Austin welcomes the first ever Texas saké
Do you enjoy saké? By that, I don’t mean hot saké or as part of a “bomb” incorporated with beer, which is, unfortunately, how most people first encounter this traditional Japanese rice wine. (And if you’ve ever been to Japan, you know this is not the intended method of consumption, at least not for good saké—more on that later.)
For many, saké is an acquired taste that tends to blossom into a happy indulgence when consumed with Japanese food, particularly sushi. Great saké is usually dry with just a bit of sweetness balanced with acidity. But without getting too technical, the real thing to know about saké is that once you have a taste for it, you’ll find it not only pairs well with Japanese cuisine, but it’s delicious with other Asian cuisines, barbecue, and even Tex-Mex!
Premium sake should be enjoyed chilled, like a nice white wine. This allows you to distinguish the different flavors and aromas that are drawn from the polished rice and select water used during production.
No one would know this better than Yoed Anis, the owner and brewer (or toji) of the Texas Saké Company. Though Israeli in heritage, Anis, 28, has held a fascination with Japanese culture for most of his life. In 2006 he made a pilgrimage to Japan to experience the lifestyle, food, and drink culture. Here he fell in love with saké. Having grown up in Texas, Anis found it no coincidence that his new beverage of choice happened to be made with rice, which also just happens to be one of Texas’ most prized agricultural products—so heralded that the Japanese even attempted to cultivate it on their own in the early 1900s.
Anis returned to his home in Austin and after a few years of tinkering with his own home brewing system, he finally found the perfect recipe to showcase Texas rice in the very first Texas saké. In August 2010, armed with his first level of certification as a saké professional, he started the Texas Saké Company with the first ever kura, or saké brewery, in the state at North Lamar just north of 50th Street. Using only 100 percent organic Texas rice, Anis’ saké not only has the distinction of being the first Texas saké, but also as the first completely organic saké kura in all of North America.
A few things Anis learned about saké that perhaps you should know as well: Saké is made in a similar way to wine and beer in that it is fermented rather than distilled as with spirits. And much like wine and beer, it can take on a variety of different flavor characteristics from cantaloupe and coconut to pear and lemongrass. Saké is differentiated into a number of different grades based on the level to which the grains of rice are polished for the purest rice taste. The higher percentage of polish, the more premium the saké.
Here are a few common types of saké to recognize on a drink menu:
Junmai – The first of the premium grades of filtered sake made purely from rice, water, yeast, and koji (the fermenting mold used to brew saké). Jumnai is clear and tends to have a full-bodied flavor with hints of apple, peach, or pear.
Ginjo - A more premium grade of filtered saké. The rice must be polished down to 60 percent of the original grain for production. The result is a cleaner, more delicate feel with crisp tropical flavors.
Diaginjo – A step up from ginjo, this premium grade of filtered saké requires a 50 percent polish on the rice. These sakés require a great deal of care for production and are therefore priced higher and enjoyed as a sipping beverage rather than with food.
Nigori – This style is distinguished by its milky presentation. Nigori is unfiltered leaving rice sediment in the final product that gives a sweeter, off-dry taste.
The first two releases from Texas Saké Company include the “Whooping Crane,” a clear, filtered sake made in the junmai style with hints of pear and ripe apple—a great fit for sushi and seafood. The second is “Rising Star,” a nigori style saké offering a sweet flavor that Anis suggests would go well with savory flavors such as bacon. (But what doesn’t go well with bacon?)
"I chose to do a jumai style because it really honors the natural flavors in the Texas rice I'm using," says Anis. "My hope is that instead of wine or beer, that 40 years from now, saké will be the Texas beverage of choice."
Next week Whooping Crane and Rising Star will make their official debut at a number of Austin restaurants serving the specialty rice wine including Uchi, Uchiko, Fleming’s, and the Shoreline Grill. (The Shoreline Grill carries the distinction of being the first to carry the saké.)
But before you rush out to give it a try, it’s best to know a thing or two about how to enjoy saké. As previously mentioned, you can absolutely heat it up and serve it like hot tea or drop a ochoko (small porcelain cup) of the stuff in a pint of your Sapporo, but you’d be missing the elegance of this beverage. Save that for when you decide to tie one at your next New Year’s bash.
Traditionally, saké can be served heated, but it is generally only done so for lower, less premium grades and usually only during the colder months of the year much in the same way we serve hot cider or wassail in the winter. Premium sake should be enjoyed chilled, like a nice white wine. This allows you to distinguish the different flavors and aromas that are drawn from the polished rice and select water used during production.
While saké is often served in the aforementioned ochoko, it is also traditionally served in a masu, or small wooden box. In some Japanese restaurants—as you’ll find at Uchi and Uchiko, as a show of generosity, the server may put a glass inside the masu and pour until sake overflows and fills both containers. For junmai style saké you can feel free to drink straight from the masu. It gives a woody characteristic to the drink, but is traditionally enjoyed this way. If you're drinking a higher grade such as daiginjo, the wood will mask the flavor of the saké, so it's best to drink this is a glass.
As Anis has spent such a great deal of time and effort to bring us the very first Texas saké—and a premium one at that—my best advice is to enjoy it chilled, as opposed to hot. And please refrain from ordering it in “bomb” form.