Zen and the Art of Sake - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Zen and the Art of Sake

sakeEd is skeptical.

An old college friend, he was happy to hear I’d be coming to his hometown of Portland, Oregon, while researching a story on sake, and to meet me after my tour of SakéOne, the only American-owned sake brewery in the United States. But I could hear his enthusiasm wane over the phone when I told him to meet me at Zilla, a newly-opened sake bar in Portland’s arty Alberta district. And now that he’s sitting here, staring at a flight of five chilled, premium sakes from five different Japanese prefectures, I can tell he’s dubious.“You know, I don’t really like sake,” he says.

I nod but explain that this isn’t the sake he’s remembering. That was futsu-shu, the industrial-grade table sake served piping hot at sushi bars across the country. This is real sake, a delicate and nuanced brew that rivals wine in its variety and sophistication. Ed stares at the five tiny glasses, embedded like glistening jewels in a thick bamboo serving tray. He shrugs, then takes a first timid sip.

His eyes widen in surprise.

Ed isn’t alone in his sake suspicion. For a society well-acquainted with beer, wine and spirits, there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding the centuries-old beverage, and its introduction to North America, via the explosion of sushi bars in the last 20 years, has been a mixed blessing. Americans now know that sake exists, but most associate it with cheap futsu-shu. Recently, however, that’s been changing. In 2007, for the first time ever, the dollar figure for sales of premium sake exceeded that of generic (futsu-shu) sake in the U.S., according to a joint study done by SakéOne and consulting firm Gomberg, Fredrickson & Associates.

Though sake has been made for centuries in Japan, the high-quality premium sake available to the public today is a relatively new phenomenon of the last 25 or 30 years. That’s not to say premium sake wasn’t made in the past, but a brewery’s best sake was generally reserved for competitions, not for sale. Today, however, a fine daiginjo, made with highly polished rice, may be the pride of a sake brewery’s product line, and is generally the most expensive and coveted offering it has.

Additionally, technological improvements—everything from the ability to accurately control temperature throughout the fermentation and aging process, to the selection of specific strains of yeast for brewing—have drastically improved overall quality. Even so, in Japan sake is still seen as a drink for the older crowd, while younger Japanese drinkers opt for beer, wine or spirits.

In an odd turn of events, this fall from Japanese fashion has helped spur sake’s newfound popularity in the U.S. “Part of the reason sake is growing in the U.S. is that there are more Japanese imports available now,” says Dewey Weddington, vice president of marketing at SakéOne, which both imports and makes sake under the Momokawa and Moonstone labels, among others. “There are more Japanese brewers coming over here to promote their sake, because sake has fallen out of favor in Japan, so they need a market in which to sell it.”

Conversely, sake’s popularity in North America is being fueled by a younger generation, one that has grown up eating sushi. A new crop of youthful, hip bars has popped up to cater to them—places like Zilla and sake bar Decibel in New York City, as well as restaurants like Ozumo in San Francisco. These establishments are some of the best places to learn about sake, with large selections (Decibel offers 80-plus by the glass) and educated servers. “My staff knows what every sake tastes like,” says Decibel manager Yuki Mori. “We tell [customers], ‘Don’t worry. Pick something, maybe because of the name, or the description.’”

Sake has been made in Japan since about the third century B.C., and while the Japanese have refined the process over the centuries, it still involves four ingredients: water, rice, yeast and koji. Koji is a mold used to break down the rice starches into sugars—the same one used to make miso and soy sauce. Sake brewers assiduously care for their koji and mix it into the rice by hand.

Another technological improvement came in the 16th century: polishing the rice to remove the dark, woody exterior, leaving only the starchy white interior. Polishing rice, to this day, is one thing that distinguishes the different kinds of sake (see sidebar), and is responsible for the many subtle flavor differences between them. Polishing removes “impurities,” such as fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. Though these “impurities” sound good, the koji needs starch to work its magic, and Japanese sake rice, of which there are roughly 60 different varieties, is loaded with starch.

Once the rice is polished to reveal its starchy center, it is washed, soaked in water and steamed to open up the starch granules. After cooling, the koji is mixed with some of the steamed rice; this mixture is kept in a moist, warm environment where the koji transforms the starches into sugars. This koji rice is then “introduced” to yeast and some water in a concentrated mixture called the moto. This step causes the massive growth of yeast cells needed for fermentation, which will take place about two weeks later in a huge vat. However, adding the moto, additional koji rice, steamed rice and water to the fermenting vat is done in steps so that the yeast in the moto remains content. As SakéOne’s sakemaster Greg Lorenz says, “Happy yeast makes good flavors.”

Once the vat is filled and the mixture is fermenting, it takes about two-and-a-half weeks to reach its final ABV of 18 to 20 percent. At this point, most sake is filtered (with the exception of cloudy nigori sake) to remove rice particles and lees, after which it is pasteurized and then aged for four to six months in a cool tank to mellow out before bottling. Some sake is left unpasteurized, bottled immediately and sold as fresh nama sake. And while most sake has a small amount of water added to it before bottling, reducing the ABV to 14 to 16 percent, some sakes, called genshu, are left at full strength.

This is a simplified overview of making fine sake—the devil, as they say, is in the details. “[Sake] just doesn’t make itself, like wine,” explains Ozumo’s sake sommelier Jessica Furui. “There’s a lot of technical skill and knowledge involved in making wine, but sake is very precise, and every step is uniquely and intrinsically different from the other.”

Additionally, other factors—different yeast strains, different kinds of sake rice, more time-consuming methods—play a part in how a sake will taste. The end result is something as far removed from hot futsu-shu as a wine cooler is from a fine Pinot Noir. A premium sake made with polished rice is complex and sublime and genuinely reflects the difficult effort required to brew it, bearing flavors as disparate as earthy mushroom or ethereal jasmine.

That’s a point Beau Timken’s been making for years now. “I really don’t think sake should have this ugly, red-headed stepchild association in the libation world,” he says. “I want people to think of sake in the same realm as wine and beer. I want sake to have that same dignity, and to achieve that, it’s got to be in an area where wine is accepted: in the restaurant, at the table. Before I die, I have to make sure everybody who has a wine menu for a restaurant carries at least one sake.”

Timken, who opened his San Francisco sake store True Sake in 2003 and is the co-author of Sake: A Modern Guide, spends much of his time trying to convince restaurateurs to understand sake’s potential for food pairings. He spends even more time trying to convince customers at his store about the same thing, offering tasting flights and writing a newsletter with a regular column called “Sake Challenge” about pairing sake with everything from Middle Eastern to Mexican food. One of these quests led him to discover the joy of drinking junmai with guacamole. “It’s outstanding,” he says. “Talk about a texture interplay and a great feeling. It blows people away. Sake really was made for food pairing.”

Blake Richardson, owner of the Herkimer brewpub in Minneapolis, shares Timken’s enthusiasm for sake’s food-pairing ability, but he decided to pursue more traditional pairings—albeit in a very nontraditional setting. In October, Richardson opened the first sake brewpub in North America, Moto-I, styled like an izakaya, or Japanese pub, with small plates as well as noodles and rice dishes. Like many a craft brewer, he was inspired primarily by his own love for the beverage. “I was sitting in a sushi bar drinking ginjo and thinking, Man, wouldn’t it be great if you could make something like this in a restaurant,” he says. “I was hugely into sake at the time—as I still am—and one thing led to another. I thought, Someone’s gotta do this! Someone’s gotta open a sake brewpub.

In some ways, it makes perfect sense for a beer brewer to take this step: Though erroneously referred to as “rice wine,” the process of making sake is actually more akin to that of beer, since both involve fermenting starches rather than fruit. Even that comparison, though, isn’t entirely accurate. “It’s very different,” Richardson says. “The biggest difference between the two is that, with beer, you convert starches into sugar first and then you convert sugar into alcohol. With sake, you’re doing it at the same time. It’s called multiple parallel fermentations. I understood the chemistry of it; it’s the process of physically doing it I had to learn.”

Since there are only a handful of sake breweries in the U.S. (all on the West Coast) and the way the beverage is made isn’t exactly common knowledge here, the aspiring sakemaker decided to go to the pros, training both in Japan and at the SakéOne brewery in Forest Grove, located just outside of Portland.

SakéOne has been brewing sake—all of it ginjo grade, where the rice is polished to 60 percent—since 1998, and in that time, it has striven to match the quality levels of Japanese premium sakes. (Though several major Japanese brewers have breweries in the U.S., these mostly make futsu-shu, and even their premium sakes tend be of lower quality than what’s made in Japan.) At the same time, SakéOne is unapologetic about its goal to craft sakes that appeal to American palates, infusing its sakes with everything from lemongrass to raspberry. Even its pure nigoris and genshu are crafted with Western preferences in mind. “[G sake] was our effort to push something out there that was bigger and bolder, [aimed] more toward our palates here,” says Weddington, referring to the brewery’s genshu. “But everything [we brew] is a little bit bigger and a little bit fuller than their Japanese counterparts.”

Brewing in the U.S. has its challenges; even finding suitable rice can be tough. And then there’s the fact that American sakemakers lack several centuries’ worth of experience. Not that that’s entirely bad—“they’re not constrained by the confines of traditional Japan and knowledge of sake,” says Timken, who nevertheless stocks no American sake in his own store. Standing on sake’s new frontier, SakéOne’s Weddington remains unfazed. “Give us another couple of years,” he says, “and we’ll catch up on the hundreds of years that we missed out in brewing.”

American sake drinkers, like my friend Ed, have some catching up to do, too. They have to ditch their preconceived notions about sake and realize that there’s an amazing world of flavors—both subtle and bold—to be experienced. That first flight of premium sake made Ed a believer; it was soon followed by a second flight of only ginjos, and with every sip of that pure, clear liquid, you could see his opinion of sake changing. Instead of sipping nervously, he was eagerly washing down mouthfuls of sashimi with it, discovering how perfectly the nuanced flavors complemented the fresh, briny fish. It reminded me of something Weddington had told me just hours before: “Once you get that first sip of a good sake, that really does begin to change everything.”

Sorting Out Sake
Probably the most important thing to understand about different types of sake is that, rather than categorizing by rice variety or the region where the sake is made (as with wines) or by ingredients (as with beer), sake is primarily categorized by the degree to which its rice has been polished. Within that framework, there are other styles (genshu, nama, nigori) based on what the brewer decides to do with the sake—i.e., leave it roughly filtered, skip the pasteurization and bottle it fresh, or leave it undiluted.

Junmai: No alcohol added, just rice, yeast, koji and water. If a sake label doesn’t specifically say “junmai,” then it has had something added (usually brewer’s alcohol, see honjozo below).
Honjozo: Sake with a small amount of brewer’s alcohol added to draw out the aromas and flavors. It’s illegal to make sake this way in the U.S., so all honjozo sake is from Japan.
Futsu-shu: Basic sake, no specific designation. The equivalent of table wine. Generally served hot.

Genshu: Undiluted or full-strength sake, usually 18–20% ABV (as opposed to 15–16% ABV for most other sakes)
Koshu: Aged sake
Nama: Fresh, unpasteurized sake; needs to be kept refrigerated
Nigori: Roughly filtered sake that’s cloudy

Junmai: It used to be that 70% was the minimum polishing for this category, but that has been lifted, as long as the producer states the percentage (such as 80%) on the bottle.
Tokubetsu Junmai: “Special” junmai made with rice polished to at least 65%.
Ginjo*: Premium sake made with rice polished between 50% and 60%.
Daiginjo*: Ultra-premium sake made with rice polished to between 35% and 49%.

*Some Japanese ginjos and daiginjos may be honjozo (i.e., a bit of brewer’s alcohol was added), but it won’t necessarily say “honjozo” on the label. However, if they are honjozo, they won’t say “junmai” on the label.

To confuse things a bit more, several of these terms can apply to a single sake, such as Momokawa’s Junmai Ginjo Nigori Genshu, which is—follow along here—a roughly filtered (nigori), undiluted (genshu) sake made with rice polished to 50-60% (ginjo), and no alcohol added (junmai). If you can get a basic handle on what junmai, ginjo, daiginjo, nama, nigori and genshu mean individually, it will all fall into place for you pretty quickly.

Enjoy This Article?

Sign up for our newsletter and get biweekly recipes and articles delivered to your inbox.

Send this to a friend