Factory Visit: Brewing Sake In Berkeley

Outside the Takara sake brewery in Berkeley, California — above the workers in baseball caps crouching with cigarettes along a tree-lined wall — a sweet-sour perfume, not unpleasant, hovers. To the brewer on break, and I have been one, the world outside the plant is quiet and bright, but the ancient and unyielding aroma collects like wood smoke. If you work there, it seeps into your clothes and your skin, as I imagine it seeping into the earth under the kettles and fermentation tanks. This block of Berkeley has smelled like sake for 29 years. It's one of only a handful of places in America that does.

In Japan, sake making goes back centuries. Takara started in Kyoto in 1842 and is one of the more modern breweries. Generations of isolation under Shogun rule refined brewing, like much of Japanese culture, to a process so finely honed it appears neither art nor science — but ritual. Put simply: Rice is steamed, then mixed with koji, a kind of mold that kick-starts germination — the grains grow roots and start breaking down starches. This koji rice is then mixed with water, yeast and regular steamed rice to make a soupy porridge called moto. The moto ferments and the liquid is pressed out: sake.

And yet, talking with marketing manager Izumi Motai in Takara's sake museum, surrounded by cedar barrels, iron kettles and an enormous levered moto press weighed down with rocks, details collect like rice grains in a burlap sack.

"Rice and water, they're precious," he says. "You must use superb rice and superb water." That's why Takara is in Berkeley. The rice grown in the Sacramento Delta is some of the best in the world. They wouldn't dream of importing. "The rice here is a result of a hundred years of breeding. It started with marrying a Japanese variety to the local long-grain variety. Japanese rice is chunkier. It's a short grain. Everything there is smaller. Here, we use the most premium rice in California. Quality is critical."

The rice is polished to remove the bran. People have tried making sake with brown, unpolished rice, but all the extra nutrients muck up the system. Some varieties of sake, called ginjo, use highly polished rice, almost totally stripped. This shifts a sake toward fragrance over taste — it's cleaner, but more floral. Ginjo became popular about 30 years ago, paralleling the American run on tasteless, over-hyped vodka. Serving ginjo chilled, to preserve its thin edge, started the myth that only bad sake comes warm. This, Motai sighs, is "the saddest mistake."

In fact, Takara's Sho Chiku Bai Classic, a junmai style made from less polished rice (and delicious warm, thank you very much), is not only one of the cheapest sakes they make, but one of the best. It just won a gold medal at the U.S. National Sake Appraisal — the only American-made sake to get one.

Even better is Takara's kimoto sake, Shirakabe Gura, but to understand why, you need to learn a little about fermentation.

After the rice is polished, it gets mixed with koji mold spores — "one spore per grain," Motai says. I can't tell if he's joking. We watch a video of traditional kurabito, or sake makers, mixing rice and adding koji, and it's a precise, rhythmic, chanting process, watched over anachronistically by a stopwatch-wielding brewmaster.

That koji, Motai says, is the "engine." It churns through the rice grains' starches and, helped along by a house strain of yeast, turns them into alcohol. This dual fermentation is what gets sake's alcohol percentage up so high, about 15–20% ABV. Japanese scientists have been studying sake fermentation for as long as they've been making it. They figured out how to stop fermentation by pasteurizing fresh sake years before Pasteur, Motai says, "but when you like sake, you don't care about the Nobel Prize." Takara found, in their house strain, a potential cancer-fighting compound, and used it to launch Takara Bio, which today makes more money than their sake business.

Kimoto sake has an extra cylinder: wild bacteria, mixed into the koji from the air or through the pine and cedar holding tanks. Think of it like wild beer, but not as sour. Or, says Motai, "like blue cheese. The flavor is not agreeable until you bite into it, then you discover the diamond inside."

These super-traditional sakes have unique regional character and deep layers of flavor that used to relegate them to the collector's shelf, but now — as with wild beers like Belgian lambics — they're enjoying a resurgence. With that in mind, Takara made theirs relatively accessible. "Some are incredibly stinky," Motai says. "But ours is tame. No dirty socks here."

Still, it's richer than you expect, with a satisfyingly dirty sweet-tart balance: plums, maybe, just past ripe. It's complicated, and therefore easy to pair. Serve it warm, and it practically buzzes. But mostly, kimoto sake lingers

carving long, slow turns on waves of flavor, running down your tongue. It's lasting, and here at Takara, rumbled by passing trains and buffeted by the westerly winds, deep roots make all the difference.

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