Blue Kudzu Sake Company, which last month starting brewing its first batches of the traditional beverage, sits about 600 miles from the nearest rice field. Its Asheville production facility is in a county where fewer than .001 percent of residents identify themselves as Asian. And none of its founders have ever visited Japan.

Sake words worth knowing

John Gautner, creator of the sake professional course, keeps a very informative sake website. The following definitions are based on explanations found at

Types of sake

Junmai: Translated as pure rice sake, junmai is made from water, mold and rice which has been polished until at least 30 percent of its outer shell is ground away. Junmai is full, rich and not especially fragrant.

Honjozo: When a very small amount of brewer’s alcohol is added to the vat, honjozo emerges. The alcohol lightens the body of the brew and enhances its aromas.

Grades of sake

Ginjo: The ginjo classification refers to the amount of rice polishing. To qualify, the rice must be milled until it’s no more than 60 percent of its original size. What’s polished away are the fats and proteins which muddle a sake’s flavor profile. If you polished away 40 percent of your rice’s outer shell, then spiked the mix with a tiny bit of brewer’s alcohol, you’d have made Honjozo Ginjo.

Daginjo: Just like ginjo, but more so: If the rice is polished down to no more than 49 percent of its original size, you’re dealing with daginjo sake. Daginjos vary tremendously, in the way of fine wines, but they’re uniformly fragrant and complex. As you’ve no doubt guessed, there’s typically a direct relationship between the amount of rice polished away and the amount drinkers are asked to pay for it.

Styles of sake

Futsu-shu: The sake equivalent of table wine. If the rice hasn’t been polished to required specifications, it’s plain futsu-shu.

Taruzake: Sake aged in cedar casks. Try it once. Depending upon your feelings toward the cinammony flavors, you may or may not want to try it again.

Tokubetsu: Brewers can apply this term to any junmai or honjozo they consider “special.” Often it refers to the quality of rice, polishing percentage beyond the minimum requirements or brewing process, but there aren’t any legal standards limiting its use.

But, as co-owner Cat Ford-Coates says brightly, “North Carolina has the highest number of Asian restaurants per capita!”

This statistic is puzzling, unless you’ve driven along North Carolina’s backroads, where quasi-Japanese steakhouses serving up heaps of mayonnaise-based white sauce, fried rice and sugared carrots are more common than barbecue stands. The favored drink in these restaurants is typically sweet tea. If they’ve swung a permit, they might pour beer and plum wine, but sake hasn’t yet entered the state’s standard liquid lexicon.

“I think education is going to be one of our primary marketing tools,” Ford-Coates says.

Southerners breaking into the sake business clearly face a number of significant hurdles. Yet the region has demonstrated a unique enthusiasm for the potential of rice spirits, with three of the nation’s five sake microbreweries located here. In addition to Blue Kudzu, Ben’s Tune-Up, another downtown Asheville venue that doubles as a bar and noodle shop, plans to soon start producing sake, including a sake infused with honey and kumquats. And in Austin, Texas, the terroir-driven Texas Sake is crafting an American-oaked sake from organic, Texas-grown rice.

Although entrepreneurs in the Lowcountry haven’t yet converted the area’s rich rice history into a contemporary sake scene, Jonathan Robinson of Ben’s Tune-Up says overcrowding in the beer industry could soon force more artisans to consider making sake, which isn’t regulated as strictly as hard liquor. In the process, he predicts, they’ll forge a distinctly American way of brewing the rice, water, yeast and koji mold which define the drink.

“In Japan, these traditions are passed down from generation to generation,” Robinson says. “We’re just trying to figure out what is tradition and what is necessary. There’s going to be something inherently American about our sake.”

Rice drinking, here and abroad

Americans have previously fooled with rice spirits, although the history of the genre is hazy. According to food historian David Shields of the University of South Carolina, the spirituals sung while making Carolina gold rice wine have outlasted the recipe for the 18th century quaff.

“I secured one recipe from a man outside of Savannah five years ago, and Dr. Joe Jones in Columbia tried making it, but it was rank,” says Shields, an heirloom sake cup collector who considers good sake the best beverage to pair with barbecue. “I’m sure the wrong yeast was used and the rice was not polished at all.”

Centuries before the Lowcountry produced any rice wine, Japanese brewers had perfected their technique for fermenting rice into sake, which is more akin to beer. But sake isn’t exactly beer, either. It’s made according to a multiple parallel fermentation process, which means starches become sugars and sugars become alcohol simultaneously.

Even within the standard methodology, there are plenty of opportunities for sake makers to determine how their products will taste. There are critical choices associated with each of the drink’s elements: The brewer, or toji, must decide which kind of rice to use, how much to polish it and whether to filter rice particles out of the mix before pasteurizing it (assuming the sake isn’t being sold in its fresh, unpasteurized state.) The 1,600 sake breweries across Japan represent the 1,600 different conclusions their tojis have reached.

Americans tend to reflexively associate small-scale production with quality, but high-end sake is a relatively recent innovation. For many years, Japan’s reigning sakes were ordinary, workaday drinks, more comparable to bodega breakfast sandwiches than organic thimbleberry preserves. According to Imbibe Magazine, sake’s failure to tantalize a young audience is partly what drove brewers to explore the U.S. market.

In certain corners, sake caught. Under the influence of a local sake sommelier with an evangelical bent, Portland, Ore. has become a sake haven. The city this year hosted its third annual sake festival, and sake routinely appears on wine lists at non-Japanese restaurants, where drinkers gladly sip from full-sized glasses and never ask for sake served hot (an anachronistic way of making harsh sake palatable.) Around Portland, it’s common knowledge that sake is better suited to cheese than sushi.

The area’s also home to SakeOne, a Momokawa Sake offshoot which in 1998 became one of the first sake-making facilities in the U.S. But it took another decade before Minneapolis’ Blake Richardson opened Moto-i, the brewery credited with originating the notion of U.S. craft sake.

Inventing Carolina sake

Ford-Coates and her friends had never heard of Moto-i, or its junmais on draft, when they first hatched their sake plan. The service industry workers had scads of extra free time in the winter, when the Blue Ridge Parkway’s closed and it’s too cold for tourists to comfortably hike, bike or paddle, so they formed a weekly supper club.

“We happened to be at Mitch (Fortune)’s, and he was rolling sushi, and we were drinking sake,” Ford-Coates recalls. “Mary (Taylor) said, ‘They make this in Oregon. If they can do it in Oregon, we can do it here.’”

Along with Preston Coleman, the pals began brewing test batches in Fortune’s basement. Three of them enrolled in a certified sake professional course administered by the Sake Education Council, the sake world’s equivalent of the Court of Master Sommeliers. They tasted dozens of sakes, learned how to distinguish various pressing styles and picked up enough production intelligence to form firm opinions about exactly when to mill rice.

The goal of the program, though, isn’t to create sake geeks. It’s meant to create sake ambassadors. That’s why Ford-Coates is quick to tell skeptics, “The upside of sake is it’s gluten-free, has half the alcohol of vodka and infuses like that,” punctuating her pitch with a finger snap.

Blue Kudzu plans to annually brew 64,000 bottles of sake, focusing on three traditional styles. But there’s no class outlining precisely how to launch a craft sake operation, so almost everything is subject to change.

“There’s no book on how to open a sake brewery at this level,” Robinson says. “It’s kind of fun, because you get to engineer it.”

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.