See Sake Drinkers in the U.S.!
the 1st Tasting Event of “Bay Area Sake Tasting”

Written by Saki Kimura
Translated by Saki Kimura & Ken Ko

In Japan, sake fans often get together with their favorite bottles to hold tasting (drinking) parties. What about in America? You’ve never heard that there are sake tasting clubs, even if you know many wine ones in contrast. You wonder if there are any sake enthusiasts around you. Sake is still something to drink in restaurants, and most people neither buy them at the store nor drink them at home….

If you don’t know of any, that is because you’ll have to create on your own! That’s why we established a community for sake drinkers in the Bay Area of California called “Bay Area Sake Tasting (BAST)”. The first tasting event was held on a certain day in January 2020.

Planning a Tasting Event is a Lot of Work!

The first thing you need to do when doing a tasting event is to find a venue.
Japan is full of convenient rental spaces, but the U.S. has strict restrictions on alcohol, so finding a place where you can drink freely can be a challenge.

It took us over a month to find the place after I started looking for it in October.
Because of the complexity of the alcohol rules in this country, we prioritized to avoid troubles for the first event and decided to invite:
 (1) A smaller group of people
 (2) Only those in the sake industry who are familiar with the handling of alcohol
Finally, six members gathered together for the event.

A Sake Test to be the Sake Expert Assessor!

Before trying the sake that everyone brought, one of the participants, Yosuke Kawase, the Brewmaster of the Gekkeikan USA, gave us aan educational and fun activity using our sake tasting abilities.
Yosuke is one of 129 of the Sake Expert Assessors certified by NRIB (National Research Institute of Brewing). On this day, he offered to let us experience a part of the certification test using the samples that he had made.

We challenged ourselves to compare three samples from A to C to find the one that tasted different from the others. We tried three groups of each “sweet” samples and “sour” ones.

“Hmm… I’m getting confused.”
“Hey! That spit cup is mine!”

Some confusion happened, but everyone was serious about the test tasting! We wrote our answers on the sheets.

Finally, Yosuke announced the correct answer. Jesse, the founder of the distributor Fifth Taste and I got all the answers correct! Other members missed one or two, resulting in a closing game – yes, BAST should consist of the young aces of the sake industry!

Blind Tasting to Remove Preconceptions

After the fun test tasting challenge, we started tasting the sake brought by each member.

There is a rule that each member should conceal their sake’s label. It is not a quiz to guess the brand or category, just to remove prejudice and approach the taste of sake with an open mind.

The first presenter is KJ, a wine and sake sommelier who had just returned from Japan (See the link for her article about the trip!).

“Easy to drink”
“Tastes like yogurt”
“The ABV should be lower”

This sake is Mimurosugi Dio Abita by Imanishi Shuzo (@Nara). Its ABV is 13%, lower than the average of sake’s alcohol proof (15-16%). 

“They add water to the moromi slowly and in small amounts over time so ‘the moromi doesn’t notice.’ That’s how it’s a genshu (undiluted sake) with 13% alcohol and the water isn’t added at the end,” KJ explained the interesting brewing method that attracted her.

Next, Alex, who works for the distributor company NA Sales poured sake for everyone.

I could hear tasting comments like “Light” “Strawberry cream” “Tastes like a kind of spice,” then they started guessing its category: “It should be Junmai Ginjo” (Yosuke), “No, it’s Tokubetsu Junmai!” (Jesse) – Hey, it’s not a quiz!

This sake is Sasamasamune Tokubetsu Junmai by Sasamasamune Brewery (@Fukushima)
Jesse, who guessed right, did a high-five with Alex. 
(In fact, Yosuke’s answer is also correct, as its rice polishing ratio is 60%…)

The third presenter is Mei, Manager of the San Francisco’s sake store True Sake.

Smells of sotolon, like the aroma of caramel,” Yosuke said. “Is it aged?” “Lactic” “Green apple” “Vanilla”… comments sound disparate. What on earth is this?

This is Aramasa Rokugo Tokubetsu Junmai by Aramasa Brewery (@Akita)!
Mei bought this five years ago, but couldn’t open it because Aramasa’s products became unavailable here – they stopped exporting to the U.S.

After that, Jesse for Fifth Taste served his sake.

It has an impactful rich flavor: members commented: “Mushroomy” “Buttery” “Toasted nuts” “Soy sauce.” When I said “I like to warm it up,” everyone agreed “Sounds good!”

This sake is Juji-Asahi Junmai Genshu by Asahi Brewery (@Shimane), whose Brewery Year is 2015 and ABV is 18-19%. That makes sense with everyone’s comment.

Finally, I poured three mini bottles for everyone.

“Is this nama (unpasteurized)?”
“It tastes like toffee…”
“This flavor is pretty unique.”
They seemed confused, feeling something different.

Actually, I brought the bottles that I purchased at the various North American breweries where I visited last autumn: Arizona Sake from Holbrook, Artisan Sake Maker and YK3 Sake Producer from Vancouver in Canada.

All of the breweries were established by Japanese people. I’ll share more about the detailed episodes of each brewery and the taste of sake in the articles to be published on SakeTips!

Two Objectives of BAST

In the end, KJ served a ginjo sake by Japan’s Gekkeikan as a surprise for Yosuke, then our first event ended with a great deal of excitement and tipsiness.

It is interesting that none of the bottles that the members brought were available around the Bay Area currently. As you would expect from members who work in the U.S. sake industry, the line-up was kind of geeky.

Also, every time they tasted each sake, KJ, Alex, and Jesse would ask Yosuke too many questions! When he explained from the standpoint of a brewer and the Sake Expert Assessor, they seemed very impressed and said, “Let’s go to Gekkeikan for the tour next time!”

BAST has two objections:
 1) To strengthen the bond between businesses in the US sake industry
 2) To create a network of “drinkers” in the US

When you’re doing business in the market as small as 1% of the wine market, it’s easy for other companies to rival each other as “competitors,” which can lead to negative things like hiding information and discourages success each other.
We are the ones who will fight together to expand the sake market. We hope that the event will strengthen the bonds between young people in the American sake market: I actually could feel the signs of this.

On the other hand, as I explained about the severity of the rules and regulations of alcoholic beverages in the US, there are still challenges to achieve the goal of creating a network of drinkers.
The members who gathered this time were all from the industry and had professional knowledge. We would like to work on more events involving general sake consumers in the future.

Although our second tasting event scheduled in April has to be postponed due to the lockdown for COVID-19, we will keep reporting our events next time. Who will be joining the event and what kind of sake will be coming out? Look forward to our updates!