Betting on Sake
Exploring America's Blossoming Sake Culture
At a small restaurant and brewery in Minneapolis, a line of taps behind the bar keeps patrons’ glasses filled with a variety of freshly fermented beverages, each named and described on the ever-evolving menu. The food here at Moto-I is Japanese, and the accompanying decor is rather typical of a sushi restaurant. It’s an unusually Eastern atmosphere for a brewpub. Indeed, there is something funny about the brews pouring from each tap: The glasses aren’t billowing with foam, and none are dark or even remotely amber. Rather, they range from as clear as water to a pale milky white.
Moto-I, it turns out, is not a beer brewery at all but one of the few places in America that make and serve their own sake. Founded in 2008, the brewery, which also mills its own rice at a separate facility, has grown slowly but steadily, paralleling a rising interest across America and Canada in sake itself.
Sake (pronounced sä´kē) is the ubiquitous, rice-based table beverage of Japan. Several large Japanese-owned breweries have operated in California for decades, producing what many aficionados consider entry-level stuff. Thanks to these gateway brands, made by Gekkeikan, Takara and several others, sake has become at least vaguely familiar to most Americans.
But now, a sake revolution seems to be unfurling coast to coast, with Moto-I, along with a brewery called SakéOne in Oregon, widely regarded as the innovators. Newbies to the small but expanding community include Cedar River Brewing Co. in Seattle, Blue Kudzu and Ben’s American Sake, both in Asheville, NC, and Blue Current in Kittery, ME. There is Sidecar Sake in San Marcos, CA; its nearby neighbor Setting Sun Sake in Vista; Artisan SakeMaker in Vancouver, BC; Dovetail Sake in Waltham, MA; the Portland Sake Co. in Oregon; the Texas Saké Co. in Austin; and the Ontario Spring Water Sake Co. in Toronto.
Many of these sake breweries are still in the process of opening, while others have been operating for only a few months, and across the continent there are probably fewer than 20 sake breweries all told. Considering that a decade ago, none of them—except SakéOne—even existed, it does seem that a New World sake explosion is underway.
Some, if not most, of these sake brewers seem to have zeroed in on beer drinkers as their primary target market.
“I think craft beer drinkers are more prepared to drink sake than drinkers of wine and spirits,” says Todd Bellomy, formerly of the Boston Beer Co. and the co-founder and brewer at Dovetail Sake, which will open in early 2015. “Craft beer drinkers are better primed to deal with unique brewing processes and new ingredients and flavors. I’ve been at tasting events where it’s always the beer fans who ask the interesting technical questions and seem open to ideas outside the box.”
The spectrum of flavors and aromas to be found in a glass of sake is very different from that found in beer. Sake is not usually malty, or chewy, or rich, or bitter. Rather, the snow-white polished pearls of rice used in sake brewing impart an uncanny elegance. Great sake is often light and graceful, billowing with fruit and floral scents and, in some styles, underscored by mushroom, pine and earth qualities.
But for the aromatic differences between beer and sake, the brewing processes are quite similar. Sake is made from a malted grain in a process that takes just a few weeks. Also like beer, it is usually consumed young and may even be served on tap. Indeed, the cultures enveloping both beer and sake can easily blur with each other, and in North America, they already seem to be doing so. For modern sake brewers, this may serve as a crucial foothold in the already crowded beverage market. Sidecar Sake’s owner, Chuck Perkins, for instance, plans to brew beer and serve it alongside his signature product—a strategy he reckons will help draw San Diego beer fans into a tasting room they might not visit otherwise.
“Beer will supplement my income,” he says. “In San Diego, I know I can’t crowd out the interest in strong beers and ales.”
Ryan Woolverton, owner of the brand new Kanpai Brewing Co. in Corvallis, OR, also recognizes the potential for tapping into the growing beer market and has tentative plans to add hops to his sake.
“I think that could get beer drinkers interested,” Woolverton says. “People might try it and like it and then say, ‘I wonder what that one over there without hops tastes like.’”
Moto-I, Blue Current and SakéOne, among a few others, are sticking to the lines of Japanese traditions—but the innovations among more creative brewers are sure to get weird as sake makers borrow tricks from the brewing world. Some have already been talking about using Brettanomyces yeast to give their sake some funk or even aging it in bourbon barrels. In at least one example, sake and beer have turned up in the same bottle. Cambridge Brewing Co.’s Banryu Ichi, a hybrid drink released each year since 2011, is two parts beer, one part sake, with both components fermented with sake yeast in the same tank and measuring 14%. Bellomy, in fact, makes the sake for the collaboration, and while the Banryu Ichi has been just another creative project for Cambridge Brewing Co., for Bellomy the hybrid brew is a direct invitation to American beer drinkers to put down their steins and pints for a moment and come see how things taste in the ancient world of malted, fermented rice.
The Roots of Sake
Sake may be a novelty for Americans, but it’s nothing of the sort in the Far East. Its earliest roots have been followed as far back as 3,000 years in mainland Asia, but it’s in Japan that sake brewers honed and refined their trade into the craft it is today. Sake, traditionally brewed in the wintertime, is made with rice, yeast, water and a curious fungus called koji—Aspergillus oryzae—that grows on starch and in doing so produces sugar. How this biochemistry was discovered we can only speculate—cooked rice in a pail of water left out by accident for several weeks, perhaps? However sake first was born, the process remains surprisingly simple today; with four ingredients, brewers have created scores of traditional styles and regional variations. There is filtered and unfiltered sake, pasteurized and unpasteurized, aged and young. Some sake is spiked with a touch of distilled spirits to help coax out otherwise elusive flavors. Such sake is called honjozo, while unspiked sake is junmai—meaning “pure rice.” Most sake is fermented in steel tanks, while some—taru—is made in cedar casks and takes to the bottle a subtle spiciness. Almost all is watered down before bottling from 19% to 20% to the standard 14% or 15%; undiluted, it’s a stiff tippler called genshu.
Rice is usually heavily milled before it is used for making sake. While table rice is generally polished of only the very outer layers before going to the market, rice intended for sake brewing may be milled down to a fraction of its original size. The process is time consuming and costly and, in fact, is one of the main reasons bottles of the highest grade sake can be so expensive—$50 and more. But milling is essential, as it eliminates each kernel’s outer layers, which contain oils and proteins that can impart off-flavors to the sake. In most better sake, at least 30 percent of the rice kernel is ground away by milling. Sake, in fact, is graded by the degree of rice milling; sake brewed from rice that has had 40 percent of its outer layers removed is classified as ginjo. Daiginjo sake is made from rice milled to 50 percent or less of the kernels’ starting size. Daiginjo is generally very delicate and aromatic—and quite expensive.
Also before brewing, the sake brewer—called a toji in Japanese—must propagate koji mold spores in a large trough of cooked rice. This is usually done in a clean room, kept entirely sterile and reserved entirely for the koji-making ritual. The koji proliferates through the softened rice kernels, permeating their cores and turning the abundant starch into sugar—a microbial process that generates a warm and delicious chestnut aroma. When brewing time comes, the koji rice is added to a brew tank full of steamed rice and water. Yeast is added to the tank at the same time as the koji rice, and as the koji spreads and produces sugar, the yeast is there waiting, devouring the glucose and turning it into alcohol.
The entire sake-making process, in fact, is quite easy to conduct for anyone with some basic beer brewing equipment. Homebrewing of sake seems to be gaining popularity across the country, and just as thousands of homebrewers of beer have graduated to commercial scales, the same process seems to be underway in North America’s blossoming sake culture. Woolverton at Kanpai, for example, came home from a visit to Japan in 2007 with a taste for sake that local markets, brimming with local beer and wine, could not satisfy. So he decided to make his own. He went online and ordered supplies—a plastic beer bucket, polished rice, yeast and koji mold spores. He sprinkled the koji over a small amount of cooked white rice on an oven tray to propagate the mold, a process that took several days. When ready to brew, he steamed about 7 pounds of polished rice pearls and then combined them in the bucket with the koji rice, water and yeast. In about a month, he had 2 gallons of aromatic, dry, fruity sake. It tasted like bubble gum and banana, and friends and family raved over it.
When the sake was gone, Woolverton brewed more. Over several years, he made about a dozen batches, experimenting with techniques like filtering and pasteurizing, before deciding in 2013 to scale up and go commercial. Today, Woolverton is making three styles of sake in 24-gallon batches, served onsite at his new micro-brewpub. Others, like Cedar River, Sidecar and Setting Sun, have grown from similar roots.
But the bulk of the sake consumed in America is not from homegrown startups working out of garages and basements. Rather, more than a million cases of sake per year are brewed and distributed by several Japanese-owned sake-making giants—namely Ozeki, Takara, Yaegaki and Gekkeikan. Each was an established company in Japan when it decided to open a new facility in California between 1979 and 1989.
Momokawa, another Japanese brewery, opened a facility in Portland, OR, in 1997. The brewery was eventually passed off entirely to American ownership, and its name became SakéOne. The company has thrived and, while much bigger than most of the new American sake microbrewers, SakéOne remains small compared to the Japanese brewing giants in California. The brewery is widely recognized as the largest of America’s craft sake brewers. In 2013, SakéOne bottled 75,000 cases of sake under three different labels—Momokawa, Moonstone and G. The sake is made mostly from Calrose rice—the most available and most commonly used rice variety in the country.
Calrose can make excellent sake. Still, many brewers who started out using Calrose are beginning to look for new rice varieties and, with them, new flavors. In Japan, after all, hundreds of varieties of rice have been used over the years to make sake. Woolverton is experimenting in his garden with some of these Japanese varieties. He says he has had some success with varieties like Omachi, Koshihikari and Watari Bune and may eventually commission a farmer to grow them in production quantities.
The Texas Sake Co. also is using heritage rice varieties that Japanese immigrants introduced to Texas about a century ago. Yoed Anis, the brewery’s founder, is doing something else unique, as well: He is hardly milling his rice, removing just 20 percent of the kernel before brewing. Though contrary to modern beliefs that more milling equals better sake, Anis’ intent is to emulate a hearty, rustic style of sake that he says mostly disappeared from Japan about 100 years ago as milling technology improved. At that time, Anis says, sake drinkers were more accustomed to rougher, bolder flavors.
Today, the collective Japanese palate—and perhaps the American one as well—prefers light and fruity sake. But Anis’ sake is different. It carries rough, woody flavors. The unfiltered nigori—called Rising Star—is cloudy and thick and with a pronounced barnyard funkiness and a tart character like buttermilk. Using this rustic profile of flavors, Anis says he wants to carve out his own niche—that of Texas-grown and Texas-brewed sake.
Anis says he expects the taste for sake to catch on.
“America has a thirsty appetite, and in Texas consumption of sake is increasing,” he said. “Sake drinkers are primarily in Asian restaurants, but we’re seeing sake being adapted to Mexican food and barbecue.”
Anis also predicts that a reliable “support structure” for rice milling and commercial production of koji rice will develop in tandem with the industry and that a critical mass will eventually be achieved. From there, perhaps, the sake market in America will snowball.
But cider and mead have each been called the “next craft beer,” and so far, the forecast has hardly played out. Both categories remain marginally popular, and beer is still the king of American beverages. It would be foolhardy to make similar forecasts for sake. The culture is in its infancy in North America, and even in Japan, interest in sake—or consumption of sake, anyway—has been slumping for decades.
Carving Out a Path
In the United States, consumption is clearly on the risebut no one knows how far it will go.
For the entrepreneurs staking a claim in what they believe could be the next North American beverage craze, a key to success will be educating consumers and weaning them off misperceptions about sake—such as the notions that it must be had in teacups at 120 degrees and that it is a distilled spirit.
“I have friends and family who don’t even want to taste my sake because they’re convinced they don’t like sake,” says Jeff James, who launched Cedar River Brewing in Seattle this summer. “I was telling my wife the other day that I don’t need to focus so much on selling my sake but, instead, on selling all sake.”
Creativity and innovation could prove to be one of American brewers’ main secrets to success—rather than trying to emulate the Japanese.
“American sake is going to have to find its own identity,” says Woolverton, who believes that North American sake must be made differently from Japanese sake, brewed into a distinct subcategory of its own with the help of unusual beer yeasts, barrels saturated with booze and the use of hops.
Woolverton is modest and realistic as he aims to carve his identity: “I mean, how can I ever hope to replicate the best sake of Japan given the secrecy of their techniques and the skill and knowledge of a thousand years of practice? The question for me is how to get people to come over to the other side.”
Blake Richardson makes traditional styles of sake at Moto-I, his brewpub in Minneapolis. He believes Brettanomyces yeast and booze barrels will do few favors for sake.
“It’s too delicate and it’s so fragile,” says Richardson, who serves much of his sake unpasteurized—a style called namazake. Namazake does not travel well, making it an ideal candidate for Moto-I’s tap handles. “You could overwhelm it so easily. A Brett sake would be deep and sour, but it could be one-dimensional. A bourbon barrel would just overtake it. It wouldn’t even be sake anymore.”
Richardson believes the industry will grow, but he expects it to take time.
“We’re not at the tipping point yet,” he says. “The industry is still climbing. There are some real obstacles that won’t stop it but that are slowing it down.” One of these, he says, is a linguistic one: pronunciation.
“I’ve seen people not order a sake because they didn’t know how to say the name,” Richardson says. “Maybe they’re on a date or it’s a server they don’t know, but anyway, they don’t want to sound uneducated, and they say, ‘I’ll just have a beer.’”
Availability of rice, too, could be an issue as the industry scales up. In San Marcos, CA, Chuck Perkins at Sidecar Sake says finding ginjo-grade rice has been a challenge lately. The West Coast drought, he explains, has dented the supply.
Dan Ford at Blue Current is thrilled by idea of reinventing sake and believes that blending the cultures of beer and sake will stir up interest in the latter.
“I love that other brewers are experimenting with ways to make sake—I love that,” he says. “It’s another inroad for sake into America. But we plan to use rice, water, koji and yeast—the tried and true method that has been used for 2,000 years in Japan, and if we get close to matching the average sake of Japan, we’ll have the very best in America.”
However good American brewers get at making sake, the real question is whether American consumers will want to drink the stuff.
“It’s a crowded marketplace,” Bellomy notes. “Craft beer is on fire. So is craft distilling and craft cocktails. Sake is like the coolest thing that no one’s drinking.”
This story appears in the January 2015 issue of All About Beer Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Go to the next page to read tasting notes on sake.
Alastair Bland is a freelance writer who was born and raised in San Francisco, where he lives. He writes about the environment, agriculture, fisheries, cycling and drinks. Alastair has fermented his own mead, wine and beer for a decade. Most recently, he has begun to brew sake.