Japan’s ancient national beverage has bright future in US

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Sake is a simple beverage made of rice, water, yeast and a special mold enzyme known as koji.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Japan’s national beverage — sake — dates back millennia but it’s making a splash in the 21st century.

Sake (pronounced “sa-keh”) is a staple of Japanese cuisine and culture. It’s known in the U.S. as a “rice wine” but there’s more to it than meets the eye.

As Steve Vuylsteke, the president and CEO of Japanese sake importer SakeOne, puts it, “There are these misconceptions of what sake is and what it’s not.”

Sake is a unique fusion of the familiar.

“Because we are fermenting grain rather than fruit, we produce it like beer but you actually drink it like wine,” said Vuylsteke.

Sake is a simple beverage made of rice, water, yeast and a special mold enzyme known as koji but brewing it to perfection is an art form that Vuylsteke says is “not so forgiving.”

Vuylsteke has made nearly two dozen trips to Japan over the last decade to learn about the country’s culture, which he describes as hospitable and respectful. Sake is at the center of ceremonies, gift-giving and shared meals with friends.

“You pour for everyone but you don’t pour for yourself. Someone else then takes it and pours for you,” Vuylsteke said.

While it’s Japan’s national beverage, records of sake brewing date back to 500 B.C. in China.

“But the Japanese took a hold of it and really made it their own,” said Vuylsteke.

The “magic ingredient” that’s key to the brewing process is koji. Koji is added to rice and turns the starch in each grain to glucose, which paves the way for fermentation. The technique was pioneered in the eighth century during Japan’s Nara Period and led to nihonshu traditionally served warm in ochokos.

“There’s actually seven different temperatures that sake is served at depending on the season, the occasion,” said Vuylsteke.

Ginjo and dai-ginjo sakes are served chilled. Vuylsteke described these as fruitier, higher quality. They’re also more palatable to some, leading to the creation of a new consumer base in recent years.

“Sake sales are growing in the United States at nearly twice the growth of wine,” said Vuylsteke.

But in Japan, sake’s popularity has dwindled. Over the past two decades, the country has seen the number of breweries shrink from nearly 10,000 to roughly 1,200.

“Sake is sort of perceived as the older generation’s drink,” Vuylsteke said. “The Japanese government is doing things now to enhance and encourage sake education around the globe.”

It’s a mission importers like SakeOne are supporting by helping to make each sip taste less otherworldly and more like home.