In the good old days, sigh, when my husband and I would go out to Japanese restaurants, like Kamado Sushi, Kiku Sushi or Sushi California in Berkeley, we would always order a bottle of cold sake to drink with our meal. We would ask the servers for suggestions (“not too dry, not too sweet”), and they would bring something that we usually liked, but, somehow, we never made a note of its name. (At Kamado, the sake is served in an elegant glass decanter with a pocket for ice, so we didn’t even see the bottle). I always told myself that, this time, I would remember the name or make a note of it, but once the sake started to have its desired effect, those thoughts seemed to slip my mind, like an eel slithering silently away.
When I noticed that Takara Sake in Berkeley was offering a virtual sake tasting session, it seemed like a perfect learning activity for a stay-at-home festivity. For $50, you get a generous box of five bottles of various types of sake plus a one-hour live Zoom sake tasting class. (No special drinking glasses needed). The bottles of sake can be picked up at Takara’s Addison Street location or will be mailed to you. Classes are held from 4-5 p.m. on most Thursdays with no more than 10 attendees.
Takara Shuzo (the 150-year-old parent company of Takara Sake) is one of Japan’s leading producers of sake. The two most important ingredients in every sake are rice and water. In 1983, Takara Sake established its U.S. branch in Berkeley to combine traditional Japanese techniques with three local resources: Calrose rice, a hybrid of California long grain and Japanese short-grain rice grown in the Sacramento Valley; water from the pure snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada and the area’s generally cool climate.
I had visited Takara’s headquarters and brewery near University Avenue previously and written about its sake museum (the only one in the U.S.) and elegant tasting room. Right now, of course, both are closed to the public. Takara started its virtual tasting sessions in October.
Izumi Motai, the senior adviser for marketing and the tasting room at Takara, told me in a phone interview that the closures, plus the closures of so many restaurants put a big dent in the company’s market; although he admitted that in tough times, alcohol products seem to maintain their popularity.
The Zoom class was led by Takara’s tasting room manager, Mika Tsuchiiwa, with additional information from Motai. The first half-hour of the class was a detailed lecture about the different types of sake and how they are made. Before she began her lecture, Tsuchiiwa encouraged us to start sipping Takara’s junmai ginjo, a light and delicate sake that comes in a frosty, pink bottle. As we all toasted “Kanpai!” it immediately began to smooth away the rough edges of the day. Several detailed charts and descriptive sheets were included with the tasting kit and Tsuchiiwa showed us more in her Zoom presentation.
There was a lot of information to digest. I learned that sakes are all made with the same four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji (a rice mold). The variations are derived from the type of rice used and the way the rice is processed. The many necessary steps include polishing, washing, soaking, steaming, adding koji, adding yeast, making a mash, pressing, filtration, pasteurization and aging. Generally, the more that rice grains are polished, the fruitier and lighter the sakes. (Sakes that are called ginjo and daiginjo mean they’ve been polished to at least 60% and 50%, respectively). Rice that has a higher percentage of the grain remaining produces a richer and more full-bodied sake.
In the second half-hour, we tasted the five varieties of sake in a specific order, identified their flavor profiles and imagined which foods they would best pair with. While I am not an experienced wine taster, I really could detect the hints of cantaloupe in Takara’s junmai daiginjo REI and mushroom in its unpasteurized, organic junmai nama. (All the sakes we tasted are a part of Takara’s Sho Chiku Bai line.)
“The most enlightening part of the class,” said my husband later, “was tasting the five different sakes at one sitting, instead of one at a time, the way we had been doing at restaurants. You can really notice the differences.”
We also both appreciated the pairing notes of which foods would go best with each sake, such as the advice that the light junmai ginjo would go better with more delicately flavored seafood, such as white tuna or fresh oysters, and not with strongly flavored foods or any fish dipped in “too much soy sauce” which, as Motai put it, “is a massive umami bomb.”
Since the class ended at 5 p.m., we had anticipated wanting Japanese food for dinner and ordered takeout from Kamado. While one would not usually order five different sakes in a restaurant, since we were at home, we played with matching the various sakes to the delicate scallop sushi versus the bolder 5-spice tuna, for example, and so on. After experimenting with how every component of our meal went with each sake, the details of which pairings we liked best are a bit fuzzy, but I do remember it was a very happy meal.”
The day after the class, we still had half-bottles of several different sakes. Tsuchiiwa and Motai had mentioned pairing sakes with cheeses, something that had never occurred to us before, but that is becoming a more common pairing in the sake world. I made a plate with three different kinds of cheese and sliced persimmons and we had our own second tasting.
“It’s a shame, “my husband said, “that we only thought of drinking sake with Japanese food before, this has opened up a whole new world.”
Takara’s Zoom sake tastings take place from 4-5 p.m., Thursday. Attendees must order a virtual sake tasting sake set ($50) in advance of the class when registering for the lecture (class is included in the price of the set) for home delivery or pickup at Takara Sake, 708 Addison St. (at Fourth Street), Berkeley.