Friday, October 5, 2007

The Joy of Sake

Last month, I attended The Joy of Sake event at the San Francisco Hilton. The Joy of Sake is the largest sake-tasting event outside of Japan, and it's been held annually since 2001. This year, the event was held in San Francisco, Honolulu, and New York on different dates. Usually the event costs $70 per person, but luckily for me, my friend and former college housemate Lauren got two free passes from one of the chefs who was serving food there. The photos in this entry were taken by him (and click on his name to check out his awesome food and adventure blog).

Sake, typically referred to as "rice wine," is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from multiple stage of rice fermentation. After fermentation is complete, grain solids are filtered out, except in the case of nigori sake. Different types of brewing methods lead to different types of sake, each with their own special characteristics. Generally, sake is not aged (although you can find some in the market that are) and isn't meant to be aged like a nice bottle of red wine. It can be served cold or hot, although generally I like it served cold, because heat tends to mask the flavors (which is why a lot of restaurants use bad quality sake to serve hot).

There are several varieties of sake:
1. Junmai - Made from rice only, with no additives or distilled alcohol. The rice can be polished to any degree.
2. Ginjo - The rice is polished by 40% or less.
3. Daiginjo - The rice is polished to 50% or less. Generally, the higher the degree of polishing on the rice, the more complex the resulting sake.
4. You can also add the word "junmai" before "ginjo" and "daiginjo" if no alcohol is added to the sake.
5. Namazake - Unpasteurized sake

At The Joy of Sake, a total of 302 sakes from 144 breweries were available for tasting. The sheer number of sakes was pretty astonishing. Lauren knows a lot about sake, so he did the navigating. We developed a system where we moved several cups along a table so we could quickly fill them using the handy pipettes, taste the sakes, and pour our leftovers into a "waste" cup. This allowed us to maximize the number of sakes we could try in the limited amount of time.

I liken sake tasting to wine tasting, in that you're judging the same things - aroma, taste, balance, aftertaste, and overall impressions. And just like wine, aromas and flavors can change, and you may like a sake that the person next to you just hates. It really depends on personal preference. I generally like medium-bodied sakes with light, earthy flavors and a smooth finish; I find them easier to drink but they still go great with sashimi. Nigoris are great too, provided they're not too sweet and the unfiltered grains aren't too big.

In addition to all the sakes, 14 great Japanese restaurants from the Bay Area (including Ozumo, Kyo-Ya, and Hana) served appetizers. Our chef friend who got us in for free was from Betelnut. Below is his dish - salmon sashimi in a lemon ponzu sauce. The sauce was light enough to complement the salmon, but simple enough so that it didn't overpower the fresh taste of the fish. Definitely my favorite appetizer at the event.

Overall we didn't even try a third of all the sakes (or maybe Lauren did, since he was shuffling among the sake tables while I was attempting to try all the appetizers). I was a little disappointed that they weren't selling any of the sakes at the event. A lot of them you couldn't even get in the US. But I guess that encouraged people to remember which brands they really liked.

The ones that I jotted down as noteworthy were:
- Yamagata Sanga
- Kamoizumi Komekome (from Hiroshima)
- Mu Sake (daiginjo was the best)
- Kamoizumi Shusen Junmai ("Three Dots")
- Okunomatsu Ginjo
- Okunomatsu Tokubetsu Junmai

I also tried a sake that cost $1,000 for a bottle, according to the representative. It was called Okunomatsu Daiginjo Shizukusake Juhachidai Ihei (yes, it's a mouthful), and it was so damn good and well-balanced, but I don't think I'd ever pay that much money for a bottle. Plus, Lauren did some research after and we now believe it actually only goes for about $100 to $200 for a bottle. Perhaps the rep was lying to us or he couldn't convert yen to US dollars properly. But he was cute, so we'll forgive him.

Okunomatsu Daiginjo Shizukusake Juhachidai Ihei

Overall it was a great event, and I'm glad I got a chance to go! Thanks Lauren!


Hiro said...

yeah the sake, esp. where i'm around in hiroshima.. its crazy goood. And props to you in explaining what makes sake a sake.

I had this Sake (The Japanese actually call it "Nihon-shu", sake is a casual form, kinda like saying booze instead of alcohol, anyways) from the Hiroshima region called 'Kamotusru'. I miite try sending you a small sample =D

molinete said...

Very interesting post. I wish I knew more about sake. I'll have to try to make it to this event next year...

foodhoe said...

how fun, I couldn't make that one... so I'm glad I could read your recap.

Dragonlife said...

Dear Molinete!
Greetings again!
I found it at last!
Sake, you can't beat it, can you?
But I didn't see any sake from Shizuoka (tears, tears, tears,...)
I'll you what: visit me at the address linked onto my alias. You will be in for a little surprise!