Pure Allure

By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

Junmai or aruten sake, what’s best?

Well, I could end this article here, before it’s even got started, because for the majority of sake consumers in a blind tasting, it’s just not at all easy to differentiate between sake that has been made with and without the addition of distilled alcohol. In such a situation, does it really matter which one you prefer? Just settle in and keep drinking it.

But there is a debate, one that’s been raging for much of this century, that seems to be ongoing because there somehow needs to be a winner. At least that’s what some pockets of stubborn sake enthusiasts feel.

Our view is that junmai and aruten are both delicious forms of sake, and that there’s better times to drink one than another, but even then it’s never that clean cut. If you’re new to sake and already confused, let’s give out a lifeline and a quick rundown on things. Brace yourself.

The world of sake can be bisected in many ways, and in a number of circumstances the cutting can yield a simple A or B option. For instance, premium sake (tokutei meishoshu) and regular sake (futsushu). There’s also pasteurised (hi-ire) and non-pasteurised (namazake) sake. And, of course, this junmai and aruten slicing is another example.

Junmai 純米, or junmai-shu, refers to sake that is made solely from rice, koji and water – the triumvirate of ingredients required in order to brew sake (although most have small additions of yeast and lactic acid nowadays too) – and translates as pure rice sake (純: pure; 米: rice). Purity is a cornerstone of the Shinto religion and sake is used to purify space and as an offering to appease the gods. It’s not hard to see the appeal.

Aruten アル添 is short for arukōru (alcohol) tenka (addition) and differentiates sake where brewer’s alcohol is added before the pressing stage. All sake legally has to go through pressing to be classed as seishu 清酒, the legal name for sake in Japanese. Aruten itself is not a legal term but works nonetheless, although you won’t see it written on a label, whereas you will with junmai.

Anyway, still with us? Hope so. Now here’s a big point to note, and one that disbands the myth that drinking sake gives you that headache. Even this added alcohol aruten category does not supercharge the sake into a fortified beverage or spirit. More water is added later on in the process that reduces the overall alcohol levels back to the standard 15-17% ABV (although it can go a little higher and significantly lower). That unproductive Friday morning in the office isn’t due to drinking sake, it’s because you drank too much sake. At least with Zoom nobody can smell you out.

You might be wondering what all the fuss is about then. Well, junmai as a category is enjoying a period of popularity growth these last few years. In many ways that is not difficult to comprehend because of the 1,200 or so active breweries in Japan, less than 5% are dedicated to brewing solely junmai sakes. The remaining majority, however, will be making a few junmai-shu within their regular line up but clearly then there’s room for some volume growth.

In North America, things are very different with many breweries in fact favouring no added alcohol sakes. However, this focus could well be down to local legislation which is a source of frustration for many in the industry, as debated in a recent Association webinar (to watch click here), and outlined here by Andrew Centofante at North American Sake Brewery: “I think the biggest reason most of us are not playing with aruten is the lack of clarity around the US laws. Adding distilled alcohol is kind of a grey area and depending on the federal laws and the state laws, it might not be possible or it might make things complicated in terms of labelling, taxes and sources.”

Award-winning junmai from North American Sake Brewery

Josh Hembree at Setting Sun Sake Brewing Co. goes a little further when he says “The laws here in America make it very difficult to manufacture and distribute this product. You need many more licenses to distill and fortify or purchase bulk neutral grain spirit and fortify, including additional certifications to be able to sell it.”

As we learned during the Association’s webinar, the situation can vary state by state, something which Patrick Shearer – Head Brewer at Ben’s American Sake – explained to me:

“My guess as to why the sake brewers in the US are sticking to brewing junmai primarily has to do with the difficulty in getting a distillery permit. My understanding is that to brew sake in the United States, you need a Federal Brewing Permit and a state brewing or winery licence. In North Carolina we are classified as a winery. In order to add brewers alcohol or neutral grain spirits we would need to get a Federal and state distillery permit, the difficulty and cost of doing so skyrockets.

Brewing junmai sake at Ben’s American Sake

Here, up until just last year, any product that has a distilled spirit in it had to be taxed as a spirit (a higher tax rate than wine). The product was then shipped to the state-controlled ABC (Alcohol Beverage Commission) warehouse and then repurchased by the producer or by the state-controlled ABC liquor stores.

This means that the product was marked up multiple times before the producer could sell it at their own bar or tasting room. Plus, it could only be sold at state-controlled liquor stores, the distillery’s tasting room or a licenced bar by special order through the state-controlled ABC store.”

In Japan, where things are significantly more straightforward, the driving force behind the junmai resurgence is down to the whole purity of the 純米 nomenclature as people thirst for a lifestyle where less is more and feel a moral obligation to have a predominantly natural shopping basket of free from groceries. Basically, it’s very on trend to be drinking pure.

Taking this a step further is the concurrent growth trajectory in yamahai and kimoto sakes. Sure, production levels can only realistically go up as they constitute, combined, around just 1% of Japan’s sake output. As I alluded to earlier, vials of yeast and lactic acid generally are the fourth and fifth ingredients of junmai sake but truly authentically made yamahai and kimoto sakes will depend on naturally occurring proprietary yeasts and lactic acid bacteria from the brewery walls and beams to fall into the tanks, rather than rely on their stable laboratory equivalents. It doesn’t get much purer than that.

The last point to make in favour of this pure sake by the junmai campaigners is that in the same way we like to know the source of the happy pigs and smiling cows that have made it to our dining tables, with no alcohol added sakes those key three ingredients (the acid and the yeasts too) are all Japanese sourced. This gives full Japanese traceability and a warm sense of national pride all in one bottle.

For aruten sakes, the added alcohol comes from sugarcane grown outside of Japan. It’s still pretty pure though in that the distillation process itself is as clean as it gets and even then, the imported distillate mostly gets redistilled further in Japan, and then let down with a little water before shipping to breweries (this is flammable stuff, remember).

Let’s just go back to a word earlier in this piece – futsushu. This category occupies about 65% of Japan’s total sake production. The reason for adding alcohol in the production of futsushu is largely an economic one. Bulking sake out with alcohol and the requisite amount of water to keep that ABV within the legal parameters is a very reasonable solution to bolster yields. There’s plenty of very decent futsushu out there too, quality is not an issue.

For premium sake – tokutei meishoshu – the addition of alcohol is not an economic one, and the amounts introduced are small compared to futsushu. What little that does get added coaxes out the more delicate and fragrant aromatics, making them more prominent. It’s no surprise that the majority of award-winning competition sakes are aruten.

“There are reasons to believe that the gentle coaxing provided by a small amount of spirit can unlock a heightened sense of aroma as well as a sharpening or balancing of some flavors that may otherwise not have found harmony with one another,” explains Byron Stithem at Proper Saké Co.

Byron’s junmai sake

It’s here that a highly experienced palate has their way in to making a call on aruten or junmai when blind tasting. The latter will tend to be richer, with higher acidity. However, these attributes can be masked with yeasts and rice varietals. The nature of the original rice comes through better with junmai, there’s less chemical trickery going on to confuse, giving the taster a strong hint at the category.

For Japanese brewers, with decades and centuries of experience, junmai making is, relatively speaking, a lot more routine. It’s a different story here. Adding further procedures into what is already a challenging production process isn’t something many want to get into, including Brad Saliga, Toji at Texas Sake Company:

“To put it simply, it would add an extra step that’s unnecessary. We get plenty of ABV within a short enough amount of time and still retain flavor characteristics depending on the style. I also don’t see the cost benefit unless you’re using less raw ingredients. But even then I’m not sure if it’s worth the hassle of blending exact measurements in a large volume of liquid.”

Texas Sake’s junmai sake

Andrew making koji, one of the three key ingredients for junmai-shu

Andrew Centofante agrees, saying: “There is not a ton of information available about some of the nuance around this. Certain sources say to add brewers alcohol but it doesn’t really say what exactly that is. I think most understand the basic concept but there might not be enough knowledge and so people won’t risk it.”

Brian Polen at Brooklyn Kura volunteers a different take on it, but one that will have many of his peers nodding in agreement: “It’s always a challenge to present sake to people for the first time. In the US, people often think of sake as a distilled beverage that is served to them in shot glasses. So, for me to explain to them that it is a brewed beverage, but also, in certain cases, has spirit added to it, can be very confusing for people.”

You can see why many sake fans won’t get involved in this dialogue as to which is better. However, there is one inescapable truth here. Aruten sakes generally have a better shelf life with this additional hit of alcohol but unless you’re engaged in some at home long term aging experimentation, chances are you’ll respect the brewer’s wishes and drink the sake sooner rather than later, so this extra shelf life isn’t such a bonus anyway.

It’s a complicated situation but one to be aware of, so our advice right now is simple. Enjoy your sake, whatever you have to hand. If it’s aruten then just understand the validity and benefits that the added alcohol is giving you, basking in those aromats and floating amidst that perfumed haze. If you’re having junmai, acknowledge the brewer’s decision to keep it pure, get to know the rice within and, if you want, feel a little smugness at the purity of your buying decision.

Lastly, if you do want to argue about it, be sure it’s with a sake newbie. The more sake drinkers we enlist, the more assured the future of this baffling beverage.

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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.


Rising to the Challenge

By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

To you it’s heavenly but your basement emits a heady aroma that has the neighbors wondering about just how much you’re drinking. Your backyard is an engineering playground as you weld pipes, tubes and hoppers, foraged from the junkyard, into usable brewing equipment. The mailman some days squints to read the packages franked with Japanese stamps and unintelligible Hiragana.

That’s right, you’re on the cusp of opening a sake brewery in North America.

At this point, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like much of the hard work is done and only excitement and sake experimentation lie ahead. In this article we want to leave you informed and forewarned of the potential regulatory headaches ahead, and to assure you that the sake community won’t leave you out in the cold.

The recent webinar ‘Rules Of The Brew’ hosted by Bernie Baskin, founding President and current Board Member of the Association outlined the current challenges and opportunities ahead for North American sake and touched on the progress achieved in the relatively short existence of the Association. But there’s still a long way to go, and the reality of what the industry could be is still heavily restrained by some short-sighted law-making and poorly thought through policies.

One of the first things Bernie told us was that: “Until 2019, nobody had catalogued Federal and State laws and regulations across the USA, Mexico and Canada.” Yet by the summer of 2019, a 166-page document existed that did just that, thanks to the Association’s efforts and now rather than facing the challenges somewhat blindly, it’s clear where they are, as well as where the opportunities exist.

We would encourage you to watch the captivating hour of footage (here) with Jamie Graves (Skurnik Wines), Sachiko Miyagi (Tippsy), and Andrew Centofante (North American Sake Brewery). Their passionate words will convey far better the idiosyncrasies of their situations, and how they’ve all learned to deal with adversity in their respective roles. However, it’s still worth taking a closer look at the key regulatory impediments to industry growth as this is where the Association can advocate for change at the Federal and State levels.

The overriding challenge for anyone associated with the industry here is that sake is not defined under US, Canadian or Mexican Laws. As a relatively small segment of the alcoholic beverages market, this has not been such a big hurdle but by shining a spotlight onto the industry through the positive growth and recognition we are now experiencing, it will be hard for things to remain under the radar.

As sake attracts more consumers, the need for them to know what they’re drinking from the label and bottle will become more important, and will need to be consistent,” says Bernie. Consumer confidence and buy in is vital to the ongoing success of North American sake and so ironing out the finer details of the definition with relevant agencies is a critically important undertaking. “People will need to be told what sake is, and what it is not, and that’s down to the regulators,” Bernie continues.

Depending on your location, incorporating a sake brewery can be a difficult affair. In almost all States sake is categorized as a beer, yet more often than not labelling falls under wine industry guidelines. Laws and regulations have been hastily put together and simply don’t make a whole lot of sense. You might need two permits, one allowing you to act as a brewer and the other permitting production and blending of wines. A crazy amount of unnecessary bureaucracy.

Complexity doesn’t end there. For Andrew Centofante in Virginia and his North American Sake Brewery there is the added stipulation within Virginia State Law to have a food made fresh on-site requirement with a minimum $2,000 of revenue per month. “We have a wonderful restaurant here but we shouldn’t need to be worrying about this when there’s enough going on with simply brewing sake,” explains Andrew.

In States where sake is defined as a beer, there are challenges also. Tennessee, for example, has a cap on sales of beverages that are over 8% ABV, so this of course affects sake. This means that two cases (5 gallons) is the maximum purchase per visit. Not great for wedding planning, summer parties or Thanksgiving family dinners once life returns to normal.

So that’s where this problem lies. In opening this Pandora’s Box of regulatory uncertainty, the confusion over whether sake is a beer or a wine – of course it’s neither – will be scrutinized and this scrutiny will largely be conducted by those with next to no sake knowledge of their own.

What is needed is a more rational and harmonized system for regulating sake. The task should smooth the set-up process for new breweries across the nation but it’s a big undertaking as “Every State acts like a different country,” Sachiko Miyagi from online retailer Tippsy points out.

As of right now, your choice of location also has the benefits, or more likely disadvantages, of taxation rules as to how the State categorizes your sake line up. Taxes can vary significantly but that’s not all, in some places your route to market can be compromised. For example, in some local jurisdictions your sakes may not be eligible to be stocked within grocery stores along with all other alcoholic beverages, and that’s a big deal.

As a maker of alcohol, sake brewing sits within one of three tiers in the US alcoholic beverages supply chain. As a ‘maker’, breweries cannot also be a ‘distributor’. Distributors, such as Skurnik Wines in New York, reside in a second tier and can sell to restaurants and businesses but cannot sell to consumers directly. Plus, there is no such thing as preferential pricing for bulk purchase and loyal customers. It’s one price for all, and that doesn’t feel right.

Tippsy on the other hand, an online distributor, makes up the third tier of ‘sellers’ and is permitted to sell to you and me, the end user consumer, but cannot sell to restaurants, clubs and sports venues.

This three-tier system is a rather antiquated legacy of the prohibition days and full of its own legal complexities and limitations which doesn’t work in the industry’s favour. However, it is a very entrenched system and one that is unlikely to see any change.

It’s clear now that the Rules Of The Brew need to change. We are at a turning point. Tippsy recently surveyed their audience and concluded that the industry is definitely in growth, and that it’s now “just the tip of the iceberg.” You can see why they are growing their sake portfolio by 40% this year.

Jamie from Skurnik Wines talked about the passion for sake in the restaurant industry: “A real big moment in the last five to ten years took place whereby people used to say ‘I didn’t know sake could be good’ are now saying ‘I don’t know what to get’.

That’s a seismic shift in how consumers are viewing and interacting with sake. Riding this wave of enthusiasm is key and it is in the best interests of the sake community to reduce the structural and legal impediments that may hamper industry growth.

If you’re out there listening and want to do something in the US – setting up a brewery or bringing your sake here – we have a home for you and we have a community waiting to help you,” are Bernie’s final words.

Sounds good, right? Let’s do this.


Taking the Leap

By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

Our homebrewing mini-series continues as we check in with three Association members and take a look at their experiences. Two have migrated from homebrewer to commercial brewing, the third is teetering on the edge.

Their respective situations share many similarities, not least an unbridled passion for sake exploration and hunger for perfection. With this piece we hope to motivate any readers out there to have a go at homebrewing, and for those already enjoying a taste of their own sake stash, perhaps this will inspire you to take the leap into the challenging but exciting realm of large scale production.

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Make the leap no matter what.

That’s the advice of Byron Stithem, Founder CEO and Brewmaster of Proper Saké Co. down in Nashville, started in 2016. It typifies the passion within the growing international sake community.

That said, Byron confessed a few short minutes earlier that “I would have done things a bit differently had I known the obstacles ahead,” and he wisely checks himself and amends his statement to “Everyone should make the leap, just make sure you’ve done your homework.” Wise words.

And that’s what this whole thing is really about. Sake lures you in, like a mythological liquor Siren, she’s something quite fascinating. Japan already has a huge allure to so many people, cloaked in mystery and underlined by a culture so ancient yet seemingly so advanced at the same time. This semi-mystical nation’s national drink provides such a range of aromas, flavours and textures and for every answer to a sake question there always seems to be a handful of exceptions and sidesteps.

It’s easy to see how to a certain personality type or to folks with a certain field of interest, sake brewing can be so rewarding. And ultimately addictive.

For Troy Nakamatsu, brewing the first authentic craft Japanese sake in Los Angeles at Sawtelle Sake is the result of a perfect storm of circumstances. Being in the right place (Los Angeles, a city where Japanese food has a head start on much of the country) at the right time kicked him over the edge and into brewing full time: “It was a slow building thing, but I was deeply unfulfilled at work which pushed me to brew more and ultimately gave me the confidence to seize the opportunity.

With the majority of North America’s sake breweries celebrating anniversaries this year that aren’t even in double digits, it’s incredible to see how much progress has been made within the sake community here that can only smooth the path for the budding brewmasters of the future.

Amongst those could well be Karine Villeneuve, doing her thing in Montréal just over the border in Canada’s Québec province. Karine’s attraction to sake is based on her very capable technical background as a chemist, working at a molecular level with active ingredients.

An exposure to sake and sushi during a two-year stint in Southern California, a well-thumbed copy of Release The Toji Within along with a John Gauntner online course accelerated Karine’s introduction to brewing and her first batch was deemed: “Not bad at all.

Karine's first batch

The floodgates were open: “I decided then and there that I wanted to try more and more things, I love doing that.” Fortunately for Karine, trailblazers like Byron and Troy (and many others) have paved the way for a smoother entry into the brewing world outside of Japan.

So what’s changed?

Many Japanese breweries have begun to notice the parallels of our efforts and have started to offer guidance in really profound ways.  Plus, with organizations like the Association now, we’ve really been able to rally our minds and resources around brewers wanting to get started.

Byron continues by explaining further the broader opportunities out there in the current community for would be brewers:

One of the biggest things you can now do is go work in a brewery here in America. At least when the virus isn’t around. And plenty of Japanese breweries will show you around too but apprenticing wherever you can is so helpful. Working within the SOPs of a commercial brewing environment will really help with all the sanitation requirements you’ll need. Two or three years ago it was different, it was hard to get any information from Japanese breweries back in the day.

Yes, the sake community is all warm and fluffy for this kind of thing, but it’s early days still and there’s a long way to go, as Troy explains: “Homebrewers of beer have a massive amount of information to hand, but we’re not there yet for sake. Yet. We are a group leading the charge.

Troy goes on to make a very relevant observation that the cultural differences between Japan and the West play a significant role in how each approaches sake brewing. Being so new in the West, sake brewing is perceived more as an art whereas, in Japan, sake brewing often is just a job people get paid to do. In many ways, sharing this trade with the West must seem quite odd, and having lots of Westerners come to your place of work asking all sorts of questions about your 9 to 5 isn’t something you would expect.

To this Troy adds: “It’s possible that Japan is only beginning to consider that we could be the real deal outside of Japan, an actual industry.” The Association agrees and projecting a positive image of our own sake products is a big part of the ongoing North America-Japan Sake Brewers dialogue and our partnership with the Embassy of Japan.

One other key thing for Karine and others like her is that the North American industry has now evolved and matured far enough to have worked through the early breweries’ business plans (for some the five-year plans and beyond) and seen them play out for real in the cold light of day. Because of this, learnings are now being shared and forerunners’ mistakes and pitfalls can be swerved.

Raise an appropriate amount of funds, more than you think,” suggests Byron. Troy echoes that sentiment. His financial services background held him in good stead from the off and he elected to raise equity capital for Sawtelle Sake in the beginning, although laments having to rapidly adjust the business model initially in response to the COVID pandemic.

Early homebrew koji experimentation for Sawtelle Sake
A homebrew explosion

Troy’s own experience of unwittingly walking into the benefits of being located alongside a distillery leads him to recommend a support bubble of some kind or other: “The guys there are all ex-engineers and it has a welding station on site which we’ve been able to take advantage of a few times. Knowing this was there for us gave a lot of confidence to the venture. We even use their column still to steam our rice.

Karine tells us that her should I/shouldn’t I? existence at the moment is something of a rollercoaster ride, and lately she’s at the bottom of one of the coaster’s dips. Luckily though, as Karine explains, the ride will start to climb again soon: “I have discovered a great mentor, she’s in the food industry and really connected.

Her pensive situation is understandable though in many ways in that Canada, in particular the province of Québec, is behind the US in terms of its sake evolution and acceptance in the local market.

There is no category here for sake either, we have to use the Government channels for distribution, we cannot do direct sales so the distributor model is the only one open to us. This makes scaling up and customer education more challenging. As a consumer, the range is pretty limited but I’m prepared to drive an hour to Ontario to pick up from the store there. The good news is things are changing, we even have a very small Sake Festival that started in 2018 now.”

Moto prep, Québec style

Initially in Karine’s homebrewing experience, ingredient sourcing was a challenge. One place in Vancouver was a lifeline for rice selling 60% milled Akita Komachi but she would have to reach across the border to the US for koji-kin and even then, the options were very limited.

It’s a little better now, I have #7 and #9 yeasts to play with and a variety of rices from Sun Valley Rice. I’ll be making my first Daiginjo in 2021 too, but first need to get through the 150 pounds of rice I have already at my house! Luckily for me, the spring water around Québec is pretty nice – it’s hard and has no iron.

Karine’s passion is clear, and her hunger for experimentation and ambition is catching. She even talks of wanting to try her hand at a Yamahai. “The costs may be prohibitive but there’s always a way. I’m looking for a partner right now such as beer breweries for instance to help absorb the costs and potentially share some equipment and staff.

Byron’s Diplomat range of sakes are Yamahai style

Speaking of Yamahai, the biggest catalyst for Byron’s plunge into commercial production came after trying his first Yamahai at Sake Bar Decibel in New York.  “It put me over the edge and is such a wonderful category.  I hope my Yamahai will inspire folks to continue learning about and enjoying new and old styles of sake.

And therein lies perhaps the biggest challenge facing brewers, and the Association, in the current market. The future of the sake industry in North America will be covered in a webinar on March 2 and education will surely take up a good part of the discussions.

As brewers we have to create a market, and we are stronger working together with the Association,” says Troy. “We have to normalise all the State and Federal regulations, they’re a nightmare. Our goal has to be to get people to drink more sake, to make it super accessible. We have to simplify. Right now people just don’t know how to order sake.

Byron agrees, but nobody here is complaining. They have solutions and ideas, and just want people to be able to get into and enjoy this great drink. Byron hopes that the West Coast and New York sakes can start to trickle down south, and Troy is even disappointed with the current range of sake for sale in Los Angeles.

Accessibility is important. Byron feels that Japan should look to simplify the labels more for international markets and domestic sake should appear in a broader range of restaurant cuisines. “Sake shouldn’t be relegated to Sushi and Japanese restaurants,” agrees Troy, adding “there’s a lot of demand for cocktails made with a sake base and now that we have our own local sake rice varietals, we should look to a kind of California terroir.

Byron’s “Make the leap no matter what” started this article and it’s clear why. The North American sake industry is full of passionate visionary personalities. The physical ingredients for making sake here may be tricky to come by but the mental ingredients required are well stocked.

To you, Karine, and anyone else thinking about going for it this status quo has to be very comforting. Add to this passion the opportunities now available to shadow homegrown industry experts in a real brewing environment, get to Japan when you can, and be realistic about the financial implications of what you’re taking on. That’s the recipe for success, so leap away.

It’s only fair that Troy finishes this article that Byron’s quote started with one of his own that might just be the little catalyst needed: “In a lot of ways, brewing sake is so stupidly hard and complicated but that makes it even more rewarding and a lot of fun.

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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.


SBANA Partners with EOJ on Series of Virtual Events

The Sake Brewers Association of North America (SBANA) is pleased to announce our new partnership with the Embassy of Japan in Washington, DC launching a series of virtual, engaging, and exciting initiatives promoting the sake industry and consumer knowledge in North America via three online webinar sessions:

WEBINAR #1
THE BOND BETWEEN THE BREW: THE NORTH AMERICA-JAPAN SAKE DIALOGUE
Thursday, February 25th, 2021
7:00PM-8:30PM USA/Eastern Time
Friday, February 26th
9:00AM-10:30AM Japan Time
This engaging exploration of sake will shine a spotlight on the launch of the North America-Japan Sake Dialogue, an initiative designed to foster cooperation and information-sharing between sake brewers on both sides of the Pacific about common challenges and opportunities in the industry. Featuring an all-star lineup of some of the most dynamic innovators in the sake industry in Japan and the United States in a discussion moderated by sake expert Justin Potts of Sake On Air and with introductory remarks by Kosuke Kuji, master brewer and president of Nanbu Bijin. Dialogue participants include:

Japanese sake representatives:

North American sake representatives:

Click here to register for the event.

WEBINAR #2
THE RULES OF THE BREW: SAKE REGULATIONS & THE FUTURE OF THE SAKE INDUSTRY
Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021
7:00PM-8:00PM USA/Eastern Time
Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021
9:00AM-10:00AM Japan Time
Sake brewers and entrepreneurs often face a bewildering array of laws that strictly regulate how their products are produced, distributed and sold across North America. SBANA  Board Member Bernie Baskin will lead a discussion on the regulatory landscape facing the industry, followed by a discussion on the future direction of the sake market in North America with industry insiders Ms. Sachiko Miyagi of Tippsy and Mr. Jamie Graves of Skurnik Wines and Spirits. The webinar will be simultaneously translated in English and Japanese and will include a Q&A session with the audience.

Click here to register for the event.

WEBINAR #3
THE BEAUTY OF THE BREW: A VIDEO JOURNEY & CONVERSATION CELEBRATING SAKE & SAKE MAKING
Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021
7:00PM-8:00PM USA/Eastern Time
Wednesday, March 24th, 2021
8:00AM-9:00AM Japan Time
This webinar will feature the world premier of SBANA’s animated video illustrating sake’s unique tradition, craft, and range of enjoyment for sake newcomers. The video will be followed by a panel discussion, moderated by sake expert Jessica Joly, with three SBANA member brewers relating their passion for sake and sake-making: Mr. Andrew Centofante of North American Sake Brewery (Charlottesville, VA); Ms. Euka Isawa of MiCURA (Miyagi, Japan) and Mr. Patrick Shearer of Ben’s American Sake (Asheville, NC). The March 23 event will be held in conjunction with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the nation’s greatest springtime celebration commemorating the enduring friendship between the people of Japan and the United States.

Click here to register for the event.

We hope you will be able to join us for what promises to be an exciting series of sake programs (be sure to register via the links above)!


Brewer in a Box

By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

With the global pandemic reaching its first (and hopefully last) birthday this month, we take a look at the growing interest in homebrewing, one of the popular new hobbies taken up since restrictions curtailed many previous regular pastimes.

 In subsequent pieces in this mini-series, we’ll go on to see just how passionately the alchemy has been embraced within the homebrewing movement, as well as how homebrewing inspired some to take the leap from domestic to commercial brewing ventures.

For now, in this the first article on homebrewing and fermentation, we take a look at the innovative MiCURA brand, speaking with business owner and Tokyo resident Euka Isawa.

There are a number of often unspoken, but widely recognised, aromas that tend to lift the spirits and bring an uncontrollable beaming smile. Grilled onions on a hotdog stand wafting down the sidewalk from a block away is likely one of them. Sorry, veggies, but the humble allium never smelled so good, or so wrong.

Golf nuts will nod in quiet agreement that the freshly cut fairway smell on a crisp summer morning, the dew evaporating off the grass is also right up there. Better still if the rough has been cut down too.

For many sake fans spending far too much mandated time at home recently, there’s no doubt that the aroma of our happy place, a sake brewery, will always bring an overdose of excitement. Those unmistakeable aromas steeped into the walls from decades of fermentation are truly life enhancing.

Well, relief is on its way, a sake vaccine if you like, thanks to the enterprising efforts of Euka Isawa and her boutique business enterprise, MiCURA, that is producing an all you need sake brewing kit, for homebrewing.

I say boutique but that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. MiCURA has over 5,000 active members – complimentary membership is offered with purchase – in the US, Europe and Asia, 23 countries in all. A great following in less than three years.

Being able to interact with sake lovers from all over the world through MiCURA is one of the great joys of this project”.

That’s a pretty significant following. MiCURA retains a personal feel to it with Euka-san herself just an email or online video away from helping guide you through any brewing questions. Not that you would really need much support, which is a big part of the MiCURA appeal, in that pretty much every brewing issue or eventuality has been identified, addressed and ironed out within the ‘How To Brew’ guide. In some instances, recurrent pitfalls have been alleviated entirely from the brewing process.

The vision behind MiCURA is really rather special. In essence, with every box of MiCURA that gets shipped out of Tokyo, Euka-san hopes to convert the passion of each budding home Toji into a step forward for the potential of the sake industry outside of Japan. She believes that by delivering a good brewing experience, MiCURA can only cement consumer appreciation and understanding, growing further international acceptance and demand for sake.

Allow me to break it down for you a little.

Euka-san recognised an important dichotomy within the sake industry in that Japanese seishu 清酒 brewers are confined by age old regulations and restrictions, some due to stuffy bureaucracy (not least Japan’s Liquor Tax laws), others attributable to cultural or historical restraints. That isn’t necessarily a criticism. For centuries such confines have kept the industry alive, thriving in fact, at least until about 50 years ago. But let’s not go there.

The difference lies with the absence of the majority of these shackles outside of Japan, something Euka-san noted during a stint in the US:

“I noticed whilst I was in New York that there was a lot of energy and potential around homebrewing. I decided I wanted to find a way of bringing the sake brewing industry out of Japan”.

The unique design – and it is unique, there is no other one-stop-shop kit in the world – allows any budding home Toji to produce close to three 720ml yongobin of Ginjo level sake. MiCURA’s emphasis is on maximising the experience of brewing, ensuring a full sensory journey for the brewer as the sake evolves. For example, you’re encouraged to taste the moromi at different stages of its development to gauge what is happening below the bubbles.

This is achieved by having all the fermentation ingredients pre-weighed and hermetically sealed, ready to go. The equipment, not that there’s a lot of it, has been carefully selected for ease and smoothness during the processes. So, the bag used for separating the lees from your sake is not only made from the same material used within the industry itself for pressing, it also conveniently fits perfectly the containers provided by MiCURA for carrying out this process.

Euka-san wants pressing to be enjoyable, visual (the containers are transparent) and simple, rather than have the brewer frustrated over spillage, mess and less than perfect results.

Equipment sourcing is something Euka-san takes personal pride in and as MiCURA has developed, additional resources have been identified to elevate the homebrewing result even closer to the real deal. This includes a tabletop fune-shibori type pressing tool which can be used instead of the shizuku ‘by bag’ pressing option provided within the kit.

Requiring more time than scouring around for equipment, and certainly more knowledge, has been the enormous task of putting together the MiCURA “recipe” for brewers to follow. The recipe book, it’s more of a manual I suppose, is just twenty or so pages which belies the time, patience and commitment to getting this project off the ground in the first place.

The very name, MiCURA, is a hint at the efforts required in creating the kit and the science behind it all. ‘Mi’ relates to everyone’s favourite microorganisms, koji-kin and brewing yeasts.  It’s also a clever play on words with ‘My Kura’ (kura is Japanese for brewery) being darn close to MiCURA!

Euka-san had two pretty good headstarts when it came to putting together the formulae for a sake brewing kit. Firstly, her aptitude for sciences at High School enabled her to read and comprehend a number of brewing papers and articles which would have been beyond the abilities of many.

Secondly, Euka-san is the daughter of the Kuramoto at Katsuyama Shuzo in Miyagi Prefecture, which has been making top class sake since 1688, quenching the thirsts of Sendai’s feudal lords in the early decades. Although not officially inducted as a Katsuyama brewer, it’s in the blood, and spring break would be spent working in the brewery.

Like many of her generation, Euka-san left home for the big city life, enrolling at the University of Tokyo where the cityslicker students’ attitude towards sake painted a very different picture.

They stereotyped sake drinking as something for boozy nights out, something that would lead to hangovers. It got me asking ‘Why do they think that?’”.

Quickly, Euka-san created the Sake Student Association, open to all University students to join, to begin her crusade to change this perception and would later go on to win a place on a joint public-private scholarship programme which would address the ‘Study of the Sake Market Overseas’, with a view to contribute to the Japanese industry in the future.

Seemingly the MiCURA concept began bubbling away as an idea almost a decade ago. To bolster thing further, Euka-san, now 21 years old, would spend significant periods of the year in New York, facilitating the growth of Katsuyama’s sakes within the restaurant community, and growing a trusted network of beverage professionals. She would also take the Sake Sommelier Course, run by the Sake School of America.

Effectively becoming a student again, Euka-san spent three months immersed in self-study of how to translate factory scale brewing into a homebrewing capacity. At the end of it the first MiCURA prototype was ready for her inquisitive, yet cynical, New York restaurant guinea pigs to try, including Cagen restaurant’s respected Tomita-sensei.

His understanding of the importance of temperature control and hygiene as a Michelin starred sushi chef were skills that facilitated a very tasty first effort at sake brewing. Cagen staff also became engaged in the restaurant’s sake production, taking time to check on the sake and enjoy the evolution of the moromi.

It made me think: ‘Well, it’s not impossible to make high quality sake from homebrewing if you have good temperature control and hygiene’”.

With the prototypes turning out to be rather good, the floodgates had opened.

Things started to pick up. The sake kasu my testing was making showed potential with Chefs. I started giving prototype kits to Sommeliers, mixologists and restaurateurs. They seemed to really like it, the kits were a nice change to the usual sake tastings and seminars, they’d done all that before but hadn’t made their own sake.

In a way it became a learning tool for them, it opened their eyes too to the regulations and laws involved in sake making in the US and Japan, as well as the differences. More importantly perhaps, it got them experimenting and enjoying the process. We had one guy innovating with a lemon’s citric acid instead of lactic acid, for example”.

The rest is MiCURA history in a way. These industry contacts helped mould the kit into the current version and Euka-san is keen to sprinkle into its presentation the learnings, fun and games to be had, that they had, for each new member to enjoy.

The manual is a mix of education and information, clearly laid out but with suggestions all through to take a listen or have a taste to get the full immersive and multisensory benefits derived from brewing sake. It’s one of the most captivating science experiments out there, and it yields sake, what’s not to like!

I have a lot of Members who are sake educators, they really find this takes their knowledge to a new level, and in a different direction. Live streamers love it too for the visuals they can share and promote and it’s really satisfying the inquisitive minds of the sake geeks out there too!”.

So much has been crammed into these last three years. What’s next for MiCURA? The kit continues to evolve and has just been finessed for the international markets, taking on board recent feedback, such as some regions don’t tend to respond well to written instructions.

The intention is for MiCURA always to be failsafe wherever possible to guarantee the enjoyment factor. Plus I’m always trying to innovate, so for example the newest kit, ‘Nana’, has no need for any lactic acid to be added. It uses two kinds of koji-kin, yellow and white, the white introduces citric acid into the moromi which controls unwanted bacteria and creates a really juicy fresh sake, not unlike white wine”.

Let’s finish with a final look at how MiCURA has by chance slotted in so well into the current global situation living under virus restrictions. Japan’s domestic sake market is struggling like never before and is turning to the international industry to spread the good word of nihonshu.

People in Japan can only drink so much sake, and they tend not to drink so much at home compared to when eating at restaurants and social drinking after work which is not possible just now. Consumption and sales peaks come from all the events across the country which are constantly being cancelled. More importantly though, these events allow consumers to try new brands of sake and talk with the brewers which is something that is right now really missing in the industry with things being as they are”.

Brewing your own sake really is a great way, a practical way, to augment any sake education. There are plenty of options for theory learning out there from a handful of recognised education providers but you can’t beat the hands on experience, taking on the responsibility of a living, bubbling batch of the stuff. MiCURA is one of many solutions to any brew-curious sake fans, and with stay at home orders still in place for many of us, now’s really not a bad time to have a go.

Let’s face it, we all know there’s nothing quite like tasting namazake from the tank, and MiCURA’s is as fresh as it gets, and you don’t even need to leave your front door to have a cup. Or four.

———–

 

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.


Announcing a major collaboration with the Embassy of Japan

The Association is pleased to announce a new partnership with the Embassy of Japan in Washington, DC launching a series of virtual, engaging, and exciting initiatives promoting the sake industry and consumer knowledge in North America via three online webinar sessions. The webinar series will debut beginning in February 2021 and will end with a final webinar in March in conjunction with the celebration of The National Cherry Blossom Festival.

WEBINAR #1
BONDING OVER THE BREW: THE NORTH AMERICA-JAPAN SAKE BREWERS DIALOGUE
Thursday, February 25th, 2021
7:00PM-8:30PM USA/Eastern Time
Friday, February 26th
9:00AM-10:30AM Japan Time
This engaging exploration of sake will shine a spotlight on the launch of the North America-Japan Sake Dialogue, an initiative designed to foster cooperation and information-sharing between sake brewers on both sides of the Pacific.

WEBINAR #2
THE RULES OF THE BREW: SAKE REGULATIONS & THE FUTURE OF THE SAKE INDUSTRY
Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021
7:00PM-8:00PM USA/Eastern Time
Wednesday, March 2nd, 2021
9:00AM-10:00AM Japan Time
This webinar will showcase SBANA’s comprehensive survey of sake regulations across North America. The session will include an industry-insider discussion, with simultaneous translation in Japanese, about the future of the sake industry in the United States.

WEBINAR #3
THE BEAUTY OF THE BREW: A VIDEO JOURNEY & CONVERSATION CELEBRATING SAKE & SAKE MAKING
Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021
7:00PM-8:00PM USA/Eastern Time
Wednesday, March 24th, 2021
9:00AM-10:00AM Japan Time
This webinar will feature the world premier of SBANA’s animated video illustrating sake’s unique tradition, craft, and range of enjoyment for sake newcomers. The video will be followed by a panel discussion with SBANA member brewers relating their passion for sake and sake-making. The March 23 event will be held in conjunction with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the nation’s greatest springtime celebration commemorating the enduring friendship between the people of Japan and the United States.

“We are incredibly grateful for this remarkable opportunity to partner with the Embassy of Japan to bring cutting-edge programs to promote sake appreciation and the sake industry in North America,” says SBANA President Weston Konishi. “These initiatives demonstrate the value of the Sake Brewers Association of North America in helping our members to develop the industry and bring it to new heights,” he adds.

Stay tuned for registration information and further details on these upcoming events!


Sake Essentials: Milling

By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

Think back to your formative weeks and months of getting to grips with choosing which sakes to try out. Fun but confusing, right?

It may have been in a restaurant, liquor store or online but chances are you’d find yourself flailing around, your eyes squinting trying to pinpoint something on the label or menu to give a clue to the contents within. Unlocking the clues to the bottle or drinks list you’re considering can sometimes be a challenge, but also a rite of passage.

A quick cheat that sake newbies latch onto, understandably, is the milling rate – the seimaibuai – expressed as a numerical percentage most commonly on the back label. This gives an immediate lifeline, a calibration of sorts, to understanding the quality of the sake.

In just the same way, knowing which category of special designation sake (basically premium sake) you’re mulling over – the tokutei meishoshu – doesn’t necessarily give you a finite answer as to the quality of it. When it comes to sake, we like to think there’s really good sake and just plain good sake.

What should the seimaibuai and tokutei meishoshu category mean to you? Blake Richardson, President/Owner of Minnesota Rice and Milling, is well placed to shed some light on this, having previously set up North America’s first craft sake brewery, moto-i, in 2008.

A frequent visitor to Japan, Blake saw an opportunity back home to combine the popular and established domestic brew pub concept with Japan’s seductive beverage, sake. And by frequent, we’re talking fifteen or more trips, involving study tours with John Gauntner as part of his Sake Professional Course as well as some hands-on production experience at Tsukinowa brewery in Iwate Prefecture.

The defining image of brew pubs is largely based on two requirements: an on-site brewing facility and a significant range of brewed beverages to amuse and entertain thirsty customers. As a brewery school graduate with twenty five years of craft brewing experience, Blake emphatically ticked this first requirement, but it would be the latter that would cause more of a challenge seeing as back in 2008, 60% milled US grown Calrose rice was easy to get hold of, but that was about it.

Before we continue with Blake, just what is a 60% milled sake all about? Well, this (kinda) important seimaibuai percentage will mostly be in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s and there’s no chance you’ll mix it up with the ABV (alcohol by volume) figure which is generally in the 15-17% region. One less thing to worry about at least.  Having identified this number, rightly or wrongly, we can start to immediately draw some conclusions.

Image courtesy of Urban Sake (www.urbansake.com)

Firstly, the lower the number, the greater the amount of rice that has been removed. A 40% sake indicates that 60% has been removed and won’t take any further part in the brewing process (although it won’t be wasted – this nuka rice powder will be side-lined into cosmetics or animal feed) whereas a 70% tells us that (just) 30% has been removed.

Secondly, this informs us a little about how deep we’re going to have to dig into our pockets, even before getting a glimpse at the price ticket. The more the rice is polished, the less remains that can be transformed into sake. Unsurprisingly, gram for gram sake rice is more profitably used for making sake than it is for these secondary by-products.

On the plus side, sake is generally honestly priced, so if you’re paying twice as much for one bottle than another, it’s in all likelihood going to be noticeably better, maybe not twice as good (and how on earth do you measure that anyway), but better nonetheless.

What is important to remember here is that milling takes place right up front in the sake production process. The end liquid pouring out of the tank some weeks later (months later if you count the traditional six months of storage at the brewery) is affected, influenced and morphed by so many human decisions and natural factors that it’s just not possible to segregate really good sake from just plain good sake by this milling rate alone, without opening the bottle.

But why mill at all, is it really necessary? For Blake, controlling what rice varietals got milled and to what level would be the significant missing piece in the jigsaw for moto-i, but his options were rather narrow back then in the early days of the business.

Some digging around identified a milling facility out West but no matter how hard he tried, Blake couldn’t persuade them to support his Minneapolis business and relatively low order quantities, branding him a “pest” no less.

Scouring through a newly identified “graveyard of used rice milling equipment”, as Blake describes it, initially looked promising but none of the decaying kit seemed to be in a state that could polish below 70%, which just didn’t meet his long term vision.

All of a sudden, a phone call asking, “Do you want to buy our old mill?”, came out of the blue from the West coast. Blake’s searching was over, and the rest is history.

In the absence of Japonica rice strains, Blake began milling experimentation with Italy’s finest short grain rices – vialone nano and arborio – with limited success. “The Italian grains are very light, success wasn’t good with them”, he explains. Grain composition is an important factor but density is critical also in that the weight of the rice against the milling stone has a correlation with just how much gets polished off each “pass” through the mill.

In simple terms, rice is poured into the milling machine’s hopper at the top and released at a specific flow rate to be gently “scraped” by a pair of silicone carbide wheels before returning to the hopper for what can be hundreds, if not thousands, of passings through this spinning gauntlet for more and more scraping.

Control is the key word here. The grains are delicate and easily prone to cracking, some varietals more than others, as well as being liable to succumb to starch gelatinization if things get too hot. A 70% polished batch can take up to eight hours, for 50% you’re looking at a constant two days of non-stop machine time, so it’s no surprise all that energy results in some hot machinery. Plus, a hot ambient temperature can affect things adversely, as well as a change in humidity.

This is where Blake’s skills come into their own, tweaking and adapting flow rates onto the stone, managing the opening and closing of apertures as well as the rotational speed of the stones. Although the machine came with a manufacturer’s “recipe book” that recommended milling procedures for full and half batches, it’s just not as simply prescriptive as that.

To confuse things further, the rice grain itself changes over time during milling depending on what is being polished off. Proteins, fats and starch have different hardnesses, and the grains’ own internal temperature increases also as things heat up.

Things get really interesting around the 70% mark. Up until this point, polishing is relatively easy, but from then on in I really need to pay attention. I have to be super-careful, there’s a lot happening”, confesses Blake.

Milling has certainly become “easier” through Blake’s relationship with Isbell Farms directly due South (at almost a similar latitude to Hyogo, Japan) down in Arkansas. “I’d heard about what Chris was doing down there and liked the sound of it so basically asked him if I could mill his rice”, Blake tells us. Luckily for him, Chris agreed, and the partnership is entering its sixth year and going from strength to strength.

Chris and Blake met through mutual friends at Nøgne ø of all places, in Norway, a chance encounter interwoven into this fascinating story. Isbell Farms’ Yamada Nishiki rice is now the mainstay of Minnesota Rice and Milling, being shipped to breweries in Nashville, Texas, Mexico and beyond.

The quality of rice has a major impact on the milling process and final product which is certainly recognizable in the Yamada Nishiki being produced by Isbell Farms since the early 1990s, being in fact the first US business to grow this strain. Blake feels that milling Isbell Farms’ Yamada Nishiki is relatively easy due to the shape, hardness, weight and size of the individual grains. Omachi, a rice that is comparatively softer, is the latest varietal addition and “seems to mill quite nicely”, he humbly says, and his milling proficiency now means 35% seimaibuai is readily on offer to brewers. This requires four to five days of constant milling, and so the stakes are high.

What about 2021? Blake acknowledges that in the era of Covid-19, production will be seriously down on previous years, but that comes as no surprise after last year’s disappointments and challenges. Yet Blake only sees opportunity and Isbell Farms is preparing to offer two other Japanese rices along with some new Southern grown rice varietals that are being added to the portfolio that Blake and Minnesota Rice and Milling will be working with in the future.

These new Japanese rice strains are Wataribune and Gohyakumangoku, well known candidates from the country’s hundred or so readily recognisable options. Of the two, Gohyakumangoku may well be one many know (it’s hard to forget that name), its famed large round shinpaku giving the ‘King of Rice’, Yamada Nishiki, a run for its money and a popular choice in Japan, accounting for around a quarter of sake rice production nationally.

Wataribune rice is synonymous with Ibaraki Prefecture, an ancient strain recently revived and believed by many to be a parent of Yamada Nishiki. Either way, people definitely agree on its lively, aromatic and complex identity, ensuring big and full sakes with multi-layered flavours.

Blake’s last message to the industry is this: “Try some on us”. Blake is at the front of the sake ambassador queue (those many visits to Japan compelling him perhaps) and invites North American brewers to arrange rice samples for testing, enough for a proper sized fermentation, not just a quick experiment.

This year offers new hopes and opportunities, and I want to help make that happen”. What are you waiting for?

——————-

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.


Sake Essentials: Rice

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.


Partnership with Sake Matters

We are thrilled to announce our partnership with Will Jarvis, founder of Sake Matters, to build cutting-edge content around the North American sake industry! In addition to running one of the best online sake sites, Will also works with international sake clients on their marketing content and helps them plug into the Hong Kong F&B scene. He has a deep passion for sake which comes across in his deep dive interviews and articles about the future of our industry. This partnership will allow us to build fantastic content for sake enthusiasts to discover more about the North American sake industry and the people who are building it. Will is developing a list of articles that he’ll be working on over the coming months and we’re hopeful that he’ll touch all areas of the North American industry. Please keep an eye out for these articles on our social media platforms and on our homepage.

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Interview in Japan Sake Export Association Trade Magazine

SBANA President Bernie Baskin and Vice President Wes Konishi were interviewed by Kaoru Ishiguro for the October 2020 edition of the Japan Sake Export Association trade magazine. The article describes the genesis of SBANA and the Association’s core mission to expand sake knowledge among consumers, enhance brewer capacity, and promote policies and regulations conducive to industry growth. The article also highlights SBANA activities such as the American Craft Sake Festival and features photos of North American Sake Brewery and Islander Sake. Japan Sake Export Association chairman and SBANA Advisory Board member Haruo Matsuzaki makes the concluding point that SBANA’s activities to promote craft sake in North America can expand the market for Japanese and North American brewers, much like the way craft beer has led overall growth in the beer industry in recent years.

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