|Sake brewing in the 1600s. Just the first two steps: polishing and washing rice|
Writers do that all the time; some will say bloggers write beyond their knowledge level every day. But I didn't know how much I didn't know.
After spending a week visiting breweries in Japan and talking with master brewers, I feel very humble.
For one thing, I have been tasting sake the wrong way for years.
I've been tasting like a wine writer: making notes on the aroma and forming judgments before putting the sake in my mouth. Plus I almost always spit when taking sake tasting notes.
This is all wrong.
|Japanese read right-to-left; this is the middle of the painting|
Here's my next apology. I thought I knew how complicated sake brewing was. You convert the starch in rice to sugar, using mold, and then you add yeast, rice and water, all the while carefully controlling the temperature. I've written that shorthand description for at least 10 publications. It's not a terrible summary, but it just misses so much.
|The final product pours out on the far left. Lots of work to get there|
I don't think this is a selling point for sake. There's a romantic idea that wine is a very natural product: just grapes stomped by feet, fermented by God. For all its purity -- sake is crystal-clear, rarely contains preservatives and gives fewer hangovers than any other alcoholic beverage -- sake could not possibly occur naturally.
|The emperor's personal sake. It's delicious|
Here's what I have gotten right all along. This is the golden age of sake. Sake has never been better: thanks to technological advances, we can drink better sake today than the previous emperor of Japan could have on his birthday.
Yet Japanese sake is also something of an endangered species. More than 700 Japanese breweries have closed in the last 20 years. Sales in Japan have been dropping ever since Japanese drinkers discovered wine.
Japanese breweries would like to export more, and we are their top market. But after spending a week with them, I can tell you that while they know a lot about making great sake, they know next to nothing about marketing it to Americans. This is why 75% of the sake sold in America is inferior sake made in America.
I wish I could summon the rhetorical power to explain just how special, delicious, unique and endangered Japanese sake is. My last apology is that I can't just reach out through this screen and pour you a glass of the good stuff. But let's face it, that would be kinda creepy.