Sake comes from Japan, right? Not always. Greg Lorenz, brewmaster of Momokawa brewery in Oregon, is on a mission to open people's minds about American-brewed sake. I recently had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about how a non-Japanese speaker became a premium sake brewer, what challenges he faces brewing sake in Oregon, and the future of the sake industry in the US.
How did you get involved with sake?
By being an unemployed algae grower. I was looking for work and when I heard about an opening as a brewer at SakeOne, the prospect of growing two different organisms (both yeast and koji) really fascinated me. That was 9 years ago, and I've been able to supplement my training with the brewery with regular visits to our sister brewery in Aomori, Japan. Every couple of years I travel there and live in the brewery for a couple of weeks, making sake. I do not speak Japanese, but they've provided me with a tremendous amount of support in translation so I can ask the brewers any questions I have and discuss any issues I'm encountering in the US.
How does American-grown sake rice compare to Japanese sake rice?
It's similar in the sense that we can mill down to similar levels, but we don't have the variety to generate so many different flavor profiles. Because we are just one brewery dedicated to premium sake, we don't have the infrastructure of a whole local industry to cultivate a larger variety of sake rice strains.
Why do you only make junmai ginjo sakes?
The vision of the brewery was to only focus on premium sake, so we do not brew any table sake. And the US legal system does not allow distilled alcohol to be added to brewed alcohol, so we cannot make honjozo sakes here.
How do you think consumers view American-made sakes vs. those brewed in Japan?
New consumers who are interested in exploring sake find Momokawa very approachable, largely due to the English printed labels; Japanese sake labels can be intimidating.
If you're dealing with a person who already has an opinion that isn't fully researched, they may have some misconceptions about American sake. We use Japanese machines, Japanese technology, Japanese yeast, koji, so we really honor the Japanese dedication to premium sake.
What do Japanese people think about American made sakes?
Those who have taken the time to taste it are surprised; we regularly see Japanese visitors in our tasting room at the brewery who have a really positive response.
What are some concerns you have about sake consumption in America?
The average American, even today, going into a Japanese restaurant, asks for "sake" like it's all the same. Despite all the education, many people don't think beyond just hot sake. I'm also definitely concerned that the industry is not educating distributors and restaurateurs on how to properly store and serve sake. As a result, many people end up consuming over the hill, oxidized sakes and getting turned off to the category altogether.
How do you see the sake category growing in the next 10 or 20 years?
In more sophisticated markets people want more information and are getting to know the differences between sake styles. So we'll likely see that trickling down to smaller markets, too.
What do you think beginners misunderstand about sake?
Some of the flavor profiles are just not familiar to beginners; being a teenager and learning how to drink coffee, you sip it for the first time and it is absolutely awful, but most adults do drink coffee because it's so prevalent in the community. Sometimes people feel the same way about sake; if you didn't grow up with those flavors, you might not be an immediate fan. Sake doesn't have that depth of a penetration in our culture, so you really have to go the distance to develop a palate for sake.
Do you think the audience in the Pacific Northwest is more open to sake than elsewhere in the country?
Portland has the #1 sake consumption per capita in the country, which is pretty amazing. There's a lot of Japanese influence throughout the West coast, so the focus on Japanese food and beverage is really high. Also, microbrewed beer, coffee, locally produced wines—many of these trends were pioneered in the Pacific Northwest, and to this day the culture is very adventurous and exploring.
Home brewing beer has become quite popular over the years; is anyone making sake at home?
Yes! F.H. Steinbart, a company in Portland, buys koji-kin, milled sake rice, and yeast from SakeOne and sells ingredients to people who want to brew sake at home. Fred Eckhardt, a brewing expert, has authored a great book on brewing sake and teaches a workshop once a year as well.
Disclosure: Monica Samuels is the Sake Ambassador for Southern Wine & Spirits of New York, which distributes the Momokawa sake line.