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A taste of history: Takara Sake museum

As a budding connoisseur of the nuances and subtleties of various alcohols, I have been on the lookout for unique wine and beer bars in the Bay Area. I have compiled a list of brews and grapes I enjoy, which was recently expanded to include sakes when I visited a sake brewing factory and museum in Berkeley, the Takara Sake USA headquarters.

It is a museum on the history of and the process of making sake, a rice wine, with a sake tasting room. The museum shows an informative video every ten minutes in both English and Japanese that details the extremely delicate process of brewing sake, while the tasting bar has several different options to choose from.

When I entered the austere, grey building in Berkeley, I was hit with the powerful fumes of sake. Up a flight of stairs, and facing my left, I spent several minutes looking through a glass window into the factory section of the building, mesmerized. Bottle after bottle was guided through an assembly line; first sanitized, filled with Takara’s latest sake brew, guided? down another line, then passed under a large metal box into which corks and caps funneled.

The sake tasting room is simply decorated, reflecting Japanese tradition. Raised wooden platforms (for enjoying sake) bookend the welcoming room, while a large scale mobile of gray ovals and white birds hang from the ceiling. Both the tiled floor and wooden beams are made from recycled materials, and gray rock forms break up the empty space between the bar and television. The informative video discusses how the brewing process has evolved over the centuries, and how it is unique from beer and wine; the saccharification (the sugar formation) and the alcohol fermentation occur at the same time. The video is quite informative, though I must admit it was a little like watching the Discovery Channel accompanied by Beethoven. Just beyond the seating area for the video, lies the museum.

The contrast between dusty wooden barrels and sharp cool sake ambushed my nose as I turned to the huge diagram depicting the process of brewing sake, complete with arrows and cartoon figures. Facts and figures line the walls, as do barrels (for carrying water and sake) and tools such as rakes (kaiwari), a bubble remover (awakeshi) and mixing poles (kaburakai). In addition to these antique tools, there are massive wooden barrels used for holding the rice from which sake is made, while it is steamed, soaked and mashed, although not all at the same time.

There are also cedar balls on display, which were traditionally hung outside of sake houses in Japan to signify that a new brew of sake had just been completed. The museum offers a healthy dose of history regarding all aspects of the sake making process, and sake’s role in the western United States. For example, sake enjoyed a higher demand between the 1970’s and 90’s when the Japanese population increased exponentially.

In 1998, there were seven sake brewing companies in the United States, all of which were on the West Coast, largely because California is a prime area for growing rice as well as providing an ample supply of water from the Sierra Nevada and  the Rocky Mountains.

By the time I walked up to the small bar, I was excited to taste different kinds of sake. With seven menus of sake to try, and each offering five to seven different sakes, I decided to go with the “Variation” in order to try the widest array of drinks. The bartender, Mika Tsuchiiwa, was patient and helpful, explaining the different properties and flavors of each sake. Placing the delicate cup before me, she said that the blue rings at the bottom of the cup were in order to measure clarity. Giving me a crash course on the techniques of tasting sake, she attended the other guests at the bar (while slipping fluidly from perfect English to native Japanese), giving me time to contemplate each different cup.

She gracefully schooled me on the differences in how each different kind of sake is made, what to pair each drink with, which sakes are meant to be heated, and which were meant to be served cold. Takara Sake USA is a gem if you’re interested in learning about the history of sake, or even if you just want to drink in a peaceful place. Weekends are generally more busy than the weekdays, with about 70% of their guests as newcomers. Almost exclusively people from the Bay Area, their customers generally hear about Takara by word of mouth.

I encourage you to explore this overlooked museum and bar – nothing is rushed in the tasting room, and you can enjoy sake in an authentic environment until your heart is content.