Sake? In Berkeley?

Berkeley's Takara Sake brewery offers a taste of Japan.

In evolutionary science, the term “parallel evolution” refers to the development of geographically isolated species into strikingly similar forms. Ostriches, emus, rheas, and the extinct moa, each a giant flightless bird endemic to its own region, provide a prime example of the phenomenon. So do the large tortoises of the Seychelles and the Galapagos. But more to the matter at hand, parallel evolution has also brought us booze.

Virtually every culture has independently learned to get drunk, with peasants in the Caucasus Mountains learning to crush and ferment grapes each fall, the Bavarians brewing their ales, and the Japanese mastering the wintertime art of malting and brewing rice. That’s parallel evolution in action.

Globalization has united these regional products, giving rise to Takara Sake USA (708 Addison Street, Berkeley), the East Bay’s only sake brewery. A familiar sight to many who see its sign from Highway 80, the Takara brewery is a long way from the bamboo forests of Japan — and the rice patties of Sacramento Valley, where Takara sources its grain — but the various forms of fermented rice alcohol that leave its doors under the labels Sho Chiku Bai and Hana Flavored Sake owe their existence to the brewing craftsmanship that evolved in the islands out west, toward the, um, setting sun.

Here, rice was among the most available sources of starch, which must be converted into sugar with the aid of a malting mold called koji (in the old days, brewers spat into the rice pot to provide the required microbiology). But first the rice is milled, reduced from wholesome brown kernels into polished white pearls. The process removes each grain’s outer layers, which contain oils and proteins that can impart off-flavors to the sake. In fact, sake quality can be graded by the degree of milling: Daiginjo is the most exquisite grade, made with rice kernels milled to less than half their original size; Ginjo is medium-grade sake, of kernels milled to 60 percent of their original size; and Junmai is the cheapest of sakes, made of kernels milled to just 70 percent of their original size.

One must prepare to shell out some real wages if they hope to drink daiginjo sake. We stuck with the lesser grades, pulling from the BevMo! shelf the Classic Junmai ($3.99, 750 ml), the Dry Junmai ($4.99, 750 ml), and the Sho Chiku Bai Premium Ginjo ($4.99, 300 ml). The Classic Junmai was fruity on the nose, but with restraint. Faintly aromatic, it bore flavors of passion fruit, jackfruit, and a whisper of damp moss. The Dry Junmai was a departure, smelling and tasting of caramel, hazelnuts, vanilla, mushroom, vodka, and cantaloupe. But the Ginjo grade sake trumped all with its lively, vibrant aroma and flavors of guava, Gewurztraminer, and lychee, laced together with grace and balance.

To shake things up, we also sampled the Hana lychee sake ($7.99, 750 ml), which contains “natural flavors” and, frankly, is an insult to lychee fruits everywhere. It smelled of Bazooka Joe bubble gum, Jell-O, and Kool-Aid, and was cloyingly syrupy-sweet. Takara’s sakes are well worth tasting — just $5 a flight at the brewery — but skip the Hana juice, which, if evolution has its word, may soon go the way of the moa.


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