Wednesday, November 9, 2011

SakeOne: Craft Sake In Oregon

What strikes me most about the above picture of ancient sake brewing are the happy workers, the smiles on most of their faces. Many of the workers are using long poles to mix the yeast starter, also called the moto or shubo, and waiting for the natural lactic acid in the air to fall into the tubs.  This is referred to as the kimoto style and was the predominant method until the start of the twentieth century.  Around 1909 A.D., the sokujo method became the norm, where a pure lactic acid was added to the moto, rather than waiting for what naturally existed. This saved time and effort, as well as being less risky. But there are still some breweries that practice the traditional kimoto style, and it is actually one of my favorite styles of sake.

The kimoto style is very labor intensive, and monotonous, yet the workers depicted in the picture are apparently happy, taking pride in their labors. They understand the artisan nature of their work, and look forward to the wonderful sake that will be born of their labors. Such workers even sang while they worked, special brewing songs called sake-tzukuri uta. Not only did these songs help to relieve the monotony of some of their work, but they also assisted in proper timing, just as ancient mariners used music to help the timing of their rowers.

This picture, and three similar ones, are located on an exterior wall of the SakeOne kura (sake brewery) in Forest Grove, Oregon, about 25 miles west of Portland. As you enter the brewery, you cannot but help to think of these workers, their ancient brewing methods, and the artisan work that was once done. It is very inspiring.

When I realized I was going to visit Portland, I knew that I had to visit SakeOne. How could any sake lover not want to visit a sake brewery? Plus, I was familiar with many of their sakes, though it had been several years since I had drank many of their Momokawa products except for their Organic Nigori. In fact, at a number of the sake tastings I have held during the past year, I selected their Organic Nigori as one of my choices.

I remained in Portland a couple extra days after the Travel Oregon press trip so that I could visit the brewery. Dewey Weddington, the Vice President of Marketing for SakeOne, personally led me on a tour of the brewery, as well as showing me some of the other sake sights of Portland (which I have previously written about). Dewey was a fine host, personable and down to earth, and he allowed me access to all part of the brewery as well as leading me through a tasting of their domestic sakes.

The history of SakeOne extends back almost twenty years.  In 1992, SakeOne, under the name Japan America Beverage Co., established a partnership with Momokawa Brewing Japan, a Japanese kura which has been producing sake since 1889. They began as an importer but eventually constructed their own brewery and in October of 1998, changed their name to SakeOne. Toji, sake brew masters, from Momokawa assisted in the design of the brewery. In addition, Yoshio Koizumi, the Executive Managing Director and Chief of Production of Momokawa, trained the SakeOne brewer, Greg Lorenz.

Unfortunately, I did not get to meet Greg as he was away during my visit. I did though get to meet Juan Hernandez, the Assistant Brewer, and watched him at work during part of the production process. He too was personable, showing me some of their work, and it was obvious the care with which he invested in the brewing process.

After much testing, the people of Momokawa felt that the water of Oregon most closely resembled the water they used in Japan. Many areas in Oregon, including Portland, are supposed to have very pure drinking water, which would help produce a better quality sake. In addition, the brewery's water goes through several filtration levels, to remove all unwanted materials, chemicals and microbes. It is said that sake is about 80% water so the quality of that water is extremely important.

SakeOne does not use sakamai, sake rice, but instead uses a type of table rice, Calrose, which comes from the Sacramento Valley, in California. This rice was developed in 1948, and "Cal" refers to "California" while "rose" indicates it is a "medium-grain." It is a hard grain, and some has been grown specifically for sake production, with a larger shinpaku, the inner core where the starch is located. In Japan, much of their ordinary sake, the futsu-shu is actually made from table rice, though most, but not all, premium sake is made from sakamai.

When the brewery receives its rice, it has already been polished by 10%, and then SakeOne uses its own machine mill to polish the rice about another 32% more, with a target of 58%. This means that all of their sake qualifies as ginjo grade, which requires at least 40% of the rice to be polished away. Their milling machine runs often, and is capable of milling to almost any rate, though the greater the milling, the longer it takes. For example, milling from 60%-50% takes twice as long as it does to get down to 60%. Having their own milling machine enables them more quality control over the final product. They would like to eventually produce daiginjo, the highest quality grade, and have been doing some experimentation, but have not yet been satisfied with the results.

When you polish rice, the powder that remains behind is known as nuka, and it is not wasted. Nuka has numerous uses, from pickling to beauty products. SakeOne sells their nuka for cattle feed, and those cows are used to make Tillamook Cheese. Kasu, the sake lees, are also a byproduct of the brewing process and it is not wasted either. SakeOne sells their kasu to hog farmers, which is interesting as it still has a little alcohol in it. Wonder if that affects the taste of their meat?

After the rice is polished, it will be washed and soaked, before heading off to be steamed.

This is Juan Hernandez, the Assistant Brewer, getting ready to steam some rice.

The rice is layered in 6 inches to provide sufficient room for the steam to reach all of the rice rather than just steam the outside. If the rice is stacked too high, the interior rice may not get sufficiently steamed.

Some of the polished rice that has not yet been steamed. You can see how small it is, as about 40% of the rice kernel has already been polished away.

The steaming has begun, which will take about an hour to complete.

This box contains yellow koji-kin, a mold which will break the starch of the rice into sugars so that the yeast can ferment those sugars.

The steamed rice is now fed onto a conveyor belt where the koji-kin will be sprayed upon the rice.

That conveyor belt ends in the koji-muro, the cultivation room, where the koji will begin to transform the starch. The rice will eventually be spread out the length of the table.

SakeOne uses foamless yeast, called awa -nashi kobo, which has some advantages over regular yeasts. As they generate much less foam, a brewer saves time cleaning the foam out of the tanks and can also brew more sake in the tank. With normal yeast, about 1/3 of a tank will get filled with foam but the foamless yeasts will not waste all that space.

The above is a Yabuta press, which resembles an accordion, is used to separate the fermented sake from the lees. Each of the panels is a fine mesh, which prevents the lees from getting through. To make nigori, the mesh panels usually have larger holes, allowing some of the lees to pass through.

Fermentation tanks and holding tanks.

Now, onto the tasting room, which is located across the parking lot from the brewery building.

The tasting room and gift shop has a long counter where you can sidle up and try numerous sakes, including a couple that are on tap. If not tasting, you can peruse the store shelves, viewing what is for sale, from t-shirts to  sake books.

They sell several t-shirts and I love, and own, one of the "Drink Sake Not Bombs" shirts. Down with Sake Bombs!

They also sell some ochoko and tokkuri, sake cups and flasks, as well as a few sake books and other accessories.

The Momokawa brand has seen a recent aesthetic change as the labels have been redesigned. The new labels, pictured above, do seem a bit brighter and more modern, almost an abstract piece of art. The labels are also intended to be more consumer friendly, more descriptive instead of possessing technical terms like the Sake Meter Value. One of their primary goals is to introduce more consumers to Sake, as well as to cater to the American palate. SakeOne produces about 75,000 cases each year, and bottles are generally sold as 750ml or smaller bottles of 300ml or 375ml.

Many of their sakes, for a 750ml bottle, only cost $12 or $13, making them very affordable, and usually less expensive than imported Japanese sakes. One of the reason Japanese sakes are often more expensive is that there is an increased cost for imports, an extra cost that domestic sake does not incur. In addition, SakeOne's cost for rice is probably less than it is for Japanese breweries using sakamai, especially types like Yamada Nishiki. Rice is often one of the most expensive costs in producing sake. The low cost of the Momokawa line makes it a good choice for someone new to sake or for a party if you need plenty of inexpensive bottles.

We need to remember that SakeOne has only been making sake for 13 years, but that they continue to learn and improve all the time. The Momokawa I drank ten years ago is definitely not the same as the Momokawas I tasted at the brewery. The quality has improved during this time as the expertise of their sake brew master has increased, their equipment has been refined and other lessons have been learned. And each year that passes, the quality will continue to improve.

It was actually fun to taste through their current portfolio, to reacquaint myself with their sakes and to assess how they have changed over the years. Overall, I was pleased with their sakes and believe they offer a good value for the price. They offer an excellent way to introduce new people to sake, especially with their infused sakes. Based on my experience to this point, I feel SakeOne is producing the best domestic sakes in the U.S., though I have not yet tasted the sakes of Moto-i or the Texas Sake Company. But, Moto-i is only about three years old and the Texas Sake Co. just opened last month. SakeOne has much more experience than either of these breweries.

The Momokawa Silver ($12) is noted as a "Dry Crisp Sake" and has dry, clean flavors with tastes of melon and green apple. It is simple and pleasant, a nice introductory sake. The Momokawa Diamond ($12) is noted as a "Medium Dry Sake" and has a very nice aroma of floral notes and tropical fruit. On the palate, it offers some tropical fruit and citrus flavors, and seems a softer, though still dry, sake than the Silver.  The Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo ($13), noted as "Medium Rich," possesses even more tropical fruit flavors as well as underlying spice notes. It is crisp and dry, and very satisfying on the palate. The Momokawa Ruby ($12), noted as "Lightly Sweet," does seem to have a light sweetness to the taste, with more red fruit flavors as well as touches of melon and pear.  It is rounder and more rich in the mouth. I have previously reviewed their G Joy sake so there is no need to repeat that here.

For the price, you won't go wrong with any of these very approachable sakes.

I tasted a Special Edition sake called "Cloudless Sky,"which was a Nigori, having sat on the lees for four months, but the lees were then removed. So it went from being a "cloudy" sake to a "cloudless" one. This is the first time I have ever tasted such a sake and it was interesting, with tastes of canteloupe and melon, but with a more herbal finish. The Momokawa Pearl ($12) is a more traditional Nigori, sweet, thick and creamy with a prominent coconut taste. The Momokawa Organic Nigori is a thinner, less sweet sake with more restrained tropical fruit flavors. It has been very popular at the sake tastings I have held.

They have a tap where they can offer two draft sakes. The Nama Organic Junmai was maybe only a week old, and had an enticing nose of fresh fruit, and on the palate was crisp and lively. Plenty of delicious apple, pear and hints of tropical fruit. I was very impressed.  I also tasted some Plum Infused Sake, with added carbonation, from the tap, which was only mildly sweet and was rather refreshing. Would be a fun summer drink, or to add to a cocktail.

I tasted through their fruit infused sakes, the Moonstone line, which are intended to introduce newcomers to sake, to be a gateway to other sake. I would agree these are very consumer friendly products, and would also be great used in cocktails. These flavors include Asian Pear, Raspberry, Plum and Coconut Lemongrass. The Momokawa Silver is the base for these sakes, and they are generally sweet, though not overly so. My favorite was the Coconut Lemongrass, and I would love to try it in some Pina Colada style cocktails.

If you are in the Portland area, you definitely should visit the SakeOne kura, sake brewery. Their sakes are available all over the U.S. and it is well worth checking them out, especially at their price point. If you tasted their sakes years ago, but have not tried them recently, then give them another try. Consider using their infused sakes in cocktails, or give them to someone who claims not to enjoy sake and see what they think.

Kanpai to SakeOne!


Todd - VT Wine Media said...

Kanpai Richard!
Great article, and a reminder to wine buffs that there is more going on in Oregon than Pinot Noir. I agree, the Momokawa brand has seen a recognizable quality increase over the years, has been showing up at dojo parties regularly, and is a completely affordable way to introduce folks to sackey. ( Sorry, I liked that T-Shirt best!)

Bianca @ Confessions of a Chocoholic said...

Very cool. I'd love to try some fruit infused sake! I've had fruit infused soju though, and I really liked it.