With International Sake Day celebration as an excuse to gather, the Consulate of Japan together with JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) and the Culinary Institute of America held an event at CIA Copia in September.

The day consisted on a four-part program that aimed to educate, promote and inspire discussion about sake and the many ways it can be enjoyed.

Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco Tomochika Uyama welcomed the many attendees thanking them for supporting sake and invited them to continue to be ambassadors of Japan.

For the first portion of the event, Master Sommelier Bob Bath covered the basics of sake. His presentation was thorough and concise, focusing on history, production and regionality.

His delivery of a history timeline was informative, relaying findings of rice cultivation, which started in 4400 B.C. It included the fact that there were as many as 30,000 sake breweries in 1880 and the development of techniques with yeast strains in the early 1900s all the way to the first rice polishing machine in 1924 and the decrease of sake breweries. His data shows 3,200 breweries in 1975 down to 1,300 in 2007.

He also covered the various rice strains used in sake production, explaining Japonica rice and how it differed from table rice due to a higher starch ratio.

Also highly relevant to Bob’s presentation is the development of Japan’s first GI (Geographic Indication) Yamagata established in 2017 and how it is a step forward into regional standards.

For the second part of the program, attendees enjoyed an in-depth look at the versatility of sake when paired with different seafood preparations. This portion was led by Youngs Market Co Sake specialist, Tamiko Ishidate. The rich interactive exercise included two beverage industry experts, Charlotte Randolph, wine director at Californios San Francisco, and Mark Giillaudeu who oversees the beverage program at Commis Restaurant in Oakland.

Both sommeliers where presented with three dishes, which they had to match with their ideal sake. The audience tasted the dishes with their suggested options and became the ultimate judges in the win-win situation.

The first fish consisted of a perfectly poached Miyagi oyster with cucumber and lime nage. Mark’s weapon of choice was Nanbu Bijin “Shinpaku” Junmai Daiginjo from Iwate, a sharp and lively sake with plenty of white flowers and a cinnamon-like spice that danced beautifully around the components.

Charlotte chose Oakland’s Den Junmai, which showcased a complex layer of pear, nectarine and a razor-like acidity that mingled with the creamy oyster.

The second challenge was a seared tuna served on a crisp wonton with avocado purée.

“Tuna is one of the hardest fish to pair because of the rich flavors,” Tamiko said. Charlotte decided to go with a Kimoto-style sake (a richer, more complex style of sake made utilizing older techniques) Kasumi Tsuru Kimoto Extra Dry Honjozo from Hyogo Prefecture. “The way I see it is Kimoto is like Cabernet Sauvignon, tuna is like steak so I went classic steak and cab,” Charlotte explained. The combination turned out highly successful matching the intensity of the ingredients.

Mark went with Amabuki Ichigo Kobo Junmai Ginjo from Saga. This is a unique sake and a bold pairing because this sake is made with strawberry yeast delivering a fruity and zippy style. “Amabuki brought the seven-nation army into the dish!” Mark said, with a grin. It was indeed a high-intensity match.

The third and last bite consisted of a poached lobster and Gruyère tart. A dish that delivered the flavor, texture and layers of a roller coaster.

Mark suggested Tengumai Yamahai Junmai from Ishikawa Prefecture, a sake that delivers a nutty and creamy experience with a broad mouthfeel. It certainly stood up for the task.

Charlotte also brought a voluptuous sake with notes of bacon fat, sunflower seeds and a smoky layer, Mana 1751 Yamahai Tokubetsu Junmai Muroka Genshu from Fukui. A sake produced paying homage to ancient brewing techniques. This is the ultimate sumo wrestler in terms of styles. It certainly put up with the strong cheese but took over the lobster nuances. Delicious nonetheless.

When asked about the comparison of this two sakes, Mark said “It is like comparing Puligny versus Meursault” — both amazing.

For the third part of the program, Bob led a panel discussion about sake, pairings and styles. Chef Ken Tominaga from Hana and Pabu Restaurants, Yoshi Sako, founder and brewmaster at Den Sake Brewery in Oakland, Mark and Charlotte were on the panel.

“Sake is not as popular in Japan and it makes me sad. I try to promote sake with food in my restaurants,” Ken said.

“People that grew up in the United States have a different sense of pairing in general; it is quite fascinating,” Yoshi San explained. “Sake is like Japanese people, quiet and humble.”

Closing remarks for this portion were in charge of Nakazawa San, head of JETRO San Francisco who said, “Sake is not just for drinking, it is a way to better understand Japanese culture.”

The fourth and last part of the day was a walk-around tasting showcasing the diversity of Japanese and American sake. Some of the breweries included Sake One from Oregon, Dassai from Yamaguchi, Japan, Oze from Gunma Prefecture and Den Sake. In this portion, attendees had the opportunity to talk to the brewers who answered questions and posed for pictures while sporting big smiles.

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Eduardo can be reached at eduardo@sakedrinker.com.