How I learned to love saké without the bomb

Texas Sake CompanySaké 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.


Yoed Anis Texas Sake CompanyClose 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.”


Michael Carlson 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.

Sake at Unchiko 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.


Adam Faraizl KenichiAdam 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.

Sparkling Sake at Kenichi “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

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William Chris Vineyards Winemakers Dream Big

Winemakers Chris and Bill behind William Chris Current rose

When William “Bill” Blackmon and Chris Brundrett first looked across the fields and at the 100 year old dilapidated house on a plot of land on Highway 290 in Hye, Texas, they didn’t see fallow farmland, they saw the perfect spot for William Chris Vineyards. They converted that old house to a rustic tasting room, built production and storage facilities and planted their main vineyard is Granite Hill near Fredericksburg. William Chris Vineyards has come a long way since its opening in 2009, but their dreams are still bigger.

Bill and Chris intend the winery to be a destination for wine tourism, events and food and wine education. Their regular “Hye Society Wine Club” events are just one way to expose guests to these elements, and they do it up with style. I attended one of events Hye Society this month — The Watermelon Thump and Chef Throw Down — which did a great job of showing off the winery, food and wine pairings and gave us a glimpse into the winery’s future.

The winery has enjoyed steady growth in production of its 13 varieties of wine. In the first year William Chris produced 800 cases using 100 percent Texas-grown grapes, doubled that production in the second year doubled and are now making about 6,500 cases.  That’s just the start. The two winemakers led Hye Society guests on a tour of the property to show us its growth.

William Chris Current rose and Texas watermelon

The event featured a vineyard tour that was influenced by similar tours in California wineries, helping guests to connect with the land where the wine is born. We started in the gorgeous Oak Grove, a focal point of the estate vineyards and a future home to weddings and other celebrations. We were treated to a taste of the 2010 William Chris Current rosé with fresh watermelon under the broad oak canopy. With that fresh summer pairing in hand, we toured the newly planted vineyards. William Chris has more than 40 acres of vineyards under management in the Hill Country and High Plains of Texas. The new Malbec, Tannat, and Petite Verdot vines will produce fruit ready for wine in about three years to keep the pace of growth going.

On to the food and wine pairings. William Chris Vineyards regularly features the artisanal cheeses from Brazos Valley Cheese, a Waco-based family venture. A representative of the company brought a selection of cheese made from raw cow’s milk sourced in a 25 mile radius. Each of the cheeses paired well with the 2010 William Chris, Blanc du Bois, a refreshing tart and citrusy white wine. The award winning cheeses are available in Austin at Whole Foods Market, Antonelli’s Cheese Shop as well as Greenling organic delivery.

On to the highlight of the evening, the Chef Throw Down. Four area chefs were tasked with creating two courses for the competition. The first course had to feature fresh Go Texan watermelon and the second reflected the cuisine of their respective restaurants. Here’s what we had:

  • William Chris Cheff Throw Down Contestants

    Chef Ben Huselton of Paggi House prepared compressed watermelon with mascarpone, black salt, micro-mint, extra virgin olive oil. The dish let the watermelon speak for itself. His second course was Black tea brined duck breast, with quinoa salad, and orange gremolata dressed with natural au jus made with the duck bones. The duck paired well with the 2010 William Chris Enchante Bordeaux blend.

  • Chef Shane Stark of Kenichi prepared a fresh summer salad of sweet and sour watermelon with cucumbers, arugula, and goat feta. His second course was a delightfully light watermelon carpaccio with tuna crudo, wasabi granita garnished with water cress. He compressed the watermelon with plum wine and yuzu juice. This dish paired well with slightly sweet William Chris Current rosé.
  •  Chef Rich Taylor of Quality Seafood created a watermelon ceviche lettuce wrap, lobster, shrimp, scallop, orange, mint ginger and hint of lime. Man that was good. His second course was an amazing Texas Bouillabaisse made with Texas Gulf shrimp, Gulf oysters, mussels and clams cooked with William Chris wine in the clam juice and fish stock. The fruity 2010 William Chris Emotion red blend went well with this fish stew.
  •  Chef Joseph Bannister of Rose Hill Manor, whipped up a light appetizer of seared scallop and watermelon kohlrabi salad with watermelon ketchup served with an icy watermelon mint sorbet. His second course was smoked duck ham with fresh black eyed pea salad, goat cheese aioli with crunchy house-made puff rice. The 2010 William Chris Hunter Merlot and Cabernet blend made a good bedfellow with the salty, bold duck.

The voting was tight as each contestant had fantastic food that went well with the wines. Chef Stark took the prize for his watermelon summer salad. Chef Taylor wowed the crowd with his Texas Bouillabaisse winning the fan favorite for the second course.

The evening was capped off by Chris blending wine from barrels of the 2011 vintage. It was a great way to get everyone excited for the upcoming bottling. Events like the The Watermelon Thump and Chef Throw Down are a great way for the winery to achieve their dream of becoming a destination for all things Texas food and wine. It’s a far cry from the desolate farmland they found just three years ago.

Disclosure: William Chris Vineyards hosted the event at no charge to area journalists and bloggers. Free transportation from Austin to Hye was provided by Heart of Texas Wine Tours.

A version of this story ran previously on CultureMap.

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