Nestled in the beautiful outskirts of Portland, Oregon is SakéOne, a premium craft saké brewery and importer of some of the finest premium saké from Japan. The Oregon crafted saké is brewed with water sourced from the idyllic waters of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The bold G Saké, the fruit-infused Moonstone and the versatile Momokawa brands. The imports include brewing partners Hakutsuru, Murai Family, Yoshinogawa, SakéMoto, Kasumi Tsuru and Kibo.
I talked with SakeOne’s brewer, Takumi Kuwabara about everything from life in America; “I live in Beaverton, Oregon with my wife, two children, one dog, 2 cats and 2 goldfish,” definitely the quintessential slice of Americana; to growing up under the influence; “My mother worked in bottling at a saké brewery in Shimane prefecture, Japan. The brewmaster at the brewery introduced me to Daiginjo saké, which blew my mind. He told me that if I was interested in the sake industry, he could make introductions for me,” says Kuwabara of the early impact saké had on his life.
“I was born in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan,” says Kuwabara of his upbringing. “When I was 23 years old, I started to work at my first brewery in Himeji City, Japan, says Kuwabara about how his early interest in sake became his profession. “When I was a kid, I wanted to become a scientist,” he adds, about his passion for science which has not waned. “I truly enjoy experimenting with making sake. I guess this makes me really lucky, because I have a job that I enjoy and one that allows me to constantly experiment.”
For those who don’t know, sake brewing is pretty scientific. “Sake is a simple product made by a not-so-simple method perfected over many centuries. Simply put, sake is made using only 4 ingredients (Rice, Koji, Water, Yeast),” adds Kuwabara. And the importance of the quality of the water used cannot be understated. “Water is an important ingredient that accounts for 80% of sake. Different types of water, hard v. soft water, are good for certain types of sake and for providing consistent, predictable fermentations. Throughout Japan, different prefectures are known for having hard or soft water and over centuries have perfected their styles taking advantage of the characteristics of their water. Clean rice is also essential for a healthy fermentation.”
Also important is what makes sake production unique. “The most distinguishing thing is that during fermentation, starch is being converted to sugar at the same time sugar is being turned into alcohol. It is a process called multiple parallel fermentation. It is just one of the many complexities to brewing sake.”
As you probably know, Sake enjoys a long and storied history. “While our brewery (SakeOne) has been brewing sake for over 20 years, we import sake dating back as far as the mid-1500s. That is an unfathomable amount of history that very few products can match.” And many Americans are catching on.
“The growth trends in sake are greater than the growth trends in beer, wine and spirits,” says Kuwabara, “but of course our category is much smaller,” he adds. “Americans are finding that sake can be paired with all types of food, not just Japanese or Asian food. The low acidity and texture in sake makes it ideal with spicy Mexican food for example. It also works with pizza, hamburgers, Italian food and more, which means Americans don’t have to change their diet to enjoy sake. Compared to wine, it is much lower in acidity and has no tannins, which allows sake to collaborate rather than compete with food. Most sake should be served chilled like a white wine, though some can also be enjoyed warm. Most sake consumed by Americans is Junmai sake (sake made only from rice, water, koji and yeast). There are other types of sake such as nigori, the cloudy type of sake, that is also growing in popularity.”
And this is where sake gets really interesting. All the different grades of sake and how they are made. “Clear versus cloudy is probably the first way of differentiating sake, says Kuwabara. “After that, different levels of rice polish result in a sake being classified further, perhaps as ginjo or daiginjo grade sake. Ginjo and daiginjo sake are made using rice where at least 40% of the outer grain is milled away (50% or more milled away in the case of daiginjo). The result is a cleaner, more fruity and floral style vs. a more grainy, earthy or umami style in sake where less milling takes place. We don’t say one style is better than another, but it does allow consumers to find a style that is right for them.”
Educating people about Sake is a priority. “In America many people think they know what sake is, but when we give them an education and taste through various styles of sake, we often “see the lightbulb go off” when the “aha moment” takes place. I love that part!” adds Kuwabara.
It is definitely a learning curve. “For the most part the average American doesn’t understand sake all that well. It is similar to the wine category 20 years ago and we hope that our product will also benefit from improved consumer education and experimentation. Most Americans still think of sake as “something you serve warm and enjoy with sushi.” While this can be true, if we could get Americans to treat sake like a white wine (serve chilled in a wine glass) and enjoy with all types of foods, that would represent great progress for us.” A philosophy we have been spearheading for quite some time. Sake with spaghetti, steak, and even souffle you’ll be surprised by sake’s versatility!