Craft brew of the East

Sake, the next libation revolution?

Sampling a variety of sake styles at the Rawbar.

Sampling a variety of sake styles at the Rawbar.

Photo By jason cassidy

Give a man a sack of grain, and he’ll feed his family for a week. Teach him to farm, and he’ll eat for a lifetime–and along the way he’ll almost certainly leave a sack out in the rain and discover by accident how to make alcohol. It happened in the Americas with corn, in Russia with potatoes, in Mesopotamia with barley and in the Middle East with wheat.

And in China, it happened with rice. That was about 4,000 years ago, and two millennia would pass before production of “rice wine,” properly known as sake, appeared in Japan. There, the culture of transforming rice starch into ethanol was honed, refined and perfected, and today sake is as Japanese as Mount Fuji. Japan’s sake breweries are as numerous as America’s craft-beer breweries, and the diversity of sake that they produce—much of which is becoming increasingly available in California—is tremendous.

Among the best-known is the chalky white unfiltered style called nigori, often sweet, creamy and fruity. Namazake is another—an unpasteurized sake meant to be consumed fresh out of the brewery. Koshu sake is aged for years and often tastes of hazelnut, chocolate and malted grain. Taruzake is yet another style, aged in cedar barrels.

Meanwhile, a basic classification system divides sake into three categories of quality based on the degree of milling that the rice underwent before brewing. In short, the more milling, the finer the sake—and junmai sake occupies the lower end of this scale. Junmai sake is brewed with rice kernels milled down to about 60 percent their harvest size. Ginjo sake, brewed from rice kernels milled to half their initial mass, runs the middle ground, while daiginjo sakes are the finest of all, made from tiny pearls of rice just 35 percent of their starting size.

While one form of sake called honjozo is slightly fortified with distilled spirits after fermentation, the sake brewing process is entirely natural. It begins with the conversion of rice starch into sugar using a very particular enzyme cultured in the brewery. Then, yeast ferments the sugar into alcohol.

The process, though a fine craft, is nonetheless quite simple and can be easily conducted at home. Sake brewing requires just a standard plastic beer bucket, a few simple ingredients, and as little as two weeks of waiting.

For a single gallon, you’ll need 3.5 pounds of finely polished white rice. This must be rinsed, soaked, and steamed for at least an hour. You’ll also need the key ingredient, koji, or rice seeded with the mold and yeast essential to the crucial starch-conversion process. Cold Mountain makes 20-ounce containers of dried koji rice. This is available at some specialty Asian groceries but is a sure find online, usually for about $6 a tub. Combine the koji with the steamed rice in a clean, sterilized bucket, plus a gallon of clean water. Add a sprinkling of wine yeast, available at the Chico Home Brew Shop (1570 Nord Ave.), and seal the bucket with a lid fitted with a brewing airlock valve. Fermentation will begin almost immediately and will last 10 to 14 days, at which point the sake may be slowly poured off into a clean decanter and consumed immediately. You may also wish to pasteurize and bottle your sake.

While you’re waiting, do some tasting. Try the Rawbar (346 Broadway), where owners Darren Chadderdon and Michelle Mazza have for years been coaxing customers into the delicious but sometimes confusing world of sake. Their list includes about a half-dozen sakes at any given time, served by the glass, with both domestics and imports showcasing several sake styles. Chadderdon and Mazza also host sake tasting classes about once every other month. (Space is still available for the April 25 session, at $75 a person. Call to reserve: 897-0626.)

Want some sake to take home? Cost Plus World Market (2101 Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway) carries a respectable selection, as does House of Rice Oriental Imports (338 Broadway), but by the time you’ve gotten that far, your own homebrewed batch may be ready—if you start today.