Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Why Sake?

There are several reasons to drink Sake, but I don't know too many people who have been motivated by even one of them to try it.

For folks that don't know anything about Sake here is some motivation:

It's new to you. And with so many styles the newness lasts at least a little while. Richard Auffrey, a local food/beverage writer and Certified Sake Professional, has compiled a list of the different styles in an article entitled Types of Sake. I personally like the Nigori style where some of the lees are left in the finished product creating a creamy texture and leaving lots more to ponder in the glass. You might like a sparkling Sake or any number of the other styles served Nama style, e.g. on draft. Sake infused with fruit flavors might do it for you or you might be interested in how organic sake is different from other types. Junmai and Ginjo are the two styles I have most often enjoyed. The progression in quality between the two  is a great segway to the next point.

( A mural on the outside of the SakeOne kura in Forest Grove, Oregon. Look how happy they appear! )

Sake is a fermented beverage with a special process (they use a mold to convert rice starch to sugar!) and a long history. Some of the process, see Sake Brewing, is reminiscent of beer brewing (heating the rice) while other aspects are like wine, clearing and aging for example. Quality in Sake is governed by a number of factors with the primary one being how much of the rough, outer portion of the rice is polished away before it is used to make Sake. Learning how it is made and some of the traditions of its long history is akin to studying terroir, place names and famous wine-making families.  There is ALWAYS more to learn!

( The apparatus used to mill the Sake rice at SakeOne in Oregon. )

( The koji grow room at SakeOne in Oregon. )

I believe I had my first taste of Sake about 20 years ago. I was out with friends at an Asian restaurant and somebody asked if I had ever had it and then suggested we try it when I and others said we hadn't. I don't remember the experience in any detail, but I do recall thinking it was similar to white wine, Riesling in fact, and that it was a good match with the food.

Once you get a taste of Sake there is wide world of possibilities, and so many more reasons to drink it, and not just from the different styles. I am learning firsthand that Sake is a phenomenal agent in food pairing, and not just with Asian cuisine as you might initially think. I've not ventured far off the Asian cuisine/Sake pairing playbook quite yet, but as I gain more exposure to the different styles I am feeling more confident to try new pairings. My guide is again Richard Auffrey who has written many posts on Sake and two in particular on food pairing that really lay out the potential here. For Sake food pairing basics check out Sake & Food. Reading the more in depth article, The Science of Sake & Food Pairings, you will find notes on the chemical compounds in Sake and food that are working together to create delicious pairings, as well tips on how the different styles can be generalized in their food pairing roles.

I've explored some of that world of possibilities in 2012 and my new Sake experiences are steadily filling in my knowledge of the styles and have provided me with opportunities to try Sake in different settings.

In April when Margot and I headed to Miami before shipping out on the Kid Rock Cruise we dined at Tony Chan's Water Club, a well known Chinese restaurant in town. I was very excited because I was taking my wife out for her first sushi experience, something I had only started to enjoy in the previous year. Having done my research I knew the Water Club had Sake on the list, and when I got to ordering I selected the Kuromatsu-Hakushika Junmai Daiginjo (in the photo on the right) which I knew to be of the highest grade (thanks Richard!) and a style I had yet to try. The pairing of the Sake with the different sushi bites served to both enhance the fish and to cleanse the palate for an optimal transition between each piece. Much richer than the sushi, the Three Cup Chicken gave me the opportunity to see how Sake would pair with an entree. It did well, but the richness of the sauce overpowered it a bit. Margot loved the sushi (so did I!) and I happily finished my Sake before taking a stroll along the marina at sunset.

My second sake experience this year was a visit to SakeOne in Forest Grove, Oregon during my trip for the Wine Bloggers Conference (#WBC12). I didn't come in early enough to take the pre-conference excursion to SakeOne, rather I planned trip for Margot and I on the first of our three post-conference vacation days. The tour of the kura (Sake brewery) was very similar to the many winery and brewery tours we've taken before and while my one attempt at brewing Sake was not successful, I was familiar with the process enough for there not be any surprises during the tour. I did catch a video of a the top of a batch fermenting. If you look real close you can see some gentle bubbling.

The highlight of the visit was the post-tour tasting. The selections at the tasting bar included the full product line from SakeOne and a number of imported products, including some highly sought after Sakes. Sidenote: SakeOne was created by a company originally launched in 1992 as an importer partnership with the Murai Family and the Momokawa Brewing Company of Japan. Within 10 years a new kura had been built and the company renamed itself SakeOne and began producing Sake from Californian rice and local water. For a more in depth review of the company,  history and products check out SakeOne - Craft Sake In Oregon. The products available for tasting reflect this history and the ongoing partnership with the Murai Family whose products are among the retail and tasting room offerings.

( A wall of Sake at SakeOne! )

SakeOne uses the Momokawa name for their line of traditional Sakes. We tasted the Silver, Organic Junmai Ginjo, Ruby and the Ruby Nama style for our opening flight. The most notable aspect of the flight was how the Ruby served from the bottle differed from the Nama version. The Nama style was much bigger and bolder with more acidity and fruit all around. The lack of pasteurization really does give you some idea of what is sacrificed in pasteurization to be able to stabilize the product for transport and longer shelf life.

The next Sake was the G Joy Ginjo Genshu, a more robust  and spicier style made specifically to appeal to the American palate. I really like this Sake, but that is not to say that I prefer it to the other styles I tasted, I just think the purposeful crafting of this style resonates with me. I could see this as my house Sake to have on hand for casual sipping and cocktails, and in fact I do have a bottle open right now for just those purposes!

( My "house" sake! )

We then transitioned to the Nigori style, coarsely filtered and often milky colored and thicker, sampling both the Momokawa Organic Nigori and the Murai Family Nigori Genshu. The texture and viscosity of Nigori Sake will differ from producer to producer and the Murai Nigori Genshu was considerably thicker than the Momokawa. Both were very smooth, sweet, a little starchy and offered a lot more fruit (tropical fruits were predominant) to the palate. The combination of the texture, sweetness and additional fruit made me swoon.

( The bottle is full, the unfiltered rice has settled. )

Our final flight was from the Moonstone product line, Sakes infused with fruit extracts. The Moonstone Sakes are a blend of the house brewed Junami Ginjo style sake, except the coconut lemongrass which is a Nigori, and all-natural fruit extracts with flavors of plum, raspberry, coconut/lemongrass and pear. Margot found her sweet spot here, and the Moonstone Plum was her favorite. I tasted the Plum, Coconut Lemongrass and Pear. All of them taste well enough of Sake, but with the added fruit flavors they come off as much more of a cocktail, and that is alright by me! It could be said that this would be a good way to introduce someone weary of Sake to the beverage, but I think the flavors in the mouth mask the natural Sake flavors too much for it to be used as an instructional tool. These beverages are sippers, cocktail Sakes and perfect for socializing.

( What an exciting experience. And we ordered some to have shipped home! )

My most recent Sake experience was in celebration of Sake Day, a 35 year old celebration of the beverage and the start of the annual Sake brewing season in Japan. Kanpai! That's a toast equivalent to cheers in English.

( Richard showing off the Momokawa Nigori Sake on Sake Day. )

For Sake Day Richard (I guess you could say I like this guy, huh?) organized a Sake and food dinner at Thelonious Monkfish, a sushi and Asian fusion restaurant, in Central Square, Cambridge. Richard was going to be pouring six Sakes paired with three small plates of Asian-inspired appetizers. You can read more about Sake Day and the local event directly from the man driving the Sake cart himself in his pre-event post, Celebrate Sake Day on October 1st.

Knowing Richard would have a diverse selection of Sakes to try I made sure I could attend, and I was not at all disappointed. The Sakes were poured in the following order:
  • Murai Family Tokubetsu Honjozo
  • Wakatake Junmai Onikoroshi
  • Manabito Kimoto Junmai Ginjo
  • Yuki No Bosha Junmai Ginjo
  • Momokawa Organic Nigori
  • Moon Rabbit Sparkling Sake 
The first two Sakes paired nicely with spicy tuna on rice, pairing best with the Wakatake Junmai which I found to be moderately rich and full.

( Spicy Tuna on a Crispy Rice Ball )

Richard explained that the term Tokubetsu means that something special was done to make this Sake, perhaps a special type of rice or a process element that is not typical to the other styles of sake made by the same kura. As a Honjozo Sake it is made using the four classic ingredients (rice, water, koji, yeast) and has had neutral brewer's alcohol added to it during the finishing.

( The dumplings, which would be good fried as well! )

I focused my attention on the next two Sakes paired with the two different dumplings (Chive and Shrimp respectively), finding both to be worthy partners. The chive dumpling offered a blend of leafy green and savory flavors that were happily met with hints of sweetness and spice in the Yuki No Bosha Junmai Ginjo Sake.

Food pairings were a hot topic during dinner. Richard conjectured that blue cheese with Sake would be a much more interesting pairing than I would have actually thought. The umami (savory, earthy flavors) in both the cheese and the Sake are what would make this work. When we got to the Momokawa Nigori, Richard mentioned fruit as a good pairing, and I dug into the fruit salad to confirm that. I added that making a fruit salad with some of the same Sake in it, an adult fruit salad if you will, would be a nice bump to a great utility dish served in multi-course meals. Richard continued the dessert thread and suggested this Sake would also pair well with coconut cream pie. I would agree wholeheartedly and all I can say is that we are clearly dangerous people to dine with!

( The fruit salad was pretty AND delicious! )

The final flight also included the Moon Rabbit Sparkling Sake, another style I had yet to experience (other than Sake force carbonated on tap). This Sake is sweet with plentiful carbonation and tasted much like sparkling Moscato. Something about this Sake being sparkling tells me that there is much more to explore here. From some basic research it looks to me like most sparkling Sake trends sweet, but if there are any drier versions out there I could so many pairing possibilities for just the sparkling type alone!

I hope my adventures have provided ample motivation for those of you who haven't tried Sake to get out and find some. Fine wine merchants, and especially those in urban areas with Asian and international influence, will often carry Sake including many that would be excellent for people who are just starting their education with this beverage. And don't hesitate to try different food pairings. The Japanese say that "Sake does not get into fights with food", and with that advice in mind any fear of failure should be much reduced.




Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks so much for your kind words, as well as thanks for helping to spread the love for Sake. For me, the question is not "Why Sake?" but "Why not Sake?" There are so many great reasons to embrace Sake that there is really little reason not to like it.


Todd - VT Wine Media said...

I'm with both of you...any self-respecting wine/brew geek should have at least some basic exposure to sake.
Even though sake prices have risen in the last 20 years, the low end and high end of pricing are pretty close together, relative to the huge spectrum in wine. With a little bit of looking, and recommendations from folks like Richard, it should be an easy choice.