By: Nan McCreary
Saké has been around for thousands of years, but few Americans are familiar with the drink that is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. That is changing, and it’s changing quickly. With U.S. consumers eager to experience alternative beverages and explore new flavors, saké is on the cusp of a revolution here at home. As imports of saké rise dramatically, local artisans and entrepreneurs are seeing an opportunity for a new niche in the craft beverage market: local saké production.
Currently, there are about 20 saké breweries (Kura) in the U.S., including several that originated as American outposts of Japanese companies. These breweries span from California to Maine, from Texas to Minnesota. Wherever they are located, the owners and master brewers (toji) have one thing in common: a passion for the product. Dan Ford, founder and owner of Blue Current Brewery in Kittery, Maine, is one such devotee. After living and working in Japan for years, he decided to “spread the word” by bringing hand-crafted saké to New England.
“I love saké,” Ford said. “I love making it, and I love to see people smile when they taste it. That’s what drives me.”
So what exactly is this mystical brew that is rapidly growing in popularity in the U.S. and around the world? Saké is an alcoholic beverage fermented from rice. It has often been called ‘rice wine’ but, in fact, it is not a wine. Nor is it a beer, nor a distilled product. Rather, it fits into its own unique category.
“Saké has a little bit of identity crisis because a lot of people consider it a wine, but it’s more like a beer, fermented from grain using a saké yeast,” said Tim Klatt, co-founder of Texas Saké Company in Austin, the only saké producer in Texas. “In the past, people’s knowledge was pretty much limited to ‘hot saké,’ which is basically grain alcohol with a little rice flavoring that’s super cheap and heated up so you can’t really taste anything. Our approach is to make a much more crafted, artisan product.”
Jack Lien, sales and education ambassador at SakéOne in Forest Grove, Oregon, said their brewery, too, is on a mission to introduce people in the U.S. to the joys of quality saké. “Saké is unique,” he told Beverage Master Magazine. “It’s brewed like a beer and drinks like a wine. It offers a nice alternative for people who are conscious of what they’re drinking. It’s sulfite free and naturally gluten-free. Some are vegan. It’s a unique beverage that intrigues a lot of people.”
Saké comes in a variety of styles, but the basic ingredients are always the same: rice, water, koji (a fungus that converts the starch in rice to sugar) and yeast. Like good beer and good wine, good saké starts with quality ingredients, primarily premium rice. Generally, U.S. brewers source their rice from California’s Sacramento Valley, which grows some of the finest rice in the world. Texas Saké Company uses Calrose rice, the offspring of high-end rice used ages ago in Japan. SakéOne uses mostly Calrose rice and an American grown Yamada-Nishiki rice, known in Japan for its use in quality Saké. Blue Current uses Koshi Hikari, a short grain variety of rice named after the historic Koshi Province in Japan.
Water quality is also important, as completed saké is 80 percent water. “Water is critical because it can affect the final product,” SakéOne’s Lien told Beverage Master Magazine. “Soft water produces a soft and mellow saké, while hard water, which contains certain minerals, produces a more full-bodied saké.” Most American brewers prefer to use soft water.
Production of saké is not for the faint of heart: it is a complex process that takes time, patience and skill that can only be acquired by training and experience. This process starts when the rice first arrives at the brewery, where it is polished to remove the outer husk and prepare it for brewing good saké.
The polishing rates vary, depending on how much of the outside husk of each grain of rice is removed to reach the starchy and more desirable core. In general, the more the rice is polished, the more aromatically expressive the Saké becomes, and the higher the grade. The majority of saké made in the U.S. are junmai ginjo, a high-end saké milled to 60 percent of its original size, although some brewers may polish further.
After the rice is polished, residue from the milling process is washed from the grain, and the rice is saturated with water, depending on the type of rice and the desired characteristics of the saké. Next, the rice is steamed, which changes the molecular structure of the starch in the grain, allowing easier breakdown of that starch.
The next step — making the koji — is the heart of saké-brewing. “The Japanese say there are three pillars of brewing saké,” Blue Current’s Ford told Beverage Master Magazine. “The first pillar is koji, the second pillar is koji, and the third pillar is koji. All things flow from making koji. If you can make really good koji, you can make really good saké.”
In this process, the freshly steamed rice is spread out on long tables in a warm, heated environment known as a koji room. The rice is covered with koji-kin, the “miracle” mold that converts the starch in the rice to a form of glucose. Over the next 36 to 45 hours, the toji constantly tends the koji to ensure that it’s developing properly. “The koji is food for the yeast, and it’s critical to fermentation,” SakéOne’s Lien said. “Our toji, Takumi Kuwabara, has 25 years of brewing experience—13 years in Japan and 12 here—and he makes our koji completely by hand. He’s continually tinkering and tweaking the koji to make sure he gets the recipe just right.”
After the koji is made, a small amount is mixed with steamed rice, yeast and water in a tank to produce shubo or moto, or a fermentation starter. Typically, it takes two weeks to create a small batch of starter with a high concentration of robust yeast cells. Next, all the prep work comes together. Water, steamed rice, saké rice and the fermentation starter are added in three successive stages over four days to create the main mash, which will ferment over the next 18 to 32 days. During this time, the toji may adjust the length of fermentation, temperatures, and other factors in creating a specific saké profile.
The actual fermentation process is what separates saké from beer or wine. In wine, no sugar conversion is necessary, since sucrose is naturally-occurring in grapes. With beer, the creation of sugar and alcohol are separate processes: starches in the grain are converted to sugar in the form of wort, then yeast is added to create alcohol. In saké, conversion of starch into glucose and glucose into alcohol occur simultaneously in a process called multiple parallel fermentation. One of the characteristics of alcohol made in this method is high alcohol content. Saké is usually about 15 percent alcohol by volume and may be as high as 21 percent.
Once fermentation is complete, the saké is pressed to separate the newly created alcohol from the rice solids left in the mash. The saké is then filtered to remove fine particulates and pasteurized to kill off any remaining bacteria and yeast. Finally, the product is aged—usually for three to six months—and then bottled. The time to brew a batch of saké, from start to finish, is around seven weeks.
While U.S. craft saké brewers typically follow Japanese methods and traditions for brewing saké, they are putting an “American spin” on the product by using processes and ingredients more suited to the local palate. The Texas saké Company, for example, filters their product less than the Japanese. “This gives a more robust saké with lots of fruity flavors,” co-owner Tim Klatt said. “We’re home brewers from the past, so we’re always trying something different. One of our big pushes is oaked sakés, where we toast oak chips in-house and add them to the brew. This delivers an amazing vanilla and oak and tannin experience, which will even stand up to barbeque.” The Texas Saké Company also produces a line of sparkling sakés with seven percent ABV and is preparing to produce a typical Japanese product that “will bridge the gap” between American and U.S. styles of sakés.
SakéOne is on the cutting edge as well, with its Moonstone brands, flavor-infused sakés. These include Cucumber Mint, Asian Pear and Coconut Lemongrass. All are infused right before bottling. “We are making these to appeal to our wild, pioneering side,” Lien said. “This is what we do to have fun.”
As U.S. Saké brewers look to the future, they see more breweries popping up, and more consumers taking notice. All agree that we can expect to see new products, more experimenting with saké-brewing techniques and broader distribution of American-made saké, both in the U.S. and abroad.
“Craft saké is definitely a niche market,” according to Ford, the Harvard-trained entrepreneur who founded Blue Current Brewery. “People are trying new flavors and looking for the next new thing. As a brewer and frequent traveler to Japan, I think it’s wonderful to open the kimono and show people this wonderful new beverage which is probably the coolest thing people have probably never had. The future is looking good: we’re seeing blue skies ahead.”