièce de résistance is the new Momokawa Organic Daiginjo ($20 for 750ml).
A Connoisseurs’ Bounty
We American saké enthusiasts are truly blessed these days, although, aside from SakéOne, American-brewed saké, usually served hot from machines in Japanese-American restaurants, sucks. However, the import saké inventory in this country has grown greatly with many spectacular examples of the finest qualities that the beverage offers. These newly available high-quality sakés are becoming more popular here. You could say that saké is on a roll. We have access to more and better brands across the country.
While it’s true that they are showing up mostly in traditional Japanese-related outlets, they are also appearing in non-Japanese venues: New York City, Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis to name a few. Nonetheless, the U.S. West Coast cities of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego probably top the list. I’m guessing here, but I think that there are now close to 500 brands from mostly small and relatively rare kura (breweries) now found in major markets across the country.
Small saké-bistros (the Japanese call them izakaya—sit-down bars), each offering upwards of 20 different brands, are now appearing in major market areas. These small establishments also present some fascinating side dishes, beyond just sushi, to accompany their saké offerings. In the major metropolitan areas around San Francisco Bay, for example, there may well be over 30 such bistros.
Of late I have tasted several truly world-class sakés. My favorite was Yoshinogawa Daiginjo straight from Japan ($79) for the 720ml bottle. Well worth the price!
Fred Eckhardt lives in Portland, OR, and drinks most alcohol libations whenever he can find the good stuff, but good saké remains a prize worth finding.