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SakéOne makes mold marvelous

STORY BY MARGARETT WATERBUY
PHOTOS BY NOLAN CALISCH

The first thing you notice when you arrive at SakéOne in Forest Grove is a mural. It’s a big, multi-paneled affair hung on the exterior of the production facility, and it shows the major steps in traditional Japanese sake-brewing: soaking, steaming, fermenting, aging, bottling. The next thing you notice is that nobody in the mural is wearing pants.

The reason becomes clear once you step inside SakéOne’s gorgeous, cedar-lined koji muro room, which is basically a sauna for rice. It’s hot — really hot — and so humid that eyeglass lenses fog up immediately. It’s not particularly comfortable, but that’s not the point. “It’s all for the koji,” laughs Greg Lorenz, SakéOne’s brew mater, as he wipes his brow. “Not for the humans making the koji.”

Koji, the Japanese name for Aspergillus oryzae, is a fungus that grows on carbohydrate-rich substrates like rice, grains, and potatoes. It creates enzymes that convert starch into sugar and generate a host of other flavor compounds. Without it, there would be no sake, no shochu, no soy sauce, no miso, and no mirin. It’s so important to Japanese cuisine that it was named Japan’s “national fungus” in 2006.

SakéOne is Oregon’s only sake brewery. It was founded in 1992 by a Japanese businessman, Tohru Murai, and his American partner, Grif Frost. Tohru was then an executive at an established sake brewery in Japan called Momokawa Brewing, and he felt that the time was ripe for Americans to discover sake. “He’d been traveling a lot in France, going to chateaus and wineries, and had seen how suddenly French wine was starting to boom in other countries,” explains Valerie Fayette, SakéOne’s director of marketing. “And he thought, why can’t sake do this?”

For the first few years, SakéOne imported Japanese sake to sell in the United States, waiting until they had enough cash to start making it themselves. In 1996, they started building their brewery, and by 1998, they were selling their first batches of Oregon sake — although even today, SakéOne still imports and sells a number of premium Japanese brands alongside its own local releases.

SakéOne is a temple to koji. Inside, everything is designed to please this tiny master by delivering exactly the right temperature, humidity, and environment for the fungus to thrive. “For me, this is growing and culturing, not brewing,” says Greg. “Flavor comes from the way these living organisms are manipulated.”

While sake is often described as “rice wine,” the production process is more similar to beer than wine, because sake, like beer, is made from grain. However, there’s an important difference: Beer is made from grain that’s been malted, allowed to sprout to activate the enzymes within the seed that turn starch into fermentable sugar. But sake makers rely on koji to do the initial transformation.

Koji loves rice, and it especially loves warm, damp rice. All of SakéOne’s sakes are made from American-grown Calrose rice, polished to remove the outer layer of bran until just 60% of each grain is left behind. Once a batch of steamed rice has been inoculated with koji, it takes less than a day for the fungus to take over, sending thin filaments deep into the grains. The exterior takes on a powdery, opaque look, as if it’s been dusted with powdered sugar. Taste a bit, and you’ll immediately notice a bright, lively sweetness, as well as a distinctly crumbly texture.

But koji is just one of two microorganisms that give sake its distinctive, complex flavor. The other is more familiar to Westerners: yeast. Once the koji rice is ready, it’s blended with plain steamed rice in gigantic 14,000-liter fermentation tanks. Then, the mixture is dosed with yeast. SakéOne uses three specialized strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the same species of yeast used for beer, wine, and bread. The yeast takes over where the koji leaves off, eating sugars and turning them into ethanol as well as other aromatic compounds that give sake its characteristic fruity flavor.

Fermentation at SakéOne takes about three weeks, and the resulting liquid reaches about 18% alcohol. Once complete, the fermented sake is pressed to remove the rice solids, then rested in two kinds of tanks — first stainless steel, then porcelain-lined — to mellow and integrate. Most sake is slightly diluted with water before it’s bottled, as brewers think sake tastes best somewhere around 14% alcohol. The sake is also pasteurized to make it shelf-stable.

A self-described “lab nerd,” Greg is keenly focused on the microbiological aspects of his craft. In fact, it was microbiology that got him involved in the first place. Before he took the job at SakéOne 14 years ago, he worked for a company that cultured algae, but his interests in very tiny life forms started even before he entered the workforce.

“As an undergrad, I was a grunt at a botany lab,” he says. “I did tissue culture, which is mind-numbingly boring, and I thought it was the greatest thing on earth.” While many beverage makers enter the trade from the enthusiast’s side, the most potent attraction for Greg was the opportunities sake-making presented for working with microorganisms. “It wasn’t, ‘Wow, beer is great, I want to make it.’ It was, ‘Wow, yeast is great, I want to grow it.’”

That orientation is immediately evident when watching Greg work. Focused and methodical, he’s constantly looking for ways to improve the process, to make his sake brewery a better place for koji and yeast to do their thing. “We try to keep things as consistent as possible,” he explains. “You identify areas of improvement, come up with techniques, and all of a sudden, you do better.”

Because sake is made with just four ingredients — rice, water, koji, and yeast — every step counts, and there’s not much to hide behind. “You’ve got to coax the flavor out of it,” says Greg.

And that flavor is pretty remarkable. If your only experience with sake takes the form of warmed-up restaurant sake or sake bombs, you’re in for a serious treat. Fruity, sweet, and full-bodied, SakéOne’s sakes are lively, bold, and an excellent companion to a wide range of foods. “It has a soft mouth-feel and low acid, so it’s not going to overpower anything,” says Greg. “You’re going to have a really good time tasting the food.”

Japanese cuisine is a natural pairing, of course, but so are other, more traditionally American foods. “Pizza and sake is one of my favorite pairings,” says Greg, “because sake and tomato go well together, and sake and cheese go well together.” Valerie even suggests trying some of SakéOne’s bigger styles, like G Joy (a genshu, or undiluted, sake, bottled at about 17% alcohol) or Nama (an unpasteurized sake) with rich, hearty foods like tacos or cheeseburgers.

Back in the koji room, Greg and brewery technician Jordan Harris are preparing a new batch of inoculated rice. Jordan flakes off big scoops of koji rice with a white snow shovel, then steps on it with pristine white rubber boots to break up any clumps. Next to him, Greg loads the koji rice onto a small conveyor belt, which deposits the rice atop an adjacent air-circulating table where it can continue its growth. If not for the 38 Special song playing on the radio, you could practically imagine the exterior mural had come to life.

It’s hard work, and both men quickly break a sweat in the thick, heavy air. “I bring five or six shirts to work every day,” says Jordan, dripping. Greg laughs and says that he learned long ago not to wear cotton. “I buy cheap golfing polos on sale,” he says simply.

It may not be as good as no pants, but it’s the next best thing.

SakéOne Sakes to Try

Momokawa Diamond
This Junmai (pure rice) Ginjo (rice polished to 60% or less) sake is SakéOne’s flagship product and still a bestseller. Offering a balance between earthy minerality and sweet fruit, this is a great place to start exploring SakéOne’s offerings.

G Joy
This genshu (undiluted) sake is bottled at a higher proof than Momokawa Diamond, which is slightly diluted with water. It’s big, bold, and a little bit spicy.

Nama
Until recently, this unpasteurized sake was only available at the SakéOne tasting room in Forest Grove. But a bottled, refrigerated version is slowly making its way to local markets. Explosively flavorful and slightly effervescent, Nama will surprise even seasoned sake drinkers.

 

Margarett Waterbury is a Portland-based food and drink writer, and the managing editor of Edible Portland.
margarettwaterbury.com

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