A weekly series about our food and sustainable agriculture.
Believed to have originated in Japan around 300 B.C., saké is an aromatic, flavorful, and smooth tasting drink that is made from fermented rice. If you have never before tasted saké, Greg Lorenz suggests you imagine a gin and tonic drink mixed with riesling wine— at about 18% alcohol, that will get you into the flavor realm of saké.
And he should know. Lorenz is one of less than a handful of saké brewers in the country. In terms of the brewing process, saké falls closer to beer since it’s made from grain (in this case, rice), but its “temperament and flavor” according to Lorenz, is closer to white wine. Still, saké is classified as its own category of alcoholic beverage, separate and distinct from beer or wine.As Lorenz explains in the video, his company SakéOne, is trying to develop a national market for domestic premium saké, inspired by traditional Japanese saké methods, and brewing processes, but expressly designed for the American palette.
It was the quality of the water that ultimately attracted SakéOne to locate its brewery to the Portland, Oregon area. With only a very few key ingredients, for SakéOne, (flavorful) water is the single most important ingredient in the brewing process.
One of the main rice varietals used to brew saké is Calrose rice that is grown in California, and was adapted from a japonica cultivar. A sign on the wall at the SakéOne plant, reads in part, “Like grapes, there are thousands of rice varietals but only a few that make good saké wine.” As the only saké brewing plant in the country to mill its own rice, their milling equipment is imported from Japan, and because of how much outer surface area they mill off from the rice, they produce a premium class of saké (Junmai Ginjo). Most of the other sakéries import their premium saké from Japan (and most operate as satellite companies for the Japanese breweries), and only make an entry level saké (Futsu-shu). Lorenz emphasizes that the lower grade saké does not necessarily mean lower quality taste, it means less complexity of flavors.
Lorenz came on board a few years after SakéOne first began brewing their own saké in 1997. At that time, there were no U.S. saké brewmasters, so Lorenz had just the necessary prerequisites to land the job. As a former lab technician growing algae, and small crustaceans, this was an ideal opportunity to continue to culture live organisms—in this case, Koji-kin, the mold that breaks down the rice starch into sugar; and to grow yeast—but at large scale production.
Ultimately, the exquisitely sensitive brewing process, where any large number of varying factors will influence the final outcome, it’s the yeast that expresses the complex and subtle flavors that will come to define a particular saké.
And for Greg Lorenz, it seems the challenge working with living organisms is what defines his love for brewing saké.