THEWHO: Saké Sommelier Yoichiro Fujita

THEWHO is FAROUT’s interview series.

The saké market is booming. Learn what’s driving it, from an expert. Image courtesy Love the Wind/Shuttestock.

The saké market is booming. Learn what’s driving it, from an expert. Image courtesy Love the Wind/Shuttestock.

For today’s edition of THEWHO, we speak with Yoichiro Fujita, a saké sommelier at Shuko in Union Square.

A familiar face in New York’s indie rock scene and restaurant scenes alike — Fujita’s played with The Jaguar Club and Snowden, and he’s worked at culinary luminaries Balthazar and Frenchette —, Fujita began expanding his saké knowledge almost four years ago. This shift wasn’t simply a career choice. 

In addition to seeking professional knowledge, Fujita was also motivated by a personal desire to connect with his family culture. In the process, he’s learned barrels of insights about saké production and trends. 

For this far-ranging and intimate interview, Fujita shares his knowledge ont:

o  How World War rice rations altered a centuries-old tradition.

o  Which international forces shaped the industry we know today.

o  Why premium saké brands are looking to be “made in America.”

o  What trends to watch. [Think bubbles.]

o  And how we’ve all been using the word “saké” wrong!

Photo By: Anne Emond.

Photo By: Anne Emond.

FAROUT: You’ve worked in the New York restaurant scene for years, but your saké-specific work is more recent.  What inspired this shift?  What makes you so passionate about it?

Yoichiro: When I first started working in restaurants in New York City, I was playing in rock bands, and my restaurant career was always secondary to my musical career. It didn't really make sense to me to study French wine — even though I had an interest, it was always just something that I needed to know for my job. 

But with saké and Japanese cuisine, I realized that this is part of my upbringing and part of my culture; that added some drive — this reconnecting with who I am as a person, and the culture that my parents and I grew up. It's not just a job that I have because I need to pay rent — every time I study saké, it’s studying who I am as a person.

FO: With regard to culture: I’d like to talk about saké production over the past 50-70 years. While saké’s been around since the 8thcentury, it remained largely unchanged in those years, and production and flavor didn’t start evolving until the mid-20thcentury, when the world wars led to rice rations — this really shook up centuries’ worth of tradition.

Yoichiro: Yeah, that’s when adding distilled alcohol to saké became a big thing. I mean, it was always a thing, adding alcohol to saké as a preservative, but it was especially prevalent during the war and after the war: it was a necessity to increase production. To a certain extent, it's a style of saké, but when most of the liquid is distilled alcohol, it's not really saké — it's like drinking a little bit of saké with a bunch of distilled alcohol. So, the quality of saké became really low. 

FO: And that created room for another category: premium sakés.

Yoichiro: Yeah. Premium saké in general didn't really come into play until the '70s and '80s. So, what we consider to be premium saké, and the saké that we sell at Shuko, and that you probably at your local liquor store in the US right now — for the most part didn't really exist until the '70s and '80s. But the '80s was really when this whole idea of premium saké exploded. National consumption in Japan was going down, so certain saké companies thought that it would be a good idea to export these premium sakés, and that was the start of this premium saké boom. 

FO: When producers were making these premium sakés, were they going back to the pre-World War II methods, or what?

Yoichiro: Well, no. There’s a machine called the vertical polishing machine, and it's basically a huge steel mill that allows that polishes the rice — that wasn’t invented until 1930. 

Very briefly speaking, premium saké is produced by rice that's been polished to less than 70% of its original form. The more the rice is polished, the less protein on the outside and more of the pure starch in the inside is present. Some premium sakés are polished even to less than 50%, and there's even one saké that this company makes that's polished to 0.85% of its original rice screen, which is the most polished saké that you can buy, and it’s like $3000. 

Polished rice, courtesy of Thor Jorgen Udvang/Shutterstock.

Polished rice, courtesy of Thor Jorgen Udvang/Shutterstock.

FO: How was rice polishing done before?

Yoichiro: The earliest tools used for rice polishing were wooden mortars, which were eventually replaced by stone mortars in the Edo Period, and then by foot-operated millstones imported from China. 

But this is interesting: While this premium saké boom happened in the '70s and '80s, more recently, like in the last five, 10 years or so, there are some breweries experimenting with the old way of making saké, which is minimal intervention — less polishing, and things like that. That came about in reaction to the whole premium saké boom, if you will. It’s like the natural wine movement in Europe: letting natural years do the work. These breweries talk about minimal intervention, no additives.

FO: Hippy-dippy breweries.

Yoichiro: Right, which is really the old way of making saké. Original saké was made by young women chewing rice in their mouths, spitting it out, and letting natural yeasts and the environment ferment that spit-chewed rice.

FO: What’s the difference in flavor profile, between premium and traditional?

Yoichiro: Premium saké, in general, tends to be fruitier — it’s a little more expressive and a lot closer to wine in terms of taste than the old way of making saké, which tends to produce really umami forward, mushroom-y and savory sakés. 

In that regard, since highly polished rice is a modern invention, the refined, elegant style would not have existed before 1930. Saké in the past, because of the lower rate of polish, was much bolder and fuller than modern saké. But the premium saké market today is driven by consumers who love wine.

FO: That’s understandable.

Yoichiro: In that sense, the premium saké market has really changed the way that saké actually tastes. Now they're making fruitier sakés, and even sparkling sakés, something that is a very new category.

FO: I think you mentioned, when we last spoke, that other forces, such as Western consumers’ demand for transparency, are also changing production or techniques — am I remembering that correctly?

Yoichiro: One thing I mentioned was Yamagata Prefecture: it's the first prefecture in Japan that has applied for a designation of origin, which is something that's common in Europe. Like in France, there's the AOC, where there's certain rules about if you're in a certain place then you have to use certain ingredients from that certain place.

FO: Like bourbon. 

Yoichiro: Yes, exactly — like bourbon or a Parmigiano-Reggiano: You can't make Parmigiano-Reggiano if you're not in a certain designation in Italy. 

With regard to Yamagata Prefecture, a bunch of smaller breweries were failing to keep up with this premium saké trend — they were accustomed to making regular saké, not premium saké — so they decided to get together and become a larger brewery conglomerate, to keep up with changing demands. 

In that sense, the international market is driving the way the breweries themselves make saké, too.

FO: In addition to polishing the rice, what other factors influence flavor?

Yoichiro: The biggest thing is the water. Saké's 80% water, so you have to have really soft water. And the factors that most effect the flavor of saké there are iron and manganese — if those two things are in your water, you're never going to make good saké. 

Then, the third most important thing is the yeast. Yeast really effects the end taste of the saké: some yeasts make really fruity sakés, some yeasts make more earthy sakés. So those three things: the rice, the water, and the yeast. But I would say the most important thing is the water.

Good yeast does a saké good. Image courtesy of avs/Shutterstock.

Good yeast does a saké good. Image courtesy of avs/Shutterstock.

FO: Who are the biggest saké companies? Who's the Budweiser of saké — I know that's not a very good comparison, but there's got to be…

Yoichiro: The biggest saké brand is Sho Chiku Bai, which makes regular saké, if you will: they make those big cardboard boxes of saké that you can get hot at cheaper Japanese restaurants. But in terms of premium saké, the biggest company is probably Dassai, which is from Yamaguchi Prefecture. They’re actually opening the first East Coast brewery for saké, in Hyde Park, in collaboration with the Culinary Institute of America.

FO: What? Really?

Yoichiro: Yeah, the fact that they're opening their first international brewery on the East Coast of America is a huge deal — no other premium Japanese company has ever opened a brewery outside of Japan. So now there’s this question of whether premium saké needs to be made in Japan – does it need the same water, the same rice sources? But it's definitely a huge step for the premium saké market, to have that brewery opening. 

FO: Are there ever any sakés that are clearly created for the Western market, for example, like a pumpkin spice saké, that you see and you're just like, "This is obviously not for Japanese people?”

Yoichiro: Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of fruity sakés. There's also a lot of domestic sakés that are made in California, which is not always the greatest quality, but which are definitely marketed heavily and packaged cleverly for the domestic market here in the US. If you look at a lot of the saké that's being sold in liquor stores, if you look at the back label, most of it will probably be from California.

FO: What’s your favorite saké right now?

Yoichiro: One of my favorite sakés right now is actually made in America! In Brooklyn. It's called Brooklyn Kura, and they make incredibly premium, awesome products. They use Brooklyn water and rice from Arkansas and California to make Nama-Zake, an unpasteurized saké, which is popular in Japan but most of which doesn’t leave, because it needs to be refrigerated, which makes shipping difficult.  

So, Brooklyn Kura make Nama-Zake in New York for the New York market. They want to recreate the experience of having this Nama-Zake, this unpasteurized saké;they want New Yorkers to experience that taste and style. And they do an incredible job. They've only been around for maybe a year and a half, two years. But that's been very eye-opening for me: the idea of an American saké that is incredibly good and very close, if not as good, as any of the Nama-Zakes that are made in Japan. 

Drink to your health. Image courtesy Nutink/Shutterstock.

Drink to your health. Image courtesy Nutink/Shutterstock.

FO: Wrapping up, I just learned that “saké” is a more general word in Japanese, and what we call saké here is actually “nihonshu”?

Yoichiro: Yes, “Nihonshu.” “Saké” just means “alcohol,” so anything is “saké” — anything that you consume that's alcoholic is “saké.” Then “nihonshu,” which means “Japanese alcohol,” is saké as we know it: rice wine or Japanese rice beverage.

FO: Are there any other trends that you're watching right now, other than US production and the unpasteurized beverages?

Yoichiro: We were talking about making saké for the wine consumers market — this tends to be very round, and very unobtrusive, but some saké makers have been starting to experiment with yeasts that produce very acidic saké, to get white wine drinkers who really like acidity in their wine. 

In the past that would have been considered a flaw in a saké, but some younger saké makers are playing around with this idea of making really acidic sakés, and that's something I think would be interesting to keep an eye on going forward. Again, this is the idea that saké, the style of saké and the taste of saké is being dictated by the demands of the people who want to drink it, which now is the international market.

FO: Well, thank you, Yoichiro, for all of your beautiful knowledge!

Yoichiro: Thank you so much for talking to me.