Oregon is known for its evergreen forests, spectacular coastline, and towering volcanoes draped with glaciers. The state is also recognized for a robust wine industry. Large sections of the lush Willamette Valley, in particular, have over the last 25 years been planted in grapes, and the region has earned a reputation for excellent wine production, led by award-winning pinot noirs.
Surprisingly, Oregon is home to another award-winning beverage: saké. That’s right, the traditional Japanese liquor made of fermented rice. In 1998 a group of local saké enthusiasts built the first American-owned and operated saké brewery in North America called SakéOne. Under sakémaster Greg Lorenz, the Oregon brewery has won international acclaim for its Momokawa, Moonstone and G saké brands.
Located about 25 miles west of Portland, SakéOne can be reached by driving west on Highway 26 to Banks then south on Highway 47 to Forest Grove. The tasting room is open every Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m and free public tours are offered at 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. daily.
On the brewery tour you learn about the four key ingredients of saké: water, mold, yeast and rice. One reason for SakéOne’s success is the quality of water obtained from the Oregon Coastal Range aquifer. Low in iron and manganese, it is perfect for brewing saké. The special saké rice they use is sourced from growers in the Sacramento Valley. The rice is milled to remove 40 percent or more of the undesirable outer layer.
The milled, cooled and steamed rice is blended with a special koji mold to start the process. Select yeasts are introduced to ferment the rice and impart unique flavors to the saké. After fermentation, the raw, undiluted product has 18 to 21 percent alcohol content. Depending on the style and the objectives of the sakémaster, the product receives varying degrees of dilution, filtration, pasteurization and/or aging.
Some "raw" varieties receive little filtering while others are highly filtered. Their Moonstone label sakés are infused with natural flavors, including Asian pear, raspberry, plum and coconut.
"Our sakémaster learned his craft from Yoshio Koizumi, one of the top brewers in Japan," explained our tour guide. "Our saké is a bit heartier than that which is brewed in Japan to align with the American palate."
The brewery is a spotless complex of stainless steel tanks, pipes, and processing equipment. Special cedar-lined rooms are used for the critical step when the rice is blended with the koji mold. The entire building has a rich yeasty aroma. By the time you see the product being bottled and packaged, you are ready to sample some Oregon-made saké!
In the tasting room our hostess provided samples of SakéOne’s Momokawa, G, Moonstone and Momokawa Organics sakés. All were served pleasingly chilled. Some were very dry and others more lush and spicy tasting. I especially liked the slightly cloudy organics and the Moonstone variety flavored with coconut and lemongrass. Crackers, cheese and paté enhanced the flavor of all the sakés. Naturally, we purchased a few bottles and thanked our hosts for the tour and tasting.
We were very impressed with the operation, liked the sakés, and are pleased to see this unique Oregon business doing so well, providing jobs and enhancing the local economy.
After our morning tour and tasting, we were ready for lunch — and what would be more appropriate than dining in a Japanese restaurant?
The folks at SakéOne recommended the Syun Izakaya Japanese Restaurant and Sake Club in nearby Hillsboro, and it proved to be a charming and delicious choice. Located in the lower level of Hillsboro’s original library building, Syun is a cute Japanese-style pub with, I later learned, a reputation for the best sushi and greatest saké list in Oregon. The menu is laden with delicacies from the sea like sea urchin, tempura shrimp, octopus, halibut, salmon-saké soup, eggplant stuffed with shrimp and of course all those luscious types of sushi.
Our lunches were tasty and reasonably priced. Donít tell the people at SakéOne, but I had a Kirin beer with my tempura–perfect!
Our outing to SakéOne and Syun Izakaya proved to be a delightful Japanese holiday right here in Northwest Oregon. We learned about saké, saw how it is made, tasted and purchased several varieties, and topped it with four-star lunch in an authentic Japanese pub. To do all this with good friends was a near perfect day.
SakéOne (820 Elm St, Forest Grove; 503-357-7056)
Syun Izakaya Japanese Restaurant and Sake Club (209 NE Lincoln St; Hillsboro; 503-640-3131)
John grew up in Oregon. Before entering college he spent a year hitch-hiking around the world, visiting 40 countries. He earned a degree in English from Colorado College and a master’s in Outdoor Recreation Management from Oregon State University. He has worked as a landscaper, climbing instructor, park ranger and freelance writer. In 1992 he formed Skyline Communications, providing writing, photography, editing and publication design services to corporate clients. In his free time, John enjoys hiking, river-running, photography and travel. He and his wife, Carol, live in West Linn, Oregon.