West of Portland, Oregon, on the fringes of civilization in Forest Grove, sits what looks to be a warehouse among fields, other warehouses, and lumber yards. Yet here lies America’s first saké producer: SakeOne. They began in 1992 as sake importers but soon saw gold in Oregon’s coastal range: pure water similar to Japan. By 1997, SakeOne produced their first batch of Momokawa.
Our tour starts outside with a mural of classic saké production by a local artist.
Quaint pantless men parade about vats of rice. Moving on. Inside, we go to the source of sugars: rice:
Not just any rice: Calrose rice. Yes, that grocery store staple. Still, Calrose launched Californian rice production. Developed in 1948, Calrose soon dominated domestic cooking rice throughout North America. Typically, Japanese sake producers prefer finer grades. But this is America. Thus, partly out of convenience, SakeOne uses Calrose exclusively.
But how do you turn rice into alcohol? Well, it helps to have one of these:
This is SakeOne’s magic milling machine straight from Japan. Those curvy drums next to our guide tumble rice grains against eachother breaking off hulls and polishing them like rocks down to their starch-rich core.
Here is hot some milling action:
Husks and outer unsavory bits go to cattle, while the 40% polished cores ready themselves to become alcohol.
A conveyor pulls these magic pearls into conical tanks of water that rinse and ready them for fermentation:
Another room of pipes and tanks greets us. A 400 pound rice cooker sits on the blue scaffolding, ready to heat up starches and ready them for conversion.
Overseeing all this, tucked behind PVC pipes, just above our heads, is a minute shrine
Just around the bend, after all this fiddling about, we enter the sauna.
Here, steamy rice meets Koji and sweats it out at 90F for 24 hours in this cedar room. Unlike beer, sake undergoes its starch-to-sugar conversion thanks to Koji (aspergillus oryzae) a mold applied to each grain. Koji grows on and into the grain, digesting the starch and converting it into sugar with enzymes (beer barley already has these enzymes thanks to sprouting during malting). After a day, the Koji-cracked rice is ready for yeast to ferment it.
I forget what these do, but they’re important and have historic significance…something to do with punching down the rice and macerating?
Finally, classic, temperature controlled, stainless, recognizable, fermentation tanks:
We admire the gurgling yeast and sulfuric, chalky aromas. The next room contains even more fermentation and storage vessels, batch for each of SakeOne’s lines:
Between these rooms sits one of the largest filters these eyes have every seen:
Obsessed with clarity and stability, the majority of Momokawa passes through this filter three times. Next, just to be extremely extra-special careful that no wayward yeasts survived, all saké gets an 180F hot bath pasteurization:
Finally, they bottle it and we head outside to taste through their range.
MomoKawa, Silver, Junmai Ginjo Dry Saké
The APPEARANCE is clear, bright, colorless. Medium AROMAS of ethanol and rubbing alcohol distract at first, but verbena, clay, cream and white peach creep to the fore. The PALATE feels viscous, plump, warm, yet sharp shouldered. MomoKawa’s Silver is good (3 of 5), completely functional saké for drinking neat with food or as a cocktail base.
MomoKawa USDA Organic Sake
This comes in a green bottle (clever). We like it more regardless of its Organic-ness. It is slightly sweeter than the Silver, which hides the alcohol. AROMAS and FLAVORS tend fruitier, with pear, gold honey, rose water, coconut, and pinot gris with a slight mineral note. Balance, complexity, and ease of drinking alone make MomoKawa’s Organic very good (4 of 5).
Next, SakeOne’s G Joy Sake in a squat, opaque black bottle. The G (aka Genshu) range sees no watering down, so alcohols are at their natural height. Also, rice polish is at a premium 60%.
AROMAS and FLAVORS show great intensity with fruity, honeyed white apricot, anise, minty candy cane, and a slight paint. The PALATE has a slight graininess, medium plus body, and warmth. G Joy is very good (4 of 5).
Next, their unclaimed Junmai Daiginjo SakeOne’s G Fifty:
This sees rice with greater polish, which means purer flavors. AROMAS and FLAVORS seem the most delicate and complex thus far, with white clover, pear, and other pale fruits and flowers, pinot blanc. Yet the PALATE feels medium sweet, plump, with just enough edgy alcohol 18% abv. G Fifty is very good (4 of 5) and will hold up against rich and spicy food.
Now, remember that pasteurization machine. At Momkawa, one can try their Unpasteurized (aka Nama) Junmai Ginjo:
For fear of exploding bottles, this is only sold on site. Very pretty AROMAS and FLAVORS of grass, pear syrup, strawberry, and vanilla charm us. Medium sweetness, a medium plus natural 18% alcohol by volume warms well creating a medium plus body. This is very very good (4 of 5), just shy of outstanding.
Another brewery exclusive: MomoKawa’s Limited Edition Single Pasteurized sake:
The limited pasteurization allows for all kinds of wildness to creep in. Think of AROMAS and FLAVORS akin to barnyard, dried mushrooms, followed by pears and peaches that finish hot and alcoholic. It is good (3 of 5) but an acquired taste.
Lastly, Momokawa’s Pearl Nigori Sake:
As my wife’s cloudy cup indicates, Nigori Saké does not go through their massive filter. AROMAS and FLAVORS match a pina colada with coconut and banana. The PALATE texture is downright chewy, soft, and warm. Their Pearl Nigori is very good (4 of 5) if a bit overly textural. It would calm down any spicy Thai curry or Mexican dish.
By now, the sun and Saké have made us all a bit wobbly: just the perfect time to bring out SakeOne’s Moonstone line of fruit-infused sakés (a style they invented). These are training wheels for those new to fermented rice. Alcohols are at a lower (12%), wine-like range and sugars are proportionately higher.
From Asian Pear, to Plum and Coconut Lemongrass, they taste and look as expected.
In summation, a visit and tour of SakeOne, America’s founding saké producer and Oregon’s largest, is a fantastic treat. Otherwise, one would have to visit Japan to get this close. Their range is diverse and strategically placed value compared to far more expensive imports.