Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Blue Current Brewery: Making Sake In Maine

As I chatted and tasted Sake with Dan Ford, the owner and brew master of 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).

To the right side of the warehouse, there is a side door with a small sign indicating you have found the Blue Current Brewery. Dan is essentially the owner of the brewery, though he has some investors as well. He also is the primary employee, though he sometimes hires a few people to help out when necessary.

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.

Part of the interior of the brewery seems a bit cluttered, though it seems more Dan is trying to use the small space as best he can. And as it is not yet open to the public, there isn't much need to do anything about it. In time though, Dan is planning on adding a tasting room so this will likely need to be changed. Please also note that this is only part of the brewery, and not the main brewing area. It is more a storage section.

Above, you can see some of the bags of the rice that are used in brewing. Dan uses Koshihikari, a short-grained table rice, that is grown in California. Koshihikari is a high quality rice, which is especially good for sushi,and consequently is more expensive than some other options such as Calrose. I was also fascinated to learn that Dan has four acres of Yamada Nishiki rice, often considered to be the King of Sake rice, growing in Arkansas. Arkansas is possibly the only U.S. state which is growing this rice on any large scale and it could be a game changer for the U.S. Sake brewing industry.

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.

This is the Rice Washer, which was the first piece of equipment that Dan designed and purchased. When rice comes into the brewery, it first needs to be washed.

Behind the rice washer is the Rice Steamer, which Dan designed and students from the University of Maine built. It has a self-propelled propane kettle and can steam about 200 kilograms of rice at a time. It is also very efficient, which is a common factor with all of the equipment at the brewery. That helps Dan save on energy costs and keeps overhead lower.

A key ingredient in Sake brewing is Koji, basically a culture created by growing fungi on rice in a warm and humid place. The term "koji" is derived from "kabi-tachi" which means "bloom of mold." The specific fungus used in koji for Sake production is Aspergillus oryzae. At its most basic level, koji serves to break down the starches in rice into sugars so that yeast can turn that sugar into alcohol. It also serves to help form amino acids, which are important to the taste of Sake. In some respects, koji acts like malt in beer brewing, but there are significant differences as well.

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.

These fermentation and storage tanks are in s separate room and the brewery has a capacity of 12,000 liters for moromi, the fermentation mixture, and 5,000 liters of storage for finished Sake. I've already mentioned the rice they use, and also wanted to mention that they use water from Maine as well as a foamless yeast, #701. Foamless yeast allows a brewer to produce more Sake, in less space, and also makes it easier to clean the tanks. In the future, they will experiment with different yeasts.

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.

This is their Yabuta-like Press, which separates the Sake from the lees. The fermentation mixture is passed through a series of mesh panels, kind of resembling an accordion, and the solids fall to the tray below.

All of the lees removed from the Sake fall into this tray, and those solids are known as Kasu. The Kasu has numerous uses, including as an ingredient in cooking. It can be used for pickling, creating kasu-zukeas a marinade or to add flavor. Dan would like to find some local chefs willing to experiment with Kasu, to see its potential. The Washington Post and Japan Times have  talked about the value of Kasu in cooking.

This is the bottler and Dan uses a synthetic closure, a Bar Top, which won't adversely affect the taste of the Sake and which can be used to easily "recork" the bottle.

Dan designed the label for his Sake, choosing "Blue Current" as it represents the sea, which is dear to his heart. Living in Maine, close to the sea, the ocean has a great importance for many residents. Seafood, the bounty of the sea, is vital to the region. The bottle design is simple but evocative and it also is intended to appeal to an American market. It avoids the use of Japanese kanji, which can scare off some consumers.  It also avoids most Sake lingo so it is more approachable.

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?

What did I think about the Blue Current Junmai Ginjo Sake?  First, it has a pleasing, fruity aroma with apple and melon notes. When you taste it, those apple and melon notes are prominent, with some savory umami aspects and a hint of bitterness on the finish. In general, it is primarily dry with only a hint of sweetness.  It has clean flavors and is very easy drinking, making for an excellent Sake to pair with a variety of foods. I should note that Dan recommended that his Sake is best served at 46 degrees Fahrenheit.

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.


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