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All About Sake: A Primer + 3 Great SF Programs

Photo via Roka Akor

Just say no to sake bombs. The fermented rice beverage ubiquitous to sushi joints around town is finally getting its due with well-developed, masterfully curated programs. We’ve selected three of our favorites — ICHI Suhsi + NI Bar, Roka Akor, and Pabu — perfect for your sake enjoyment no matter your level of expertise. But first, a few key things to understand before you sip.

Your Sake Primer: The Basics

1. Sake is more like beer than wine. While sake is often termed “rice wine,” it’s actually more like beer thanks to the specific brewing process. Specifically, starch is transformed into sugar via fermentation. The brewing process also includes rice “polishing,” removing oils and protein from the exterior. Also important? The kind of water used in the brewing process — water from the Hyogo Prefecture in Japan has been found to make great sake (meaning there's a good amount of sake production going on there). A sake brewer is called a Toji, a position akin to an artist or craftsman in Japan. 

2. Not all sake is created equal. There are two broad kinds of sake — Futsu-shu and Tokutei meisho-shu. The former includes the majority of sake produced (including the kind you’ve bombed); the latter encapsulates all “special designation” sake. These premium kinds are further broken down into eight categories (Junmai Daijinjo-shu, Daijinjo-shu, Junmai Ginjo-shu, Ginjo-shu, Tokubetso Junmai-shu, Tokubetsu Honjozo-shu, Junmai-shu, Honjozo-shu), depending on how much rice has been polished, and the amount of “brewers alcohol” added — distilled alcohol which is added towards the end of the brewing process to extract more nuanced flavors.

3. Different glasses, different traditions. You may find yourself served sake in a small, ceramic glass; a wine glass; or a wooden box. The box, or masu, has a volume of 180 milliliters, and was traditionally used to sell sake (and then drink it). It’s filled to the rim, or overflowing, to show prosperity and generosity. More frequently, you’ll see sake served in ochoko or sakazuki cups, small, handle-free ceramic glasses; sakazuki are wider and flatter, and are often used for ceremonial purposes. While less traditional, more and more places are serving sake in wine glases. This allows you to experience the sake more fully — the color, smell, etc. 

4. Temperature matters. Sake is generally served room temperature or warmed up; while often, hot sake is served warm to mask an inferior flavor, this is not always the case. With the right sake, a little bit of warmth can really allow the flavors to shine. But you'll find some cases where sake is best served cold — specifically, seasonal sakes that have specific traits and flavor profiles. 

5. Make it all about the food. Perhaps most importantly, sake is as varied and diverse as wine, and lends itself to food pairings just as well, too. This is where our favorite San Francisco programs shine — and have set up their menus to help with your sake exploration. 

Drinking Sake in SF: Three Spots to Try

“I love to pair sake with food, and not just Japanese food!” says Stuart Morris, Sake Sommelier at Pabu. A certified Sake Master, Morris is passionate about helping diners find the kinds of sake that suit their general flavor preferences, and their meal.

At Pabu, over 50 sakes are on offer, and are all meant to be food-friendly. “We have everything from a very light-body, soft water sake, that goes well with sashimi and oysters, to a full-flavored hard water sake, that pairs with braised meats. We have sake that is sweeter and goes well with desserts. And, everything in between.” What's more, Morris is determined to change perceptions about hot sake. Pabu's sake list features a selection of six hot sakes, each of which will be heated to a different, complementary serving temperature. 

"I really want to change the perception that hot sake is meant to be dropped in beer, or tastes like rocket fuel," he says. "When done right, hot sake is beautiful."

At Roka Akor, the sake menu is designed to allow diners to choose-their-own sake adventure from the 54 varieties on offer, with help from the wait staff, if needed. 

“Our list is broken up into four main styles,” says Jason Reiplinger, General Manager of Roka Akor. “And, each style matches different parts of the menu. We’ll ask our guests what kind of food they’re interested in — sushi, meat, robata, or a combination — then navigate them to the right part of the list.”

The four styles — Kire, Kaori, Aji, and Asobi — range from descriptors like “simple, clean, and subtle” to “playful, unusual” sakes, that might be sparkling, unfiltered, or flavored. Reiplinger has some tips for the kinds of sake to seek out, depending on your level of expertise. 

"Ginjyou and Daiginjyou are great for beginners; they're more fragrant and approachable," he says. "I like Junmai for more experienced drinker — they're gamier, and can be very earthy."

And, if you've tried a sake you've loved elsewhere, you should let the Roka Akor team know.

"If one of our guests requests a specific product, we always try to bring it in to our sake program," he says. "We want the program to evolve, and really suit the tastes of our guests." 

Seeking out unusual, or harder to find sakes is the driving force behind ICHI Sushi + NI’s sake list. Bar Manager Ken Furusawa keeps the list at around 15 sakes, and is passionate about the education possibilities of sake drinking. 

“We’re working with such passionate purveyors, so we like to invite brewers and representatives from Japan in to talk about their craft with us,” he says. “The more we can learn from them, the more we can augment our pairings and our seasonal dining menus.”

Some recent standouts in Furusawa's sake cache? Kinka, a Daijingo sake, which is unpasteurized and highly seasonal; it's meant to be consumed in the springtime, when the sake brewing season comes to an end. 

"A really special thing about this sake is that it's kept cold from the brewery in Japan, all the way to your glass," he says. "It helps preserve the unique traits of this once-a-year drink." 

A focus on flavor, and the incredible nuances in sake style, is key to all three of these programs. And, will hopefully change the way we think about, and drink, sake in SF.

“I am really trying to change the perception that sake is high in alcohol, and that you shoot out of little cups,” Morris says.

Programs that place such a high emphasis on sake, and on keeping things interesting, is certainly a part of that. And, by showcasing the dedication that goes into creating sake. 

“The care in the craft, and the pride of producers, is emblematic of sakes,” Furusawa says. “You see it in the family legacies of brewers, and in the bottles that we drink.”

Follow Lauren @laurensloss.