BY MICHELE HÉBERTPosted on January 1, 2010 – 7:00 PM | by OldManFoster
The mountain water of the Sierras and the fertile rice-growing land in the Sacramento Valley have encouraged Japanese sake breweries Gekkeikan and Takara (of the brand Sho Chiku Bai) to set up shop here in Folsom and nearby in Berkeley respectively. It stands to reason that those brands are ubiquitous on local wine lists and grocery shelves, but meant for me that discovering the pleasures of high quality sake was a long delayed revelation. “Pride of the Village” by Sudo Honke in the Ibaraki prefecture of Japan was my first taste of artisanal sake made by a small family brewery and I thought it was a thing of beauty. Sudo Honke has remained in the family since its establishment in 1141. Sake has few ingredients: water, rice and yeast. The type of rice used for “Pride of the Village” is called yamada nishiki, and the water is drawn from artesian wells on the brewery property. Aspergillus oryzae is the mold used to convert rice starch into sugar during sake production — called koji in Japan, it is partially responsible for the aroma of sake which may explain a common scent of licorice. High quality sake is assigned one of three grades based on the degree to which the rice has been milled: junmai, junmai ginjo, and junmai daiginjo. The milling process removes proteins and oils and leaves behind starch. “Pride of the Village” is junmai ginjo – meaning that at least 60% of the grain has been milled away. In an effort to preserve the delicate flavors provided by the water, yeast and koji, the brewers at Sudo Honke do not pasteurize their sake, an abstention that is equivalent to a winemaker refusing to filter their wine. “Pride of the Village” smells of licorice and mint, it is almost dry, with balancing acidity. Pick up some Dungeness crab from the Asian Food Center ($3.99/lb!) and enjoy the delicate flavors of both the sake and the shellfish.
Founded in 1902, the Saiya Shuzouten brewery in the northern Akita prefecture is a newbie compared to Sudo Honke, but it has been kept in the family for five generations and makes equally excellent sake. Yuki No Bosha, or “Cabin in the Snow” is named for the rustic and snowy conditions of this northern region known for winter festivals and hearty rice dumplings. There is an interesting debate about the importance of regionality in sake production: many say that because rice can be transported and brewery conditions controlled, it is no longer meaningful. But breweries like Saiya are using local rice varieties and argue that the quality of the local water is an equally vital detail in the final product. More than that, they are making sake specifically to go with the regional cuisine. This sake is also junmai ginjo grade, but it is made from a different variety of rice called gin no sei. Creamy and rich, it smells of peaches and jasmine musk. Its pleasantly sweet finish makes it an excellent match for spicy braised cabbage over rice.