Six Americans walk into a Tokyo sake bar.
Well, they try to, but the stand-up bar at Nihonshu Stand Moto is almost full, with eight young hipsters crowded around its U-shaped counter, and the manager isn’t sure any extras will fit in its tiny space.
“But we’ve come from America to try your sake,” explained the only one of us who spoke Japanese. With a smile, the manager, Marie Chiba, turned to the other patrons before she reopened the door. Before we could bow and say arigato (thank you), the young men had crowded together, elbow to elbow, to provide us a spot.
I didn’t need to go to Tokyo to be surrounded by sake. Back here in the Twin Cities, interest in the rice-based beverage has exploded, thanks in no small part to Moto-i Ramen & Sake House in Minneapolis, which debuted in 2008 as one of the first U.S. sake breweries. Factor in the ubiquitous sushi and Asian restaurants around town, all which offer it, and you’ve got sake sippers in the making.
Johnson Bros. Liquor Co. of St. Paul has taken note. Its sake sales have increased by 42 percent in the past 12 months, says sales director Stuart Sutherland.
“There’s no doubt that wine drinkers and beer drinkers are trying more and more sake because it’s available in more and more places,” Sutherland said.
That doesn’t surprise Melissa Surdyk, who has worked with sake for the past five years at the Minneapolis store that bears her family name. She stocks the store’s refrigerator case with more than 50 varieties, which range from individual servings to premium 1.8 liter bottles. Many sake shoppers come to the store after first tasting it at a sushi restaurant, then wanting to find something similar — or the same label — at the store.
“There’s been a steady growth of sake interest, year to year, since we opened,” said
Moti-i brewmaster and founder Blake Richardson, who attributes that growth to awareness.
Unlike other craft beverages — coffee, beer and wine, among them — consumers simply do not start with premium sake.
“No one first says, ‘I’ll drink a better sake,’ ” Richardson said. They had to find their way to the different varieties. “Education goes hand-in-hand with awareness,” Richardson said. “Like knowing the key terminology and looking at the menu and saying the word right. That’s such a big piece of it. People don’t want to feel stupid.” (Consider the difference between — and pronunciation of — Junmai Nama Yamahai Ginjo and Futsuu-shu.)
Ruby Langworthy, a bar supervisor at Masa Sushi & Robata in Minneapolis, agrees that sake can be intimidating because of the language. “And the drink is an acquired taste, like wine.”
Sutherland remembers the first time he tried sake. Served warm at a teppanyaki restaurant, it was memorable for what it was not. “Most Americans don’t like warm alcoholic drinks,” he said. “But the minute I tried it cold, I was sold on sake.”
A twist on tradition
What you find in the Twin Cities today is not your grandfather’s sake. “The product is better, with more variety than 60 years ago,” said Surdyk. “There’s a sake for everybody.”
That means options that intrigue newcomers, whether it’s served in a cocktail, in sparkling or flavored forms or more traditional.
“I don’t think one style is more popular than another,” said Surdyk. “It all depends on people’s palates, and depends on if it’s being paired with food.”
If you’ve never tasted sake, make your first tasting with multiple varieties. Richardson suggests buying three small bottles of sake, grabbing a book on the subject and having a tasting with another person. “If you have no prior experience with sake and drink only one, it will seem that all sake is like that,” said Richardson. “If you try three, you can see all the flavors.”
And don’t stop there with the tastings. “I like to teach people that sake goes with anything, it’s more food-friendly, with no tannins, no acid,” said Surdyk. She finds that many people like the nigori style, which is a creamier and sweeter version. “But there’s a good amount who like it dry.”
The Twin Cities area is not alone in interest in sake. Where Richardson once had the brewer designation to himself in the United States, there are now about a dozen in the country. In fact, he now mills the rice for other brewers nationwide. And there’s another Minnesota connection: A flavored sake, Social Enjoyments, is brewed in Cold Springs for a Chicago-based company. Sake breweries also can be found throughout the world, including Mexico, Canada, Norway and Scotland. The once-ancient Japanese drink has gone international.
Local vs. nonlocal
Many consumers mistakenly think of sake as rice wine. Not only is it not a wine, but it’s not a liquor, either, which means it can be served at restaurants that do not have hard-liquor licenses.
“Wine and sake are produced differently. For sake, it’s 80 percent technique and 20 percent product. For wine, it’s the other way around,” Surdyk said.
This gluten-free product is brewed with the most simple of ingredients: water, rice, a mold and yeast.
At Moto-i, Richardson makes only unpasteurized sake, a more fragile variety with a short life span and one that needs to be kept cold. As a result, that variety is not often exported from Japan.
His version — unpasteurized, undiluted and unfiltered — is what he prefers. “It’s not better; it’s just different,” he said.
Like his counterparts in Japan, Richardson brews all he needs in the winter months, relying on the cold air and cold weather to factor into the way his sake tastes. “In Japan, historically they planted the rice in the spring, harvested it in the fall and brewed in the winter. It’s very much workflow; the same people worked in the fields, then went on to the brewery.”
But winter in Japan is cold, and it makes a difference in the flavor. “We could artificially create that cold at an expense any time of the year, but we just use what shows up in Minnesota.” His below-grade, unheated brewery stays chilly. “We want that slow fermentation; it plays into the flavor profile,” he said.
While Richardson may experiment with an occasional sparkling sake for special events, he doesn’t plan to veer off into flavored versions, though he doesn’t criticize those who do.
“I’m just excited that people are drinking sake; however they get a foot in the door is fine by me,” he said.
Raise a sake cup
World Sake Day is Oct. 1, as instituted by the Japan Sake Brewers Association and celebrated since 1978. It marks the beginning of the brewing season, which traditionally lasts until April.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste
IF YOU GO
Masu Sushi & Robata, 330 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-332-6278, and Mall of America, 952-896-6278.
Moto-i, 2940 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-821-6262.
Surdyk’s, 303 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-379-3232.
Nihonshu Stand Moto, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan, 81-03-6457-3288.