Stomp Rice, Not Grapes

Wayne from Truckee tries to go on a sake bender.

Having spent Saturday night in Sacramento getting ripped at Ozzfest, Wayne the Coors driver (and part-time “gardener”) from Truckee was hung over like a big dog. But Wayne is a champion good sport, so when his San Leandro pals informed him that a visit to Takara Sake USA was on the agenda, Wayne, although not exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, decided that some hair-of-the-whatever-you-call-dog-in-Japanese wouldn’t hurt.

Most East Bayers have driven by West Berkeley’s Takara Sake USA on their way to eat sausages at Brennan’s and thought, “If I ever have guests visiting from Truckee, I’ll just have to see what that place is all about.”

Seriously, folks, is there a better place to take a visiting guest who has a hangover? What better way to cure the nasty aftereffects of Ozzy than some free rice wine poured into little tiny cups (by the way, those cups are called sakazuki and the carafes tokkuri) compliments of the friendly hosts at Takara Sake USA?

The tasting room at Takara is decorated according to the tenets of spacious minimalism, with a Douglas fir tasting bar and blue floor tiles that are meant, says Takara’s Web site, to evoke the rice paddies of Japan. (Takara means “treasure from the rice paddy.”) The only breaks from vast, tasteful space are a few small boulders strewn artistically around the floor. “We know people have had too much when they fall into one of the rocks,” explains Randy, the dreadlocked tasting-room employee. Unfortunately, no one besides Wayne, who was clad in a Betty Ford Clinic T-shirt, seemed even remotely capable of falling into rocks.

A tour of any beer factory in America attracts visitors who are basically pretty open about the fact that their primary motive is to take advantage of the free beer. Compared to that crowd, the gentle sippers at Takara were much more sedate — and probably dishonest. For instance, people at Takara actually mingled and had real conversations, as if the contents in their cups were mere afterthoughts, something to sip thoughtfully as they considered the ironies of Noh theater: “What’s this free sake doing here? Oh, how pleasant.” It was easy to believe that the Takara crowd had no intentions whatsoever of getting as much gratis sake as they could possibly guzzle — that, or they were very good pretenders.

But then Wayne bounded in, accompanied by his San Leandro crew, Marie, Frank, Todd, Amanda, and Rick. “We’re here for the free booze,” declared Marie, who later confided that she didn’t even like sake. Now you’d think that maybe the Takara Sake USA employees would have an attitude toward these grungies from San Leandro who admitted — nay, brayed — that they were there for the freebies.

At many wineries, the tasting-room staff are snobs who will try to hustle you out after that first sip of buttery chardonnay. “Oh, you want to taste the merlot as well? I doubt you’d like it. There’s a truck stop down the street that has beverages better suited to your taste.”

Instead, the patient and kindly Randy poured and answered questions and was a regular fount of information about sake, including this gem: “If you drink sake all day long, you won’t get a hangover.” Wayne looked skeptical. When someone asked the inevitable, “Does anyone here ever get really wasted?,” Randy looked down at the wee little sakazuki and poured a few more drops into each cup. “Actually, it would be pretty hard,” he admitted. Bummage.

On the counter was a menu of different sakes and their prices. Randy described each sake as he poured. “This one is made of organic rice,” he would say, sloshing a bit into a cup. The San Leandrans downed the tablespoon and looked expectantly at the next bottle.

Compared to say, Budweiser, there is a disappointing lack of collectible merchandise at Takara Sake USA, except some robes with the company name emblazoned on them. If you had hopes of furnishing your rec room, you’ve come to the wrong place. There are no Takara Sake USA hats, lamps, clock radios, or camping furniture.

But like Budweiser and many of the wineries in the Napa Valley, Takara does have the dreaded educational component. Usually at any place where alcoholic beverages are made, the didactic part is boring beyond belief. People touring a large brewery will yawn and mutter loudly that they only came for the free beer, that this is ever so lame. But for some reason, people who take wine tours and visit microbreweries are genuinely interested in the process of making the stuff.

Takara visitors were no exception and, after the pouring, pretty much everyone headed for the sake museum next door. In addition to a large collection of antique equipment, a step-by-step exhibit takes you through every single laborious detail of sake-making. People strolled around huge wooden tubs where rice was once stomped on. “Faaascinating,” whispered a Japanese woman.

Meanwhile, in the tasting room the San Leandro crew had whipped out their wallets and had made quite a few purchases, considering the original plan had been to scarf free booze. “We’re thinking ’bout getting drunk in the parking lot across the street,” Wayne announced, as he lugged his shopping bag toward the door. Party on, Wayne — but don’t come crying to Randy if you end up with another hangover.

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