Now’s the time to try locally made sake.
That ticking sound you hear is the countdown to Seattle’s impending sake boom. Currently there’s only one licensed sake brewer in the state of Washington, a ruddy, bearded-and-bald-spotted gaijin named Jeff James who runs Cedar River Brewing out of a renovated garage off Greenwood Avenue. But talk with James—and you should, because every Saturday he opens his door to the public, and he speaks on sake in the humble, cultivated way of a country doctor—and he’ll point out that his friend Andrew Neyens, a former professional brewer turned sake aficionado, will open Tahoma Fuji Sake Brewing Company later this year in Ballard. At that point we can call Greelard the city’s unofficial sake district.
And then there’s the Japanese family who’s relocating their generations-old sake production operation from Fukushima to Woodinville. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Chances are that even adventurous tipplers have never delved deep into sake. Understandable: The traditional Japanese beverage comes with millennia of lore chronicled in a foreign alphabet. America has assimilated countless spirits from around the world, yet sake remains mysterious and misunderstood. Seattle’s sizable Scandinavian population brought with it a cozy tradition of bathtub aquavit, but perhaps because homebrewing is all but illegal in Japan (only 1 percent alcohol or lower is permitted), Seattle’s Japanese expats have yet to establish a culture of domestic sake production. Instead, many of us experience sake as sushi’s default accompaniment, served hot in a white ceramic bottle, slight and tangy, as generic as tap water and punchy as supermarket chardonnay. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot more to it than that.
In its production process, sake is closer to beer than wine. Beer and sake are both made with grains, meaning a brewing process is required to get at the starches inside the kernel that are converted to sugars for fermentation. But the concept of sake as “rice wine” isn’t a total misnomer, as its alcohol content—usually around 15 percent—and its mouthfeel and flavor profile resemble a supple, minerally white. James’ junmai—the most common type of sake found in Northwest restaurants and bars, and Cedar River’s flagship brew—is silvery-gold in color, standing strong astride dry and sweet. Its body is hefty but mellow on the tongue, with low acid and notes of tropical fruit spiked by a beckoning, yeasty funk. Elegant stuff, which James serves chilled in small ceramic cups, its nose and palette revealing themselves as the sake inches toward room temperature.
Junmai, James explains, translates to “pure rice”: the standard of quality sake, devoid of extra flavorings or added alcohol to fortify flavor and aroma. He begins with California-grown Calrose rice, the same variety you buy at the supermarket and cook for dinner. The longer the the rice is milled—the more the grain’s outer layers have been ground away to reveal the starch-rich inner core—the better the sake will be, though extra milling requires more time and more rice to produce the same amount of sake. James’ rice is milled to 60 percent, which he soaks and then steams to soften. From there he adds koji, a type of fungus, which aids in breaking down the rice starch to ready it for fermentation. (Koji, also used to make miso and soy sauce, is the “national fungus” of Japan.) After a couple days in James’ temperature- and humidity-controlled koji room, which is lined with cedar wood to resemble an elfin sauna, the koji rice is ready for fermentation.
The Japanese have logged only 20-some varieties of sake-appropriate yeast strains, of which James uses Number 9. The main fermentation process, which happens in
small tanks in James’ cold room, takes about 30 days; the whole production process takes about eight weeks, plus at least two months of aging, in either the tank or the bottle. All sake is filtered—James uses cotton bags to strain the rice lees, or particulate, from the liquid—though he makes nigori, which is filtered less than junmai, resulting in a cloudy brew with a milky mouthfeel. And most sake
is pasteurized, though James makes an unpasteurized junmai, called nama, which is brighter and more unctuous than the pasteurized stuff.
James, who’s a commercial property manager by day, has been brewing sake for only two years, but he’s reached an astounding level of quality. It’s out of obsessive passion: Like most people, he was unschooled on sake, until several years ago he ordered junmai on a whim. This was his awakening. He started homebrewing sake along with the beer he’d geeked out on for years. When the opportunity came to launch a brewery, either beer or sake, he chose the road less traveled.
His process, which he describes as “old-school,” is very hands-on, no heavy machinery or automation involved. His knowledge came primarily through trial and error, though he credits Yoshiaki Kasugai, a brewer for YK3 Sake in Richmond, BC, for sharing his expertise. In December James’ junmai took home a gold medal from the World Wine Championships in Chicago.
“I don’t know it it’ll take off or pan out,” James says. “It’s a lot of work. Basically there’s a lot of rent going into each bottle. But when people discover us they’ve been excited about it.” He recently hired a business manager and marketing manager, expanding his operation. You can buy bottles of Cedar River sake at Beer Junction in West Seattle and Sake Nomi in Pioneer Square.
Even with my limited sake experience, I found James’ junmai, nama and nigori profoundly delicious. Most of all I enjoyed his taru—junmai aged for two weeks in cedar. James says he might be the only brewer in North America making this traditional style. (“Though that’s not saying much—hardly anyone here is making sake.”) The chilled taru carried familiar notes of light fruit but also whiffs of cinnamon and clove and wet wood—Christmas spices, suggesting both a cold, crisp winter morning and a warm, welcoming hearth.
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect the fact that Andrew Neyens of Tahoma Fuji Sake Brewing Company was a professional beer brewer, not a homebrewer, before he developed an interest in sake.