The first thing you probably think about when you hear someone say "sake" is a sake bomb. Composed of a shot of hard alcohol balanced upon a cup of beer, the sake bomb is a staple in the modern day college drinking culture. It's unpalatable: something to be consumed quickly so as not to upset the taste buds. This practice creates a stereotype about sake, relegating it to red solo cups and stale beer. In reality, sake has a layer of complexity and nuance that far supersedes college drinking culture.

Why should I care?

tea, juice, coffee, sweet
Sarah Bundra

Until now, sake has been a sort of Japanese elixir. But with the increasing number of sake microbreweries in the United States, this alcohol is slowly growing in popularity. Thus we should learn about and support this growing industry, rather than carelessly mix poor quality sake into a cesspool of beer and call ourselves "cultured".

Sake has been crafted in Japanese breweries dating back 2,000 years. However, it really started to garner American attention after World War II when soldiers came back with a new taste for it, prompting breweries to open in Hawaii and California. I had a chance to visit Sequoia Sake Brewery, one of the many growing microbreweries in the United States, to learn more about sake. This specific microbrewery's mission is to bring sake past drinking games and sushi restaurants, and to integrate it into the culinary experience. Of course, it starts by making its own high-quality sake in-house.

The process of making sake

Heather Held

Amidst the warehouses of San Francisco's Mission district lies the unsuspecting Sequoia Sake Brewery. Inside, it is cool and sterile to protect the sake, yet soft music playing in the background and natural light streaming through high glass windows brighten the atmosphere. Sequoia Sake Brewery uses four locally sourced ingredients in its sake: Sacramento Valley rice, Yosemite water, koji, and yeast.

One of the brewery's owners, Jake Myrick, explains the painstaking process of creating a bottle of sake: First, rice must be carefully selected and stripped of its macronutrients to inhibit outside flavors from influencing the taste of the sake. The rice is then stored in a warm, humid environment so it molds, creating koji, which is dried before the next step. 

The koji is mixed with water and yeast, and engages in a two step fermentation process. When steamed rice is added to the mixture, the koji breaks the starches of the rice into sugars. The yeast then metabolizes the sugars, producing ethanol. This process takes weeks, and the mixture must be stirred every twelve hours to evacuate carbon dioxide and to hasten the conversion of solids into liquids. Batches are brewed every 45 days to ensure freshness.

Different types of sake

Heather Held

The "sake" you're familiar with is likely watered down, tasting similar to warm cooking oil. This stuff is cheap and inauthentic, designed to make a profit. To truly appreciate sake, one must understand its categories and variations.

Sake categories are defined by how much the rice grain is milled and whether distilled alcohol is added. For example, Junmai sake has no milling requirement, whereas Daiginjo sake must have rice milled with 50% of each grain remaining. Within the general categories of sake are variations within fermentation cycles, number of pasteurizations, and added water amounts. This may seem complicated, but it's really no different from categories of red, white, and rose wines, and the variations on red wine: merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir. 

Sequoia Sake's products all fall under the Junmai category. They are unpasteurized, served cold, and have no added alcohol or sugar. Here are some common variations of Junmai that Sequoia Brewery produces.

Nama: With an alcohol content of 14% to 15%, this is a more accessible sake for everyday drinking. Try pairing it with seafood, nuts, or citrus fruits to best complement various flavors.

Genshu: With a 17.5% alcohol content, this variation pairs well with meaty, spicy, and earthy flavors. It is richer and stronger than Nama. Jake paired this variation with an assortment of creamy cheeses.

Nigori: With a 14% to 15% alcohol content, this particular sake exudes flavors of spring with aromas of lychee and apricot. It is cloudy rather than clear because it has been coarsely filtered to allow unfermented rice particles to remain in the brew, increasing flavor. Jake paired this creamy and smooth sake with an assortment of olives.

Helpful Tips

syrup, maple syrup, beer, liquor, wine, whisky, alcohol
Christin Urso

When drinking good quality sake, always remember:

1. Don't warm sake.

Warm sake was popular when wooden cedar tanks were used to store sake, before the advent of glass bottles in the 20th century. Sake took on a very strong and woody aroma, which allowed it to be warmed and still retain flavor. Today, the sake flavor profile is a lot more delicate and susceptible to damage from heat. Think about it like this: would you boil your good French wine? Absolutely not!

2. Do store sake in a refrigerated place.

This preserves its flavor. Make sure to drink within a couple of days to ensure freshness.

3. To avoid hangovers, drink sake. 

Sake does not contain sulfites or a high glucose content like wine or other flavored alcohols.

4. Do drink local.

Breweries like Sequoia Sake increase consumer awareness of underrated phenomenas that could be the next big thing. Drinking local can also ensure quality.

There is a dimension to sake that goes far beyond drinking games and sushi restaurants. By learning about its history and meticulous production, consumers both expand their alcoholic knowledge and develop a more refined taste for sake. Next time you are offered a sake bomb, do remember to consider its source, temperature, and producer to reap maximum enjoyment. Cheers!