April 19

sake + beer. banryu ichi 2012

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

setting up

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.
watching rice steam

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.stir #2After 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)