"Sake tastes a lot better than algae," claims brewer Greg Lorenz, and he would know. Ten years ago, the unemployed biologist heard a sake company in Oregon was looking for a brewer, and he pitched his background in growing lab organisms. "To make good sake you need to cultivate yeast and mold. I had to adjust my skill set, but I liked the challenge."
Why even make sake — the traditional Japanese fermented rice beverage — in Oregon? Lorenz sees it as part of the state's brewing culture. "People weren't pounding on doors asking for local-made sake. But Oregon is a good beverage hub. We're well known for our pinot noirs and craft beers. We thought this would be a good community to try something different."
Two of Lorenz's sakes, produced under the Momokawa label, are certified organic: the Organic Junmai Ginjo and the Organic Nigori. The original motivation was to go after green-minded consumers, but Lorenz quickly noticed a quality difference. "As we started to brew we saw better flavor profiles expressed from organic rice. I wish I could say we knew it would happen all along, but we fell into it."
Momokawa is made from organic calrose rice grown in Northern California. Lorenz says he looked for rice with characteristics that would translate well to American palates. "I wanted strong, bold flavors. Japanese sakes tend to be lighter and delicate. We don't want to be limited to sushi. We have to deal with mustards and mayonnaise. Our sake pairs well with tomatoes, drink it with pizza, you'll be surprised."
I brought both sakes to New York City's Tocqueville Restaurant to taste with Roger Dagorn, the only person worldwide who is both a Master Sommelier and Sake Samurai (a title granted by the Japan Sake Brewers Association), and his colleague Hiromi Kiyama, who also teaches about sake for the American Sommelier Association. Both had good things to say about what they tasted.
"I'm surprised, and that makes this appealing," said Dagorn about the Organic Nigori. "It's not a rice aroma, but nice herbal characteristics instead. Very clean and pure and lingers on the palate. I feel like it's a new world style of sake. Fruit-forward and approachable."
"The color is concentrated and thick," commented Kiyama, who enjoyed it more on her second tasting. "It has nice umami."
Dagorn found the nose of the second sake, the Organic Junmai Ginjo, to be more recessed and would prefer a little more acidity on the palate. "It's elegant, but it needs more substance. I wouldn't have it with spicy foods."
Kiyama felt the Organic Junmai Ginjo could be treated as a wine. "It's lower on alcohol, and a clean drink for people who never had saké. It's a good introduction." She suggested it would go well with a beet salad with goat cheese or even carpaccio.
"They both taste good," concluded Dagorn. "But when you taste it next to Japanese sake..." He smiled, then brought over one his own bottles.
Lorenz knows it's inevitable people will compare Oregon-made sake with those from the mother country. To him there's no competition."I have no intention of out-brewing the Japanese. If we do something they find interesting, I'd be very happy, but we're not going to add anything distinct. We're interpreting they're wonderful tradition in a way Americans will enjoy."
Learn more about Momokawa sake at www.sakeone.com.