October 28, 2013
When Bill Owens in Hayward, Calif. first brewed a pumpkin beer in the early 1980s, no one else in modern craft brewing history had done such a clever thing. His project, so it is said, was inspired by historical records indicating that George Washington had used squashes—and possibly pumpkins—in experimental homebrews. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale became popular over the years and remains so some 30 years after its birth.
But today, that maverick beer stands modestly amid hundreds of others like it. For autumn beers celebrating America’s most iconic squash have become ubiquitous: The summer nears its end, and brewers across the continent get busy in unison adding a blizzard of spices and cooked pumpkin (sometimes fresh, sometimes out of a can) to their tanks of fermenting beer. By October and November, pumpkin brews are as commonplace as jack-o-lanterns, and from a glance at a supermarket beer aisle, one might think that America’s craft brewers had run out of ideas.
Many pumpkin beers taste about the same, brewed with roughly the same flurry of autumn spices–which is fine. Most beers of any given style, after all–whether IPAs, porters or pilsners–have a similar flavor profile. The trouble with pumpkin beers is that they can be hard to handle if too liberally spiced. William Bostwick, beer critic for the Wall Street Journal and author of the forthcoming history of beer and brewing, “The Brewer’s Tale,” notes that the standard potpourri of spices used in pumpkin beer–cinnamon and nutmeg, and usually a few others–can turn “acrid, bitter, and cloying” if they are boiled for too long. Bostwick says he has found the worst of these beers to “taste like allspice soup.”
He points out, too, that pumpkin beers generally don’t taste like pumpkin at all.
“On the whole, these are basically pumpkin pie beers,” Bostwick says. “What you taste is spices. I’m not sure most people even know what pumpkin itself really tastes like.”
Indeed, the flavor of pumpkin is so mild that it can be almost undetectable even in a lightly spiced beer. In Half Moon Bay, California, a town surrounded by pumpkin fields, the local brewery has been making a pumpkin beer every fall for 10 years. But this year, the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company toned down the recipe, from eight pounds of nutmeg, clove, allspice, cinnamon and mace in last year’s 500-gallon batch to just one meager pound for the current release.
“I specifically wanted it to taste like pumpkin, not pie,” brewmaster James Costa says. The beer, available only on draft, is decidedly unspicy—so unspicy that one might entirely fail to notice that the reddish hued, creamy topped ale is spiced at all. The pumpkin, meanwhile, is faint, as nature intended this humble squash to be.
Dawn Letner has perhaps never tasted that pumpkin beer. She owns the Chico Home Brew Shop in Chico, Calif., where she frequently sends home customers during October and November with pumpkin beer recipes.
For her, most pumpkin beers are almost intolerable.
“I might buy a bottle now and then, but definitely not a 6-pack,” Letner says. “Do you really want to sit and drink more than one of these spicy cinnamon bombs? For me, the answer is no. If I did want to, I’d just make a spiced tea and add a shot of alcohol.”
Sean Lilly Wilson, owner and founder of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, N.C., makes a wide array of unusual fruit and vegetable beers to celebrate the autumn–but he has chosen not to make a beer featuring the pumpkin.
“There are enough pumpkin beers in the world,” he says, adding that he doesn’t much care for the style. “They’re often so overly spiced that they’ve lost all nuances. Some of the most celebrated pumpkin beers are just too much for me.”
To make pumpkin beers, some brewers use freshly harvested pumpkins, roasted until the starches turn gooey and sweet. Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, for one, has long used the jumbo pumpkins famous for their hippo-like dimensions, if not their flavor. Half Moon Bay Brewing, on the other hand uses apple-sized sugar pie pumpkins–though Costa concedes that the variety of squash used is probably irrelevant. Other brewers use only pumpkin concentrate, rendered from cooked pumpkins and reduced to a dense, extremely sweet juice and purchased in cans. The pumpkin is added at varying stages of the brewing process, sometimes prior to boiling, other times toward the end of fermentation. Late in the process, too, the spices are added, and another pie-flavored pumpkin beer hits the shelf.
Whether you disdain pumpkin beers, simply tolerate them for a few weeks or wait all summer for them, you must give credit to Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale. Though the mild chai-tasting beer receives consistently poor reviews on beer rating forums, it was the original of what has become a wildly popular style, with almost countless examples now on the market. As of this writing, Beer Advocate’s online rating forum included no less than 529 pumpkin beers–most, if not all of them, spiced like mulled wine. And at the Great American Beer Festival, an annual fall event in Colorado, pumpkin beers occupy their very own category. Clearly, no matter the scorn felt by some critics, America loves these beers. Geoff Harries, the owner of Buffalo Bill’s since 1994, says demand continues to grow for his pumpkin ale, which is now distributed in 43 states, and he said in an interview that from October to November, the beer-drinking public goes into a state of “hyper-excitement” over pumpkin beers. Come December, though, the interest peters to a stop.
Even if you aren’t hyper-excited about pumpkin beers, it’s worth exploring the category for the oddball renditions some breweries have introduced:
- Oak Jacked, from Uinta Brewing Company, in Salt Lake City, is a sweet, deep brown ale with more than 10 percent alcohol and is aged in whiskey barrels for a creamy, vanilla-Chardonnay finish.
- New Belgium’s pumpkin beer, named Pumpkick, includes cranberry juice and lemongrass for an unusual, tart and zesty interpretation.
- Elysian Brewing Company, in Seattle, makes a well-liked pumpkin beer, too–a copper-colored imperial style named The Great Pumpkin. This brewery, in fact, has held an annual pumpkin beer festival since 2005. The event’s centerpiece is a jumbo pumpkin filled with beer and tapped like a keg.
But of the many off-center pumpkin beers available, a few stand alone as marvels of beer making. Perhaps most extreme of them all is a boozy ale called Rumpkin, from Avery Brewing Company.
“I’m one of the biggest pumpkin beer fans in the world,” says Adam Avery, the man who created this beer. As the founder of the brewery, Avery has garnered a reputation over the years for making some of the most outlandish, aggressive, almost unapproachable beers in the world. “I would drink pumpkin beers every day if I could, and it seemed weird that I had never made one before. So we thought, ‘Let’s make a pumpkin beer, and let’s make it the granddaddy of them all.’”
And unless we overlooked something grander, Rumpkin is it. The dark, cognac-like beer, which tastes of vanilla, coconut and dark chewy fruits, has been aged in rum barrels and weighs in at 18.6-percent alcohol.
Autumn is the season of abundance, diversity and color–not just pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkins–and Fullsteam Brewery, at least, seems to recognize this. The small facility, now just three years old, released a persimmon ale this fall named First Frost after the seasonal event which traditionally marks the ripening of the persimmon crop. Wilson, Fullsteam’s owner, is also getting set to brew a fig-chestnut beer, named Fruitcake, and a pawpaw beer, named Pawpaw, while a sweet potato lager, named Carver, is available year round on draft at the brewery.
None of these fall and winter beers are spiced.
“We’re not in the scented candle business,” Wilson quips. “We’re in the craft beer business. We want to let people taste the ingredients we’re using.”
As for those spicy pumpkin beers, Bostwick, for all his skepticism, gets why brewers make them like they do:
“No one wants to buy a pumpkin beer expecting it to taste like pumpkin pie and finding that it tastes like nothing.”
They’d rather, it seems, have it taste like allspice soup.
September 25, 2013
Though most people rely on commercial producers for their bread, baking one’s own at home is rather simple to do. Combined in a bowl with flour and water, dried yeast reacts marvelously, coming vigorously to life as it ferments sugars and creating a delicious balloon of gas-filled dough. Thirty minutes in the oven produces a house full of aromas and a hot, steaming loaf on the table. It’s easier, for sure, than pie. With white flour, anyway.
But using whole wheat takes things up a notch. Unlike white flour, whole wheat–like other unrefined grains–contains germ and bran. These two components bear minerals like zinc, magnesium and iron, as well as omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber. They also add a nutty array of flavors to a loaf of bread, as well as a fuller texture. Thing is, they also make life harder for bakers. For one thing, bran and germ soak up water, which can dry out a loaf and make it crumbly–and largely for this reason, bakers cannot simply substitute whole grain for white. Rather, recipes must be entirely recomposed. Germ and bran also add weight to the dough, which can impede its capacity to rise, leading to loaves almost as dense as French cobblestone. But a properly made whole wheat loaf can be surprisingly light as well as healthy to eat in ways that white bread isn’t, and if one loaf should fail, it’s worth it for the home baker to try again for that perfect honey-brown bread.
It helps to try a few basic methods. First and foremost, you must use enough water.
“Probably the most frequent mistake in baking whole wheat bread is not using enough water,” says Dave Miller, a whole wheat enthusiast and the owner of Miller’s Bakehouse near Chico, Calif. “You really need to hydrate the flour. Only then can you get really beautiful, soft bread.” White flour dough can be made with as little water as just 60 percent of the flour weight–a so-called “baker’s percentage” of 60 percent. But whole grain flour demands significantly more. Most commercial bakers use at least a 90-percent baker’s percentage of water–that is, 14.4 ounces to a pound of whole wheat flour. Miller uses even more water than that–often a 105-percent baker’s percentage. That means he uses almost 17 ounces of water to 16 ounces of flour.
And in San Rafael, Calif., Craig Ponsford, of the bakery Ponsford’s Place, goes even higher–up to 120 and even 130 percent water. “My dough is like soup when I first combine the flour and water,” says Ponsford, who makes breads and pastries with nothing but 100-percent whole grain flour. “Bread is all about the water. Water is what makes light, fluffy loaves, and in the case of whole wheat you need lots of water.”
You also don’t want to over-knead your whole wheat dough. That’s because it contains flakes of bran which can actually cut the dough like knives.
“Those will slice through the gluten strands when you’re kneading the dough,” says Jonathan Bethony-McDowell, a research baker in Washington State University’s Bread Lab, a facility used in national wheat breeding programs. This cutting action, he explains, will damage the consistency and structure of the dough and curtail its ability to rise. Anyway, an extra wet, gooey dough may be too sticky to easily knead, and a quick mix will do.
You’ll also probably have to give your whole wheat dough more time to rise than you would white dough, thanks to the heavy germ and bran particulates. But Ponsford warns that there is only so much time you can give. That is, at a certain point, a ball of dough will reach its maximum volume. Then, as the fermenting yeast continues metabolizing the sugars in the wheat, the dough stops rising and reverses. “If you let your dough over-ferment, then the gluten deteriorates, and the dough can collapse,” Ponsford explains.
So, what’s the sweet spot? The rule of thumb when using a baker’s percentage of 1 percent yeast (remember, that’s 1 percent of the flour weight) says you can let whole wheat dough rise for about three-and-a-half hours at 75 degrees Fahrenheit before it attains its maximum volume, according to Ponsford. But Ponsford usually uses one-tenth of a percent yeast. (A gram-sensitive scale would be helpful here.) Thus, the yeast takes longer to attain its full vigor–and the dough longer to reach its maximum gas capacity. Some of Ponsford’s whole wheat breads spend 36 hours rising, he says–a time span that he explains allows great development of flavor as the yeasts work on the germ, bran and endosperm. Ponsford likens these day-and-a-half breads to the great red wines of Bordeaux. Like a good Cabernet Sauvignon, he explains, such complex, long-fermented whole grain bread will last longer on the shelf and can be matched to stronger-tasting foods.
Beyond bread, those with a sweet tooth can also bake using whole grain flour. That’s what professional pastry chef Kim Boyce has been doing since 2007, after she discovered while experimenting with a recipe just how good whole wheat pancakes can be. Today, Boyce owns and operates Bakeshop, a pastry house in Northeast Portland, Ore. For Boyce, using whole grains is not about the health benefits. Rather, she believes they make better pastries, plain and simple.
“Whole grains give you a toothsome texture and a little nuttiness,” she says. “There is so much more flavor in whole grains, and that lets me pair my pastries with fruits and wines.” For cookie recipes, Boyce uses entirely whole grain flour, but for items that require some fluff, like scones and muffins, Boyce uses a 50-50 blend of white flour to whole grain flour.
Boyce says it doesn’t take a pro baker to replicate her recipes, many of which she has published in her 2010 cookbook, Good to the Grain. “People can totally do this at home,” Boyce says. For those hoping to try their own creations, Boyce advises starting with a favorite baking recipe that calls for white flour and substituting in a quarter or a half cup of whole grain flour in a one-to-one swap. Those who proceed further toward entirely whole wheat pastries must start boosting the liquid volumes, she advises, whether milk, water or cream, to accommodate the higher levels of water-grabbing germ and bran.
Whole wheat baking, clearly, takes some effort and time to do well. But whole grain proselytizers believe it’s well worth it–that the health benefits of eating whole grain flour, as well as the bonus of improved flavor, outweigh the challenges of turning it into bread. White flour, says Bethony-McDowell, at the WSU Bread Lab, is nothing but powdery white endosperm–almost entirely void of nutrition. “It’s just starch,” he says. “Ninety percent of the nutrients in whole wheat go out the door as soon as you mill it into white flour.” Monica Spiller is another advocate for whole grains–plus making them with sourdough yeast, which she and others say are good for the digestive tract. She sells heirloom seeds to farmers through her online nonprofit, the Whole Grain Connection, and she voices an increasingly supported notion that gluten intolerance is a misidentified condition.”I think gluten intolerance is actually an intolerance to refined flour,” she says. Ponsford, too, has observed this, he says, in customers at his bakery who once sometimes reported stomach aches after eating refined wheat products but who can digest his whole grain pastries and breads just fine.
The verdict may not be in yet on this health claim–but the jury, anyway, is baking good bread.Following are two recipes from the experts.
Dave Miller’s Basic Whole Wheat Bread
16 ounces whole wheat flour
16.32 ounces water (102 percent of flour weight, though extra dry flour may call for 105 percent, or 16.8 ounces, of water)
3.2 ounces sourdough starter (or, for non-sourdough, 1 tsp activated dry yeast)
0.38 ounces salt
Mix the flour with 90 percent of the water in a bowl. Let sit for 30 minutes–a lapse of time called the”autolease,” during which enzymes activate and convert starches into sugar. Next, mix the dough in an automatic mixer or by hand for several minutes. Add the remaining water, sourdough starter and salt. The dough will be very gooey–almost like batter. Allow it to sit for three hours in a bowl at room temperature. Next break apart the dough and shape into loaves. Allow 20 minutes of rising. Punch down the dough loaves and allow one more rise. After three hours, place in an oven preheated to 520 degrees F (yes–this is very hot). After 15 minutes, reduce the temperature to 470 for 20 minutes. For 15 more minutes, open the oven door a crack, which allows moisture to escape and facilitates crust formation. Remove the finished bread.
Monica Spiller’s Sourdough Starter
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
Directions: Combine half the flour and half the water in a glass jar and cover with a cloth. Stir two times per day. After about three days, the mixture should be bubbling. Using ph paper, measure the acidity. Monica Spiller suggests aiming for a ph of 3.5. Now, feed the starter half of the remaining flour and water. The ph should hit 3.5 again in slightly less time–two days, perhaps. When it does, add the remaining flour and water. This time, the increasingly vigorous starter will hit the desired ph in just eight hours. It is now ready to begin using. Always leave a portion in the jar to allow indefinite propagation. Maintaining the starter is easy. You must only remove about half of its volume every week, either to discard or (preferably) use in bread, and “feed” the starter with fresh whole wheat flour and water. If you bake less frequently, keep the starter in the fridge. Keep it covered with a cloth.
September 11, 2013
In January, a single bluefin tuna was purchased by a wealthy restaurateur in Tokyo for nearly $2 million—something of a publicity stunt yet indicative of just how much the modern sushi industry values this creature. Japanese chefs handle cuts of red bluefin flesh as reverently as Italians might a white truffle, or a French oenophile a bottle of a 1945 Bordeaux. And a single sliver of the fat, buttery belly meat, called toro, or sometimes o-toro, in Japanese, can pull $25 from one’s wallet. The bluefin, truly, is probably the most prized and valuable fish in the world.
But it wasn’t always this way. Several decades ago, the very same fish were essentially worthless worldwide. People caught them for fun along the Atlantic Coast—especially in Nova Scotia, Maine and Massachusetts—and though few ever ate their catch, they didn’t usually let the tuna go, either. During the height of the tuna sport fishing craze in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the big fish were weighed and photographed, then sent to landfills. Others were mashed up into pet food. Perhaps the best of scenarios was when dead bluefin tuna—which usually weighed at least 400 pounds—were dumped back into the sea, where at least their biomass was recycled into the marine food web. But it all amounts to the same point: The mighty bluefin tuna was a trash fish.
The beef-red flesh, many say, is smelly and strong tasting, and, historically, the collective palate of Japan preferred milder species, like the various white-fleshed fishes and shellfish still popular among many sushi chefs. Other tuna species, too—including yellowfin and bigeye—were unpopular in Japan, and only in the 19th century did this begin to change. So says Trevor Corson, author of the 2007 book The Story of Sushi. Corson told Food and Think in an interview that an increase in tuna landings in the 1830s and early 1840s provided Tokyo street vendors with a surplus of cheap tuna. The meat was not a delicacy, by any means. Nor was it even known as a food product. In fact, tuna was commonly called neko-matagi, meaning “fish that even a cat would disdain.” But at least one sidewalk sushi chef tried something new, slicing the raw meat thin, dousing it in soy sauce and serving it as “nigiri sushi.”
The style caught on, though most of the chefs used yellowfin tuna. Occasionally, chefs made use of large bluefins, and one trick they learned to soften the rich flavor of the meat was to age it underground for several days. The way Japanese diners regarded raw, ruddy fish flesh began changing. This marked a turning point in the history of sushi, Corson says—but he points out that the bluefin tuna would remain essentially unwanted for decades more.
In the early 20th century, sport fishing began gaining popularity in the United States and Canada—and few fish were more exciting to hunt than the giant bluefins that migrated about the Atlantic and passed through near-shore waters in New England and southeast Canada. In Wedgeport, Nova Scotia, interest in catching giant bluefins proliferated among wealthy boat fishermen armed with enormous, crane-like rods and reels, and in 1937, local organizers held the first International Tuna Cup Match.
The event became a festive annual gala of wealthy boatmen vying for victory. Naturally, it was also a brutal bloodfest. The 1949 event saw 72 bluefin tuna landed—the highest number ever caught in the 28-year span the derby was held. The fish were giants, averaging 419 pounds. Such exact measurement depended on subduing and killing them, and almost certainly, most were later discarded. Author Paul Greenberg writes in his 2010 book Four Fish, which profiles the bluefin as among the world’s most important seafood species, that just like the Japanese at the time, “Americans considered bluefin too bloody to eat and had no interest in bringing home their catch.”
Many—probably thousands—of enormous bluefins caught last century by sport fishermen were killed, hoisted for photographs, then either thrown out entirely or sold to processors of cat and dog food.
The dramatic turnaround began in the early 1970s. Beef had become popular in Japan, and with a national palate now more appreciative of strong flavors and dark flesh, bluefin tuna became a desired item. It was also about this time that cargo planes delivering electronics from Japan to the United States and returning home empty began taking advantage of the opportunity to buy cheap tuna carcasses near New England fishing docks and sell them back in Japan for thousands of dollars.
“Bluefin tuna is an amazing example of something we have been made to think is an authentic Japanese tradition,” Corson says. “Really, it was a marketing scheme of the Japanese airline industry.”
Corson says that advancements in refrigeration technology at about this time facilitated what was growing quickly into a new and prosperous industry. Now able to freeze and preserve all the tuna they could carry at sea, operators of huge fishing vessels were able to return home with lucrative hauls. By the time sport angler Ken Fraser caught a 13-foot-long Nova Scotia tuna in 1979 that weighed 1,496 pounds, things had changed for the bluefin. People were still killing them—but not wasting them.
Even sport fishermen often purchased commercial licenses, intending to sell what they caught to the Japanese sushi market. Giant bluefin would no longer be sent to pet food factories. The species had become a delicacy. The popularity spread back across the ocean, and soon Americans developed a taste for bluefin meat. By the 1990s, the bluefin tuna was wanted almost desperately worldwide.
The rest of the bluefin story has been told many times, but the worsening scenario mandates a quick recap: The Atlantic species has crashed from rapturous, water-thrashing abundance to scarcity. It has been estimated that a mere 9,000 adults still spawn each year in the Mediterranean. A British scientist named Callum Roberts estimated that for every 50 bluefins swimming in the Atlantic Ocean in 1940 there was just one in 2010. By most accounts, the population is down by more than 80 percent. The Pacific bluefin, smaller and genetically distinct from the Atlantic species, has fared better over the decades, but the relentless sushi industry seems to eventually catch up with all fatty, fast-swimming pelagics. Fishery scientists recently estimated the Pacific stocks to be just 4 percent of their virgin, pre-fishery biomass. Ironically, in the days when the bluefin’s value has never been higher, sport fishermen are increasingly releasingthe tuna they catch.
Corson, once a commercial fisherman himself, no longer eats bluefin.
“It’s not even that good,” he says. “It’s got this distinct, not-so-subtle, tangy iron flavor, and it melts in your mouth. This makes it very easy to like.” Too easy, that is. Corson says that “old-school sushi holdouts who are still loyal to the older version of sushi” share the same opinion. Among these diners and chefs, the melt-in-your-mouth sensation that has proved so marketable and so devastating to the bluefin tuna is considered simplistic and unsophisticated. “They consider [bluefin] toro to be sort of for amateurs,” Corson says. Instead, traditional sushi connoisseurs enjoy the often crunchier, more subtly flavored muscle tissues of animals like squid, clams, various jacks, flounder and, perhaps most of all, sea bream, or Pagrus major.
To help reveal to others the authentic history of sushi and just how gratifying it can be to eat lesser known species rather than the blubbery bluefin tuna, Corson leads regular tasting classes in New York City. “I’m trying in my own little way to show one person at a time how great traditional sushi can be,” he says. Bluefin is not on the menu at these events.
Whether the culinary world will embrace the true traditions of sushi and turn away from bluefin before the species goes commercially extinct is unclear. Corson notes that he has never seen a species go from coveted delicacy to reviled junk fish. “It’s usually a process of expansion,” he says.
Indeed, restaurant owner Kiyoshi Kimura’s purchase of a 488-pound bluefin for $1.76 million at the Tsukiji fish market this January indicates that the bluefin is more valued than ever now. We might drop our jaws at this, thinking it obscenely wasteful. And though it was similarly wasteful to grind countless big tuna, from head to tail to toro, into cat food, it does seem that the bluefin might have been better off had we just gone on regarding it as trash.
August 20, 2013
Sake plays as important a role in Japanese food culture as wine does in Europe. Polishing rice kernels into white pearls, converting their starch into sugar with a mold called koji and fermenting the sugar into alcohol has been a commercial trade for more than 2,000 years on the islands of Japan. Today, some Japanese breweries are centuries old, and the culturally ingrained knowledge, the varieties of rice and the generations of tradition embedded in Japanese sake production provide modern brewers with a rock-solid foundation upon which to base their craft.
Yet sake brewing is catching on in the United States and Canada, where there are now about a half-dozen microbreweries, plus a few mid-sized ones.
“Most American sakes are good, well made and clean tasting,” says John Gauntner, a sake educator and writer originally from Ohio and now probably the world’s most sake-savvy non-Japanese citizen. “But in Japanese sake, you tend to get more depth.”
Gauntner describes Japanese sakes as having “layers, and development, and profiles of flavor,” whereas North American sakes “tends to be more one-dimensional.” Gauntner says the lack of a variety of great, sake-specific rice cultivars in America is a major reason sake here has, sometimes, lacked in character.
But American sake is getting better. At True Sake in San Francisco, one of just four sake-only retail shops in America, owner Beau Timken says that until about three years ago the majority of American sake was “uneventful, watery, flat.” For this reason, Timken—whose shop features more than 200 labels—has never carried an American-made sake.
However, American brewers are honing their skills, he says, and it shows in their product—especially that made by the SakeOne brewery in Portland, Oregon.
“Those guys have made huge advances,” Timken says. “Of all the breweries on this continent, SakeOne is probably the best.”
SakeOne’s Momokawa brand has made the strongest impression on Timken, who plans to begin featuring it soon. Not only is Momokawa good, Timken adds; it’s also affordable—about $13 a bottle. Most imported sake, on the other hand, costs upwards of $30 per 720-milliliter bottle (a standard Japanese size).
“Sake is freaking expensive,” he says, noting, too, that the price on Japanese bottles has been escalating in recent years due to economic instability. “I need value in my shop, and that’s where the locally made sake is gaining.”
Timken also applauds Sho Chiku Bai, made in Berkeley by the Takara sake company, a satellite branch of a Japanese sake brewing corporation. A bottle of the Sho Chiku Bai “junmai classic”—Takara’s entry-level sake—goes for $6.50. The brand includes several other styles, and Timken may be selling them “down the road,” he says—but Momokawa is first in line.
Other experts have been similarly impressed by America’s expanding sake culture. Chris Johnson, a certified sake sommelier in New York City who goes by the industry nickname The Sake Ninja, notes that Japan has 2,500 years of collective sake-making experience, compared with about 25 years in the United States. Yet, “American sake is getting extremely good,” says Johnson, who also names Momokawa as the best, and most affordable, American brand available.
Another brewery of note, according to Johnson, is Moto-I, a restaurant in Minneapolis that operates like a brewpub, with draft house-made sake sold onsite. Unfortunately, the sake—an unpasteurized style called namazake—is only available to the restaurant’s patrons.
Johnson also commends the Texas Sake Company, whose bottles are currently only available within Texas but will soon be distributed in New York City. The sake produced here is very all-American, made with local rice and Texas flair. Brewer Yoed Anis uses a unique rice cultivar called shinriki, introduced from Japan to Texas in the early 1900s. Anis barely polishes the kernels before fermentation—a diversion from the traditional approach of milling away at least 30 percent, and sometimes more than 50 percent, of the rice kernel’s outer layers before brewing. The outer layers of a rice kernel contain oils and fats that can produce what some call “off flavors,” and, generally, the more milling of the rice, the cleaner-tasting—and more expensive—the sake.
“By leaving some of that outer layer of the rice, we retain the character of the rice, rather than just getting pure starch and pure sugar,” Anis explains. He adds that Japanese brewers frequently brew to a higher alcohol percentage—18 or 20—then cut it down with water, further clarifying both taste and appearance. Anis, however, brews to about 15 percent and keeps it there—no water added.
Johnson says Anis’ method makes for heavy, robust aromatics—a great complement to local cuisine.
“He’s got a really rustic flavor that pairs well to the barbecued foods of the Texas area,” Johnson says.
Another brewer, Jonathan Robinson of Ben’s American Sake in Asheville, North Carolina, has said he plans to age sake in bourbon barrels.
“That would be a very untraditional style, but it could be an amazing thing,” Johnson notes. “That flavor profile might really work well.”
But Rick Smith, who, with his wife, owns and operates the Sakaya sake shop in Manhattan, says he remains relatively unimpressed by North American sake. He has tasted countless sakes and he says those made in Japan tend to have complexity, subtleties and nuances absent in sake from America and Canada, where at least two facilities are now in operation. Like Timken at San Francisco’s True Sake, Smith has never carried an American brand. But unlike Timken, Smith has no plans to start carrying them. Smith believes that North American brewers lack the collective knowledge and the quality of ingredients necessary to making great sake.
“American sake is in its infancy,” he says. “To compare it to Japanese sake is like comparing an embryo to a fully grown adult.” Smith says American and Canadian brewers regularly offer him samples to taste—and he is open to the possibility that, someday, one of them “will walk in here with a sake that amazes me.”
Sake is a beverage with a unique set of flavor components. SakeOne recently produced a copyrighted sake-tasting aroma wheel—a concept innovated years ago as a vocabulary-inducing tool for wine tasting. Listed around the perimeter of the sake wheel are such aromas and flavors as steamed rice, wet leaves, pine, green tea, celery, hay and ginger. Many newcomers to sake, Timken points out, don’t like the stuff at first taste.
“Sake is like tequila that way,” he says. “Everyone has had a bad one, and instead of saying, ‘Sake isn’t for me,’ you need to give it a second chance.”
So, what style should one serve to a party of sake skeptics? Timken suggests going with a nigori sake, that aromatic style often served in sushi bars, unfiltered and cloudy white. “Nigori is easy, sweet and creamy,” he says. “Everyone loves it.”
And if you want a deal, buy American. Timken recommends the nigori sakes from Sho Chiku Bai. Momokawa also makes a nigori.
“But nigori is really just a stepping stone to filtered sake, which is drier, more complex and subtle,” Timken adds.
Johnson says he is open to the idea of sake-based cocktails—often called “sake-tinis”—as a vehicle for introducing the concept and flavors of sake to newcomers. The goal, of course, is to have them eventually drinking pure, unadulterated sake. Smith, meanwhile, suggests going big and knocking a newbie’s socks off with the Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo. A bottle of this clean and clear Japanese sake is $37, which Smith says “is relatively inexpensive for top-of-the-line sake.”
He adds, “And if you pay $100 for a bottle, you’ll get something really amazing.”
August 2, 2013
In the fog-drenched lumber and fishing country of the Pacific Northwest, beer—hearty, rich and warming—occupies as natural a role in the local culture as rifles and chain saws, pickup trucks and crab traps, eggs, coffee and bacon. Homebrewing of beer is as popular here as almost anywhere else in the United States. Some of the best breweries in America—including Deschutes, Rogue, Full Sail and North Coast—are based in the Northwest, and such classic styles as the Double IPA and barrel-aged ales have thrived and evolved under the influences of local thirsts and creativity. So, how could I resist starting a fresh game of Find the Beer while cycling from Southeast Alaska to California? Now, five bottles of beer dwell in rock holes and guardrails between Prince of Wales Island and the Humboldt County redwoods. You may know the rules by now: Go find one of the stashed bottles, replace it with one of your own choosing, and let us know in the comment box below. Game on!
Prince of Wales Island, Alaska; Midnight Sun Brewing Company’s Kodiak Brown Ale. If you are ever headed to a town called Thorne Bay, or Whale Pass, or Port Protection, you will probably pass along Highway 929, a small, quiet strip of asphalt through the wilderness of Prince of Wales Island. If you like beer, you have no excuse not to stop. The shoulder is wide, so pull over at mile marker 13. In the rock pile on the west side of the road, the brown ale from Midnight Sun Brewing Company lurks. See the accompanying photo for details.
Tokeland, Washington; Pyramid Thunderhead IPA. Out on this remote section of coast, one finds fog, salt, surf and lumber trucks. There is also a brand new microbrewery by the road, operated out of the Cranberry Road Winery. Stop in for a friendly pint as you cycle south. But don’t lose track of the miles. Several miles south of Tokeland, immediately across from mile marker 14 on Highway 105, in the ocean-break rock wall, dwells a beer. It’s an IPA from Pyramid. See the photo for the precise location, and make a creative bottle swap.
Reedsport, Oregon; Rogue Ales Mocha Porter. The Rogue brewery is a popular pit stop for cyclists on the coast of Oregon—especially, perhaps, those who have just pedaled 100 miles and have plans to camp at the nearby South Beach State Park. Don’t have time for a visit to the brewery itself? For you, I’ve stashed a bottle of Rogue’s Mocha Porter in the very end of the west-side guardrail along Highway 101, just 50 yards north of mile marker 205. This is roughly seven miles north of the decaying, salty town of Reedsport and is an easy pick-up for a cyclist riding south.
Gold Beach, Oregon; Full Sail Pale Ale. This is perhaps not the most inspiring or dramatic ale, and I wouldn’t stop in a grocery store to buy it. Thing is, if you’re cycling Highway 101, it’s free at the side of the road. The Full Sail Pale Ale lies at the 500-foot summit of the long, slow climb just south of Gold Beach. The beer is in the guardrail, about 100 yards south of the T-junction with Herman Road. Take the bottle and leave another.
Avenue of the Giants, in Humboldt Redwoods State Park; Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale. In our last game of Find the Beer, based mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, I stashed a bottle of this high-alcohol ale in an oak tree near Sonoma—and one of our readers stole it. A noble beer hunter (the man who reported the theft) nonetheless placed a new beer in the raided hole, but the loss of the Lagunitas brew was discouraging. So I’ve reintroduced the beer to the game by burying a bottle of the same beer in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Among giant trees standing 300 feet tall, the beer lies right behind the wooden sign (east side of the highway) reading “Residents of Massachusetts Grove,” several miles south of Weott.
They’re Still There: I recently checked on a beer that I hid in June near Mendocino, California. An oatmeal stout from Anderson Valley, it has not been touched and remains as I left it in the highway guardrail. Of course, there are other beers, too, from prior rounds of Find the Beer. In the Dordogne of France, in Bordeaux, in the Pyrenees and in the San Francisco Bay Area, more than a dozen bottles lie stashed. Pull over and find the beer!