Saké often seems like the right thing to order when I go out for sushi, but I usually end up ordering a Japanese beer instead. Saké is just so dang foreign to me. Not only is it described with all kinds of Japanese words that I completely don’t understand, but there aren’t any common points of reference for me to go by. It’s not like I can choose the one I used to sneak out of Dad’s fridge when I was a kid, like a Budweiser. Nor can I pick one based on a really well-known variety like I can with wine. There is no such thing as cabernet sauvisaké.
Other than a few good experiences I’ve had when someone has ordered for me, the depth of my saké experience is made up of downing a few saké bombs at DK Sushi during karaoke night. Those go down like da bomb because the beer masks the taste of the rot-gut saké that’s used.
Persistent ignorance is a horrible reason to miss out on an intriguing beverage, so I set out to learn a few tips on saké, how it’s made, how to order it and what kinds of food go well with it. While it’s often called “rice wine,” saké is actually more like beer in that it is made with fermented grain. It is “brewed” with a special type of sake-grade rice, like Yamada Nishiki, which is polished to remove some of the outer husk of the rice grain. The inner starchy heart of the rice is used to make a cleaner saké.
In fact, there are different grades of saké that are determined based on the amount of the outer protein that has been milled away. The saké designations are: junmai, which has 70 percent rice grain remaining; ginjo has 60 percent; and daiginjo has 50 percent. If no distilled alcohol is added to daiginjo, it will be labeled junmai daiginjo, which is considered the most premium style.
Beyond those variations, saké can also be bone-dry to sweet, filtered or unfiltered, pasteurized or unpasteurized, hot or cold, barrel-aged or not. There are lots of things to know, so I sought advice from a few saké experts in Austin who have achieved certification through the Saké Education Council. I spoke with Michael Carlson of Uchiko, Adam Faraizl of Kenichi and Yoed Anis of the Texas Saké Company, all of whom are level-two Advanced Saké Professionals, to learn a lot more about saké.
THERE IS ACTUALLY SAKÉ MADE IN AUSTIN
Close your eyes and imagine what a traditional saké brewer, or toji, looks like. Yoed Anis is nothing like that. Here is a young, muscular, mop-haired Israeli engineer who is the first person to make saké in Texas. Anis fell in love with regional styles of saké in 2006 during his first visit to Japan. He was fascinated with how the saké played an integral role in the meal and in religious ceremonies. After that experience, he learned everything he could about saké and eventually opened the Texas Saké Company in October 2011. There are only six saké breweries, or kuras, in the United States. Why would anyone make saké in Texas? Because there is a ton of rice grown in Texas.
“The Japanese came to Texas in 1904 to grow rice,” Anis explains. “It has been growing here organically since. The grain structure…looks very much like the same as the kinds used in Japan to make premium saké.”
Anis sources his rice from organic growers in Worton County, where it is grown in the same Colorado River in which it is later brewed. Anis is emphatic about the use of organic materials to do his part in protecting the environment. The whooping crane on the Texas Saké Company logo pays homage to the Matagorda Wildlife Refuge in Southern Texas, which is home of one of the largest populations of whooping cranes.
Texas Saké Company makes a dry, full-flavored, traditional style of saké more similar to the types made on the Southern islands of Japan 200 years ago. It’s a manual- and labor-intensive process. They wash the rice by hand five times and don’t polish it extensively. After washing, the rice is soaked and steamed before starting fermentation for three months. It takes about six months from first washing the rice to selling the bottled saké. Texas Saké Company makes three types of saké: Whooping Crane Tokubetsu Junmai style; Rising Star; Nigori Cloud Junmai, an unfiltered, hazy style; and Tumbleweed Karakuchi, a bone-dry style introduced in October in the bottle and available on tap at the Draught House Pub.
The locally made saké is available at farmers markets and grocery stores throughout Austin, Houston and Dallas. Anis says it has been well-received by restaurants as well.
“Local chefs at places like Barley Swine are re-inventing Texan cuisine,” he says. “They are open to new flavors like saké that go well with other local ingredients. I love breaking the stereotype of drinking saké only with Japanese food. It pairs really well with local cuisine like smoked meats. It is really fun to try saké with lots of food.”
DEMYSTIFYING SAKÉ AT UCHIKO
Michael Carlson didn’t know anything about saké when he started working at Uchiko. He quickly found out that it is a fantastic gateway to Japanese culture and hospitality. That knowledge started a passion that led him to earn his Advanced Saké Professional certification in Japan earlier this year. His passion pervades the beverage program at Uchiko.
“We serve great wine and beer, but it’s the saké we’re most proud to serve,” Carlson says. “My goal every day behind the bar is to demystify saké. It’s the mystery drink that no one has an anchor to judge it by. Most people’s experience is with table saké, futsu-shu, made with lots of brewer’s alcohol. It has an astringent flavor, so people heat it up to mask the nasty flavor. Premium Japanese saké is about purity of ingredients and consistency of character. The sakés we have here demonstrate that.”
Carlson says buying good saké isn’t as daunting as it seems. Unlike wine, the price and quality of saké are completely linked. The more handcrafted and polished it is, the higher the price. The saké that gets exported to the U.S. goes through distributors who are very discerning. Expert distributors eliminate the lower quality ones, meaning the saké available in stores throughout Austin is the good stuff.
When ordering saké at a restaurant, there are a few easy things to look for. Remember the word “ginjo.” It is synonymous with good saké. If you want super premium saké, look for junmai daiginjo-shu. This is the pinnacle of saké with elegant smoothness, floral scents and flavors of Anjou pear and anise with a round, long, fulfilling finish. Carlson encourages his guests to be adventurous with pairing saké with food.
“It’s a myth that saké is only good with Japanese food,” he says. “When it comes to pairing, saké has sweetness and inherent acidity that complements foods without detracting. It is a lot like a good glass of riesling with racy acidity and a little bit of residual sugar. Ginjo has the balance and mellow flavor that lets it pair with anything. I like it with fried chicken.”
Carlson has favorite pairings to explore various styles of saké. One combination is the sweet pear and melon flavors of Konteki Tears of Dawn Daiginjo with prosciutto. A pairing that blows me away is Yuki No Bosha Nigori Junmai Ginjo with Tex-Mex. Spicy and sweet foods work really well with nigori because it has a milk-like calming effect and sweet berry and cherry flavors.
“If you haven’t tried saké before, try it. If you have had it, but didn’t like it, give it a second chance with premium saké,” Carlson suggests.
DISCOVER SOMETHING NEW AT KENICHI
Adam Faraizl has been fascinated with the Japanese culture since he was a child in middle school. He went to college in Victoria in Western Canada, where he majored in Asian studies. He was immersed all things Asian, providing him ample access to saké and a romantic environment to fall in love with it. His love for saké got serious in 2008, when he took the level-one Saké Education Council exam. He followed that by passing the level-two exam in Japan in 2010. The countless hours studying saké regions, rice varieties, polishing grades and visiting breweries prepared him to guide Kenichi guests to find delicious sakés.
“Rather than ordering from big names you may have heard of, pick something you might not have seen before,” Faraizl recommends. “It’s like ordering a craft beer instead of choosing Miller Lite. Go with something interesting.”
Whether you are looking for something to sit and sip or something to pair with food, you’ll likely find it in the big selection of saké by the glass at Kenichi. Like Carlson at Uchiko, Faraizl is happy to pour samples for people to try. Faraizl follows a few basic rules of thumb for pairing saké with food. He suggests ginjo sakés are balanced and go with virtually anything. He likes daiginjo with fish and lighter courses, junmai with heavier courses and recommends honjozo, with its slightly higher alcohol and acid, go with fattier dishes like pork spare ribs.
“Saké and dessert is always really good,” Faraizl says. “Try warm saké with peach cobbler or strawberry sorbet. It is really fun. Instead of doing Champagne, pair sparkling saké with scallops and foie gras. It cleanses the palate like Champagne, but it’s low in alcohol and it lets the food to shine through more.”
The best way to learn about saké is to dive right in and start tasting it. Faraizl is ready for you.
“Come in and learn about saké if you want to try something different and expand your horizons,” he says. “I’m always here and want to help people explore. Our staff is well-educated and we want people to experience good saké.” Are you ready to learn to love saké without the saké bomb? Kampai!
This story was originally published in Austin Man Magazine.