Wine and Spirits
By Laurie Daniel
Photography by Lane Hartwell
Sake is hot—and cool. And I don’t just mean trendy.
If you’re like me, your principal experience with sake has been drinking it hot from a ceramic carafe at a Japanese restaurant. Hot—or, more properly, warm—sake isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s an appropriate application for the less expensive stuff.
But East Bay diners these days can choose from an array of elite, expensive sake, and heating these would be a waste. Good sake is served cool.
I’m a sake newbie, so I needed some help in exploring this new dining trend. I consulted Theresa Garcia, assistant manager at Grasshopper in Rockridge, a restaurant with more than a dozen selections on its sake list. Garcia, who has been to the source in Japan on a “sake safari” with San Francisco-based World Sake Imports, gave me a mini-tutorial.
Sake starts with rice (there are special sake rices that are different from table rice) and water. The rice is polished to remove undesirable fats and proteins; for the top sakes, called daiginjo, 50 percent or more of the grain may be polished away. “The closer you are to pure starch when you make a sake, the finer it will be,” Garcia says.
After the rice is polished and steamed, a mold called koji is added, which converts the starch into sugar. Special yeast is also added, which converts sugar to alcohol. Sake’s natural alcohol level is about 20 percent, though water usually is added to dilute it to about 15 to 16 percent. Most sake is filtered and pasteurized (nigori is unfiltered; nama isn’t pasteurized), then aged for a few months before bottling.
Garcia took me through the various quality levels. For junmai sake, at least 35 percent of the rice grain is polished away. The sakes display a range of flavors. A Zen Tokubetsu was smooth and a little fruity, with a note of anise, while a Denshu was full and floral, combining weight with delicacy.
Next, it was a ginjo sake, Dewazakura Dewasansan “Green Ridge.” Ginjo is made from more highly polished rice and tends to be lighter, more complex and aromatic. This one was smooth, aromatic and a little floral with honeydew melon nuances. Garcia suggested that I go back to one of the junmai sakes to see the difference. The Zen Tokubetsu, which had been very smooth when I first tasted it, seemed harsh by comparison.
Then, on to a daiginjo, which Garcia calls “the perfection of the brewer’s art.” This one, from Kamoizumi, was earthy and intense, yet smooth and refined, with a very long finish. Daiginjos make up less than 5 percent of all sakes.
The last sake was a nigori, an unfiltered sake that was a little sweet. Not my thing. Grasshopper didn’t have any namazakes when I visited, but the restaurant serves the young, unpasteurized sakes in the spring, when they are released. Garcia, comparing nama versions to regular sake, says, “It’s like (the nama) is turned on in Technicolor. Wow!”
I could tell you what food to serve with Pinot Noir, but sake is another matter. Garcia likes sake with tropical flavors and spicy foods. But “not a lot of it is going to hold up to big meat,” she says. Top-quality sake is also good to drink on its own. “You appreciate the sake more as a sipper,” Garcia says. Sake obviously is appropriate for many Japanese dishes, but it also pairs well with many California-Asian fusion foods—the type of cuisine that, not coincidentally, is on the menu at Grasshopper.
If you want to sample sake, your best bet probably is a restaurant like Grasshopper (6317 College Ave., 510-595-3557) with a good sake selection. Others include Mitama (3201 College Ave., 510-652-6157) and Kirala in Berkeley (2100 Ward St., 510-549-3846). You can also try domestic as well as Japanese sakes at the Takara Sake USA tasting room in Berkeley. Takara also has a good Web site, www.takarasake.com, as does importer World Sake, www.worldsake.com. World Sake’s list contains information about retailers and restaurants that carry its products.