On September 15th, the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco once again plays host to the annual Joy of
Sake tasting. This annual event is held on successive weeks in Honolulu, San Francisco and New
York. Along with 200 or so different sake samples, participants are also treated to food pairings
that may surprise even the most hardcore sake aficionados. Bay Area restaurants participating
this year range from the expected; Anzu, Hana, Kiku of Tokyo, Kirala, Kyo-ya, Ozumo, Sakae
Sushi Bar & Grill, Sanraku, Sho’s and Sushi Ran to the suspected; Betelnut and Roy’s to the
unexpected; The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton, Hog Island Oyster Company and Memphis
Why not sake? Like that other great Japanese cuisine mainstay, tofu, sake also has the ability to
enhance rather than overwhelm most dishes. Though it doesn’t possess the knock-out, over-the-
top ripe fruit that fermented Vinis vinifera may have or the refined elegance of a Grande
Champagne cognac may exude, it does have the versatility to be the perfect aperitif (alone or
mixed), the perfect partner to most cuisines and the perfect after dinner beverage that any one
wine, liquor or fortified beverage can’t provide.
What is Sake?
On paper, sake seems as simple as steamed rice, yeast and water. Simple. Simple as in the Mona
Lisa was just a canvas and some paint. For starters, just the rice could fulfill a dissertation. Not
just any rice but Yamada-Nishiki or Akita-Komachi or Koshi-Hikari that have been milled
down to 60% or even 40% of it’s original grain. And this isn’t rice that has been sitting in the
storeroom the past couple of years. On top of being a select variety of rice, this rice probably
has come from a select region of the grower’s rice paddies where the naturally filtered water first
makes contact with earth’s surface that gets exactly 73 days of sunshine and overnight
temperatures don’t go below 55 degrees. This may be an exaggeration but the only fermented
beverage that reaches the same fervor may be the Beerenausleses and Trockenbeerausleses of
Germany where individual grapes that have been attacked by bortrytis or edefaule are fermented
for the exquisite desert wines of Germany.
And as if perfect growing conditions aren’t enough, these grains are polished down to 60% or
even 40% of their original size to remove “useless” starch granules that cloud the final
fermentation product. After perfect steaming by the master brewers, the final cooked rice would
make a sushi master blush. Added to koji starter which breaks down the rice starch to prepare it
for fermentation (via Aspergillus oryzae for you techies) and yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae for
the same techies) along with naturally purified water, the fermentation process finally proceeds.
The fermentation process is either controlled via stainless steel tanks or via natural winter
climates in Northern Japan. This final fermented product is further differentiated by it’s location
in the vat (lower near the kasu for earthier tones, higher for a refined end product or in the
middle for the brewer’s treasured batch).
Is Sake, Sake?
For all intents and purposes, there are three major sake classifications; junmai, ginjo and
daiginjo. There’s also nigori and “virgin” sakes that aren’t fortified with brewer’s alcohol but that’
s another story. To shorten a long story, the classifications are based on how much of the rice
grain has been milled away to leave the pure starch granule for fermentation. Junmais are milled
at least 30% and have an earthy quality that makes it the most food friendly. I’ve actually tried a
junmai with bleu cheese and was amazed by its complimentary qualities. Ginjos are milled
further to 60% or so and are more refined than junmais though that’s not implying that they
are better – it all depends on what you’re eating. Traditional raw seafood and lighter kaiseki type
dishes come to mind. At the traditional conveyor belt sushi establishments, the ginjo would
probably be your best bet. Finally, daiginjos are like your aged Bordeaux or Barolos. Perfect with
refined faire such as a seafood risotto with a touch of citrus or salt crusted snapper or perfect,
chilled as is. No fuss, no muss, just a perfect glass of sake by itself.
How Long Do I Microwave it?
NO MICROWAVING!! Gomenasai if that seemed severe but only the cheapest sakes may be
microwaved or heated. Even the cheapest of junmais should be drunk slightly chilled but never
heated. Have you ever microwaved Gallo of Sonoma or even Franzia for that matter? If the sake
needs heating, then it’s probably best suited for cooking. As mentioned, certain junmais can be
served at colder room temperatures or slightly chilled, ginjos definitely chilled for a short period
and daiginjos should always be served chilled.
Where Can I Purchase These?
In the Bay Area, your best bet would be at True Sake at 560 Hayes St. They carry over 150 sake
produced only in Japan with many not available anywhere else in the United States and several
of their staff hold sake “sommelier” certifications from Japan. True Sake has been opened for
about 2 years and aims to educate the American palate to the joys of sake, not condescending in
any way but simply so that everyone can enjoy the simple yet profound nature of “true” sake.
When visiting Hawai’i, your best bet for gourmet sake would be Fujioka Wine Times (Lyle
Fujioka sold his original Fujioka’s Wine Merchants to the Times Supermarket chain about a year
ago though he remains a consultant with Fujioka Wine Times). They offer several hard-to-find
labels including the Koshi No Kanbai label and all sakes are held in refrigerated cabinets. Unlike
the fermented grape, fermented rice prefers storage at slightly colder temperatures (refrigerated)
to maintain their distinct flavor qualities. Several other wine merchants do carry limited lines of
gourmet sakes such as The Wine Stop and R. Fields as well as Hawaii’s ichiban Japanese-ware
store, Shirokiya and more recently, Marukai Wholesale Mart.
How to Purchase Tickets to The Joy of Sake
Tickets can be purchased at:
The Japan Society of Northern California
500 Washington Street, Suite 300
San Francisco, CA 94111
560 Hayes Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
That is, if I haven’t finished all of the sake samples at The Joy of Sake tasting in Honolulu on
September 9, 2005 at the Hawaii Convention Center.
The Joy of Sake