Monday, November 14, 2011

Rant: U.S. Sake vs Japan Sake--Context Is Everything

Is sake produced in the U.S. as good as sake produced in Japan? Does the question require more specificity? Or is it even a fair question?

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.



Unknown said...

I recognize where that photo came from!

W. Blake Gray said...

Bravo, Richard. I concede the point that SakeOne, and probably other American sake breweries as well, can make sake that's just as good as the cheap, low-quality Japanese sakes that aren't exported here.

Will you concede this point? I can easily walk into True Sake and buy 50 Japanese sakes that are better than anything made in the US. And I could do that even if the sakes had bags over them so that I couldn't see the brands. The difference between good Japanese sake and the very best American sake is still that great.

I wanted to be nice to SakeOne in my post; they're nice people. I don't need to run them down, and I don't need to do it here, either.

But I do want to make two points:

1) You seem to have a chip on your shoulder about the fact that the Japanese have been brewing sake for centuries, as if we should throw that out the window when comparing products. Why? If the sakes are better because of experience, then they're better.

2) Take a moment to think about who you should really support, and sympathize with.

On the one hand, you have American entrepreneurs trying to make a product without much history here. They're trying to carve out a new market and doing it mostly by adding fruit flavorings to sake. Didn't SakeOne tell you their flavored sakes are their top sellers? Now, you can make an argument that wine coolers brought people to wine, and I'll listen patiently to that argument.

But let's look at the other side.
Though Japanese sake has never been better, thanks to technological advances atop of the centuries of brewing history, Japanese sake brewers are facing very difficult economic times. Japan's economy was weak BEFORE the tsunami and nuclear crisis. Young Japanese are drinking beer, shochu, and increasingly wine. Sake sales aren't growing in Japan. And now, sake brewers hoping to export have to deal with the stigma of the nuclear crisis. I know that sake from, say, Kyoto or (ironically) Hiroshima is a long way from the nuclear plant in Fukushima, but how many Americans know that?

You can wave the Star Spangled Banner and say, "Support American sake!" and I won't stop you. I'm also a proud American.

But my sympathies lie with the Japanese brewers, who are underpaid craftsmen, not slick marketers. And I'm afraid you'll have to concede the point that their best, and even their merely good, sakes are still way better than ours.

If you don't want to concede it, let's stage a Judgment of USA tasting of sake, proceeds to reconstruction in northern Japan. Deal?

Jason said...

Not having tasted any US sake yet (and having tasted lamentably little Japanese sake) I can't speak from experience here, but it certainly seems as though Blake is overgeneralizing based on one producer. At the same time, I doubt his "rule" was ever intended to mean "All Japanese sake is better than all US sake," so your argument about futsu-shu is a little unfair. I took his comment more to mean "the best US sake still can't compete with the best Japanese sake," and even if he hasn't tasted enough to make this assertion, you seem to agree with that (for now).

But I think your points placing the US sake industry in context are well-argued, and that the trend of improvement you've noticed is significant, especially given the fact that the industry is still so small. Only one new sake brewery in over 6 months, for a grand total of 7? Of COURSE we're not competitive with Japan yet. But it's also exciting to watch the industry grow, because each new brewery, by virtue of their paucity, automatically has the potential to become a major player in the US sake game and elevate the reputation of American sake considerably. I look forward to drinking more, from both countries.

Also...survived Prohibition AND WWII? What finally killed the Honolulu Sake Brewery?

Richard Auffrey said...

It is very disappointing that you chose to ignore numerous points that I raised in my post. Should I assume that you concede all of the points of which you failed to respond?

Your initial post made a very general statement about Japanese sake. You did not restrict your conclusion to premium sake, which occupies only 25% of Japanese sake. That might have been your intent but it wasn't what you wrote.

75% of Japanese sake production is futsu-shu, and though much is very poor quality, there is some good futsushu as well. And contrary to what you said, yes, futsushu does get imported into the US. I have seen it and tasted it in MA.

Did you even read my post? I stated that most premium sake is better than US sake. But some of those premium sakes also do use table rice rather than sake rice.

You wanted to be nice to SakeOne? I don't believe it. You even stated in the post that it was mean. You would not have said the same things about a winery.

No chip on my shoulder. Reread my words. Yes, their lengthy experience obviously translates into better quality. But I don't think it is fair to judge US sake on that basis. As I said, the better question is how US sake has improved with time, an issue you ignored in your reply.

In your second point, you once again try to use a single example to prove a general conclusion. Again, that is improper. SakeOne does have fruit infused sakes, but what about all of the other US sake breweries?

It is not an either/or position of support. One can support both US producers and Japanese. I agree that Japanese premium sake is generally better than US sake. But there are other issues involved as well.

Ben Bell said...

After reading this and Blake Gray's referenced article, I am inclined to agree with Richard. And the main sticking point for me is that this "who's better?" question is posed in the first place. Given the infant state of US sake production, there is little need or basis to make such a comparison. This is like asking in 1984 if US craft brewing is as good as Belgium's.

Blake may get this question often about sake (so do I), but I often lead straight in to explaining how US sake production is really just getting started. The water issue, I believe, is overrated. And soon the conditions may align for proper sake rice production.

And regarding Blake's 2nd point in the comments: An increase in domestic production and consumption of that product will do nothing but drive demand for Japanese sake. This is not a zero-sum game. And having a local angle is powerful for getting people to a new category.

Unknown said...

Gentlemen, SakeOne is honored and a bit perplexed to have gained your attention and been the center of a debate. We believe that Blake's idea of a tasting is warranted but do note that the U.S. Sake appraisals accomplish this each year. Last year our Momokawa Ruby attained a Silver medal in this elite judging of more than 300 sake, most of which are from Japan. It was the first time our Oregon sake stood shoulder to shoulder with our Japanese teachers. Our efforts do not stop there but continue each day as our team strives to brew the finest sake made in America.

Everything about what we do here in our brewing processes is deeply based in Japanese brewing tradition and has been guided by master brewers from Momokawa Brewing of Aomori Prefecture Japan and Yoshinogawa, the oldest brewer in Niigata Prefecture. Their combined 600+ years of brewing provides undeniable substance to their comments, criticisms and pats on the back.

You both make some very important points and the debate is a viable one. We'll stay out of the debate itself but wish to clarify a few points.

-Our water source does indeed get channeled through the Forest Grove, Oregon water system, which means it is "tap water." This seems to imply something dirty, or less than pure but even in Japan there are areas where they take pride in the purity of their tap water just as we do. Anyone who has visited our area knows that our tap water runs pure and clean. Its soft and tastes almost sweet with little to no measurable iron or manganese which have a negative effect on the brewing process and can lead to some less than desirable flavors. Our tap water is actually most often better than water from our wells. Just turn the knob, fill a glass and you'll understand. This is why we chose to brew sake here.

-While we do bottle flavor-infused sake under our Moonstone brand it represents only about 23% of what we make and has proven to be a wonderful gateway sake just like sweet fruity wines of days gone by. But that is not our focus, nor what we sell the most of. Pure Junmai Ginjo with diverse flavor profiles make up the rest.

Lastly, as Blake notes, brewers in Japan work very hard to carve out a continued living in sake as young people opt for beer, wine and whisky. These people are our teachers and friends who have great hope that our efforts of brewing and educating people about sake will increase overall demand and build a strong market for their sake in America. They provide us with on-going support both for our brewing as well as a range of fantastic sake of their own that we import and distribute across the U.S. We honor them every day by continuously improving what we do, all the while keeping our hearts tied to the rich history of sake and our eyes to its future.

We raise a glass to the passion you both convey. Kanpai!

Carlos R. said...

Excellent points from all sides. Thank you for giving us a bit more insight into where the American sake market stands right now.

SakeOne's comment yesterday was just brilliant. It was elegant, humble, and made me want to go find and sample their Junmai Ginjo asap! I have some friends who have never gotten away from the fruitier flavored wines, perhaps they would enjoy a bottle of Moonstone?

Thank you all for an excellent read. And thank you, SakeOne, for helping to bridge the divisive cultural gap that, apparently, sake can be.


Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Jason for your comments. I am not exactly sure why they closed in 1988, but have been trying to find out. If I do learn the reason, I will be sure to tell you.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Ben, thanks for your comments too. And kudos to you for your efforts to help promote sake.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Dewey for providing more information about SakeOne. There is certainly not enough discussion about sake in the U.S. so it is always good to for us to share our passion with others, to hopefully intrigue them enough to try some sake. Based on several Twitter responses, this did seem to be the case.


Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Carlos:
Thanks for your comments and glad you appreciated the discussion. Hope you enjoy the sake, and can convince your friends to maybe try some as well.

Anonymous said...

why does table rice make poorer sake, why does tap water make poorer sake?? both these are interesting questions but utterly immaterial to the questions of which nation makes better sake.

Likewise 1000's of years of experience vs 30 years of experience, neither matter one jot to the question who makes better sake unless you're planning to handicap brewers like you would golfers.

honestly i'm a wine professional, what i know about sake could fit on the back of a small postage stamp but Mr Grey is one of my favourite wine writers precisely because he's not one for sacred cows or judging booze on anything other than its own merits.

A drink that tastes like pigswill might well have been made by a team of well trained helper monkeys, it might well be a massive achievement for them to create anything other than a bottle of monkey pee but that doesn't stop it tasting like pigswill right??

Richard Auffrey said...

As Blake himself indicates the table rice and tap water are the reasons why he feels U.S. sake is inferior to Japanese sake, it is certainly a material question to ask him to explain why that is so.

In addition, it is wrong to provide a single example of U.S. sake and then indict all U.S. sake. Would it be fair to judge the French wine industry based on only Georges Duboeuf Nouveau Beaujolais? Obviously not.

Blake also overgeneralized in his conclusions, when in actuality he was apparently referring only to premium Japanese sake. That category only occupies 25% of the entire industry.