Blake Richardson looked beat. When he sat down to talk last week, he wore a scruffy 5 o'clock shadow and his clothes were damp, reflecting the work he's been doing at his new brew pub.
But Richardson's face lit up when he started talking about the thing he's been laboring over for the past several months:
Of course, Richardson, 38, already has a passion. It's been nine years since the brew master opened the Herkimer, one of the Twin Cities' best brew pubs. If you know beer geeks, you know their passion for a handcrafted beverage can be all-consuming.
For Richardson, sake was no different. While the Japanese drink is often called a rice wine, he saw it as a grain-based alcohol with a brewing process that had more in common with beer.
Thus was born moto-i, which Richardson says is the only sake brew pub outside Japan. It sits a couple doors down from the Herkimer on Lyndale Avenue in Uptown Minneapolis.
So what's a white guy from Minnesota doing with a sake brew pub? When Richardson started his sake journey in 2002, traveling to Japan to tour breweries and taking expensive classes from sake experts, he knew there would be skepticism.
"Some people were wondering if this was a gimmick," Richardson said. "And I understand that. I don't think anybody wants to see damage come to their national drink."
But now the skeptics are coming to him. A Japanese TV crew came to Minneapolis last week to interview Richardson about moto-i being this country's only sake brew pub. They were working on a larger story about sake in North America for TV Tokyo. (While it's gaining steam here, sake is on the decline in Japan, where young people are switching to beer and a low-calorie drink called shochu.)
Sake's new home
There are many misconceptions about sake. The first: Sake is always served warm, which tends to weird people out. When sake is heated, it's often to mask the poor quality. That's why Richardson prefers to serve his sake slightly chilled, which is expected of the premium stuff. People also tend to be frightened of the perceived harshness of sake. But moto-i's three housemade sakes go down smooth and sweet, (more proof of their premium quality), even though sake's alcohol content is higher than that of beer and wine, at around 15 to 20 percent.
In his quest to win over dubious drinkers, Richardson wanted a bar setting that was equally inviting. He patterned moto-i after what the Japanese call an izakaya, a type of low-key bar that serves small plates.
As you walk up to moto-i, the street-level neon sign spells out "moto izakaya" in kanji lettering. It's a cool first impression and reminded me of the classic sci-fi film "Blade Runner." The windows peering into moto-i are purposely obstructed by dark louver shutters. Richardson said izakayas in Japan are typically in the basement.
The former Machu Picchu space has been totally redesigned by Smart Associates, the firm that brought slickness to other Uptown establishments such as Chiang Mai Thai, Fuji- Ya and the Herkimer. The dark and cozy theme continues inside, where a metallic bar and wood booths provide seating. Japanese TV plays on the flat screens, and sumo wrestlers are exalted in framed photos above a shuffleboard table.
Know thy drink
While he's paid considerable attention to making the place look great, Richardson's main reason for opening another bar is the brewery. Through a glass wall, bargoers can watch Richardson and his sake brewing partner, Elise Gee, work on three giant fermenting tanks. Here are some nuggets about sake-making:
• Every batch of sake takes at least a month to make (and generates 1,000 liters), so a lot of care goes into the process.
• Right now, moto-i's three sakes are of the junmai variety, which is made simply from rice, water, yeast and koji. There are no additives.
• The sakes differ in their post- fermentation process. For example, the junmai nama appears clear and has a robust taste, while the junmai nama nigori, which is loosely pressed, is cloudy and sweeter.
• A sake's quality is first determined by the rice-milling rate -- meaning how much each grain has been polished down from its original size. Moto-i's sake was made from rice with a rate of 70 percent or less. The lower the percent, the more premium the sake.
• Moto-i's sake is served nama style, meaning it's unpasteurized. The bar serves it like beer, from a tap.
Richardson puts his employees through an extended version of the eight-hour sake seminar he offers each month to customers. "It's very intense training," he said. "And they have to pass a test."
While he doesn't speak Japanese (he wants to learn), he does speak sake, and customers might, too, after a visit to moto-i. Upon ordering, bargoers get a "Sake 101" table mat, which has a detailed chart describing the brewing process and sake styles -- right down to the type of yeast starters. It's a little much, but helpful if you want to know what you're drinking.
Richardson's vision for moto-i is actually still in the beginning stages. There are still two more levels to this little establishment, which he hasn't opened to the public yet. Richardson expects to open the second floor soon, which has more seating and another full bar, complete with another draft beer line (the bar has 12 on tap) and even more sake taps. Then there's the rooftop, which has the best view of the downtown skyline next to Stella's.
"Not until the day I started brewing here did I realize the magnitude of what it takes to make sake," Richardson said. "It was a long, long road, and I didn't know if it was ever going to happen."
Minneapolis should be glad it did.
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