Is saké produced in the U.S. as good as saké produced in Japan? Does the question require more specificity? Or is it even a fair question?
After my recent visit
In addition, it almost seemed that Blake possessed a preconceived bias against American saké which colored his judgment. Before posting his article, Blake stated his general rule is "Domestic saké is not as good as Japanese saké." Considering how he ignored certain key aspects of the original question, presented very limited evidence, and seemingly tailored his post in an attempt to prove his assertion, it certainly seems like bias was likely involved. It is telling as well that within the article, he even stated "...this piece is already mean enough."
To start, Blake's article addressed only one specific example, SakéOne, while there are six other producers of Saké in the U.S. (though one of those did not exist at the time of his article). Though he claimed to have tasted other domestic saké, he did not indicate which breweries that included and did not indicate whether he has tasted saké from all of the breweries or not. Plus, he did not indicate when he tasted saké from the other domestic producers, which is another important factor. Blake's article made grand conclusions based on a single example, SakéOne, and failed to indicate that any or all of the other U.S. sakés breweries engaged in similar practices. It is clearly improper to make a general conclusion based on a single example.
Before I delve more deeply into specifics, I want to provide some context and history on saké production in the U.S., which Blake failed to address in his article. In fact, a saké brewery in a U.S. territory had a significant impact on the entirety of the Japanese saké brewing industry. Even if you dislike the saké that is currently being produced in the U.S., you cannot ignore the Japanese saké industry's great debt to the U.S.
It is thought that saké first came to the U.S. around 1885 when Japanese immigrants, working on sugar plantations in Hawaii, brought some with them. Within a few years or so, saké became a more readily available import. But, around 1898, saké imports dropped drastically when a 600% import duty was imposed upon it, part of an effort to discourage immigration. Into this picture came Tajiro Sumida, who immigrated to Hawaii in 1899 when he was 16 years old. Nine years later, he opened a saké brewery in Hawaii, the Honolulu Saké Brewery, which is said to be the first saké brewery established outside of Japan.
Initially, the endeavor was a disaster as the high temperatures ruined the saké so Sumida had to develop a method of refrigeration to protect his production. This succeeded and by 1914, Sumida was producing about 300,000 gallons of saké. Sumida actually was on the cutting edge of developing and refining technology for sake production. His was the first saké brewery to use stainless steel tanks and the first to brew saké year round. He devised a method to use California rice as well as refining the use of foamless yeasts. These important technological developments were later embraced by the Japanese saké industry.
Maybe 15 or so other saké breweries opened in California during the early 1900s, but they did not last long and little is known about them. The Honolulu Sake Brewery lasted for 80 years, finally closing in 1988, having weathered Prohibition and World War II. It would not be until the late 1970s that new saké breweries would open in the U.S., and seven saké breweries currently exist in the U.S., including the following:
Ozeki Saké US
Japanese saké brewing has about 2000 years of history, but the modern saké industry in the U.S. really started only about 32 years ago. Is it fair then to compare the two industries with such drastically different amounts of experience? It is only fair if you factor the varying experience levels into your answer. Plus, the U.S. saké industry is still very small, with only seven breweries, as opposed to the 1200-1400 saké breweries that now exist in Japan, so there is not much to compare to at this point. Within the U.S., it is still a young and tiny industry so we must consider that fact into our assessments too.
Blake pointed to two specific factors, water and rice, which he stated were are the reasons why American saké is inferior to Japanese saké. He indicated that SakéOne uses tap water and table rice but failed to provide any evidence that the other U.S. saké breweries did the same. Based on Blake's post, it appears that the water and rice issue is a new revelation to him, which would seem to indicate he did not know the source of the water and rice used by other U.S. saké breweries. Without that evidence, any conclusions drawn from the single example of SakéOne can only apply to SakéOne and not the U.S. saké industry as a whole. So Blake's sweeping conclusions about the entire U.S. saké brewing industry must fail.
As to the water, Blake indicated SakéOne uses tap water but failed to explain why that created inferior saké. The brewers of Momokawa thought Oregon water would work well for saké, and Oregon water is often cited as being very pure. In addition, SakéOne uses a multiple filtration system to remove unwanted microbes and such. So what exactly is wrong with the water used by SakéOne? Is it too hard? Does it contain too much iron? Simply stating it is tap water is an insufficient indictment without supporting details. In addition, some Japanese saké uses tap water, and not pure natural springs or rivers, so does that make those sakés inferior as well?
As to the rice, Blake indicated that SakéOne uses eating rice, table rice, rather than saké rice. Once again, Blake failed to explain why table rice leads to inferior saké. I know the differences between table rice and saké rice, but the average person will not have a clue. Though Blake did not mention it, there is a strain of Calrose being produced that is made to be closer to saké rice, with a larger shinpaku, the center pocket of starch. In addition, the simple fact is that most Japanese saké is made from table rice rather than saké rice, something which Blake also failed to mention. So Blake cannot simply state U.S. sake is inferior because it uses table rice when so much Japanese saké also uses it.
As grapes are to wine so is rice to saké, yet there is a significant difference. It is said that 80% of a wine is due to the grapes and 20% to the production while saké is the opposite, with only 20% attributable to the rice and 80% to production. So, the type of rice is less important, especially in experienced hands. As experience is so important, that is a reason why the U.S. saké industry is still in its infancy. It needs more time to grow, experiment, develop and evolve. So, why would anyone think that U.S. saké can currently compete with the best sakés of Japan? It makes little sense. It would be like expecting Cabernet/Merlot blends from Long Island to compete with First Growth Bordeaux.
But that does not mean that Blake's rule, "Domestic saké is not as good as Japanese saké," is valid as a generalization. In fact, I believe there are U.S. sakés which can be as good, and potentially better, than approximately 75% of Japanese sakés. As a starting point, you must realize that about 75% of the saké produced in Japan is futsu-shu, ordinary saké, which is not considered to be premium saké, also known as tokutei meishoshu, or "special designation saké." Futsu-shu is often mass produced, cheap saké, though there are some good quality ones too. But nearly all futsu-shu is made from table rice and most probably is also made with tap water. In addition, it does not have a minimum rice polishing requirement and may contain additives you would not find in a premium Junmai or Honjozo saké.
As the quality of much futsu-shu is low, it is then easy to say that there are U.S. sakes which are much better than the bulk of futsu-shu. If we just consider SakeOne, their sakes are Junmai, meaning they only contain four ingredients (rice, water, yeast and koji-kin), which elevates them above most futsu-shu. Plus, their sakes are Ginjo grade, meaning at least 40% of the rice kernel has been polished away, again elevating them above most futsu-shu.
Tastewise, I believe the SakéOne products are better than at least 99% of the futsu-shu I have ever tried, which means SakéOne's products are better than at least 75% of Japanese sakés. Blake is very negative in his opinions of the SakéOne products and he is certainly entitled to his opinion in that regard. My own opinions, which I previously posted
Now, how does U.S. saké quality stand up against premium Japanese saké, which constitutes 25% of their production? In this regard, I feel the vast majority of premium Japanese saké is likely better, though I will also note that I have encountered good, premium saké that does not use saké rice. The top saké producers have vast amounts of experience, with a wealth of resources, and the fledgling U.S. saké industry has a mere fraction of that experience. For example, how do you compete with a saké brewery, Sudo Honke, that has been in continual existence for over 850 years?
Despite this, you would be hard pressed to find a premium Japanese saké at the same price point as you would at SakéOne. You can purchase a 750ml bottle of Junmai Ginjo from SakéOne for $12-$13 while a Japanese Junmai Ginjo would easily run you $25-$40+. Thus, the low prices of SakéOne make their sake more attractive to the average consumer who can't afford to drink $25+ sakés every night. I feel the SakéOne products are very approachable, especially to people new to saké. Such individuals are far more likely to pay $12 to try a saké rather than $30, just as they would be with wine. I would have absolutely no problem recommending the SakéOne products.
So, back to the original question: Is saké produced in the U.S. as good as saké produced in Japan? The proper answer is that, in general, U.S. saké is better than some Japanese saké but not as good as others. Not all Japanese saké is a superior product, and far more of it is ordinary than premium.
But, I think it is far more important to ask whether U.S. sake has improved over time or not. That is not a question Blake addressed and he never indicated whether he previously tasted through the SakéOne portfolio. SakéOne has been brewing saké for about 13 years and I probably first tasted their sakes about ten years ago. Since then I have tasted them at various times and most recently visited the brewery and tasted through their portfolio. Thus, I am in a position to assess their progress over the past ten years and definitely feel the quality has much improved over that time. Their experience has grown, and they have been able to learn from the past, creating better saké. They continue to learn and hone their skills, and it is likely their saké quality will continue to improve. They currently produce a good, value saké of which they should feel proud.
The entire U.S. saké industry is growing, and I am eager to eventually taste saké from the newer breweries, Moto-i
I place the U.S. saké industry in context, as a small, young industry which is striving to improve rather than simply dismiss it out of hand as did Blake. The Japanese saké industry also needs to be put in context, with its 2000 years of history and experience, but which still produces plenty of very ordinary sake, much of which is inferior to some of the sakés being made in the U.S.
Don't ignore U.S. produced sake. Instead, give it a try and make your own opinion. And if you dislike all of the sakés from one U.S. brewery, don't let that stop you from trying the sakés from another brewery. Personally, of the different sakes I have tasted from five domestic breweries, I believe SakéOne is producing the best quality and value saké of that group.
SOURCE: The Passionate Foodie