Blue Current Brewery, I felt a strong bond, It was far more than just a shared love of Sake. It was more an empathy with his passion. Dan, who left the world of IT financial services to run a Sake brewery, told me that he was now the happiest he had ever been. Leaving his corporate job to pursue his passion for Sake was a great choice, the right thing to do, and he had no regrets. I've been in his shoes, leaving the corporate world to embrace my own passion, and I've also never been happier.
Last week, I drove up to Kittery, Maine to meet Dan Ford and tour his new Sake brewery. Making Sake in Maine? Though it might seem strange, it actually makes sense as Sake brewing needs cold temperatures and Maine winters present excellent conditions for brewing. Blue Current is the first Sake brewery to officially open in New England, though there are a couple more, in Massachusetts and Connecticut, which are supposed to open in the near future.
Currently, it isn't easy to find Blue Current brewery as there aren't any signs on the road. It isn't open to the public yet so there isn't a need to make it more visible. You have to drive past a nondescript fence and up a hill, ending up at a warehouse (pictured above).
Dan, a graduate of Harvard University, was working in IT financial services in 2008 when the economic crash caused him to lose that job. In 2009, he started Blue Current Technology but it didn't work out as well as he hoped. Around this time, Dan was doing some home brewing and found a small Sake brewing kit at a store in Portland. He was intrigued as he enjoyed drinking Sake and was curious how this kit might work. It sparked a deep passion within Dan and he started to learn as much as he could about Sake and brewing, reaching out to other Sake brewers, like Blake Richardson of Moto-I in Minneapolis, and experts like John Gauntner. He also spent a month in Japan visiting a number of Sake breweries, gathering as much knowledge and advice he could.
He started Sake brewing in his garage but eventually relocated to his current space. He also ran a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, raising over $36,000 for his new brewery. Dan designed all of the equipment for the brewery, taking time to research the potential options and finding a stainless steel fabricator who could help turn his dreams into reality. In addition, he also had students from the University of Maine help build his rice steamer. A couple pieces of equipment, such as the hood and sink were found in a salvage yard.
Generally, U.S. Sake breweries use table rice to brew their product, which is also done for about 75% of all Japanese Sake. Premium Japanese Sake, the top 25% of all Sake, commonly uses Sake rice, though there are exceptions. If U.S. Sake breweries begin to use Sake rice, the quality of their products could increase, though the price will also need to be raised as Sake rice is more expensive. Dan is hoping to receive his first shipment of Yamada Nishiki rice in November, allowing him to use it for this upcoming brewing season.
When Dan's rice shipment is sent from California, it first makes a stop in Minnesota where the rice is milled and polished. As Dan makes Junmai Ginjo Sake, the rice is polished down to 60%, the minimum polishing requirement for a Ginjo. The rice is then sent on to Maine. When the Yamada Nishiki is harvested, it will also be sent to Minnesota, though it may be milled less, primarily because the rice is so expensive. As such, that Sake may only qualify as a Junmai. I eagerly await the finished product, to taste a U.S. Sake made from Sake rice.
Steamed rice is brought to a koji-muro, a special, heated room where the koji will be created. The above picture shows the cedar-lined koji-muro at Blue Current, which is also very energy efficient. The steamed rice is spread out in trays and then mold spores, known as koji-kin or tane-koji, are pread across the rice. Over the course of about two days, the koji-kin germinates and spread over all the rice, creating kome-koji, molded rice, which looks like it has been frosted.
Last winter was their first brewing season and they brewed about 5,000 liters. There is Sake stored in several tanks and when they bottle a batch, it is a blend of the different tanks, as they are seeking a balanced Sake. I got to taste Sake from three tanks, to see some of the differences in what has been made. They were all genshu, meaning they have not yet been diluted by water, and I was intrigued by the varied aromas and tastes each tank showed. Each had a nice, clear color and I could envision how the different Sakes might blend together.
This is the first year they have been commercially selling their Sake and much of their work is now directed at distribution. They haven't started brewing yet this season as it is still too warm though they are engaging in cleaning, getting ready for the brewing season which traditionally starts on October 1, which is also now International Sake Day.
Washington Post and Japan Times have talked about the value of Kasu in cooking.
Their Junmai Ginjo Sake is available in 375ml ($15) and 750ml ($25) bottles and you can find it in numerous stores and restaurants in Maine. For example, it is available in about 45 Hannaford Supermarkets in Maine as well as about 30 restaurants in the Kittery area. What is especially impressive, is that 90% of those restaurants are non-Asian. As I've long said, Sake works with all cuisines and should appeal on drinks menus in all types of restaurants, and not just Asian ones.
In the Boston area, Sake still is primarily available in Asian spots. Very few non-Asian restaurants carry Sake and the exceptions stand out, such as Tasting Counter. It seems restaurants in Kittery may be more progressive, seeing the value of Sake for many different cuisines. For example, you can find Blue Current Sake at When Pigs Fly Pizzeria. Pizza & Sake works! In the near future, Dan is hoping to expand his distribution to Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. Will Boston area non-Asian restaurants get on board and start carrying Sake, especially locally produced Sake?
On a technical basis, it possesses a Sake Meter Value (SMV) of -15 The SMV is a measurement of the density of Sake and can be a rough indicator of whether a Sake is dry or sweet. Negative numbers tend to indicate a greater sweetness though there are other factors involved in determining the sweetness of a Sake. It is the more extreme SMV numbers which tend to be more indicative. So, at -15, you would expect this Sake to be fairly sweet but that isn't the case. This is a good example of how SMV is not always useful in determining whether a Sake is dry or sweet.
To me, the Blue Current Sake is a good choice for an every-day Sake, something you can easily drink on its own or pair with food. I could see myself sharing a few bottles with friends during a night of drinking. And I drank some with my wonderful lunch at Anju Noodle Bar so I experienced how well it can pair with food. It would certainly be a good choice for seafood, from lobster to fried clams. With that hint of sweetness, it would also be good with spicy foods, from Mexican to Thai.
I believe that in time, Blue Current Sake will get even better, especially once they start using Yamada Nishiki rice. Each year brings more brewing experience which will see the quality of the Sake rise, It is clear to me that Dan's passion is coming out in his Sake and I strongly recommend you seek out his Sake the next time you are in Maine. And look forward to the near future when it comes to Massachusetts.
In five years, Dan hopes that his Sake will be available all across the country. I wish him the best of luck in this regard and will be closely following his progress, reporting back anything new.