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A Wine That's Found Its Time : Vernon Sake Maker Profits From Brewing Popularity of Drink

September 05, 1993|IRIS YOKOI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kampai! And a sip is taken. The clear liquid rolls lightly, smoothly over the tongue, slightly sweet. But after the drink slides down the throat, the chest suddenly warms, like a furnace that's reached its optimum temperature.

A satisfying drink, this sake, perhaps brewed in Kobe, Japan, where much of the Japanese rice wine is produced. Or maybe it is an American-made sake, produced by one of the Japanese-owned breweries in Northern California.

Wrong on both accounts. This sake was brewed right here in Los Angeles County, in Vernon.

For six years, the American Pacific Rim brewery has quietly produced 300,000 gallons of sake annually. Tucked away in the industrial city of Vernon, the brewery is one of only six sake breweries in the nation and the only one in Southern California.

Although a small plant, American Pacific Rim is second in sales and production among the six breweries, four of which are in Northern California. Another just opened in Golden, Colo.

"Small sake plant, but very mighty sake plant," said American Pacific Rim president Take Numano.

Often called "rice wine" but actually made from fermented grains, like beer, sake originated in China 2,000 years ago. But the Japanese made it their national drink, and it is the traditional alcoholic beverage at all important occasions, including weddings, New Year's Day and other celebrations.

Still, sake sales in Japan are decreasing as new generations become more interested in other liquors and beverages. Conversely, American interest in the Japanese drink has grown. Analysts say the rise is linked to the popularity of sushi bars and Japanese restaurants.

U.S. consumption of sake has about doubled since 1985, with 2 million gallons consumed in 1990, most of it in Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to figures in the book, "Sake (USA)," by Fred Eckhardt. Japanese companies have built sake breweries in the United States to meet the demand.

Domestic brewers produced about 55% of the sake consumed in the United States, with the rest imported from Japan, according to "Sake (USA)."

Numano is largely credited with starting the American sake production trend. The 58-year-old Long Beach resident, who came to the United States in 1963 as an employee of a Japanese liquor importer, was the first to produce sake on the American mainland when he opened a brewery in 1976 in a former dairy in Berkeley.

At the time, there was only one sake brewery in the United States, the Honolulu Sake Co., which operated in Hawaii from 1908 until it closed last year.

Numano, who is now often called "the father of United States sake," said he realized it would be less expensive to produce the beverage here because the rise in the price of yen against the dollar inflated the cost of sake from Japan.

Numano's independent Berkeley brewery produced 100,000 gallons a year until 1982, when he sold the plant to Takara Sake, a 150-year-old Kyoto company. Takara Sake USA Inc., which produces the popular Sho Chiku Bai label, is now the largest of the American sake breweries, producing 640,000 gallons a year.

After the sale, Numano started American Pacific Rim. The independent company produces two brands, California Ki-Ippon Dry sake and California Ki-Ippon Premium Dry, or Arabashiri, which means "first-run." The company also imports 27 higher-quality Japanese "country" sakes.

California Ki-Ippon, which loosely translates to "the purest product of the area," is sold mostly in the West, although it is also available in some Midwest and East Coast cities. The company also exports to Hong Kong and Japan where Numano says sales are going well, even though the tradition-revering Japanese are usually skeptical about the quality of American-made sake.

"The California sake is a curiosity," Numano said. "So it is selling good. And our quality is not bad--average."

The quality of the rice is key in making good sake, Numano said as he gave a tour of his 8,000-square-foot plant. Water quality is also crucial, but modern technology allows for effective purification, he said.

Numano buys about 500 tons of rice--a mix of white and brown polished rice--annually from a Sacramento Valley grower. The rice is washed, soaked for 24 hours, steamed, cooled and mixed with water and other rice, called koji , that has been incubated with a mold.

The mixture is fermented for 25 days in 16 tanks kept in a room cooled to 40 degrees. The koji converts the starches in the rice to sugar, which is fermented into alcohol. The raw sake is then pressed, filtered, pasteurized and aged up to six months before bottling. The Arabashiri sake, with an alcohol content of 19%, is aged for a only week; hence the name "first-run."

Unlike fruit wines, sake does not improve with age, experts say. Because it is light-sensitive, it does not have a long shelf life and thus should be consumed quickly. Although sake can be served cold or heated, connoisseurs recommend serving it cold or lukewarm. Numano even recommends that his Arabashiri be kept in the freezer, where the high alcohol content keeps it from crystallizing.

Cool weather is also ideal for sake brewing, to protect against bacterial contamination and acidity. Numano halts production at his brewery in July and August because of the heat, giving his 10 employees a two-month vacation.

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