By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

Koji. Moto. Tsukuri.

A lot of brewers and industry intelligentsia will tell you these three elements are critical to good sake making. And of course they’re right but before these three can unleash their alchemy magic, the raw ingredients themselves need to be considered.

There is no koji without good rice. No fermentation starter (moto) either, and thereby no tsukuri (fermentation itself) too. In this article, the first of the sake “essentials” will be looked at, namely the importance of rice and how the North American sake industry is well equipped to brew using homegrown rice varietals.

Although it’s widely acknowledged that the chosen rice has less of an impact than the choice of grape does in the vinification process there are, however, ballpark two hundred rice varietals in use for sake production, half of which are officially registered. Plus, there’s plenty of commercially developed strains devised to suit certain types of fermentations and to play nicely with certain yeast types.

With all this variety, research and engineering going on, the brewer’s choice of rice clearly isn’t something to be taken lightly.

But let’s be clear on one key factor before we dig deeper into the world of sakamai 酒米. And it quite simply boils down to this, that the humble rice grain’s contribution to the final sake is heavily defined by its nutrient breakdown, the rice DNA if you like, which is largely a prerequisite of Mother Nature with a knowledgeable helping hand from the rice grower.

It is only during the onward treatment and processing whereby the brewers themselves can lay a claim on the resulting sake through polishing, washing, steaming and a whole list of other related decisions and interferences. Simply put, only by using the best quality rices can the skills of the brewing team be most universally employed. Compromise on your raw ingredients and you’re already limiting what comes out the other end.

A sake savvy school of thought firmly believes that it’s likely you could give ten brewers a hundred kilos of the same rice, milled to the same seimaibuai and end up with ten different sakes. And this makes perfect sense in the same way that if you were to give ten chefs some arborio rice, some stock (the “water”) and some aromats, let’s say salt, pepper, onion, garlic (the “yeast”), you’ll end up with an array of risottos simply because of how they work with and treat those core ingredients.

But let’s speculate no more, it’s time to ask the experts that are intrinsic to forming and shaping the current, and future, output from North American sake production. Meet Erin and Chris, at the forefront of rice cultivation at Sun Valley Rice and Isbell Farms respectively, and passionate Sake Brewers Association members.

Separated by a 2,000 mile / 30-hour road trip, both are committed to providing consistently superior and innovative rices to the brewing communities of North America, and beyond, to Europe, Australia and Asia.

Isbell Farms is located in the largest rice growing state, Arkansas, which is followed by California, home to Erin and Sun Valley Rice, producing about one third of the acreage across the state. Despite this significant difference in geographies, there are some telling communalities between the two businesses.

Terroir is a dangerous word to borrow from the wine industry but is hard to escape these days, and it’s clear the weather, seasonality and soils of both locations are rice friendly. For Chris, his near to 35th parallel north location crosses Japan, passing across a bunch of prolific sake brewing Prefectures on Honshu, not least Hyogo. Let’s be honest, that’s some rather fine rice growing coordinates.

Sun Valley Rice is on a similar latitude to Akita Prefecture, housing some 40 sake breweries, including Aramasa Shuzo, home to Brewing Society Yeast No.6, enjoying hot summers, cold winters and broad diurnal temperatures.

Add to this the snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which itself provides a frozen “store” of mountain water, and the May to October growing season is all but assured. But it’s never that simple of course.

Over in Arkansas, Isbell Farms’ flat 40-acre fields enjoy a heavy clay soil atop a hard pan beneath, ensuring water cannot easily permeate and drain away. It’s no wonder Chris was at one time experimenting with growing up to 40 Japonica rices, one row of each.

But perhaps the biggest similarity between the two organisations is in fact the people behind them and their dedication to what they do. Sure, location and timing (also known as right place, right time) are important but as with much of the industry, it tends to be filled with passionate people doing the right thing.

For Isbell Farms, their continued success is largely attributable to the experimental inquisitiveness of Chris Isbell, whose innate Southern hospitality got him talking to a lone Japanese guest at a biennial Workers Group back in the early nineties, and the mention of a farming challenge that would shape the future of the business.

Koshihikari won’t grow anywhere else in the world apart from Japan, it won’t grow in the US”, Chris was told. Fast forward a short while and the first ever tasting of the famed table rice outside of Japan confirmed this statement clearly to be no longer true and the Japanese media frenzy that descended upon England, AR that followed, including Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, only served to underline it.

Not only that, this new rice crop would soon be exported to Japan, the Isbell Farm cartooned bags quickly selling out, so it would come as no surprise that Chris and his team would diversify into sakamai, obtaining another first with the successful US cultivation of a rice close to so many hearts: Yamadanishiki.

Yamadanishiki remains the biggest sakamai crop but the creative farming floodgates have been open ever since that milestone year of recognition in Japan, back in 1996, with Gohyakumangoku, Wataribune and now Omachi (celebrated recently with Brooklyn Kura’s bottling of a +9 SMV dry Limited Release) part of the annual planting repertoire.

The heavy clay soils are key also to the large scale paddy fields of Sun Valley Rice, whose sister company Valley Select manages the sakamai crops.

California had the jump on most of the country through having a large Japanese American population eager to replicate dishes from home and has been a leader in growing Japanese rice since the 1940s. Calrose is of course the founding variety of the Californian rice industry and was on hand to fuel the sushi boom that hit North America, and then Europe, at the end of the last century, and more recently a significant player amongst the sake rice line up.

A key Calrose supplier, family owned Sun Valley Rice would soon identify the in-state opportunities of supporting a growing sake brewing industry, accelerated of course by the opening of Gekkeikan Sake (USA) in 1989 just 60 miles away in Folsom, CA. Since then a swathe of breweries have popped up on the west coast, including Den Sake and Sequoia Sake, with many promoted at the annual Sake Day, hosted by San Francisco icon True Sake.

Taking seeds from Japan, a Yamadanishiki crop was added to the company product portfolio, taking on the associated challenges of producing this strain. This includes managing the tallness of the rice plants and the comparatively lengthy maturation period in paddy, necessitating greater exposure time to face any freak rainstorms or prolonged droughts.

The need for Yamadanishiki was driven by brewer demand, and Erin and the team are particularly sensitive to supporting smaller craft breweries, allowing delivery of small minimum order quantities outside of California and even further afield. We are pleased to say that many of these relationships have developed through introductions through the Association, and long may it continue.

Progressive thinking by Sun Valley Rice led to the acquisition of a Satake rice milling machine, shipped over in 2007 from Japan which currently offers sakamai to meet all brewer seimaibuai requirements, mostly within the 70-45% range. A big investment for a business whose main crop remains table rice, but a great example of the commitment to the sake industry.

The broad expanse occupied by Sun Valley Rice provides a wonderful natural habitat for over one hundred species of birds, as well as other animal life, not least the salmon fry currently thriving in their third year. Much of the facility is solar powered too, making the business a beacon of sustainability – it’s called Sun Valley for a reason – and any waste is side lined for practical by products such as animal bedding, animal feed and natural fuels.

Back in Arkansas, Chris leans on sake legend Blake Richardson and his Minnesota Rice and Milling before sending his gleaming product north to Canada, east to UK and Europe and all the way to New Zealand. Again the emphasis is on supporting the little guys, tirelessly putting the hard graft into craft sake production. The set up at Isbell Farms has also garnered several awards and accreditations from the environmental and sustainability communities.

It’s hard to know what’s next for these champions of the industry. Fortunately for them, and us, they have weathered this year’s unforeseen challenges quite well and their simple wish for now is to see 2021 welcomed in with plenty of North American homegrown sake.

Sounds good to us, so さようなら sayōnara 2020!


A certified sake sommelier, Will Jarvis is the owner and founder of Sake Matters, consulting for a variety of clients in Hong Kong and around the world. He has over 20 years’ experience working in the F&B industry in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, is a trained chef and holds a diploma in hospitality.