Kampai: Ben’s Tune Up’s brews up new take on sake traditions
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Japan benefits from more than a thousand of years of sake-making tradition. The United States? Not so much.
But even as domestic sake sales have declined in Japan, Americans are buying Japanese sake at a record clip.
And while they aren’t likely to outstrip craft beer makers, U.S. kuras, or sake breweries, are beginning to take root.
“The trend is growing,” said Molly Clark, co-owner with Meg Alt of Ben’s Tune Up, which makes the Ben’s American Sake brand as one of only about two dozen American craft kuras.
“We know it’s always going to be niche, but we’re having fun with it and getting better at it.”
That’s thanks in part to Patrick Shearer, the head brewer who joined the Ben’s team last year.
Shearer worked for five years with SakeOne, founded in 1992 in Oregon as one of the first U.S. kuras.
Now, he’s in charge of a line of locally made unpasteurized, or nama, sakes including a traditional Nigori and a Junmai Ginjo “American Heavy” with nutty notes and a deep, round mouthfeel.
Some existing sakes, like the fruity, floral and lightly effervescent pineapple-jalapeno on tap at Ben’s, were developed by former head brewer Natali Nakaji Jackson.
Jackson’s son Porter Kiyoshi lends his name to a forthcoming high-end pasteurized Junmai Daiginjo sake, to be launched March 8 at Ben’s.
The delicate limited-edition brew echoes a style traditionally made during the cold season in Japan. Fittingly, Shearer started brewing it when Asheville was blanketed by December snow.
“We’re trying to come out with a clean, very dry, more traditional sake,” said Shearer. “The rice is higher quality, the yeast we haven’t used yet. We’re trying to put our best foot forward.”
And while it’s a warm nod to a former brewer, Kiyoshi also signifies a sort of growth for Ben’s, where Alt and Clark originally started brewing sake on a hodgepodge blend of kitchen and wine-making equipment, with plenty of help from YouTube tutorials.
This is no kitchen experiment. Kiyoshi was made with high-quality rice, milled to about 50 percent, removing most of the grains’ proteins and fats, leaving behind pure starch.
It also uses White Labs yeast 709 and Shearer’s own house-cultivated koji, a rapidly growing mold with a big umami punch, also used to ferment miso.
House-grown koji is now at the root of all of the sake on tap in Ben’s tasting room, and in the cans sold in the cooler.
“I view koji as the heart of the sake-making process,” Shearer said. “It can be difficult to grow in the correct way you want to grow it for sake.”
The restaurant also uses koji for quick pickle-making, and it also lends funk to fermented hot sauce. Ben’s has even sold some of its house-grown cultures to other area restaurants.
Asian cultures revere koji for its numerous and storied benefits, ranging from healthier hair and nails to longer lives.
Japanese people, who always seem to catch on to health trends far before most Americans, have used it for 9,000 years.
At Ben’s, the majority of the sake is unpasteurized and therefore a living entity, allowing the koji’s spirit to come through — though nama sake is best sipped young.
Many brewers deactivate enzymes and halt any bacterial growth in the pasteurization process, which helps lend stability to the beverage, but also changes sake’s flavor and feel.
Unpasteurized sake is similar to natural wine, in that there’s a certain lively quality to it.
And though Shearer makes no particular claims about its health benefits, he does think unpasteurized sake, alive with probiotics, sulfite- and gluten-free, is essentially also hangover free.
While Ben’s isn’t exactly a temple to health, it’s worth noting there are options: a very good house-brewed yerba mate kombucha and a canned blueberry-ginger yerba mate, for example.
Sake, Shearer noted, fits in perfectly with the South Slope’s ever-growing collection of beer breweries.
While sake and beer seem an unlikely combination, it works better than you might imagine.
The tart Sakasu on tap at Ben’s, for example, shows off a successful collaboration with Hi-Wire: an oak-aged sour and sake hybrid, clocking in at more than 10 percent but offering no discernible heat.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for sake, especially being in a beer-focused community. If people want a break or change of pace, sake is a very solid option,” Shearer said.
Though plenty of brewery hoppers stumble into Ben’s by accident, they often stay to check it out, he added.
Happening upon an American sake distillery isn’t exactly an everyday thing.
The horchata, apple spice and other flavored brews on tap at Ben’s can be a gentle first step, though Shearer said most Asheville drinkers are familiar enough with sake to make the Nigori a frequent order.
Shearer is not done inventing, nor infusing more tradition in the taproom, though he promises the classic Ben’s flavored sakes aren’t going anywhere.
“It’s a truly unique American hyper-local experience, even if you’re not a sake drinker,” he said.
Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com