Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Green River Sake: Consumer Friendly

Sake can be intimidating to many people so efforts to make it more consumer friendly are certainly welcome as well as needed. That is one of the primary reasons I found Green River Sake to be so compelling.

Though I previously posted Some Choice Selections from the New England Food Show, my favorite booth of the entire show belong to Green River Sake. I was fortunate to meet K. Mike Masuyama, Ph.D., (pictured above) from their US marketing office. He led me through a tasting of four of their sakes, as well as discussed the company, from its philosophy to its marketing. He was a fascinating man, obviously passionate about sake, and desirous to spread his passion throughout the U.S.

In Japan, Green River Sake Company is known as Midorikawa, as "midori” means “green” and “kawa” means “river.” The brewery, located in the Niigata region, has a history extending back to the early 18th century though it was not incorporated until 1884. It is a relatively small brewery, and though it relies on technology, it still avoids mass production. It is more a boutique brewery, using technology to help produce high quality sake on a small scale.  And based on what I tasted, they have been successful.

I really was intrigued by the pitcher they used to pour sake, which kept it chilled, but not diluted, by ice. Classy, aesthetically pleasing and functional.

Green River has created a line of sakes intended for the U.S. market. These sakes are meant to be consumer friendly, to avoid confusing and intimidating people. Their labels are simple, and almost completely in English except for the large kanji on the front label.  The labels also do not contain any technical details, such as the Sake Meter Value or Acidity level. The idea is to make the labels simple, to primarily describe the flavor profile of the sake without using any confusing technical terminology. When they sell their sake in Japan, the labels are different.  In addition, the color of each bottle and label is different, so consumers can more easily realize that they are different products.

Their sake sells for about $14-$21 for 300ml bottles, dependent on the specific sake.  It was thought that the smaller bottles would also be more consumer friendly, seeming like less of a risk to buy and sample. I have previously encouraged local wine stores to carry this bottle size as I agree it seems less of a risk for consumers. Green River has even geared the taste of the sake toward being being amenable to an American palate, though not by trying to make it sweet.

The four sakes I tasted included: Koide 12, Snow-Aged, Five Seasons and Beyond the Sea. Typical Niigata sake is often described as tanrei, which roughly translates as "clean-smooth-gracious," and it is a style that I greatly enjoy. Thus, these four sakes, which seemed to reflect the tanrei style, all appealed to me. I should also note that they all taste dry.

The Koide 12 is a Junmai Ginjo, and the rice has been milled down to 55%. It also has a slightly lower alcohol level, at 14%-15%, than usual sakes.  It has a smooth, clean taste with subtle yet complex flavors of melon, peach, steamed rice, and more.   

The Snow-Aged is also a Junmai Ginjo, milled to 60%, and has undergone "snow-aging."  The bottled sake is actually stored in an open warehouse, for about one year, where it is open to the elements. As this area of Niigata can receive up to 12 feet of snow, the sake can be buried beneath snow for much of the winter. Interestingly, though I thought this might be more subtle and elegant than the Koide 12, it actually seemed more assertive and bolder, though still being smooth and complex. The fruit elements were more subtle than the Koide and there was a more prominent herbaceous taste.

The Five Seasons is a Junmai sake which "can be enjoyed in four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter, and an additional season of sake throughout the year."  The rice was milled to 60%, which technically would make it a Ginjo but they have chosen to label it as a Junmai.  This sake had a flavor profile somewhere between the Koide and the Snow-Aged.

The Beyond the Sea is also a Junmai sake, with rice milled to 65%.  It was the most full bodied of the four sakes, with more of a sense of umami.  It was smooth and clean, with subtle flavors of melon, Asian pear and hints of ginger. 

I would enjoy drinking any one of these four sakes, and agree they are very consumer friendly. They would make excellent introductory sakes, which could help correct a person's misconceptions about sake. Plus, sake lovers would find them very enjoyable as well.

I was also excited to know that they carry Sparkling Star, a dry sparkling sake in a 500ml bottle for about $20.  I did not get to taste this sake, but note that it is not sweet, like most of the other sparkling wines on the market. It is also completely clear, unlike many sparkling sakes which can be cloudy with some of the sake lees. I look forward to tasting this sake when it becomes available.

These sakes should be available in the Massachusetts market in the near future, distributed through Atlantic Importing Co., and I strongly recommend you seek them out when they are available. It would be good if other sake breweries tried to make their products more accessible to U.S. consumers.


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