Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Blue Kudzu Sake: Artisan Brewering In Asheville

Kanpai y’all.”

As the popularity of Sake grows in the U.S., interest in establishing Sake breweries within the U.S. also has risen. Initially, these breweries were primarily on the West Coast, in California and Oregon, but they have now spread all across the country, from Texas to Minnesota. There are ongoing plans for Sake breweries in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut. In the South, there are 2 breweries in North Carolina, with plans for additional breweries in other Southern states. I'm intrigued by these new, artisan Sake breweries, and wish them the best.

This past December, I learned that Mary Taylor, one of the four partners of the Blue Kudzu Sake Company in Asheville, North Carolina, had ties to Stoneham, Massachusetts (the town in which I live), For the Christmas holiday, Mary was planning to travel to Stoneham, to spend some time with family. Mary and I spoke, and she was able to spare some time to visit me, to talk about Blue Kudzu, and share some of their Sake. It was a pleasant and informative visit, and I came away with a vision of the potential of this Sake brewery.

The four partners of Blue Kudzu include Mitch Fortune, Cat Ford-Coates. Mary Taylor and Preston Coleman, who had been bartenders and the first three had also been homebrewers. They ran a regular dinner club, where each of them would choose a specific dinner theme. For one of those dinners, in 2010, Mitch chose a Japanese theme, and during that dinner they drank a good amount of Sake, including some Momokawa, which is made by SakeOne in Oregon. During their dinner conversation, they discussed trying to brew their own Sake, figuring that if it could be done in Oregon, that they could do it in North Carolina too. I'm sure the challenge appealed to them, the next step in their homebrewing interest.

They began researching how to homebrew Sake, and started experimenting, eventually creating a Sake which they felt was delicious. Their passion for Sake grew and they eventually desired to construct a full-scale, commercial Sake brewery. Mitch, the head brewer, even traveled to the Oomuraya Brewery, in the Shizuoka Prefectuire of Japan, to learn about Japanese brewing techniques. This brewery produces the well known Wakatake Onikoroshi Sakes, some of my favorites.

After numerous difficulties and obstacles, Blue Kudzu finally opened in October 2013, though their first Sake wasn't sold until May 2014. For example, obtaining all the necessary permits took about three times longer than was expected. Why did they choose the name "Blue Kudzu?" The "Blue" refers to the Blue Ridge Mountains where Asheville is located. Kudzu, which was originally imported from Japan, was initially planted to help prevent erosion, and it was also beneficial to the soil. However, it is sometimes seen as an invasive species, a nuisance, especially by older people.

Sake availability in North Carolina is very limited, but Asheville has been an excellent choice for the location of a Sake brewery. First, Asheville is a significant craft-brewing center in the Southeast region, having more breweries per capita than any other city. There are over 20 craft breweries in Asheville, which now includes two Sake breweries, and the people of Asheville love to support local products, Premium Sake is usually gluten-free and that is also an important aspect for the people of Asheville. Gluten-free menus are very prevalent in the city, and gluten-free products are in great demand. Finally, it is claimed that North Carolina may have the highest number of Asian restaurants per capita, and that means Sake can easily fit many of their menus.

As Blue Kudzu is still a small operation, producing about 500 cases annually, the four partners generally work under many different hats. Mitch is the head brewer, though Cat and Mary both assist in brewing. They use Calrose rice, from California, and have it milled before it gets to their brewery. Their water comes from the mountains and their production techniques reflect Japanese methods. It is challenging for them to acquire brewing equipment on a budget. For example, they currently use a laborious hand press, and hope to some day purchase a mechanical press which will save them much effort.

They are seeking consistency in their Sake production, though they are also engaged in frequent experimentation. For example, they have been trying to create some new flavors of Sake, pondering working with different types of rice, as well as working on creating carbonated Sake. They have even been working on packaging Sake in pouches, making it easier to carry when traveling. It is important to them to attract newcomers to Sake, to give these people a reason to try and enjoy their Sake.  

Mary mentioned that it is a challenge to educate the general public about Sake, a sentiment I have often voiced as well. There are many misconceptions about Sake, and it can take time and effort to get people to realize the truth about Sake. Mary stated that she would like the public to know that brewing Sake is a lengthy and laborious process, that it is not quick and simple. She also would like them to know the versatility of Sake, such that it works well in cocktails too. These the the same challenges that everyone else making, selling or promoting Sake face.

You can visit their brewery, which has a small tasting room and restaurant, which is open for lunch and dinner. They recently hired a new chef, Connor O''Dea, and try to utilize local ingredients to create Asian-inspired dishes, from Sweet Scallion Buns to Ramen. Besides selling their own Sake, they also sell about 20 other Sakes by the bottle.

Three Sakes are currently available for purchase, including the "Spirit of the Sky" Junmai Ginjo, "Thundersnow" Ginjo Nigoti, and "Snow Bunny" Coconut Ginjo Nigori. Each is sold in a 750ml bottle for $25. Interestingly, their Sake uses Nomacorc synthetic corks as a closure, rather than the usual screwcaps. Sake cannot use regular corks as it would adversely affect the product, but the synthetic corks don't cause that problem. Mary brought me samples of the Spirit and the Thundersnow, but not the Snow Bunny. The Snow Bunny is a sweet Sake, meant to be an introduction for those who prefer sweeter alcohols. It might also be a good mixer for certain cocktails, like a Sake Pina Colada.

The "Thundersnow" Ginjo Nigoti, at only 12% alcohol content, is also intended, in part, to be an introductory Sake as it too has a degree of sweetness, though far less than the Snow Bunny. It had a pleasant creamy coconut taste, though the sweetness was very much under control. It might pair well with a spicy Asian dish, its sweetness helping to moderate the spiciness of the dish. I found it to be less sweet than a number of other Nigoris I have tasted, and I think it can act as a stepping stone for a newcomer to Sake.

The "Spirit of the Sky" Junmai Ginjo Sake, with an alcohol content of 16%, has a 60% Semibuai, The bottle I tasted was from Batch #4, an experimental brew in which they produced the Sake without a Shubo, a yeast starter. The Sake had also been bottled on November 12, so it was still very young when I tasted it just after Xmas, and really needed additional time to come into its own. As such, I tasted more the potential of the Sake rather than how it would taste after some proper aging. The Sake had a very pleasant aroma, some steamed rice and fruit, and on the palate, it was dry with prominent melon flavors. With time, I think it would acquire some additional complexity. Overall, I was pleased with the quality of the taste of this Sake, indicative of its positive potential, and I would recommend people check out their properly aged Sake.

Though their Sake is primarily available at their brewery in Asheville, a greater availability is in the works. They recently signed with a distributor in Florida and are seeking distribution in other states too. With the new wine shipping law changes in Massachusetts, it could even be possible in the future to order directly from their brewery.

I was pleased to see Mary's passion for Sake, and I was glad to get a chance to taste the potential of Blue Kudzu. They are still a very new brewery, but their respect for Japanese brewing techniques, as well as their willingness to experiment, are promising. I'll be keeping an eye on their progress and wish the four of them all the best.

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