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Collaboration with Sake Nomi: Celebrating Sake Culture

Posted July 5, 2022

Collaboration with Sake Nomi

Today I want to share with you my new friendship with Jonnie and Taiko, the owners of Sake Nomi, the sake bar in Seattle that is central to many sake fans in the northwest and worldwide. Jonnie, Taiko and I all deeply appreciate fermented drinks and the vessels we drink them from, so we all felt the positive energy from our first meeting. I am delighted to invite you to celebrate Sake Nomi’s 15th anniversary on Saturday, June 18th, from 3pm to 7pm. As we celebrate the anniversary of their iconic bar, it will also be my honor to feature my ceramic sake carafes and tableware. I believe that the multiple phase process of sake preparation, amplified by the sensitivity to the drink’s temperature, have engendered an appreciation for the unique aesthetics of the cups and bottles of the sake set. Generations of brewing and of ceramic artistry have created a tradition of sake drinkware with a broad spectrum of styles, shapes, and glazes, including sculptural organic shapes, geometric shapes, expressive glazes, and finely decorated surfaces. I too have found the sake set to be a wonderful stage for expression with clay and local wood ash glaze. Each handmade bottle and its accompanying cup in the set bring to the experience of drinking sake a special moment not only in time, but also in space, with references to landscapes and materials sourced in the local northwest woods.

History of Sake

I’d like to tell you a little about the refined fermented drink we call sake. Rice is the main fermentable ingredient used to brew sake. The technique of fermenting rice into an alcoholic drink was developed in ancient China and arrived in Japan, along with rice cultivation, around 2500 years ago. In Japanese, the word, “sake,” originally meant the rice-based beverage of the gods we’ve come to know and love. However, as different alcoholic beverages became more widely available in Japan, the term came to mean alcoholic drinks in general. Outside of Japan, the term is still used to describe our premium Japanese drink of choice. Although fermenting rice began in the 5th century BCE, the first written record of the existence of sake in Japan came much later in the 3rd century, when a Chinese document stated, “People in Japan drink sake. They drink it in groups when they are mourning.” Until the 8th century only the privileged class had access to the drink, mostly the imperial court, and at that time the use of mold was documented. By the 10th century, sake brewing was governed by the imperial court. High ranks enjoyed a rich-flavored, clear sake. The lower classes could only access an unrefined, murky kind of sake. The sake was drunk in the summer with ice cubes, or occasionally heated in a special pot, and accompanied by dried fish, dried shellfish, salt, and miso on the side. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, as the governing power moved from the imperial court to the shogunate, the sake brewing itself moved from the court to the religious shrines, where most of the refinement methods were developed. In the 16th century, skilled carpentry brought giant wooden pails into production and industrialized the process. Pasteurization was then added, 300 years before the discoveries of Louis Pasteur. In 1603 the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan and presided over 265 years free from war. During this period, the art of making sake, like many other arts, enjoyed growth and expansion. Local industries became brands and sake was served in restaurants in the big cities such as Edo (Tokyo today) and Osaka. In the 20th century, during the Second World War, rice shortages affected sake consumption. However, the post-war growth boosted sake consumption, resulting in the building of mass production breweries. A grading system was introduced in 1943. From the 1990s sake production decreased, until a new trend of “crafted” sake was developed around 2010, in a trend similar to that of “craft beer” in our northwest region. The custom of heating sake in Japan originated in China and was tied to the belief that eating with a warm drink was healthier. Long ago, before technological advances allowed high-grade sake production, many strange, musty flavors and earthy odors were likely to be found in sake. Early drinkers must have been happy to discover that heating the brew https://www.inferment.com/shop/fermenting-crocks/could eliminate many of these flaws. But modern premium sake distilleries have upgraded the brewing to a long and slow process at the lowest possible temperature to create distinctive flavors and aromas. To heat up the result of their labors – during which the painstakingly cultivated bouquet evaporates – would be an affront to their craft and a terrible waste. Sake lovers generally drink it cold to better appreciate the delicate flavors and aromas. Some enjoy a light and gentle heating of the drink in the autumn and winter. The drink’s temperature is a subtlety to which sake lovers tune in and enjoy the differences.

Sake Brewing Process

Sake brewing begins with polishing the rice, then washing and soaking in water. The rice is then blasted with steam to get a proper consistency for the Koji, the cultured rice mold. Once the rice has been steamed multiple fermentation agents are added: first is the Koji, which is often called the heart of the sake brewing process. This process takes place in a special room where the temperature and humidity are strictly controlled. Koji is steamed white rice onto which the koji-kin (koji mold) has been cultivated. This mold works its way into the rice grains, releasing enzymes as it does, to convert starch to sugar (a process known as saccharification). Later, yeast will be added to convert the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide during fermentation. Yeast will work with the koji to convert sugar to alcohol, but a small tank with a high concentration of yeast cells must be prepared for the yeast cells to survive in the bacteria-laden atmosphere. To do this, koji, steamed rice, and water are mixed in a small vat, and a culture of pure yeast cells are added to this mixture. In addition, a small amount of lactic acid is usually added at this stage to protect the yeast cells from airborne bacteria. Over the next two to three weeks, the koji breaks down the starches in the rice to provide food for the yeast cells. The yeast cells, in turn, rapidly multiply until the mixture is stable enough to have larger amounts of koji, steamed rice, and water added to it. After the fermentation, the mash is pressed, filtered, and pasteurized. The result is the Japanese drink so many have grown to love.

Explore Handcrafted Sake Sets

Please join me at the party at Jonnie and Taiko’s beautiful bar in Pioneer Square, Seattle. You can find Sake bottles brewed by Japanese families from the 16th century or Sake made in modern distilleries, and when you buy a cup, you will get a taste of sake in it! Kanpai (Cheers)!