The brewers are lined up and ready to pour, taste and educate. Boston’s Japan Society summer Sake event is about to start. With 7 brewers, Sake expert John Gauntner and the best sushi in Cambridge – this is going to be a great night. Although sold out, look to the Japan Society for more great Sake events in the future.
Although it feels like our summer here in Boston hasn’t started yet, it is already time for a summer Sake tasting and dinner with the Japan Society of Boston. This year’s event is smaller and more exclusive so get your tickets soon.
This important event will feature Sake expert John Gauntner and a travelling group of seven excellent Japanese brewers. They will be talking about Sake and pouring over 20 Sake from around Japan. We are extremely lucky in Boston to have this group visit, a testament to the Japan Society of Boston’s commitment to growing the Sake scene here in bean town. Expect brewer’s and representatives from the following breweries:
I must start this post with an apology: I contacted the fine folks at Sydney Frank Importing in December for an interview, then proceeded to get side-tracked with the brewing of our Sake/Beer hybrid and other projects. I remembered the information that they provided just recently; this post is made possible by the work that they did in December. Sorry guys.
When thinking about the “hot” brands in the food and beverage arena, the popular eye is definitely turned toward artisinal producers. Whether it’s the newest one-man pickle making operation in Brooklyn or your area’s newest nano-brewery, people just love products that feel “crafted”. It is really easy to love these newer brands and forget about the larger brands that paved the way and made the market possible for those products. I run into this everyday in the craft beer world. While Budweiser and similar breweries make beers very far from my daily drinking choices, it is hard to ignore Budweiser’s historic contribution to American brewing: early use of pasteurization, ingenuity in distribution and the refrigerated rail car which allowed them to grow rapidly in the late 19th century.
Gekkeikan traces its roots back to 1637 when a man named Jiemon Okura founded the Kasagiya brewery in Fushimi.
With its good water and close proximity to the capitol city of Kyoto, Jiemon’s brewery grew to be very successful. It wasn’t until Jiemon’s 11th successor Tsunekichi Okura focused on “modernizing” the brewery in the late 1800′s that the company known now as Gekkeikan grew to become the huge powerhouse that it is today. In 1989 Gekkeikan also pushed into new areas when it decided to open a modern brewery in California. Nestled near the California rice growing areas around Folsom, this brewery is responsible for much of Gekkeikan’s U.S. Sake.
To learn more about how such a large brewery thinks about it’s Sake and the slowly growing U.S. market, I posed some questions to Ryan Fisher, Brand Manager at Sydney Frank Importing. Sidney Frank Importing just celebrated the 40th anniversary of it’s partnership with Gekkeikan. Ryan was nice enough to reply to my email and I have listed his answers below.
1. Gekkeikan has had a long history of selling Sake in the U.S., what has been the Gekkeikan strategy to grow its share of the U.S. market to 25%?
“Our portfolio mix has greatly helped in the success of building the brand here in the U.S. Gekkeikan offers consumers a wide range of sakes and plum wines that can be enjoyed for any occasion.”
2. You sell Sake in many different package forms (bottle, tokkuri, small carbonated bottle (Zipang), 180ml one cup, box etc.) How instrumental has packaging choice been in gaining new market share in the U.S.?
Gekkeikan has been a leader in innovation and continues to look at new and creative ways to bring premium Sake to the consumer.
- 1910 – first Sake producer to use glass bottles
- 1911 – became the first Sake producer to brew sake without preservatives
- 1961 – first to open a facility that can handle year-round brewing
- 1984 – Gekkeikan becomes first sake producer to brew Draft sake
3. Has Gekkeikan developed any U.S. Sake that differ from its Japanese products? We use the same premium and high quality sake making process to produce our U.S. products.
4. How has Gekkeikan attempted to educate the American consumer on the merits of Sake? Have you seen a change at the retail level?
Sake education is key to help grow the U.S. business. We are always looking at events and partnerships that give consumers a better understanding of Sake, how it’s produced and the Gekkeikan story. We are targeting the non-Asian accounts and more general market places in order to give consumers something different in their cocktails and to have them view Sake as more than something consumed during your visit to a sushi restaurant. Many consumers are looking for non-sulfite products. Sake has no sulfites, gluten and no preservatives.
5. How important has Sake cocktails and other uses of Sake been to the Gekkeikan U.S. business?
As in other spirit categories, cocktails and mixologists play a major role in growing Gekkeikan. We work with Todd Richman, our Corporate Mixoloigist, and our Sales team to educate on premise accounts about the versatility of Sake and how it can easily be incorporated in any classic or contemporary drink. We recently worked on various Sake sangria and cocktail recipes in order to offer our accounts something unique.
6. In your opinion, where is the U.S. market going? What things will we see driving Sake growth going forward?
We have seen continued growth the last few years and nothing in the current marketplace tells us that will change anytime soon. We are starting to see consumers realize Sake can be very versatile and switched out for your vodka martini or sangria of choice. This trend will continue to help grow the category along with different innovations and flavor profiles. Gekkeikan sales have been growing every year for over 20 years and continues growing during a tough economic market.
The brave souls who are here to drink Sake at 8:30am! Let’s get started!
While studying Sake over the years, I have found it invaluable to read about Sake in Japanese. Reading English language texts puts you at the mercy of the author’s/translator’s agenda, and the cultural nuance can get muddied. In my pursuit of better language skills, I have been increasingly turning to my iPhone. The Sake apps I’ve found so far have had great content, but share a fatal flaw: none has had selectable text for the dictionary function on your phone – until now that is….
The new Sake app from SSI (Sake Service Institute) is designed to be a basic primer into the world of Sake. The SSI is an organization dedicated to the study and promotion of Sake. They are also responsible for administering the tests for kikizake-shi, translated as Sake Sommelier, the gold standard for licensing in the Japanese Sake world.
The Sake app has several helpful sections: a glossary of Japanese breweries by area with links to their websites, decoding information on various labels, basic Sake grading information, and a Sake-related dictionary. It even has a section listing all of the Sake breweries in the U.S. and recipes for Sake cocktails.
The “book” section of the app is packed with chapters on different aspects of Sake knowledge. There is a thorough selection of topics from the origins of Sake to ingredients and brewing methods. Once opened, these chapters are short but well written and illustrated. Most importantly, you can look up any words that you find.
Most Sake apps have yet to utilize this iPhone function. It is this ability that sets SSI’s app apart from the others. A quick jab with your finger highlights any word or phrase with the ability to copy or define the term.
Many Japanese language apps require you to copy and paste terms into a separate dictionary app but now there is integration to Apple’s built-in dictionary. Simply hit define and the app jumps right to the definition with no need for a separate app, getting back to reading is accomplished with a simple done button.
These features alone would be enough for me to highly recommend this app to many Japanese language students with an interest in Sake. However, SSI’s app hits a home run with its final two features: a quiz and a Sake notebook.
The Sake challenge quiz is available in 3 levels to test your Sake knowledge with various multiple choice questions. I’ll admit that a lot of the
questions are fairly difficult. If they were too easy, it would diminish the usefulness of the feature. Now learners have a true challenge to test their mettle.
The final feature is a nicely designed Sake notebook. The notebook has space for recording favorite Sake, and not just quick notes, but space for photos and sliders to denote flavor characteristics. I am really surprised that no one had developed an app like this for Sake lovers already. It is a shame that this one is only in Japanese. With quick drop down menus and sliders to record the attributes of your current glass of Sake, this is an app that I would definitely use in a bar or izakaya.
I highly recommend this app for anyone who is studying Japanese and has an interest in Sake. The variety of features and content, coupled with the ease of use for the iPhone dictionary, put this app above the Sake apps I have seen so far. SSI has truly put out a winner with this app. Oh yeah….did I mention that it is free on iTunes? :)
I try to be a constant evangelist for the enjoyment of Sake. It is an easy job given that Sake is a very delicious beverage; however, working in the craft beer industry I tend to communicate Sake flavors and attributes through a beer-colored lens. Sake is in essence a beer: it is made from grain; it undergoes starch conversion to sugar; and it contains no sulfites or additives common in wine. In this country however, because of its larger bottle and high ABV%, Sake has historically been lumped in with wine and distributed through wine wholesalers. In the last 20 years, this fact increasingly does not hold true. The craft beer industry commonly has beers above 15% ABV and beer now comes in a wide variety of bottle types and sizes. Craft beers have even branched out to encompass a broad spectrum of flavors incorporating spices, barrel aging, fruits, herbs and vegetables. Even with this explosion of innovation and increasing market share for craft beers, Sake remains hidden and underdeveloped in the purview of wine merchants. I think that it is time for craft beer drinkers to bring this lost brother of brewing back into the fold.
Starting several years ago, Will Meyers (head brewer at Cambridge Brewing Company) and I began playing with the idea of blending the traditions of beer and Sake. As a beer guy Will found that he liked the flavors that he was discovering in the Sake that I shared with him; they were also flavors that had been unexplored in the increasingly complex craft beer world. We tried several different methods to achieve a hybrid beer:
- combining beer wort (unfermented beer) with a Sake starter made from rice, koji and Sake yeast
- brewing a high rice content beer and fermenting with Sake yeast only
- blending finished beer with finished Sake
In the end we decided on using the first method, which not only organically combined both beer and Sake brewing, but also allowed us to do something that no other beer brewpub had done – make a full batch of Sake. This year’s batch is our second, and we not only improved on the process, but were able (with help) to make more Sake. Adding this additional Sake pushed the beer’s flavors further into the Sake realm.
Firing up several 20 gallon home-brew kettles we proceeded to use a long weekend to steam almost 300 lbs of Sake brewing rice. Thankfully the mild winter this year kept us from freezing too badly (unlike last year!). Positioned on the sunny patio of the CBC, it was quite pleasant at times. What an interesting sight we must have been for the patrons of the CBC that weekend: five guys working outside all day, steaming rice, taking photos, tackling endless cleaning chores, and drinking a bit of Sake along the way.
The resulting moromi (Sake mash) almost filled our little 500 liter tank that lives in a corner of the brewery – there was some worry on the last day that it wouldn’t all fit! Also luckily for us, the brewery is largely uninsulated and maintains the colder temperatures need for Sake fermentation allowing us to make some pretty tasty Sake.After several weeks our batch was at the height of fermentation with yeast health high and alcohol levels around 16% ABV. At this time we took the whole mash containing Sake, rice, koji, and plenty of yeast and pumped it over into a beer tank. To this tank we added 225 gallons of an unusual beer wort made with malted barley, rice, and brown rice syrup. This to me is the magic of our Sake/beer hybrid – the Sake yeast is strong in the Sake mash, but starting to succumb to the high levels of alcohol and getting tired. Adding the beer wort drops the alcohol levels down significantly and the yeast is re-invigorated to ferment the entire tank. The resulting hybrid is a true combination of Sake and beer brewing traditions.
This unique drinking experience is only possible with the gracious help and patience of friends and family who support this crazy experiment. If you happen to be in Boston this spring, head over to the Cambridge Brewing Company to try a glass of Banryu Ichi 2012 and judge for yourself if Sake can sit side by side with beer and leave wine on the shelf.
If you are a beer brewer going to the Craft Brewer’s Conference in San Diego this year, you can also try this unique beverage along with 2 other beers and some Sake. We are presenting our experiences in a lecture about Sake/Beer Hybridization on Friday at the conference.
(all except last photo courtesy of Mike Johnson at www.festpics.com)
Squish, squish, squish….splat. The unflattering sound of chewing and spitting countless mouthfuls of brown rice is getting odd looks from my wife and daughter. There is no getting around the sound and no way of subtly sitting there chewing grain and spitting it into a 3000 ml pyrex beaker that wouldn’t get some weird looks.
Sake, like many grain-based alcoholic beverages, has humble beginnings. Early humans didn’t understand yeast or microbiology, but one thing they did understand was that sweet things left out in a container would ferment into alcohol. This fact is even understood by some monkeys who store rotten fruit in the hollows of trees or depressions in rock; returning days later to eat the fermented fruit to make them feel good. Unlike fruit (which can ferment right off the vine) or barley (which can be converted to sugar by making primitive breads), rice needs some catalyst to convert the starches into sugars to ferment. Luckily the human body produces an enzyme called amylase in our saliva. If you take a mouthful of rice or potato and chew it, you will notice that the starches become thinner as you chew and it also gets progressively sweeter – this is the amylase slowly converting starches to sugar. This “technology” was used in other parts of the world as well, like Cauim in Brazil or Chicha in Central America – both fermented beverages made by chewing corn.
The early Japanese people also understood this and used it to make simple alcohol. In the pre-rice days of the Jomon period, people chewed millet, buckwheat, acorns, chestnuts and other starchy foods to create a rough alcohol that was consumed for medicine and ceremonial uses. As rice growing technology was introduced from China near the close of the Jomon period, people naturally applied the same methods to producing alcohol from this new crop - thus Sake was born. This type of early Sake is known as “Kuchikami Sake” [ 口 kuchi - mouth, 噛む kamu - to chew].
I decided to explore these early methods of Sake brewing by making some “kuchikami Sake” at home. I decided early on that I would try and stick with early techniques as much as possible but I would have to concede to some modern developments. The few modern devices that I acquiesced to:
- a Pyrex container to hold the Sake and actual Sake yeast as opposed to wild yeast. The container was a convenient shape to not only ferment in but it had a wide mouth to allow for spitting the rice.
- Early Sake were fermented with wild yeast that floats around in the environment. Wild yeast is still present today but with suburban development the concentration in the air is much lower; I needed a quick ferment to prevent other microorganisms from taking root in my Sake and spoiling it – thus the use of brewing yeast.
- The third was a stir plate so that I wouldn’t have to open the Sake to stir it. The enzymes are in the liquid and need to “digest” the rice; a stir plate would speed this process by keeping the mixture moving.
I decided that my fermentables would come from brown rice (early people had little or no milling technology) and chestnuts, as a nod to the earliest Sake produced in Japan.I simply cooked the rice in water like you would do for eating it; the chestnuts I roasted in the oven. After these were cooked, I simply sat down and started chewing. I tried to chew until I felt the material getting thinner and sweeter to ensure that the amylase enzymes were doing their work.Considering that this was a very small batch, it was much more work than I thought – a lot of chewing is tiring indeed! Every 3rd mouthful or so I would rinse my mouth with water and spit that in the beaker as well. When the chewing came to an end, I simply added as much water as I felt was necessary to approximate a normal Sake moromi (mash) – roughly 2 cups. I pitched the yeast and sat back to let my microbial friends do their thing. By the next morning there were the telltale bubbles of fermentation and you could smell the sweetness of rice. I simply left this experiment for 2 weeks to give it time to finish fermentation. After bubbles ceased I move it to the fridge to let the solids settle and the finished Sake to rise to the top.
The resulting liquid was a fascinating look into the origins of modern Sake. The aroma is of sweet rice and earth with a pronounced acid twang. The color is cloudy white with very little of the yellowish tint in most Sake. The flavor?…. rice sweetness with a background of earthiness and nuttiness with a strong lactic acid bite. With the slower conversion of rice and nuts to sugar using saliva (VS. Koji), lactic acid bacteria flourished along with the Sake yeast. While this process is kept in careful balance in modern Sake, in this experiment it was unchecked giving me a strong acidity. The alcohol is also not as high as modern Sake, it seems some of the sugar are not fully converted leaving them unfermented; the ABV% is roughly 7%, not bad for such primitive methods. Even with these attributes it not unpleasant to drink although you will have to take my word for it – convincing others to drink Sake made from my saliva isn’t very easy!
Next time I will try for more realism; maybe cook the rice and nuts in a clay pot on an open fire and ferment in a similar vessel. If you live in a remote area you could leave the mash outside to use wild yeast – perhaps in an orchard. This was one experiment that I would encourage people to try. It is always interesting to look at the roots of something as controlled as Sake brewing; realizing that at one time people made it in clay pots using nothing but mother nature and some spit. Just be prepared for some weird looks
Kihachi – Columbus OH, a set on Flickr.
Sometimes as Americans, who are busy and constantly connected to friends all over the world via devices in our pockets, we need reminding of just how large and diverse our country is. As someone who used to live in Japan, I sometimes need reminding that large coastal cities are not the only places with Japanese populations in the U.S. Nothing illustrates both of these points more than Kihachi in Columbus OH.
On a business trip in Columbus this week, I was informed by several folks that there was a traditional Japanese restaurant in town that catered to the plethora of Japanese nationals who were here working for Honda of America. Although none of these people had ever been and had no details about Kihachi (besides the fact that they didn’t serve sushi) I was suitably intrigued. Using my iPhone and rental car, I found Kihachi quite easily but I admit to being a bit skeptical as I pulled up outside of a strip mall. It was early on Monday evening and a few cars were parked outside. The exterior is quite simple; a small sign and clean widows partially obscured by paper screens. I caught the glimpse of a washitsu, or traditional Japanese room with tatami mat floor, not a bad sign. As I walked inside I was properly greeted in Japanese and as I sat at the counter the place felt “right”; I knew that this was going to a nice evening. This is what a Japanese restaurant should be: a small and focused menu, stunning ingredients, a simple but beautiful interior, and warm and friendly staff. At times during my meal I felt as if I was back in Japan and as more customers arrived and the babble of Japanese conversation increased I knew that this was a true hidden gem; a small piece of Japan in the unlikeliest of places.
I could go on-and-on but I will let the Sake and food pairings and a small slideshow of pictures speak for me. If you live anywhere near Columbus Ohio and are interested in real Japanese food made with seasonal ingredients; you owe it to yourself to go to Kihachi.
Red Crab and Mizuna Salad
Delicate and fresh crab on a bed on fresh mizuna. A balanced rice vinegar based dressing mirrors the slight acidity in the Sake. This bold Sake from Shizuoka shines next to this dish, a true blend of sea and field; like Shizuoka herself.
Maguro Nuta (Tuna with Seasoned Miso)
Beautifully fresh raw tuna and scallions in a light, vinegar kissed broth, topped with seasoned yellow miso with a hint of yuzu. The sweet and tart balance of the miso gave way to the soft mineral notes of the Sake; a truly great counterpoint to the complexity of this dish.
Sake Steamed Duck
Lotus Root, Shrimp Paste and Shiso Hakata Age
Two heavier dishes to pair with this powerful Sake from northern Japan. The cold Sake steamed duck was a perfect medium rare with a balance of gaminess and fattiness that was embraced by the Sake but not washed away. The “sandwiches” of lotus root, shrimp paste and shiso were lovingly fried and served with a simple garnish of salt and lemon. In such a complex dish it was a testament to the chef that you could taste all the components but when you took a sip of Sake the seasonal lotus root shined through. Beautifully executed.
Yaki Onigiri (grilled rice ball with shoyu)
Rice usually marks the end to a meal in Japan. A perfectly slow grilled rice ball is brushed with shoyu and served with some clean pickles. Kira has slight aged flavors of chestnuts, koji and heavier rice notes. This was a perfect pairing; the caramelized notes of grilled shoyu and rice a perfect mate to the Sake.
It’s Valentine’s Day and all across America many people are struggling to buy the right gift for their loved ones. Chocolate is a must but what else could you pick up to make the night extra special? You have to ask….?
Pairing Sake with chocolate is not a common practice but as we have seen in the past Sake’s versatility and complexity make it a perfect pair with a wide range of foods. I struggled with an idea that would be entertaining to readers but also present information that they could use. When pairing foods with alcohol, rarely is there a “bad” pairing but there are pairings that go outside the scope of what one is trying to accomplish. To delve into the idea of Sake with chocolate, we will look at one Sake paired with chocolates of varying cacao content. The stronger the cacao percentage, the earthier and more robust the chocolates become; their interaction with the Sake varying as well.
The Sake - Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo. Asahi Shuzo Co. Yamaguchi. This well rounded Sake brings notes of apple, pear, honey, and a sweet rice finish that lingers with honey and apple peel. A mildly dry Sake that mixes all of that complexity with a soft acidity that will make you want another drink…maybe another bottle.
Milk Chocolate: the lowest of the cacao contents, this sweet and creamy Belgian milk chocolate struggles to overwhelm the Sake. The two different impressions of sweetness battle for attention; the dairy fat sweetness of the chocolate and the water based fruity sweetness of the Sake. The complexity of both are sadly lost here. The finish is of one-dimensional cream and alcohol warmth. Not terrible, but there is no magic to be found here.
29% Cacao: with a cacao content on the high side of milk chocolates, this chocolate has the creaminess of a milk variety but with a touch of earthy bite and a firmer texture. The greater complexity of this chocolate serves to bring out notes of coffee and caramel when blended with the Sake. The slight earthiness also pulls out some of the orchard fruit notes in the brew, with a sweet and clean finish. This is a much better pairing, especially for someone not really interested in darker chocolates.
56% Cacao: a medium dark chocolate that is really starting to deliver on the earthy notes with hints of almond and coffee. Blending with the Sake, this chocolate is a bit of a roller coaster ride – starting with a cocoa earthiness with hints of orange and almond, then diving into a valley of rice alcohol warmth and creaminess; finishing with a delightfully clean (almost light) impression of fruit and vanilla. An excellent pairing that brings out new flavors from both the Sake and chocolate.
71% Cacao: a deep earthy and bitter chocolate that has notes of cocoa, cherries and cinnamon. The deep flavors from the cacao are a perfect match for the Sake and the lower fat content allows the Sake flavors to shine through. The sweetness from the chocolate is unburdened by dairy fat and is allowed to let the apple and honey notes in the Sake play an important role. Blending smoothy with notes of cherry and spice from the chocolate, the Dassai 50 finishes this pairing with a clean rice impression in harmony with a slight coffee and dark pit-fruit flavor from the cacao. Awesome.
Having never done this type of tasting with Sake before it is clear to me now that as the cacao content rises and dairy fat lowers, the chocolate is able to truly pair with the Sake. The harmonious nature of the second two pairings are a perfect example of this concept; the chocolate and the Sake supporting each other and mingling in a way as to bring out the best of both. In the end, isn’t that what Valentine’s Day is all about.
A big hello to all my blog readers in this new year~! This year has certainly started off at a very busy pace and unfortunately the blog hasn’t been keeping up with the pace of the dragon.
Recently I was asked to write a post on the Mutual Trading Co.’s blog for their amazing Japanese Culinary Center in NYC. I was sent some great Sake from one of my favorite breweries to play with and wow! what an experience. You can read about all the fun HERE.
Cheers to a new year of great Sake, good food and close friends!