A Morning Tour of Oregon’s SakeOne
Raise your hand if you’ve ever had sake. While I’ve been a fan for awhile, I’d only enjoyed it with sushi. Little did I know that the Japanese rice wine is extremely versatile, and making it is more similar to fermenting beer than stomping grapes into wine. My eyes were wide opened when I visited SakeOne in Oregon’s Tualatin Valley this past fall.
SakeOne in Tualatin Valley
In operation for over 2 decades, SakeOne began as an import company between Japanese and Oregonian investors who had a vision for a sake brewery in the USA. One of the factors that made Oregon the perfect location is their very clean water. Soft water is a must for the delicacy to sake and the northwestern state’s track record was ideal.
We arrived on a beautiful late morning to Forest Grove, Oregon, just under 10 miles outside of Hillsboro. Since I was staying nearby at the Residence Inn by Marriott, it was difficult to get out of my cozy King bed and leave my suite. My motivation was knowing there was sake tasting in my future. The brewery appeared humble from the outside, with an adorable mural paying a throwback to sake making. Some of the portrait is reminiscent to what continues to be done today, only much less labor intensive.
We quickly met up with Sake Educator, Jack Lien. Lien comes with an extensive knowledge of the rice wine, and was a wealth of fun facts on the concoction. He led us on a fascinating tour that gave us an up close and personal look into the entire process of creating sake.
Touring the Factory
Brewing sake starts in the very obvious: the rice room. In the rice room, 4 main ingredients are used to ensure top-quality sake is about to be made: rice, water, yeast and koji. Between the koji (a form of mold-I know, it doesn’t sound inviting) and yeast, some myth busting was happening before our eyes as we saw sake is much more like making a beer than wine. “We mill away 40% of grain so only 60% remains,” explained Jack, “for brewing sake, you need to get as close to center of rice as possible. It’s the right, starchy center. The more they can ferment of that, the better the quality and taste of sake.”
Since 40% of the rice, which comes from Sacramento, is milled away, the leftovers are donated to local farmers for feed. SakeOne is all about being resourceful to the environment. “We want to get rid of as little waste as possible. It can take up to 19 hours to mill down rice. As it grinds through longer, the better the outcome.”
Something I never gave much thought to were the types of rice that goes into sake. Much like grape varietals, some rices are more suited than others for the ideal rice wine. For Indian and Thai dishes, cooks often turn to a long grain like Jasmine rice. While if you’re looking to brew sake, brewers seek out short grain like sushi rice.
The Magical Mold and Fermentation
Next up, the rice goes through a vigorous washing and soaking process before getting steamed. A powerful rice washer gets the job done before 45 minutes of steaming. “You need rice to absorb moisture before you put into a steamer,” says Lien, “Once rice is steamed, it’s then ready to be fermented.”
I was familiar with koji playing a role in sake. Turns out it’s quite the little magic ingredient. Since rice doesn’t have sugar, just starch, brewers need to get the yeast fermented to make sake. This is where the magical mold comes in. The spores are what turns rice starch into sugar. Thus, sake is created.
Just like the rice room, there’s a koji room. The rice gets transferred from being cleaned over to a conveyor belt in the koji room to start the next process to fermentation. This is where you get a glimpse at how dedicated and focused the brewers are. Their eyes come in to place to examine, touch and ensure the sweet, nutty texture to the rice. With the yeast still not introduced, the koji is slowly and steadily turning the starch into sugar.
We entered a freezing room and got to see rice that’s been properly inoculated with koji. We even got to try koji rice; it was surprisingly tasty and would pair well sprinkled on yogurt or granola.
At last, the tour entered the fermentation room. We got to see sake being fermented right before our eyes. Fermentation is done for a week. Over a course of 4 days, more water, steamed rice,and koji is added. From there, sake is aged for anywhere from 3 to 6 months. In Japan, sake can be aged for years.
As Jack concluded his fascinating tour, we headed to SakeOne’s tasting room to enjoy some sake on their beautiful patio. While many have told me it’s a rarity, the sun was shining ion this day in Oregon and made for an ideal late morning tasting.
We began with the Momokawa Silver. Very traditional, with its light, crisp notes. It made me feel like some sushi. While next up, Tsubaki Grand Shrine started unveiling just how diverse sake is. This brew had aroma of butterscotch, and moments of bitterness you may get from a black tea. It would pair very well with a seafood dish like salmon or clams.
My 2 highlights were the Momokawa Pearl, which resembled tropical notes you may get from a Sauvignon Blanc, and the Moonstone line of fruit infused sakes. I’d had (and loved) plum sake before, but Asian pear? Coconut lemongrass? I was very much on board with Moonstone. They went extremely well with the gorgeous weather we enjoyed while visiting on the deck.
SakeOne is America’s premiere sake company. They’ve won more awards than any other sake company in the USA! You can purchase directly from them in-person or on their website, as well in stores nationwide. Their hours vary by season, and they’re just 30 miles from Downtown Portland. While sake lovers will adore their free tour, I highly encourage you ‘newbies’ to stop by and discover just how complex the world of sake is. Plan your visit HERE.
(*Disclosure: I was a guest of the media at SakeOne on behalf of this article. All opinions are my own and I cannot thank Jack and everyone enough for their hospitality.)