Monday, November 14, 2011
Rant: U.S. Sake vs Japan Sake--Context Is Everything
After my recent visit to the SakeOne brewery in Oregon, I pondered these questions. In addition, as I was doing some additional research, I stumbled upon a blog post, from February 2011, which attempted to answer these questions and those answers irked me. W. Blake Gray posted US sake vs. Japanese: the update and concluded "..that Japanese sake is still significantly better." I feel that his conclusions are unfair, unsupported by his presented evidence and fail to consider several important elements. Even if every negative thing that Blake stated about SakeOne were true, he still would not have proved his general conclusions.
In addition, it almost seemed that Blake possessed a preconceived bias against American sake which colored his judgment. Before posting his article, Blake stated his general rule is "Domestic sake is not as good as Japanese sake." Considering how he ignored certain key aspects of the original question, presented very limited evidence, and seemingly tailored his post in an attempt to prove his assertion, it certainly seems like bias was likely involved. It is telling as well that within the article, he even stated "...this piece is already mean enough."
To start, Blake's article addressed only one specific example, SakeOne, while there are six other producers of Sake in the U.S. (though one of those did not exist at the time of his article). Though he claimed to have tasted other domestic sake, he did not indicate which breweries that included and did not indicate whether he has tasted sake from all of the breweries or not. Plus, he did not indicate when he tasted sake from the other domestic producers, which is another important factor. Blake's article made grand conclusions based on a single example, SakeOne, and failed to indicate that any or all of the other U.S. sakes breweries engaged in similar practices. It is clearly improper to make a general conclusion based on a single example.
Before I delve more deeply into specifics, I want to provide some context and history on sake production in the U.S., which Blake failed to address in his article. In fact, a sake brewery in a U.S. territory had a significant impact on the entirety of the Japanese sake brewing industry. Even if you dislike the sake that is currently being produced in the U.S., you cannot ignore the Japanese sake industry's great debt to the U.S.
It is thought that sake first came to the U.S. around 1885 when Japanese immigrants, working on sugar plantations in Hawaii, brought some with them. Within a few years or so, sake became a more readily available import. But, around 1898, sake imports dropped drastically when a 600% import duty was imposed upon it, part of an effort to discourage immigration. Into this picture came Tajiro Sumida, who immigrated to Hawaii in 1899 when he was 16 years old. Nine years later, he opened a sake brewery in Hawaii, the Honolulu Sake Brewery, which is said by some to be the first sake brewery established outside of Japan, though evidence seems to indicate otherwise.
Initially, the endeavor was a disaster as the high temperatures ruined the sake so Sumida had to develop a method of refrigeration to protect his production. This succeeded and by 1914, Sumida was producing about 300,000 gallons of sake. Sumida actually was on the cutting edge of developing and refining technology for sake production. His was the first sake brewery to use stainless steel tanks and the first to brew sake year round. He devised a method to use California rice as well as refining the use of foamless yeasts. These important technological developments were later embraced by the Japanese sake industry.
Maybe 15 or so other sake breweries opened in California during the early 1900s, but they did not last long and little is known about them. The Honolulu Sake Brewery lasted for 80 years, finally closing in 1988, having weathered Prohibition and World War II. It would not be until the late 1970s that new sake breweries would open in the U.S., and seven sake breweries currently exist in the U.S., including the following:
Ozeki Sake US (Hollister, CA), Established in 1979
Takara Sake (Berkeley, CA), Established in 1982
Yaegaki USA (Vernon, CA), Established in 1987
Gekkeikan Sake (Folsom, CA), Established in 1989
SakeOne (Forest Grove, OR), Established in 1998
Moto-i (Minneapolis, MN), Established in 2008
Texas Sake Company (Austin, TX), Established in 2011
Japanese sake brewing has about 2000 years of history, but the modern sake industry in the U.S. really started only about 32 years ago. Is it fair then to compare the two industries with such drastically different amounts of experience? It is only fair if you factor the varying experience levels into your answer. Plus, the U.S. sake industry is still very small, with only seven breweries, as opposed to the 1200-1400 sake breweries that now exist in Japan, so there is not much to compare to at this point. Within the U.S., it is still a young and tiny industry so we must consider that fact into our assessments too.
Blake pointed to two specific factors, water and rice, which he stated were are the reasons why American sake is inferior to Japanese sake. He indicated that SakeOne uses tap water and table rice but failed to provide any evidence that the other U.S. sake breweries did the same. Based on Blake's post, it appears that the water and rice issue is a new revelation to him, which would seem to indicate he did not know the source of the water and rice used by other U.S. sake breweries. Without that evidence, any conclusions drawn from the single example of SakeOne can only apply to SakeOne and not the U.S. sake industry as a whole. So Blake's sweeping conclusions about the entire U.S. sake brewing industry must fail.
As to the water, Blake indicated SakeOne uses tap water but failed to explain why that created inferior sake. The brewers of Momokawa thought Oregon water would work well for sake, and Oregon water is often cited as being very pure. In addition, SakeOne uses a multiple filtration system to remove unwanted microbes and such. So what exactly is wrong with the water used by SakeOne? Is it too hard? Does it contain too much iron? Simply stating it is tap water is an insufficient indictment without supporting details. In addition, some Japanese sake uses tap water, and not pure natural springs or rivers, so does that make those sakes inferior as well?
As to the rice, Blake indicated that SakeOne uses eating rice, table rice, rather than sake rice. Once again, Blake failed to explain why table rice leads to inferior sake. I know the differences between table rice and sake rice, but the average person will not have a clue. Though Blake did not mention it, there is a strain of Calrose being produced that is made to be closer to sake rice, with a larger shinpaku, the center pocket of starch. In addition, the simple fact is that most Japanese sake is made from table rice rather than sake rice, something which Blake also failed to mention. So Blake cannot simply state U.S. sake is inferior because it uses table rice when so much Japanese sake also uses it.
As grapes are to wine so is rice to sake, yet there is a significant difference. It is said that 80% of a wine is due to the grapes and 20% to the production while sake is the opposite, with only 20% attributable to the rice and 80% to production. So, the type of rice is less important, especially in experienced hands. As experience is so important, that is a reason why the U.S. sake industry is still in its infancy. It needs more time to grow, experiment, develop and evolve. So, why would anyone think that U.S. sake can currently compete with the best sakes of Japan? It makes little sense. It would be like expecting Cabernet/Merlot blends from Long Island to compete with First Growth Bordeaux.
But that does not mean that Blake's rule, "Domestic sake is not as good as Japanese sake," is valid as a generalization. In fact, I believe there are U.S. sakes which can be as good, and potentially better, than approximately 75% of Japanese sakes. As a starting point, you must realize that about 75% of the sake produced in Japan is futsu-shu, ordinary sake, which is not considered to be premium sake, also known as tokutei meishoshu, or "special designation sake." Futsu-shu is often mass produced, cheap sake, though there are some good quality ones too. But nearly all futsu-shu is made from table rice and most probably is also made with tap water. In addition, it does not have a minimum rice polishing requirement and may contain additives you would not find in a premium Junmai or Honjozo sake.
As the quality of much futsu-shu is low, it is then easy to say that there are U.S. sakes which are much better than the bulk of futsu-shu. If we just consider SakeOne, their sakes are Junmai, meaning they only contain four ingredients (rice, water, yeast and koji-kin), which elevates them above most futsu-shu. Plus, their sakes are Ginjo grade, meaning at least 40% of the rice kernel has been polished away, again elevating them above most futsu-shu.
Tastewise, I believe the SakeOne products are better than at least 99% of the futsu-shu I have ever tried, which means SakeOne's products are better than at least 75% of Japanese sakes. Blake is very negative in his opinions of the SakeOne products and he is certainly entitled to his opinion in that regard. My own opinions, which I previously posted, are much different though. I have also poured some of the SakeOne products at various sake tastings and they were generally well received by the average consumer. I am curious as to whether Blake would concede the point that SakeOne's products are better than most futsu-shu.
Now, how does U.S. sake quality stand up against premium Japanese sake, which constitutes 25% of their production? In this regard, I feel the vast majority of premium Japanese sake is likely better, though I will also note that I have encountered good, premium sake that does not use sake rice. The top sake producers have vast amounts of experience, with a wealth of resources, and the fledgling U.S. sake industry has a mere fraction of that experience. For example, how do you compete with a sake brewery, Sudo Honke, that has been in continual existence for over 850 years?
Despite this, you would be hard pressed to find a premium Japanese sake at the same price point as you would at SakeOne. You can purchase a 750ml bottle of Junmai Ginjo from SakeOne for $12-$13 while a Japanese Junmai Ginjo would easily run you $25-$40+. Thus, the low prices of SakeOne make their sake more attractive to the average consumer who can't afford to drink $25+ sakes every night. I feel the SakeOne products are very approachable, especially to people new to sake. Such individuals are far more likely to pay $12 to try a sake rather than $30, just as they would be with wine. I would have absolutely no problem recommending the SakeOne products.
So, back to the original question: Is sake produced in the U.S. as good as sake produced in Japan? The proper answer is that, in general, U.S. sake is better than some Japanese sake but not as good as others. Not all Japanese sake is a superior product, and far more of it is ordinary than premium.
But, I think it is far more important to ask whether U.S. sake has improved over time or not. That is not a question Blake addressed and he never indicated whether he previously tasted through the SakeOne portfolio. SakeOne has been brewing sake for about 13 years and I probably first tasted their sakes about ten years ago. Since then I have tasted them at various times and most recently visited the brewery and tasted through their portfolio. Thus, I am in a position to assess their progress over the past ten years and definitely feel the quality has much improved over that time. Their experience has grown, and they have been able to learn from the past, creating better sake. They continue to learn and hone their skills, and it is likely their sake quality will continue to improve. They currently produce a good, value sake of which they should feel proud.
The entire U.S. sake industry is growing, and I am eager to eventually taste sake from the newer breweries, Moto-i and Texas Sake Company, to see the quality of the sake they produce. I have heard some good things about the namazake from Moto-i. The Texas Sake Co. is still very new so I have heard few reviews yet. Sure, there are still some U.S. produced sakes that I dislike, which I even consider to be poor quality, but then there are poor quality, Japanese sakes I dislike too.
I place the U.S. sake industry in context, as a small, young industry which is striving to improve rather than simply dismiss it out of hand as did Blake. The Japanese sake industry also needs to be put in context, with its 2000 years of history and experience, but which still produces plenty of very ordinary sake, much of which is inferior to some of the sakes being made in the U.S.
Don't ignore U.S. produced sake. Instead, give it a try and make your own opinion. And if you dislike all of the sakes from one U.S. brewery, don't let that stop you from trying the sakes from another brewery. Personally, of the different sakes I have tasted from five domestic breweries, I believe SakeOne is producing the best quality and value sake of that group.