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Restaurants & Bars 12

"Crackling Fresh" Sake Tasting with Bryan Harrell and Fred Eckhardt

Rochelle | Aug 9, 200305:38 PM

Tiny Tokoyo-inspired Midori Mushi (465 Grove near
Gough, 503-1337) was packed to overflowing with curious sake (sah-KAY) chowhounds, for the most part novices, tho we'd all been admonished to visit to educate ourselves about sake itself as well as the entire sake making process from the choosing of the most vital ingredients, water and rice, thru the addition of the koji spores and the filtration process.

Bryan Harrell, a visiting Tokoyo chowhound, beer writer and sake veteran tag teamed sharing information about our tasting with the first American to write about sake, Fred Eckhardt, a well reknowned sake expert who even produces his own sake, which he refers to as
"beer" in his home basement. Between the two of them we got an incredible education.

In all we tasted 8 fresh, chilled Japanese sakes, 2 American sakes and 2 Traditional Japanese Spirits. And miraculously enough no one stumbled out the door!

We began with mystery tasting, filtered and pasturized, a product of a large producer. The comments on this sake were quite varied from those who thought it quite tasty to those who would pass on it.

The second sake we tasted was a Shochikubai Junmai Dai-Ginjo, made in Tokoyo, filtered and pasturized, produced by a large sake company, as had been the first.

When asked by Bryan to compare the two sakes the first was described as : sour, old smelling, mild and creamy and very milled (a process vital to sake making whereby the outer shell of the grain is polished off, sometimes as much as 35%, this produces a cleaner, more complex product), other terms shared were hi-grade, pinetree, bamboo and apricot.

The second sake, produced in Dec. of 2002, with a 35% mill and 15-16% alcohol (all information routinely displayed along with protien and acid content on Japanese labels) was described as fruity, with apricoty undertones, one taster described it as "technically good, but without much personality".

The joke was on us. The first bottle tasted cost $5.69 and came from a local producer in Berkeley. The second bottle, costing the equivilent of $80 was presented in a wooden box lined with purple satin, and as Bryan noted a very proper gift in Japan. Interesting how the crowd was split on the qualities of these two sakes. The first being made with table rice, the second with highly polished prized sake rice.

Our third sake from the town of Akita was produced in March of this year, making it very fresh, a quality sought after in sake, which should always be kept refrigerated to maintain it's peak qualities. Called Mansaku no Hana Dai-Ginjo it was unfiltered and unpasturized, part of a limited edition by the brewer. The rice had been milled to 45% and contained 16.8% alcohol.

It was served with delightfully beautiful and unusual gently pickled tiny baby daikon, minute sprouts of leaves topping each slender, white vegetable. what a delight to use the wooden roughly hewn chopsticks to hold the petite tastes. Even the chopstick holders were special, my companion and mine being reminiscent of minute dutch clogs with a velvety finish.

This sake proved to be the favorite of many, called both robust and finishing with a sparkle. A brewers selection made in a very small facility in limited production with handwritten labels. This sake would cost the equilivent of about $28 a bottle here.

Our fourth sake, Hana Tomoe Junmai Dai-Ginjo from the town of Nara had been produced in June of this year, was both filtered and pasturized and more refined, being made with the high grade Yamada Nishiki rice (as were the second and third), this milled to 35%, with alcohol between 16-17%.

It was accompanied with a dainty salad of higiki seaweed, thinly shaved shitake mushrooms, a few edamame and a showing of scallion.
The salad highlighted the qualities of the sake, said to be not as sweet as the sake from Akita, finishing smoothly and tight on the palate. This sake would retail for between $20-25 here in the States.

The fifth sake, blue bottled, happened to be both my and Bryan's favorite. Made from an older, homier variey of rice, Omachi, which was 49% milled, had tones of licorice and cotton candy, and wasn't as complex as some of the earlier tasted sakes and was somewhat sweet tho not cloying. Bryan's suggestion for a food pairing was with salty foods, saying they complemented each other beautifully. Called Maihime Junmai Ginjo and made in the town of Nagano it was unfiltered and unpasturized with an alcohol content of 15-16%. My companion thought the sweetness would be a lovely complement to a light chilled fruit dessert such as a Pavlova or Pithiviers.

Another contender in the favorite catagory was the sixth sake, Okuharima Junmai Ginjo made in Hyogo. Another unfiltered, unpasturized sake (do I see a pattern forming here?) that was released in Feb. of this year, tho it had been produced in 2001 season. The level of alcohol in this bottling was much higher, between 17-18%.

The bamboo platters that arrived at our tables with this sake were dainty pictures of the chef's art. Ashai, also known as horsemakarel from Japan sat fresh, and clear with edges of pink atop petite pickled Japanese cucumbers with a tiny touch of spicy red pepper, lovely, cleansing flavors to take us onto the description of this sake.

The aging of the sake had the effect of bringing out sherry-like qualities, also the tiniest bit of salt. The aging having to do with the higher alcohol content as well. One chowhound was heard to say, "It's a taste one could get drunk acquiring."

Our next taste sensation was another delicate salad, again presented on beautiful plates, this one made of sauteed gobu, also known as burdock root, the thinnest juliened raw snow peas and bonita flakes.

Onto sake number seven, and with a great sense of conviviality overcoming the crowd we tasted Watari-bune Junmai Ginjo produced in the town of Ibaraki, an unfiltered and unpasterized version produced in June of this year. and made with a special rice grown locally, milled to 45%, with an alcohol content of 16-17%. The bottle was wrapped in the local sports section of the newspaper, not only to protect it from light, but also to help with temperature fluctuations, as well as perhaps reflect the brewmasters interests. It was our favorite look in a bottle. Flavors tended toward those of tropical fruit, with the definite characteristics of high alcohol, including a sourness in the front of the mouth.

Our luxurious treat from the kitchen with this sake was a platter with perfect shiso leaves topped with minute bites of baby hamachi topped with a tiny square of perfectly ripe mango. Another palate cleanser and perfect foil to our tasting.

Sake number eight, made in Osaka in April of this year was manufactured by Akishika Yamahai, and again was unfiltered and unpasturized with an alchol content the highest yet at 18-19% and also the highest milled rice we've encountered so far at 60%, made by an old fashioned method called Yamahai, which begins with a slow but good fermentation, taking the alcohol to 21-22%. The acid ( at 2% is higher than normal), which the Japanese labels show play an important part in this fermentation, as the acid is an integral part of the alcohol formation. Water is added at the end of firmentation to bring the alcohol down to the desired amount.

Our next sake was donated to the tasting by Bob Kantor of Memphis Minnies (576 Haight), a great believer in the matching of good barbecue and good sake. Kamoizumi Junmai Nigori, made in Hiroshima, was unfiltered and unpasturized and produced in May of this year. This type of sake known as "genshu", which means undiluted, has an alcohol content of 18.1%. It's characteristics were that it was cloudy, and like a white zinfandel a bit effervescent when first opened.

This sake was served with Japanese seabring snapper served simply with coarse salt and sancho, also known as prickly ash, a peppery like bud that had also been ground coarsely.

Our last sake was home brewed by Fred Eckhardt himself, served from what appeared to be a recylced brown beer bottle. Since there wasn't enough to serve everyone 10 lucky chowhounds participated in a quick auction for a petite serving of this special brew. It was described as fruity, smooth, with multiple fruits showing and quite a smooth finish.

And then more food! Thinly sliced beautifully brown outlined king oyster mushrooms that had been marinated, grilled with secret spices and tossed in the tiniest hint of sesame oil. Beautiful smoky flavor.

As a bonus we were treated to two traditioanl Japanese spirits, the first "One hundred years of solitude", Hyakunen no Kodoku made in Miyazaki. Sho-chu (spirit), a very traditionally tasting scotch like liquor made of 100% barley malt, 40% alcohol. In Bryan's notes are the words off the bottle: "When you hear the music, after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again." --Eric Dolphy

This delightful (to my taste) spirit was followed by yet more tidbits from the kitchen, this time fresh untreated scallops served with sunsai or mountian vegetables, a bowl of mixed cooked greens with delightful flavor.

Our last taste of the night was Mizuho Awamori "Koshu", with an alcohol percent of 43. Bryan describes this as being a Chinese influenced spirit as the area from which it comes has close ties with the Chinese. It was described as having a new tennis shoe nose, and being reminiscent of paint thinner.

And yes, there was yet more food! Parquet cuts of rice cakes served on platters topped with shiso and garlic marinated and dried bonito and kelp, which had been shredded and placed in small triangles on top of the rice cake.

There is so much to learn about sake! I suggest really taking a good read thru for an introduction, then looking for works by Tokoyo based writed John Gautner whose book, "The Sake Handbook" is most specifically about sake in Tokoyo but very educational and available at Kinokuniya Books in Japantown.

For those of us seeking a "hashigo" experience in San Francisco (the Japanese practice of pub crawling from sake bar to sake bar in which people of both sexes and all ages participate in) Bryan makes several specific suggestions. But before you begin he suggests you familiarize yourself with what to ask and look for by doing some reading on the subject.

And remember, it's craft brewed sake you're after.

In order of your crawl Bryan suggests:

1. Hana Zen, 156 Ellis, 421, 2101, a combo sushi bar and yakatori, with which he suggests a Bishonen or Oyama.

2. California-Asia, 301 Folsom, 882-1863, a fusion restaurant. Recommended drinks are the Hatsuhana or if you prefer a sake cocktail a Jewel Box.

3. Sushi on North Beach, 745 Columbus, 788-8050. His Favorite sakes here are Katsu-san and Yamagata.

4. Osome, 3145 Fillmore, 931-8898, sushi as well as other Japanese food. The sake treats here are Shirakawa Junmai Ginjo Nigori and Niwa-no-ugisu-daruma.

5. Juban, 1581 Webster, 776-5822, a Japanese style Korean barbecue. Nihonjyo and Karatamba are the two sakes to try here.

6. Ace Wasabi, 3339 Steiner, 567-4903, a place to, as Bryan puts it, "PAAAAARTY", funky sushi rolls are their speciality. They have "a formidible" selection of craft brewed sakes, as well as infused sakes, sake cocktails, and a frat house reminiscent sake punch. Definitely a
20's hang out which can be checked out live online at if you want to see what's going on at the moment.

So, all in all it was an incredibly educational night, with delicious sake, delightfully different and fresh food and wonderful hosts.

Many thanks to Bryan and Fred for their expertise and generosity, We raised $700 in goodwill contributions for the expenses of Chowhound, and we're thankful to the two of them for not only educating us but for giving us a reason to get out and support our favorite site. Many thanks.

And Fred Eckhardt has said he'd be happy to share home sake brewing techniques with anyone interested. He gave out his email address at the tasting but I can't seem to find it so I hope someone else will jump in with it.

I'd also like to thank the other Rochelle, Ms. Mc Cune for making the effort to organize the evening for us. It was definitely a success and I for one appreciate her efforts. Thanks.


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