Friday, March 19, 2010

Takara Sake USA: Immerse yourself in the Japanese Rice Wine

A recent dinner with sake at Betelnut got your host thinking about the beverage and the fact that there is a very good sake factory just across the Bay in Berkeley named Takara Sake USA. A subsidiary of the larger Japanese business, Takara Sake is located in a white industrial building near the railroad tracks and has been producing fine Junmai and Junmai Ginjo sakes from Sacramento Valley rice since 1982. Most know of the company through their flagship "Sho Chiku Bai" brand. Though sake is often known as rice wine in English, often due to its non-carbonated nature and bottle appearance, the manufacturing process is more like beer, in that the rice must first be converted from starch to sugar.

Current students and alums at Cal Berkeley may be well aware of Takara, as their tasting room has historically been popular with the college set. So much so, that the company now limits the quantity one can consume at each visit.

That being said, the visit is still a great way to get acquainted with the Japanese beverage. The museum and tasting room is on the second level of the factory, which allows one to peer down into the fermenting and manufacturing rooms. The potent smell of yeasty rice lingers in the air, a decidedly different aroma than one would find at a winery or brewery. There is a small museum detailing the process of making sake, along with a collection of antique sake making equipment. There is an airy Japanese styled tasting bar where you can choose one of several flights to try, depending on how dry or sweet you like your sake. Each flight costs $5 and allows you to try several products, ranging from milky white unfiltered Nigori sakes to super premium Junmai Dai-Ginjos. The tasting is an excellent chance to try more expensive sakes on the cheap, as a few of the flights contain sake from bottles in the $30 to $50 range. Unfortunately, the staff is strict about limited visitors to one flight (even if you offer to pay another $5), probably to discourage the rowdy group spectacle of years past.

However, there is no limit on how many bottles you can buy and take home and they offer their full range of USA and Japanese made products for sale at attractive prices, including organic and extra fine sakes. For those wanting a crash course in sake making, Takara's webpage offers a good overview of the manufacturing process and sake's differing characteristics, including how the different levels of rice polishing affect taste.

Before or after the visit, a good lunch option is Brennan's, located in the nearby historic mission-style 1913 Southern Pacific Railroad Depot under the University Avenue overpass. Known for its hand-carved sandwiches, Brennan's offers filling and reasonably priced pub fair in a classically detailed environment. Amtrak and freight trains still pass by out front.

Important Information:

Takara Sake USA
708 Addison St.
(Between 3rd and 4th street)
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 540-8250
Mon-Sat 12 p.m. - 6 p.m.
Sun 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Brennan's Restaurant
700 University Ave.
(Between 3rd and 4th street)
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 841-0960
Mon-Wed 11 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Thu-Sat 11 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Bar stays open later.

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