Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sake Education from Wine Library TV

Gary Vaynerchuk at Wine Library TV has boundless energy and and real enthusiasm and passion for wine. In these two episode from June 2009, he puts the spotlight on sake as he interviews Sake Social/True Sake's Beau Timken (above) on the basics of sake drinking and production. There is a wealth of information in these segments: Sake education part 1 and Sake education part 2.
Vaynerchuk mentions he's a fan of sake and one of his favorite places to imbibe is Blue Ribbon in Manhattan where he often tries three or four sakes during a meal. (Lucky guy: I've wanted to check that place out on Columbus Circle). Among the fun facts: sake is "built like beer but drinks like wine," from Timken--a very succinct description. Together they taste some sake including a Joto Chikurin Fukamari Junmai; Timken advises the vernacular of wine is appropriate when discussing sake's flavors and aromas.
Wine glasses vs. ceramic cups: definitely drink premium sake with glass or crystal--only use the ceramic cups when sake is warm as smaller ceramic cups (ochoko) don't reveal its aromas or capture its essence. One very useful tip: drink sake within 15 to 18 months of its brew date (found on the label--but that's another post). If it's past 18 months or so, heat it and drink it warm. Thanks guys. Good stuff.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Meet the brewer: Miho Imada of Fukucho Sake Brewery

I was able to further my sake education while tasting many brands at Mutual Trading Company's annual Japanese food and restaurant show held in its downtown parking lot. While not the most glamourous tasting room, the main benefit was meeting many visiting brewers (toji) and brewery owners from Japan. Above is Miho Imada of Fukucho Sake Brewery located in the Hiroshima prefecture. One of only 20 woman brewers in Japan, she began her career in the brewery more than 15 years ago and became a master brewer five years ago. She's holding Fukocho's Junmai Ginjo Biho, made from yamadanishiki rice. The sake is very delicate with a very nice flowery finish---Fukocho's sakes are pasteurized in the bottle helping maintain aroma and flavor. She begins brewing Oct. 17.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Happy National Sake Day! Oct. 1st

A new holiday to celebrate: National Sake Day! Japan celebrates today as the annual sake brewing process is well underway. Above is Otokoyama's "Yukishibare" sake from Hokkaido. I got this sake @ True Sake in San Francisco (thanks Beau!). He recommended it as I prefer very dry sake; this junmai sake is very smooth with a slight effervescence. The brewery was established in 1661, almost 350 years ago.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sake Tastings: Drink:Eat:Play's Sake social at Gonpachi 9/26

$30 for unlimited samplings of 75 sakes--that's Drink:Eat:Play's program for Saturday night at Gonpachi. A little overkill perhaps--but certainly the way to learn what sake to try later. I'm a fan of Gonpachi--the restaurant was built at great expense, with many of the building materials imported from Japan as were the craftsmen who built it. A lovely chisen kaiyu shiki (loosely translated "water scrolling")--a Japanese garden complete with koi pond and maple trees--is at the entrance. There are many other authentic details from the Japanese cedar beams to the Shoji screens to the dramatic sumiyaki bar. House made soba noodles and the extensive sake list--including a house sake--are worth a look. Go soon as the restaurant is reportedly on the market.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sake Tastings: Whole Foods' showcases Japanese sake

Because Whole Foods Beverly Hills does not have a liquor license, the popular store schedules their wine tastings down the street on the pleasant patio of the Crescent Hotel. This week the store sponsored a sunset hour sake tasting. Five sakes were poured and Melissa of the Japanese food and beverage distributor Mutual Trading Co., led a lively session on the basics of sake. I was most impressed with the Kikusui organic junmai ginjo (18.99 @ Whole Foods; Locali on Franklin Ave. also has it). Kikusui means chrysanthemum mist, which doesn't tell you much about its flavor, but is certainly poetic. From Niigata, known as the rice capital of Japan, I found it very light with a slight aroma of bananas. Melissa suggested drinking it early in a meal as it pairs well with appetizers. USDA certified, it is the first organic sake available for import (although many sakes do not have preservatives, this sake is made from pesticide free rice). The Shirakabegura (white wall) Tokubetsu junami can be drunk hot or cold and is well-balanced and can pair with heavier dishes. This sake comes from Takara, which also has a brewery in Berkeley. Our final sake was a nigori or coarsely filtered SCB creme de sake domestically brewed from Takara. Definitely on the sweet side, my fellow tasters thought it should be a desert sake and its ricey-ness conjured up a funny "rice-a-roni" comment. Hey, it was sake number five--people get a bit giddy.
There's a grand sake tasting after the Sushi Masters professional sushi competition this Sunday in Little Tokyo at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre. Sponsors include the California Rice Commission. California short grain rice is main ingredient in all U.S.-brewed sake!

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Global Sake Bomb from Wine Enthusiast Magazine

A nice round-up of where Japanese sake is at outside Japan from Wine Enthusiast Magazine. I found a new spot to check out the next time I'm in San Francisco: Ozumo, located in the Harbor Court Hotel. A sake lounge and restaurant, there are more than 30 sakes available by the glass--sweet. Look for a Santa Monica branch to open in 2010 -- L.A.'s first real sake lounge.
The upshot of the article is that sake is gaining popularity and pairs well with food since it's not as bold in flavor as some wines and "invites the flavors of food to linger." Definitely. Yesterday, I had lunch at Pollo a la Brasa (wood fired Peruvian chicken) and thought a draft sake (like Kikusui Funaguchi one-cup sake I just bought at Whole Foods--pictured above) would have worked very well.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Japan: Sake museum and craft beer at Sekinoichi

Until I get to Japan, I visit Japanese sake breweries virtually. I really enjoyed this post from Beer in Japan, a blog that covers the artisan and craft brew scene in Japan. In this lengthy post, Hopjuice writes about his visit to Sekinoichi Brewery in the Iwate prefecture that produces both beer and sake. (Above is a picture from the sake museum). The Passion Ale (made with passion fruit) sounds very interesting--curious what food (a fruit salad? grilled shrimp? it might work with. When I get to Tokyo, I'm going to consult Beer in Japan's Tokyo Beer map!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Los Angeles sake tastings @ Itacho and Silver Lake Wine

A good weekend for sake tastings in L.A. On Saturday (9/12), there's an afternoon tasting at Itacho on Beverly Blvd. I haven't been to the restaurant lately (it's under new management and now serves sushi) but the Itacho of old was my favorite restaurant when it was on Highland Ave. and Santa Monica Blvd. in a very grungy mini-mall. I first tasted "Golden Dream" cold sake there with gold flakes in a box (masu). Now the Beverly Blvd. restaurant has six hot sakes and 13 cold sakes by the glass on its menu. Saturday's tasting will feature 35 different sakes from several distributors and is designed as an introduction to sake. Appetizers will also be passed.
Order tickets through (I'm a member and previously attended a Learn About Wine sake tasting through the site); I first heard about the tasting from Drink:Eat: Play Los Angeles--that group is organizing a 70-sake tasting September 26 at Gonpachi.
Sunday is a five sake tasting paired with dishes from catering company Heirloom LA at Silver Lake Wine. Two are from Kasumi Tsuru, one is an extra dry Kimoto, the other a namazake, which is unpasteurized draft sake--super fresh, usually very light and drinkable and must always be kept cold. From Niigata, there will be a Ichishima Honojozo (70% or less of the rice grain remains). Ichishima Brewery has been around since the 1700s so expect a very well balanced sake.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tasting aromatic Japanese sake at the Joy of Sake's Aftertaste

Katana's scenic outdoor patio was the sunset hour setting for Joy of Sake's Aftertaste--I tasted 35 out of the 37 sakes presented (I did not drive home). After the blind tasting, conducted in the same manner as an official sake judging--a few drops of each sake and then rating them from outstanding (1) to noticeably flawed (5)--there was some free range tasting, which made the crowd very friendly. Honolulu-based, the Joy of Sake organization is a non-profit that hosts several tastings a year on both coasts and in Honolulu. This tasting centered on aromatic sakes--a style developed in the last 25 years. Among those I found well balanced and pleasingly aromatic were two available only in Japan: the Shindo Shuzoten "Gasanryu Gokugetsu" Daiginjo from Yamagata and from Niigata (a style I seem to always like) a junmai from Yoshikawa Tojinosato "Tenkeiraku." The group will be doing another tasting in San Francisco on September 10th featuring 140 sakes and appetizers. Good news for sake distributors, lots of younger drinkers were at the Katana event including the lead singer of Powedertrain, a band out of San Jose.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sake Tastings: The Joy of Sake's Aftertaste in L.A. Wednesday August 5th at Katana

The Joy of Sake Aftertaste in L.A.

A different kind of sake tasting this Wednesday at the Sunset Strip's Katana from the Joy of Sake: first a presentation on how brewers coax a variety of aromas (and tastes) from their premium sakes. 37 sakes will be presented with appetizers served as well. Like wine or beer, sake has distinct and complex aromas --descriptors are often the same as wine with peach, anise, blackberry but also different--not too many wines conjure up banana or lychee. 14 of the sakes are not available in the U.S.--I would start with these simply because you will not have the opportunity to try them again unless you visit Japan.
As with all food and wine tasting events, if you actually want to remember what you've tasted it's a good idea to have a plan. I suggest trying the three sakes from each sake grade available Daiginjo, Ginjo and Junmai. This way you will have a nice overview of the event. Then continue with the grade or flavor profile you've discovered that suits your taste. Of course you could make the most of the $37 tasting fee and try all 37--let me know how that goes if you do! Just remember that sake has a relatively high alcohol content (15-16%).

Friday, July 31, 2009

Sake tastings in Los Angeles: Plate by Plate and The Drums Inside Your Chest

Two possibilities for sake tastings this weekend: at Project by Project's 7th annual tasting benefit Plate by Plate, in addition to numerous restaurants, Japanese beer, wine and cognac, there will be three sake brewers to sample: two domestic, Gekkeikan and Ozeki as well as Hakutsuru from Japan. Try all three to compare U.S. to Japanese sake styles. Sampling different types of sake is the first step to discerning your own preferences.
Also on Saturday, Ty-Ku (makers of sake in the U.S. and Japan as well as Shoju) are sponsoring The Drums Inside Your Chest v. III spoken word event at the Los Angeles Theater Center. Sake + poets = speaking in tongues.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sake events in Los Angeles: Tasting and dinner at the Wine House

West L.A.'s Wine House is known for its almost encyclopediac collection of wines, beers and a well rounded selection of premium sakes. Last year, I met sake expert John Gauntner there; this Friday July 31 st there six sakes being presented all from breweries in Niigata--Manotsuru, Hakkaisan, Kikusui and Ichishima. It's $6 for six tastes, reps of the brands will be there to answer questions. Following the tastings, there's a four course dinner with 10 sakes at Upstairs 2. Wine House sake buyer Coffield Appiah picked the sakes, which represent different styles and price points. Instead of a sweet sake, he's pairing dessert with two namazakes or draft sakes that have only been pasteurized once--sweet! The dinner is $85; the sake ceviche should pair nicely with the Manotsuru Red Crane Junmai.
Coffield advises the Wine House will host a mini-sake festival and showcase for 17 breweries on October 4th from 12-4 p.m. Check back here for more details!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sake 101: Sake begins with rice.

Sake 101

The following is an excerpt from an East/West Magazine article I wrote in 2007. Consider it a sake primer and overview; there are many ideas and links that I will investigate in future posts.

Sake begins with rice. Via a process that originated 1,000 years ago in Japan’s feudal era, the humble grain is transformed into a feather-light, nuanced rice wine, with layered, complex aromas and flavors.

As American diners have come to appreciate Japanese cuisine—there are now more than 9,000 restaurants that serve sushi—their taste in sake has grown increasingly refined. Just as we recognize that Japanese cuisine is more than tuna rolls, most now realize that sake is more than sake bombs and warmed, generic boxed brew.

Perhaps one reason for this expansion in the average American’s premium sake horizon is that restaurants are now offering more choices. Few can match Sakagura in Manhattan with 200 brands or the 110 different offerings at the Shibuya in Las Vegas. Yet, even average-sized restaurants’ sake lists now usually feature at least seven to 10 choices, and sake appears at both casual and upscale dining spots and increasingly at non-Japanese eateries.

In Los Angeles, Gonpachi offers sake flights, or tasting portions, in the most authentic of settings – a Kyoto Temple-style restaurant complete with a private sake tasting room. On the Sunset Strip, Asia de Cuba at the Mondrian Los Angeles Hotel pours (6) sakes and the popular Asian Sidecar cocktail—a blend of Hennessy V.S., Kaori Junmai Ginjo Sake and a splash of lime juice, designed to complement its mix of pan-Asian and Latin cuisine. And, Sake Hana in New York City is an intimate bar and lounge that delivers sake sipping with an informal vibe.

Choices are also expanding for consumers who prefer to sip their sake at home. In addition to being available at Asian markets like California’s Mitsuwa, sake is also increasingly found at specialty liquor stores, and a number of sake-only shops have sprung up on both coasts: True Sake in San Francisco, Sake Nomi in Seattle and coming soon (now open) to Manhattan’s East Village, Sakaya.

Why the surge in sake’s status? Experts point to the popularity of Japanese cuisine and sake’s savory, unassertive flavor profile that pairs well with food. And in general, today’s imbibing trend leans heavily toward lighter alcoholic beverages.

Sake is brewed in both the United States and Japan following a venerable tradition. Though there are variations to the process, essential steps include the rice milling and polishing away of the grain’s outer hull and the subsequent steaming and mixing of the polished rice with a cultured mold (koji). An added yeast mash jumpstarts fermentation; then the sake is filtered, briefly aged and is finally bottled or barreled.

Today, Japan is home to more than 1,900 sake breweries, and many are still family run with low production (comparable to a boutique winery). Sake is made across Japan’s 47 prefectures; certain prefectures are known for their sake quality, among them Niigata, Hiroshima and Yamagata. The purity and mineral content (either hard or soft) of the water utilized in sake production also plays a part in sake’s taste. Although there are more than 100 types of sake rice from which premium sake is brewed, typically one does not order on the basis of the rice varietal – rather premium sake is distinguished by grades, which indicate what percentage of the outer rice kernel was milled away.

“If you remember one word, remember ginjo,” advises sake expert John Gauntner at a recent sake tasting in Los Angeles. (American, now Japan-based Gauntner is recognized as the most knowledgeable non-Japanese in the field.) Ginjo encompasses the top four grades of sake: Daiginjo-shu, Ginjo-shu, Junmai Daiginjo-shu and Junmai Ginjo-shu. These four types represent the pinnacle of the sake brewer’s art, according to Gauntner. The greater the amount of rice milling, meaning the percentage of the rice husk removed, the more refined the sake. Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo are brewed from rice that has been at least 50 percent milled away. Also of note: Junmai-shu and Honjozo-shu. They are the first level of premium sakes with a minimum of 30 percent of sake rice grain milled away. Futsu-shu is table sake, with no minimum requirements in terms of milling, and this sake represents 80 percent of the market.

Sake is shaped by its brewing method. For instance, Nigori sake is lightly filtered and milky white. Sparkling sake features added carbonation and is popular with Japan’s younger drinkers. Expect the back of an imported sake bottle label to offer important details on the product. The Sake Meter Value (SMV) is a scale that indicates the sweetness to dryness of the sake (the higher the positive number, the dryer the sake). ALC reports alcohol content, typically around 16 percent. Look for the name of the brewery on the label as well as the prefecture of origin. Each sake brand also has a name, designated by the brewery. Translated, names like “Heaven’s Door,” “Summer Snow” and “Moon on the Water,” are poetic and evocative but don’t reveal much to an American consumer.

For the sake-curious, a sake tasting is a sure path to greater understanding. (Experts) recommend seeking out an establishment that has a variety of sakes to taste in small amounts or making a connection with a restaurant’s sake expert. At Gonapachi in Los Angeles, Drew Myers is just that person—willing to patiently educate customers on the finer points of the eatery’s expansive sake list, grouped under the categories of aromatic, poised, powerful or sweet and special, individually described by flavor profile.

In Seattle, Johnnie Stroud and his wife, Taiko, of Sake Nomi, a sake shop and tasting room, are committed to educating customers and demystifying sake buying. The bi-cultural couple met and married in Japan and founded their shop in part because they couldn’t find enough quality sake selections locally. To further his customer’s sake knowledge, Stroud presents detailed tasting notes in English as well as daily sake flights for tasting.

Or consider the DIY-approach. Shop markets for both domestic and imported sake brands; recently Trader Joe’s added its own house label, and Whole Foods can be relied on for an interesting mid-range priced selection. (Look for Hakutsuru’s Junmai Ginjo in a distinctive blue bottle.)

As Japan’s indigenous beverage, sake goes naturally with Japanese food. Chef Masa Shimakawa at Onyx at the Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village in California suggests traditional food pairings such as Kobe beef carpaccio with chilled sake; never with fried foods or buttery sauces. As with wine, the weight of the dish, should match the weight of sake: the lighter the dish, the lighter the sake. Premium sake is best chilled; conveniently, the ideal serving temperature is found on the label.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Las Vegas: My sake education begins at Shibuya.

My formal introduction to premium Japanese sake began at Shibuya at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on my birthday in January 2005. I was with a group of other writers on a press trip. As part of our whirlwind itinerary, we were welcomed by Shibuya's then sake sommelier Eric Swanson (who now consults for major wine and spirits distributor-- Wirtz Beverage Nevada). On that fateful afternoon, I learned that there was way more to sake than the warmed over beverage that I usually ordered. While fortified, warm sake that comes from a box, has zero complexity compared to what smaller producers create. Think Miller Lite to craft beer and you'll understand.
What I gleamed that day is that sake has been in production for more than 1,000 years in Japan and almost all of the regions or prefectures in Japan have their own type. I tend to like sake from Niigata--famous for its mountain water. Once you start tasting different kinds, you'll develop favorites too!
Shibuya's extensive sake list and program was developed in consultation with John Gauntner--no U.S. sake blog can go too long without mentioning him. He has done much to bring Japanese sake to the world--I've heard him lecture; in April 2008 I attended a tasting of seven Rihaku sakes he arranged at L.A.'s Wine House, which sells some interesting sakes. Wandering Poet, Dreamy Clouds and Divine Droplets were among the sakes (nihonshu) sampled with Gauntner that night.
One of the main reasons people are reluctant to try premium sake is the labeling--most labels are hard to decipher without some prior information. I'm hoping my blog will help educate others as sake is about to hit the big time. There's more tastings and premium brands available in the U.S. Per the Wine House's newsletter, there's been a 50% increase in imports since 2008. With more than 1,000 Japanese sake breweries, and most of those not available in the U.S., it will take many, many blog posts to even touch on the complexities of rice wine (a misnomer of course since rice is brewed not fermented).
Like many, I first drank sake at a sushi bar--served warm, it is still the way most order the the alcoholic beverage (about 16% alcohol content). Let's progress past the box and explore the world of premium sake together.
Kanpai! (Cheers!)