An American Sake Brewer in Kyoto

By Jorge Navarrete
June 17, 2022

A Brief History of Sake

Sake is one of the oldest known alcoholic beverages. Traditionally, it was used in religious ceremonies and consumed by the noble class. As such, most of the fermentation techniques we use today were developed by monks in Nara period (A.D.710-A.D.794). It was only after the end of the Japanese civil war period and the unification of the country in the early 17th century that sake became a beverage consumed by all. This era, known as the Edo Period (1603-1867), was a time of relative peace and led to the rapid expansion of both the population and rice cultivation. Perhaps for the first time in its history, there was actually an excess of rice in Japan and other uses beyond food consumption were required. Sake brewing solved two problems. It utilized excess rice and, because sake brewing requires colder temperatures to properly ferment, idle rice farmers could work in breweries after the rice harvests were completed in the early Fall. It’s no accident that sake brewing exploded in growth during this period, including the founding of Matsui Sake Brewery where I work today as a kurabito (brewery worker). Our current President and Toji (brewmaster), Jiemon Matsui, is the 15th generation owner and brewer, a great example of how sake brewing has retained its traditional roots in Japan. For a much more detailed discussion on the fascinating history of sake (in English), I would highly recommend “Nihonshu Japanese Sake” by Gautier Roussille.
Sake pouring into a glass in a wooden box, with rice in the background
Made from rice, sake is one of the oldest known alcoholic beverages

Sake Brewing Today

Fast forward a couple of centuries and sake brewing has both changed dramatically and retained many of its ancient traditions. What is clear is that there are far fewer active breweries today (about 1,200 remain in operation including only two in the center of Kyoto City). What has also advanced is brewing technology resulting in flavors unimaginable to our Edo era ancestors. A good example is “Ginjo” style sake which uses highly polished rice and specific yeast strains to produce aromatic and fruity sakes with a crisp, elegant profile. This type of sake has only been actively produced since the 1990s as the technology to polish rice grains more than 50% did not exist prior to that time. The amount of rice polishing also determines how a sake is classified. On bottle labels, this is listed as the “semaibuai” or rice polishing ratio expressed as a percentage of the rice grain that remains. Broadly defined, a sake with a polishing ratio of 60-100% is known as a “Junmai”, between 50-60% a “Ginjo” and 50% or lower as a “Daiginjo”. There are other variations but this will help simplify things for the sake beginner.

Each of these types tend to have a distinctive flavor profile. As discussed above, Ginjo and Daiginjo styles are usually more fruity and aromatic while Junmai styles have far more varieties of flavors and are more robust on the palate. As such, each type will often be paired with different types of cuisine to enhance the flavors of both the sake and the food. For example, a very dry Junmai style sake pairs well with sashimi as the neutral and clear taste of dry sake does not interfere with the subtle flavors of each type of raw fish. Daiginjo styles are often served at the start of the meal with a light appetizer as their soft, elegant, fruity tastes might be overwhelmed by heartier fare later in the meal. The pairing possibilities are endless as is the proper serving temperature and appropriate drinking vessel for each sake type. I often serve a Daiginjo chilled in a white wine glass. The large opening of the glass helps highlight the aroma of the sake. On the other hand, certain types of Junmai sake are served best in a small ceramic cup to help enhance the texture. This is particularly true for those who prefer their sake heated. I often recommend a Junmai style sake high in acidity as a good candidate for heating. Sake contains both lactic acids (which provides the sharpness of the flavor) and amino acids (which provide the umami). When heated, a sake with high acidity tends to mellow but retain its body. This is best appreciated in sips and why a small ceramic vessel is the best choice.

From Wall Street to Higashi Ichijo Street

As to my own story from Investment Banking to sake brewing, In 2016, after 30 years on Wall Street, I needed a change and was eager to pursue my love of a beverage I had discovered decades earlier. I first completed a course organized by the Sake Service Institute (SSI) in Japan to become a Sake Sommelier, then hosted sake tasting events for Mutual Trading, a large importer of Japanese food and sake, in New York. It was during this time that I came to really appreciate how few Westerners were familiar with this special beverage and the challenge of properly promoting it to the stature it deserved. During research visits to Japan to deepen my knowledge, I encountered Matsui Sake Brewery. This eventually led to discussions about working together to promote sake and an employment offer in 2019.

It was the ideal fit. In exchange for managing foreign visitors to our brewery tasting room and promoting our brand, they would teach me to brew sake. Despite Covid hiccups, we have done exactly that over the past three years. Working in a brewery daily could not be more different than my previous banking life and days can be physically challenging. However, being part of a terrific team, learning a true craft and helping to spread my love of sake, all in a city I love is satisfying beyond description. Kanpai!
Jorge Navarrete has been a sake brewer at Matsui Sake Brewery in Kyoto City since 2019. He is also a certified Sake Sommelier. Prior to pursuing his passion for sake, he spent 30 years as an Investment Banker at various firms.
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