Corvallis is an epicenter of all things brewed, with OSU boasting one of the only fermentation science programs in the country and local beer, cider, and mead gaining a reputation far outside of the Willamette Valley. There is, however, one noticeable hole in the landscape of local libations. Saké.
Portland is home to beer and saké guru Fred Eckhardt, who wrote “Saké (U.S.A.): A Complete Guide to American Saké, Saké Breweries and Homebrewed Saké.” According to Eckhardt, Portland consumes more saké per capita than any other American city. Add to this the fact that SakéOne, the most highly regarded American producer, is right down the road in Forest Grove and Corvallis seems primed to get into the business.
At a recent saké tasting at Corvallis Brewing Supply, home-brewer Ryan Woolverton shared his junmai ginjo namazake style brew. He has been making his own saké for 6 years and hopes to attract a group of passionate people to form a Kura, or saké micro-brewery in Corvallis. Woolverton says that “I’m trying to advocate for saké in the area and bring more attention to it. Attracting people from the fermentation sciences program at OSU would be wonderful. Let’s get together and taste and talk about saké.”
Saké is often referred to as rice wine but it would be more accurate to call it rice beer. No, not Budweiser, that’s lousy beer cheaply made by replacing some of the grain with rice. Saké is a clear, 30 to 35 proof brew made from rice, rice koji—which breaks down the starches into sugars allowing the yeast to produce alcohol—and water.
Saké is similar to wine in that it can be incredibly complicated to the uninitiated. Making it even harder to pierce the veil, sushi restaurants often serve cheap saké hot, which does a great disservice to it as well as to the customer. Good saké should be enjoyed slightly chilled like white wine. In Japanese, saké refers to any alcoholic drink, while nihonshu is the preferred term for what we think of as saké. So if you really want to impress the sushi chef ask for chilled nihonshu.
Saké is just as diverse as beer, with somewhere between four to sixteen different types depending on who you ask. The differences include: whether there was alcohol added after fermentation; whether the rice grains were polished, and if so for how long; and whether it has been pasteurized. The unpasteurized style, namazake, is incredibly fresh-tasting and aromatic, but most nihonshu available in the U.S. has been pasteurized twice.
International Saké Day happened October 1, but you have my personal permission to turn it into a week-long celebration. Go grab some sushi at Sada or Aomatsu and have the waitstaff walk you through a tasting, or go check out Joel’s extensive selection at Corvallis Brewing Supply. Try some Momo Kawa from SakéOne and see if you’re ready to help start the Corvallis saké revolution. Just remember that serving it hot is for the cheap stuff on a cold winter night. Don’t ruin the delicate flavors and aromas of quality nihonshu by heating it.
By Jesse Tomaino