Last fall I won a few prizes at Byggvir's Big Beer Cup (the Renaissance Festival competition) for my homebrews and one of them was a tour for 10 at Moto-i. Now that the ice and snow has faded from our streets and people have suddenly appeared from their deep hibernation, it seemed like a good time to dust this thing off and have some fun! Our group included several homebrewers and a couple of other beer journalists, so we were all intrigued about what we were to soon see. We turned this event into a little pub crawl with visits to Lynlake Brewing and The Herkimer before our scheduled tour time.
With the same ownership as nearby (two doors down) Herkimer brewery, this place has been doing something very unique for the past 8 years! I've visited a few times in the past--about once a year--just to keep abreast of any changes. The brewer Blake Richardson fell in love with sake when frequenting a local Japanese restaurant and decided to try doing something outrageous in Minnesota--open the first sake brewpub anywhere in America.
Lets talk about sake a bit. I'd tried warm sake at a shady Japanese steak house once in the far distant past and had not been impressed. Moto-i is really the first place I had legitimately tried it and paid attention. Sake is made through a somewhat complicated process that is similar to brewing beer but with some significant differences. As a homebrewer I was able to follow most of the steps, but there were still some interesting things to learn about. The whole process starts with the rice--only certain types work for sake making. In general the type of rice used has most of the pure carbohydrate in the center. The rice is milled (or polished) locally, getting rid of the layers of proteins, lipids and fatty acids, leaving that fermentable sugar core available. The less milled the rice is, the more earthy/umami flavors in the finished product. And apparently, the highly milled versions result in less hangovers!
Koji. One of the more unusual steps in sake making is the use of Koji--a type of mold--that helps break down the complex carbohydrates in the rice to simple sugars that the sake yeast can convert into alcohol. A portion of the batch is inoculated with Koji and kept in a warmer room to get that going. More of the rice is given a shot of yeast, water, and some of the Koji and allowed to ferment for several days as a yeast starter. When ready, this will be put into a larger tank and slowly "fed" more rice and water over the coming weeks.
Once things are done fermenting, the result is a product of a strong 18-20% ABV. From here the resulting white mess is pressed--either in a mechanical press or hung in cloth bags and allowed to drain naturally. Bottled sake will undergo pasteurization for shelf stability, but Moto-i keeps theirs cold and served fresh.
The tour was cool, nerdy, and I could sense Blake's passion for this unusual project. He's mostly self-taught, but has made something like 12 trips to Japan to visit sake makers there and learn from the masters. While most of the recipes he uses follow the same steps as above, many different variations are possible to get different types of finished sake. The type of rice, the percentage milled, the time in the fermentation tank, and the yeast type, all have an impact on the final product. I was excited to discover that they've even done some experimentation with wild yeast inoculation by leaving some of the rice slurry upstairs on the deck overnight!
|Most impressive chalk art that deserved a picture....|
We ended our tour by heading upstairs to said rooftop seating area, taking full advantage of our beautiful spring day. We ordered some sake samplers and got to try all of the 6 offerings available. We also ordered some really good dishes including miso popcorn, several sticky buns, and more!
I took some notes on some of these sakes like I would do for beers, but found myself struggling for the right terms to describe what I was smelling and tasting. While I'm a seasoned beer judge, I just haven't had the training in this! I did my best and here's a few including my score on a 0-5 scale.
1) Junmai Ginjo ak12 Nama: Aroma is redolent of apple and pear, but subtle, along with some fruity ester I just can't put my finger on. Smells a bit hot. Flavor is similarly fruity with some apple peel type tannin on the dry finish. The driest of the bunch. 4
2) Goya/Genshu: Genshu is indiluted making it stronger than most sakes. Smells bright, like a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Flavor is a bit sharp, young seeming. Crisp. Ends spicy with notes of black pepper and some hot esters. 3
3) Hanyauku/Shiboritate: Fresh. Very young with lots of green apple--almost cidery. A bit hot. Not my favorite of them. 3
4) Junmai Ginjo Nigori Nama: Nigori is roughly pressed resulting in a cloudy appearance. This is the sweetest of the bunch, but not overly so. Fruity and bright with a more rounded mouthfeel. My favorite. 4.25
5) Junmai Kimoto Nama: Earthier than the others. Sweet but not as much as the Nogori. Grows on me as I sip it. 3.75
Overall this was a very fun and informative visit. It was great hanging out with a bunch of different friends trying an unusual fermented beverage with about 1000 years of history behind it. The service was good (especially the manager who gave us a quick primer on the types of sake we were sampling) and the food excellent. I think the only thing that would have improved our tour would have been a directed sake tasting either prior to or just after so we could learn how to properly evaluate the beverage. Oh, and Moto-i also has a good selection of Minnesota craft beers for those who aren't brave enough to face the sake!