Monday, February 04, 2008

Going Beyond Sushi: A Conversation with True Sake

Late last year, I read an item in the New York Times about an all-sake shop that opened in Manhattan. And that reminded me that San Francisco has been home to the first store dedicated solely to the pursuit of sake for more than four years.

In the Hayes Valley neighborhood, True Sake blends well with the boutique, high-end shops in the area with its sleek storefront and backlit display areas. Selling more than 200 premium sake (all imported), True Sake is the brainchild of Beau Timken, an Ohio native who discovered the notion of good quality sake when he first met a group of Japanese fishermen who brought their own bottles of sake to a sushi restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa.

That exchange started Timken on his amazing journey of discovery into this Japanese rice wine rich in history and tradition. Timken now holds two professional sake tasting licenses and a master sake sommelier license, and is a designated “sake samurai”—often preaching the wonders of sake at beverage conventions.

Last week, I caught up with Timken at one of his monthly sake tasting events. On this night, he offered tastings of six sake at the
Sebu sushi restaurant across the street from the True Sake store. (Timken consulted on the sake list for the restaurant.) It actually turned out to be a tag-team interview because I chatted with Timken, but when he got busy I went across the street to check out his store and chat with store manager Miwa Wang, who is also a sake sommelier (known as a kikizake-shi in Japan).

The following are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Chef Ben: Do you look for anything in particular when choosing sake?

Beau Timken: I have two answers to your question—one as a consumer and one as a professional. As a professional, I do international competitions. In those competitions more often than not I look for the faults. Because after tasting more than 500 sakes, I might just crack. It’s unfair and I don’t like doing it that way. But as a drinker, I always look for the strengths. I can find the strengths in any sake. So sitting at home and enjoying it on my own, I will rip it apart and I will find absolutely any strength that exists in that brew.

CB: What is it that you’re looking for that tells you that’s good sake?

BT: I usually talk about house, structure. On my palate, what I’ll do is I’ll talk about balance. If the sake doesn’t have structure or balance, then the sake’s going to collapse like how a building will collapse, a house will collapse. So my No. 1 thing is balance. That includes flavor; it can include feelings. … I will foreshadow balance, and I’ll come back and break out feelings, flavor, dexterity, how it hit my mouth, how it expanded my mouth.

I’m also thinking of functionality. A brewer makes a sake taste like that for a reason. Why? Why does he make the sake do that or achieve that? Some brewer will make it really light and clean and crisp because he thinks people will like to drink that. Other brewers will make it more expansive, more wider, more viscous. So I always look for the reason. I look for the balance and I look for the reason. Why do they make it like this?

CB: You drink a lot of sake so you’re an expert in identifying the nuances of sake. But for a beginner, how can he or she tell when the sake isn’t good?

BT: We still have such a low basis of understanding (in America). And that’s the same with not just our knowledge of tasting but with our knowledge of sake. We’re starting at less than zero. Our base is crappy sake. The best way to hide the taste of crappy sake is to nuke it and make it hot. Again, that’s a masking agent. So the long and short of it is people know what they like. I can give you a $150 sake or I can give you an $8 sake, and it’ll speak to people in different ways. But what you have to start doing is increase your benchmark.

If you’ve never had a Cabernet before and we gave you one and you’re like, eh, it’s pretty good. But how far can you go? How good can you get and how bad can you get? So people are learning to build their pool of knowledge a little bit.

A customer comes up and asks Beau about what temperature to serve sake, which is a timely question since we were just talking about how Americans think sake should be served hot. For the tasting, Beau served six types of junmai sake, which is a class of sake made only with rice, mold and water. For junmai sake, the rice has been polished (or milled) at about 30 percent. (For sake, the varieties are determined not by the type of rice used but by how much it’s polished or milled and how much of the grain is left.)

Beau served his junmai sake at room temperature, but he said that each brewer would generally recommend how the sake should be served. You can tell by looking on the bottle for the temperature zone, which Beau calls the “sweet spot” to determine the best temperature to serve that particular sake.

As Beau continued to engage with the growing crowd of sake tasters at Sebu, I went across the street to the True Sake store to chat with his store manager, who’s in a more quiet environment.

CB: Are there any rules to look out for when drinking sake?

Miwa Wang: Tasting for homework’s sake is different than tasting socially. Definitely, you look in the glass for texture and sometimes color. Even when I pour it, I sometimes listen to how the sake pours into the glass. Sometimes you just have a wonderful discovery and some sake is very viscous or rich. And some brewers design their bottles so that it creates a beautiful sound when you pour it.

Once it’s poured, often we tell customers to try drinking sake in different glasses. Some sake taste slightly different. Like if you even drink out of a wine glass, then do a little sniffing to detect the glass notes just like in wine.

CB: But there are no rules or guides to tasting like they do for wine?

MW: If anything, maybe just the balance. Balance as in what you smell and if you taste it, sometimes there’s no match and that’s an interesting part of tasting, it’s a nice surprise. I don’t think that’s bad. I was talking to a number of brewers on this trip (she just returned from vacation), in particular about food pairings, and they say people don’t have to be that serious. When you’re tasting sake, you don’t need to find anything. If anything just capture the nuances or the personality of the sake.

CB: So it sounds like sake can match almost anything? It sounds very versatile for dining.

MW: Which is actually in a way very, very true. Sometimes sake tends to evolve and adjust to what you’re having, and also your mood and the weather. And sometimes sake can really enhance the flavor of the food. Boom. Suddenly you pick up that rich kind of tofu bean tone or miso, and sometimes it almost kind of blends altogether and becomes just the background. Sometimes it’ll create almost a new flavor in your mouth.

CB: People think you should chill sake and serve it cold. Is that true?

MW: No, depends on the sake. Generally speaking, the junmai style—the way it is brewed and the chemical compound of the sake itself—makes it so that you can enjoy the sake chilled, room temperature, or warm. Some sake definitely excel almost at the warm temperature than being chilled. Versus ginjo and dai ginjo sake, generally speaking, which are best served slightly chilled or chilled. But there are always exceptions. (Note: Ginjo and dai ginjo sake are other classes of sake that are more polished than junmai. Ginjo is milled to 40 percent and dai ginjo is 50 percent. Brewers also add some distilled alcohol to these sake.)

CB: So it’s OK to drink sake warm? I thought that’s a sign that you’re trying to mask a poor-tasting sake?

MW: Oh no, poor sake in the sense of America and it’s still kind of true in Japan that not-so-good sake got here first and in a way to make it able to drink we make it hot. Unfortunately it got so piping hot and that practice remains even today. But some sake can retain its softness even in warm temperature. When some sake reaches that hot zone then that’s a little too much and all you smell is alcohol.

Sometimes when you want to warm it up like a junmai, then the flavor comes out. It becomes softer and you can taste the sweetness of the rice.

CB: What’s the proper way to warm up sake?

MW: Everybody probably has a sake set if they’re really serious, you know, the one you probably got as a gift from a friend. You can boil a pot of water and pour the sake into the tokkori (that’s the small bottle to hold the sake) and put that into the pot of boiling water. It doesn’t have to keep cooking. It can be anywhere between 20 seconds to maybe a minute and a half. It does heat up pretty quickly.

CB: After you bring sake home, how should you store it if you’re not going to drink it right away?

MW: The best is dark and cold, which can be in the refrigerator or in the basement or wine cellar.

CB: But since it doesn’t have a cork, you don’t have to lay it down, right?

MW: No, and once it’s opened definitely keep it refrigerated. But I remember my grandfather and some people would still keep it at room temperature. But it’s better to keep it in the refrigerator once it’s been open.

CB: So how long will sake last after you’ve opened it?

MW: Depends on the sake itself. Some fragile or delicate or super aromatic sake I would say anywhere between that night to a couple of days. Certain styles of sake hold itself for a long time, two to three weeks sometimes. Sake compared to wine is a little more forgiving.

CB: With wine, you often drink it maybe two years after bottling to give it some time to age. How is it with sake? Does it mature right after it’s bottled?

MW: It’s not aging like wine. Sake rests for three to six months. There’s also aged sake that’s a different species. Those are aged nowadays 10 to 20 years and gain that amber color, and the flavor of those sake is different than the clear sake.

CB: How long can a bottle last on the shelf if you haven’t opened it?

MW: Again, if it’s cool and dark, like a refrigerator shelf, about six months.

CB: What does bad sake taste like?

MW: Some kind of musty, could be kind of bitter, flat. Again, it depends on the sake. In the world of sake, there’s a lot of depends. There’s no black and white. Sake world is nebulous and I think it should be that way.

CB: How do you pair sake with food. Are there any rules?

MW: I don’t want to say rules, but maybe framework. Best is to just play around. But generally, if you have quite spicy or acidic food, instead of going with a dry sake, go for the sweeter side. … If you’re having raw fish that’s rich and fatty, I personally wouldn’t want to drink something that’s really sweet or fruity but rather go for semi-dry junmai. … Some fruity sake is just great by itself.

CB: From Japan, there are a lot of traditions in serving sake. Are there certain traditions you’d like to see here? Or are there things you’d like to see us stop doing?

MW: Definitely not to do the super hot sake. Discontinue that tradition, I guess. Sake bombs would be a problem (laughs), particularly if great sake is being used for sake bombs, which won’t be the case. I hope not.

One aspect of sake serving in Japan that I like is the pouring for each other. I like that aspect.

But the best thing about drinking sake in America is not having any complete notion of what sake should be or is—keep it very open. So that itself is something we don’t have in Japan. They associate sake with certain things.

CB: Right, because they have such a long tradition?

MW: Right, right. And having almost no traditions is actually serving well for sake in America, I feel.

I head back over to Sebu and Beau’s tasting. The crowd has gotten bigger and louder. It also may be because Beau pours as much sake into the plastic tasting cups as what most sushi restaurants would serve in those tiny cups.

CB: Where do you think the trend of sake drinking is headed in America?

BT: I say that sake is not really a trend, it’s a 1,000-year-old fad. We’re just learning to appreciate sake. So if we’re talking about upside and if more people are going to be drinking sake more than they have? Absolutely. Couple of reasons: One, sake and sushi are married at the hip. I try to break that marriage all the time. Invariably it’s true. If sake is riding the coattails of sushi, then OK. But I also want people to think outside the box. That it doesn’t always have to go with sushi. …

Second, education has finally caught up like it has with wine. People are starting to understand sake more because of people like John Gauntner, Philip Harper, myself, we’ve all written books on sake.

Thirdly, where there’s increase in demand, there’s better products. So more good brews are coming to the states. And good brews are coming through not just food importers who traditionally used to import sake but now dedicated sake importers. So they’re the ones who are coming and they’re getting out to restaurants, they’re getting out to bars so they’re educating people as well.

So the marriage with sushi, the education process and then better products coming in. But the no. 1 reason why sake is going to do better is what I call the tequila factor. Everybody used to think that Jose Cuervo silver was tequila and it’s not. Once people realize there are better products out there, they’ll naturally gravitate to it. We haven’t gotten any of the great products here yet—they’re coming. A lot are here now. But once people realize there are better tasting sake they’re not used to, then they’ll realize, “why not drink this?”

CB: So there are a few more all-sake stores popping up in the United States (there’s a tiny shop in Seattle along with the new one in Manhattan). Does this show that demand for sake is growing?

BT: No question, awareness is growing. People are looking for a better product.

CB: Where would you say America’s awareness on sake stands right now?

BT: Baby steps, still in the early stage. But you have to crawl before you walk in any case. I told you, though, we’re still trying to get to zero. We still have to shatter all the myths about sake—that it has to be served hot, that it is a hard alcohol. We have to bring people back to zero before we can show them going forward.

We are in the Paleozoic age of sake.

CB: You’re very enthusiastic when serving sake. Where does all this passion come from?

BT: It’s people coming up and telling me they don’t know anything about sake but they come up and tell me that they really like this one because they know what they like. That’s good. We’ve arrived. We’ve hit a sense of understanding, comprehension. And that’s where I get my feedback.

... I have two professional master sake sommelier licenses and I’m a sake samurai, but I’m more proud of the fact that I’m a dude from Ohio who sake spoke to me. I’m a guide. I’m just here to help people. If I can get it, they can get it. You don’t need to be opinionated. You don’t need to be frustrated by it. You just have to enjoy it.

Beau goes back to pouring samples of the junmai. I actually tried just one, the Tsukasabotan Senchu Hassaku, which is a dry junmai from Kochi prefecture in Japan. It was very light, almost like water. I hate to say it but I would really like some sushi to go with it about now. Sorry Beau!

After watching Beau serve sake for a bit more, this woman grabbed me and asked me why I wasn’t taking her photo. I never turn down people’s requests to be on my blog, so I snapped her photo and that of her friend who came along with her to the tasting. The woman, on the right, chatted with me for awhile about how she loved the sake and all the different ways she plans to cook with the sake. You could tell that she has been bit by the sake bug. (Or that she should be cut off from any more tasting for the night! LOL.)

Thanks to Beau and Miwa for taking the time to share their love of sake with me, especially having to juggle their attention between me and a room full of sake tasters. You can learn more about Beau’s tasting events on the True Sake Web site, where you can also sign up for his newsletters. And if you’re ever in Hayes Valley, check out the True Sake store—the
very first all-sake store in the United States. It’s a beautiful store and you’ll learn a lot about the art of appreciating sake.

True Sake, 560 Hayes St., San Francisco. PH: 415.355.9555.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Chef Ben, ooh how interesting! I've always wanted to check that place out, a co-worker is always telling me about the oh-so-poetic sake finds (he can read Japanese and likes to translate the bottle labels). Hope you found some sushi afterwards!