If your only experience with sake has been drinking hot from a small carafe at a sushi bar (or even more sadly, as part of a sake bomb on a dare), then an unseen world of vibrant spirits will be yours. is waiting! Most Americans have yet to discover the surprising breadth of sake varieties, mainly because Japanese growers do not export them to much of the United States.
Fortunately, there has been some boom in the production of fermented rice drinks recently, and surprisingly a large portion of that growth has come from the artisanal craft brewers of the South.
Sake has been an integral part of Japanese culture for centuries, appearing in the country’s first written history in AD 712. Made by fermenting rice with water and a mold-inoculated grain called koji, sake brewing is an intensely labor-intensive process…with delicious results.
When Nashville-based Saake brewer Byron Statham starts a batch at Proper Saake Company, he has to make a bed at his small brewery for three or four days as he mixes rice, water, koji and yeast to make the complex. nourishes. And the beautiful nuances of his artisan saki. Why does he do this? “Because sake is the best drink on the planet!” Statham explains with a laugh.
Weston Konishi is president of the Sake Brewers Association of North America, and he agrees with Statham. “Sake is incredibly versatile,” he explains. “It pairs well with almost every type of food, especially classic Southern cuisine.” Konishi Sake recognizes and appreciates Statham’s dedication to the art of brewing. “If you’re meant to make it, you’ve got to do it! You’ve got to dedicate your life to it.”
Rick Margaritov and Ryan Costanza are two Nashville entrepreneurs who have also caught the Sake bug and have gone all-in to create a new brewery called Pure Land Sake. Drawing on their experiences traveling in Asia as part of their previous careers as a wine importer and chef, Margaritov and Costanza fell for the romance of ancient wine-making methods.
Costanza already had experience working with koji in the kitchen, making miso or adding unique umami flavor to vegetables and meats as a fermentation agent. “I’ve been using Koji for six years, which makes it easy to learn about brewing,” he explains. “Rick and I decided that Sake deserved to be on the map in America, so we decided we’d start making it!”
Margaritov became certified as a Sec sommelier and began taking online microbiology classes to learn about fermentation at the cellular level. While they wait for construction to take place at their brewery in Nashville’s growing Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, Margaritov and Costanza are discovering recipes by making small batches in their garage. He already has an eye on the future of the company. “It is one thing to make saki, but how do we build and scale a sustainable business,” Margaritov explains.
The US sake market is still modest compared to Japan, but it is growing. “According to a recent study, Sake represented .2% of the alcoholic beverage market in the US,” revealed Konishi. “It’s actually a small part of the market, but it already represents $44 million in sales per year. We think there’s a lot of potential for growth.”
What kind of wine drinker is Sake Industry looking to convert to increase sales? “Everyone!” Konishi says. “It’s easy to say you’re focusing on Millennials who focus on new things, but it’s important to reach a wide range of potential customers. There are so many different varieties of Sake that there’s a product for every consumer.” is. “
Statham has a more specific view of its current and potential customers. “Given the style we serve, we have been able to go after drinkers of natural wines – people who appreciate quality but don’t necessarily spend $50 to $100 on a bottle. We are those people. Also do well with those who are thoughtful about craft beer and are really interested in fermentation methods.”
Pure Land is casting a wide net. Costanza explains, “We make sakées that are crisp without the high acidity. We think it’s totally crushable and highly food-friendly. We are aiming to transform white wine, rosso and craft beer drinkers. We also wish people could drink this from a can on the golf course because it’s cold and refreshing.
With such a wide variety of foods the pair-worthy nature of sake is vital to the growth of the spirit. “It’s really wonderful to pair with any dish,” shares Statham. “There’s a lot of interest in Japanese cuisine, but we’re now seeing menu placement in many non-Japanese restaurants. Every time a new menu is added to it, it opens up another hundred potential drinkers.”
The South is seeing impressive growth in the number and quality of Sake breweries. In addition to Proper Sake and Pure Land in Tennessee, Kentucky has two breweries: The Void in Lexington and a branch of Louisville’s Against the Grain Beer Brewery named River City Sake. Nan Wallis and Lindsey Browder launched Wetlands Sake in New Orleans in 2021 and have seen great success with their draft and canned sauces. They donate a portion of their profits to preserve Louisiana’s fragile wetlands.
The North American Saake Company has been brewing award-winning spirits in Charlottesville, VA since 2018, and when Origami opens in Saake Hot Springs, Arkansas will soon see its first Saake brewery. Ben’s American Sake in Asheville, NC, will host the second American Craft Sake Festival on May 28, 2022, demonstrating that South Sake is a hot spot for brewing.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth in industry and union,” Konishi says. “We’re going to be showcasing 10 different breweries at this event.” Konishi has no easy explanation for the region’s new focus on rice-based spirits. “You’d think you’d see more breweries with large Asian populations popping up in the Pacific Northwest or the Bay Area, but we’re definitely seeing a mini-boom in the South.”
So, why the sudden popularity in the South? Margaritov’s theory revolves around the two most important raw materials involved in the process of making Sake wine: water and rice. “Water is such an important ingredient, and we use the most pristine and beautiful water source from the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. It is similar to the water sources from the most reputable sake producers at the base of the mountains in Japan.”
Most domestically grown sake rice comes from two producers. One is in California, and the other is Isbell Farms in Arkansas, right in the middle of the region’s major rice-growing region. Isbell Farms has been growing rice for generations and began planting Japanese Koshikari sushi rice in the early 1990s, when no one thought the ancient breed could be produced outside of Japan.
For more than fifteen years, Isbell Farms has supplied Yamada Nishiki, Omachi, Wataribune, and Gohakumangoku rice varieties to brewing Sake Brewers. These distinctive rices have a lower protein content than traditional long grains and exhibit an important property called shinpaku, which refers to the fact that the center of each grain has a cloudy core that aids in the fermentation process and final quality. And the taste is important. , Isbell Farms sends most of its sake rice to Minnesota to be grinded specifically for sake, polishing off the outer bran layers of the protein and fat from the grain to release the starchy center that is integral to fermentation.
“Isbell Farms is actually on the same latitude as the Hyogo region of Japan, where the highest quality sake rice is grown, winning all the awards,” explains Statham. These rices are some of the most delicious and aromatic in the world and contribute a distinct flavor to the finished product.
The ultimate reason for Sake’s flourishing in the South is the general appreciation of the concept of craft production. Konishi explains, “The assumption is that Japan looks to the US, but the quality of what is being produced is being appreciated, and we are seeing a real kinship. Cooperation and cooperation between the countries going forward.” There should be more opportunities.”
He continued, “It’s a truly artisanal craft product. You can’t make a half-brew or take shortcuts along the way. Even more than craft beer, it’s a hands-on process that you have to watch all the way through. The epitome of a local craft product.”
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