Learning the Sake ABCs at Japan's Oldest Brewery

Let's learn about sake. Are you ready? I am. I'm also interested in drinking some, but that's beside the point. I have a beer in my hand, so I'll have to give myself a raincheck, for at least the next half hour.

I'm going to go through the sake-brewing process, from start to finish, with a case study based on our trip last fall to Kenbishi, Japan's oldest sake brand. Kenbishi, located west of Osaka in Hyogo Prefecture, has been brewing sake since 1505. The name Kenbishi means "sword diamond," and they've used the same iconic sword-diamond logo for hundreds of years. You can actually see it in some old Edo-period woodblock prints, like the famous Utamaro print below, now at the New York Met.. This is sake with history, a classic brand paired with centuries of technical expertise. The product itself is bold and distinctive, and made a real impression on me even before our trip there. 

Kenbishi's current owners--the fourth family to own the brewery--are dedicated stewards of a half-millennium tradition. Masataka and Noriko Shirakashi generously spent four hours with us, giving us a private step-by-step, room-by-room tour of the entire sake-making process, followed by a sake tasting. It was an incredible experience, and a surprisingly intimate one. We learned a ton, not only about how sake is made, but also about how well it pairs with Western foods like cured meats and cheeses. Because they let us bring our camera along for the tour, we have a great photo record to accompany the sake story, and hopefully make it easier to follow.

Sake Brewing Basics

Before we enter the kura (sake brewery), let's make sure we understand some basic sake principles. Sake is a drink made by fermenting rice, which has been milled to remove the outer layers. The fermentation process used to make sake is known as "double-parallel" fermentation. This means two types of fermentation are necessary to make sake, and they happen in the same pot at the same time. First, the starches in rice must be converted into simple sugars. This process is carried out by a fungus, known as koji. Second, as with other alcoholic beverages, yeast (also a fungus) is used to convert sugars to ethanol. 

The end product results from controlling an astounding number of variables: the variety of rice, the amount of rice milled, the rice cooking process, the rice moisture content, the species of koji and yeast used, the quality of the water, filtration, pasteurization, aging, and much more. The dedication to the craft, the attention to detail at every step in the process, is the hallmark of sake-making. At Kenbishi, the commitment to traditional methods is on full display. Instead of using synthetic, off-the-shelf ropes for its sake barrels, Kenbishi makes its own ropes in-house. It still manufactures its own rice-steaming barrels and wooden warming elements, just as it has for hundreds of years. No corners are cut, the commitment to the craft drives every step of the process.  

We visited Kenbishi's primary kura, one of four. Incredibly, Kenbishi saw huge damage in the 1995 Kobe earthquake. At that time, they had eight kuras. Only one survived. A devastating loss, and one that could easily spell the end for a business. But with 500 years of tradition, the strength of its brand, and the quality of its product, Kenbishi pulled itself up and rebuilt. Today it is thriving. Across four brewing sites, Kenbishi has about sixty permanent employees. During the winter months, peak brewing season, that number doubles with the addition of seasonal workers. 

Rice Milling

The first step in making sake is milling the rice down to its starchy core. The milling strips the outer layers, which contain proteins, fats, and other impurities that can compromise the taste of the final product. The process is performed using a milling machine like the one shown below. The powdered outer layers are not discarded; they are used in various cooking applications, for livestock feed, etc. 

If you've seen the terms ginjo or daiginjo on a menu, they are indicators of the percentage of rice milled.  Ginjo means the sake uses rice milled to at least 60% of its original volume; daiginjo to at least 50%. Often sake is referred to as being "premium" the closer it gets to a daiginjo. The important thing to understand, though, is that this doesn't mean a daiginjo sake is better, or that you'll like it more. It just means (a) it costs more to make because less of the rice grain is used, and (b) it's likely to have a cleaner taste with more of the grain's outer impurity-containing layers having been removed.  In other words, ginjo and daiginjo refer to manufacturing styles (and, relatedly, Japanese regulatory and labeling distinctions) rather than to the rank of the sake.

Kenbishi only mills its rice to a bit over 70% of its original volume, and the sake has a big, complex taste. They adjust the exact milling rate each year to make the best use of the rice harvested that year.

Rice Steaming

Once the rice is milled to the desired level, it has to be steamed. Remarkable care is taken to control the steaming process, because the ultimate moisture content imparted to the rice is critical for the success of subsequent fermentation processes. Kenbishi, with its focus on traditional methods, steams rice using large cedar barrels, called koshiki.  They believe the wooden koshiki is a superior vessel, because it prevents condensation and absorbs excess water.  They steam their rice in the very early morning, to take advantage of cold air coming down from the nearby mountains. It helps with temperature control. 

Amazingly, Kenbishi's wooden koshiki are all made by an in-house craftsman, using traditional methods. This particular craftsman is the only person alive today with the know-how to make these things. As it turns out, he's quite old, so for the past five years, he has been training others at Kenbishi to carry on this craft tradition after he's gone. Now Kenbishi is in a position to keep its historical brewing methods alive into the future.


Once the rice is cooked, a portion is used to make koji. This is done in a special room, which feels a lot like a sauna or a steam room. It's essentially a huge cedar box, kept at elevated temperature and humidity. The brewers begin the process by working the koji spores into the rice by hand. This painstaking manual procedure is necessary to achieve uniform coverage across all grains of rice. The rice is then placed into little open cedar boxes, which are moved around the room four times a day for 4-5 days. This constant rotation is necessary to make sure all the grains of rice are exposed to the same environmental conditions, to promote uniform koji growth. When the growing process is complete, the koji rice is set aside for use in the fermentation tank. 

Somewhat surprisingly, we were allowed into the koji room during our tour. It was steamy in there, and you get the sense of how demanding it must be for the brewers to spend so much time in this hot space working around the clock to assure optimal distribution and growth of the koji fungus. We were invited to touch and taste the finished koji rice. You can see in the picture how the look of the rice has changed; it appears to be covered in a matte-opaque white material, and has become a bit clumpy. The taste was pleasant, sort of sweet, and the texture a bit chewy. 

Yeast Starter

The next step is to make the yeast starter, also known as shubo. This is the first step that makes it clear alcohol is being brewed. The yeast starter is an oatmeal-like concoction of steamed rice, koji rice, and water, in which yeast propagates. This is where parallel fermentation takes place: the koji is breaking down the rice, converting the starch to sugar, while the yeast is simultaneously taking the koji-produced sugar and converting it to alcohol.  

At Kenbishi, the preparation of the yeast starter takes about a month. Most other breweries do it in about half the time because, unlike Kenbishi, they physically mash the rice during the fermentation process, exposing the interior of the grain to the koji enzymes. The process involves a traditional method of slow, indirect heating, using wooden jugs periodically filled with boiling water. Once again, Kenbishi is uniquely traditional here, because they employ the only craftsman in Japan who can still make these wooden jugs.

From a scientific perspective, a lot of cool stuff is happening in the yeast starter, which I'll write about in detail later. 

Fermentation Mash

When the yeast starter is complete, it is time for bulk fermentation. Now the process moves to significantly larger tanks, into which yeast starter, koji, steamed rice, and water are added in three intervals over a four-day period. The reason for the intervals is that the transfer to a bigger vessel with more surface area puts stress on the yeast, which need time to adjust to changed environmental conditions. The moromi mash is kept in the tank for about three weeks. At this point, it's time for final processing.

Finishing the Sake

With fermentation complete, the mash is filtered to remove residual solid particulates. There are a number of ways to perform the filtration; Kenbishi uses the press filtration machine in the image below. Be aware, though, that not all sake is filtered to clearness. You may have encountered niigori sake, which is cloudy as a result of filtration using a coarser mesh.  

Following filtration, the sake is pasteurized. Not only does this heating process kill bacteria, it stops enzymatic activity in the sake, which helps stabilize product quality. Some breweries also filter their products over charcoal, which helps remove organic impurities and clear up the sake's color. Finally, Kenbishi transfers the sake to large tanks, where they age it before bottling. Their popular kuromatsu product is aged for less than a year, but they have another product that's aged for up to fifteen years.  

So now we've gone through the entire sake-making process. It's safe to say the main contours of the process at Kenbishi are representative of how sake is made generally. The steps always include rice milling and steaming, the preparation of koji, and then the yeast starter, before moving on to bulk fermentation. The fine details of an individual brewery's processes, combined with variations in rice, water, microbes, etc., together contribute to each sake's unique characteristics. There are obviously more subtleties to Kenbishi's process, which are too detailed to go into here.   

Sake Tasting, With a Surprise

After our tour, we sat down with the Shirakashis for a sake tasting. We tried six products, each aged for different periods of time. Only a couple of them (kuromatsu and kuromatsu mizuho) are available in the U.S. Kenbishi's basic product, kuromatsu, is a bold, rich drink, but it was the lightest sake we tried. Most striking was a sake that had been aged for more than five years, taking on a golden hue and delivering a powerful sensory experience. Not quite a brandy or a liqueur, but trending in that direction relative to most sake out there.  

The most eye-opening part of our tasting was that Kenbishi paired its sake with Western foods--blue cheese, Camembert, prosciutto--in addition to some Japanese items, like pickled sea urchin and fermented squid (ika no shiokara). All of these cured or fermented high-umami foods paired well with Kenbishi's strong sake, with the richest sake pairing best with the richest foods, the blue cheese and the sea urchin.

The point is that Kenbishi chooses to showcase its products in an international context, drawing on food pairings best suited to the sake, and disregarding the artificial barrier between this Japanese drink and Western cuisine. Kenbishi is being forward thinking here. It realizes, as a matter of business, that the future of sake is a global one. At the same time the Japanese sake industry sees a shrinking market at home, sake is starting to gain a foothold in the uncharted West, with Americans and Europeans starting to drink it more seriously.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we just saw Shirakashi-san at the JFC sake expo in the Bay Area last month, and his Facebook feed says he's been in LA and Italy in the weeks since then.

Kenbishi reveres tradition when it comes to making its product, but it's positioning itself at the vanguard of sake's big extraterritorial expansion. For both of these things, we tip our hats and raise our glasses. Kanpai!    

The Road to Sake Is Paved With Gold(schlager)

Here it is, Sunday night, and I'm at my desk enjoying a glass of sauvignon blanc. Fifteen years ago, I wouldn't have been caught dead drinking this stuff, but I've come around. White wine is actually good, I'm happy to report. There's a certain inevitability in the arc of one's drinking life. If a drink is in fact good, sooner or later, you'll end up drinking it. So let's give it up for sauvignon blanc.

It's Best to Get Started Early. There's a Lot to Learn.

It doesn't seem like that long ago I was desperately trying to force myself to like beer. Was that 1993? Maybe it was 1994. I was probably fourteen or fifteen and boy did I want to get shitfaced. Did I ever. But it was hard, you know? Booze wasn't too easy to come by, and it tasted pretty terrible.

The first time I got drunk I was a freshman at Firestone High School, in the former rubber capital of the world and home of LeBron James, Akron, Ohio. It was a dismal fall Saturday and I had the good fortune to be introduced to some juniors (I've arrived!) and their cheap vodka and orange juice. I definitely blacked out early on, and when I regained awareness I was hanging off the deck on the back of this guy's house doing pullups. The white turtleneck I was wearing was smeared with mud on the back. Later on I found my retainer in a flower bed. I agree this is all sort of horrifying, but I was having fun.  

When you're fifteen, pounding screwdrivers is easy. The hard part is teaching yourself to stomach Natty Ice or Miller High Life or whatever godawful beer you can get your hands on. If you want to tie one on, you need to knock back a whole lot of that stuff. So you sit there in some friend's basement, or maybe in the park after dark, holding your nose and trying not to yack as you plod through a six pack. I remember being sixteen, trying to get drunk without the hassle of beer, having a positively barbaric outing with Zima chugged from styrofoam cups, and a gallon jug of Carlo Rossi rhine wine. Thanks mom and dad for buying us that shit. Memories to last a lifetime, and not just for me.   

You might say my behavior was foul, maybe even reprehensible, but I was only getting started. Worlds were unfolding. Shots of Goldschlager, 40s of OE, the delightfully repulsive took on so many forms. Oh, this might be twenty years too late, but sorry not sorry Dan's parents about your Canadian whiskey, and sorry not sorry Tim's dad about your single-malt Glenfarclas. That stuff was like 110 proof, and it burned going down, but whatever. In all things in life, you do what you need to do to get the job done. If the job is to be seventeen and wasted, when Glenfarclas presents itself, you drink that shit, and you come back for seconds.  

Division I College Drinking

Secure in my capacity for excess, I headed off for a four year tour at The (The!) Ohio State University. I arrived with my Arizona ID, which was an awful fake, but it worked remarkably well at Kroger's and Applebees. The Natty Ice was never in short supply freshman year, thank god. That was the year I learned to love kegs of Icehouse, and had a nasty run-in with a certain Mr. James Beam. It was the year I learned to drink in the shower at 8 a.m., as a means of getting a head start before a noon kickoff, or maybe before going to church if that's your thing. Good times in Bradley Hall, turning reckless binge drinking into high art. 

Things only escalated sophomore year once we moved off campus to E. 18th Avenue, and continued raging at an aggressive pace for the subsequent three years. Handle bottles of Scoresby blended scotch bought from the ghetto liquor store at the corner of 5th and 4th. Warm Captain Morgan's smuggled into Ohio Stadium on a sweltering football Saturday. Shots of the Three Wisemen, a revolting combination trio of Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and Jose Cuervo. Senior year I helped pioneer the self keg stand. Yes, that's physically possible. No, I haven't done it since 1999.

Coaches.  John Cooper won a lot of games, but pretty much never when it counted. 2-13-1 against Michigan. Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel won titles, and are combined 14-1 against Michigan.  

Coaches. John Cooper won a lot of games, but pretty much never when it counted. 2-13-1 against Michigan. Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel won titles, and are combined 14-1 against Michigan.  

1999 was a ridiculous year, binge-drinking at its zenith. The football team was having its worst season in years. It was back before the paradise of Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel, when John Cooper blew it against Michigan year in and year out. We compensated by forming a football-themed drinking team. I was one of the defensive captains, I played middle linebacker. I organized, motivated, hit hard. I coordinated the team jerseys. I wasn't one of those offensive wonders, the quarterback and the running back, those guys who would drink bong water, or dive-bomb a lawn chair, or expose themselves at parties. That season, if you puked it was a fumble. But it wasn't a turnover if you got back up and started drinking again.   

My stamina was amazing back in those days, and not just because of Ripped Fuel [Friend: Hey, do you want some Ripped Fuel? Me: What's Ripped Fuel? Friend: It's like trucker cocaine, I got it at GNC. Me: I'll take two].  One time Dan's mom (she of the missing Canadian whiskey) came to Columbus and asked how I'd spent the previous day. "Drinking an inordinate amount of alcohol." "How much is that?," she asked. "30 beers." To be fair, though, it was over a stretch of 20 hours, so arguably I'd paced myself. Besides it was probably Coors Light or something more water than beer. Stamina, people. Enjoy it while you can.

Thoughts on Scotch.   Glenfarclas, we didn't deserve you. Scoresby, you're not rare at all, but you should be. Johnnie, man, it was good to catch up at the firm retreat last week. Hadn't seen you for a while. 

Thoughts on Scotch.  Glenfarclas, we didn't deserve you. Scoresby, you're not rare at all, but you should be. Johnnie, man, it was good to catch up at the firm retreat last week. Hadn't seen you for a while. 

In December 1999, our drinking team finished off an undefeated season, and we played against ourselves in a national title game. The Icehouse Bowl or something dumb like that, presented as a Christmas-themed costume party. I wore some absurd thrift-store polyester suit, green pants and a red jacket. Quite obviously, we won a big victory. National title, baby. I drank the worm in a mezcal bottle, and I woke up face down the next morning, still in my holiday best, shoes and all. There is irony here. Eighteen years later I have such vivid memories of that night, but the next day I would have told you I didn't remember anything.  

Graduate School. Way Less Fun, Way Worse Hangovers.

People always say you should go out when you're on top, so that's sort of what I did. The me that could drink to such calculated excess retired at the end of that game. My vaunted stamina was rapidly eroding, the hangovers increasingly painful, the sense of self-loathing during a day-long head-pounding malaise all the more acute.  There was no single moment of epiphany; it was a gradual realization that this actually wasn't fun anymore. Laying low as a matter of self-preservation characterized my final months in Columbus.  

The Kong.  Scorpion Bowls. My last visit here ended not well. 

The Kong. Scorpion Bowls. My last visit here ended not well. 

This isn't to say I didn't give it a go when I got to Cambridge in 2000. I proudly got ejected from the Crimson Grille and the Hong Kong for insulting bouncers. I corralled our entire lab into drinking 40s of OE from brown bags during our fall 2002 new-student open house. We played a drinking game. Every time our adviser trotted out one of his buzzwords du jour, everybody had a drink. Because he spoke a dialect comprised exclusively of buzzwords, the game was a raging success. Some great people ended up joining the lab that year.  

Big picture, though, let's be real here. The Harvard graduate chemistry crowd, a few notable exceptions aside (Dr. Chen and the Borg, those guys were maniacs), couldn't quite compete on the same field as Big Ten undergrads. Realistically, not many people can compete at that level. At the risk of stating the obvious, nor should people want to. 

Boston had a lot of bars, though, and I spent a lot of time at them. Drinking Guinness and Johnnie Walker, because I happened to like Guinness and Johnnie Walker. Do you see that shift? Now we're talking about drinking just because we like what we're drinking. Our biology tells us that, if we're to keep drinking, it's going to have to be on these terms and only these terms. We don't do binge-drinking anymore. We can't do it. By the time I was in law school, which I assure you would have been more enjoyable had I been drunk the entire time, I was largely drinking this way. The last time I drank a 40 was in 2005 on the Caltrain. I can't say I liked the drink, but I can say I liked the idea of drinking it on public transportation. 

The Real Zenith of Drinking

I'm turning 40 this year. Since my late 20s, I've enforced a three drink maximum with a fair degree of rigor. I panic with even faint anticipation of a hangover. I am, you see, committed to enjoy my drinking, and I refuse to do anything that will compromise the experience. The experience should always be good.

There's no reason it shouldn't be. We are living in a golden age of alcohol, and I can't imagine a better place to experience it than the Golden State. Wine has flourished here for decades, although truth be told I think Napa is awful. I prefer wine that tastes like dirt anyway, and the odds of getting a mouthful of dirt are better with French wine, so I get most of my wine at Kermit Lynch in Berkeley. Craft beer culture has simply exploded in the past ten years, and cocktail culture too. It seems like California is at the vanguard in every segment of the alcohol market, although the tide is rising throughout the country. 

And so we come to sake. A market segment that, for all intents and purposes, doesn't exist in the United States. But let me tell you, people, it needs to exist, it must exist. Sake should be huge. This isn't a drink that should be confined to occasional consumption at a sushi restaurant, or that deserves placement next to margarita mix and vermouth on the bottom shelf of the Safeway liquor aisle. Sake is an everyday drink. It goes down easier than wine, it pairs well with western food, and it's affordable. Sake, however, has a marketing problem, a foreignness problem. Sake's potential is obscured by kanji brushstrokes, unmemorable Japanese names, and technical nomenclature. We've decided that needs to change. 

In two months, we're opening The Periodic Table. Sake will be presented as something accessible and casual. We'll serve cheese, cured meats, pickles, all of which are great with sake, believe it or not. We'll educate people, try to break through the brushstroke barrier, and emphasize that you don't really need to care whether it's a junmai daiginjo or a junmai sake. It only matters whether you like the taste. Part of the project is to present it alongside local beer, to show how they can be consumed with the same food in the same casual setting. And, as an added and unexpected twist, we're now planning to do scotch-style Japanese whiskey too. Suntory Time in Emeryville.  

When I sat down to write this piece, I planned to dive right into sake. But unsure where to begin, and not quite ready to start the hard technical research, I started thinking about my life in drinking, and how I went from being a drunken post-adolescent Ohioan to opening a sake bar in the Bay Area. To me, the lesson of this history is that drinking is something everyone can enjoy, in different ways at different times in life. No matter how foreign a drink might seem, if you like it, then drink more of it. It's just a drink, after all.

Now we start on sake. Let's demystify, drink, and repeat. 

What We Ate in Japan

On Shiba Ramen's trip to Japan last month, we had some memorable meals in Tokyo and Kyoto, and I gave myself free rein to act like a food fanatic, taking pictures of most things we ate. Sushi, ramen, tonkatsu, gyoza, cod sperm, raw chicken, and even Denny's. This is as close as I'm ever going to get to being an online food commentator. Please enjoy the photos! 

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The Past Is Chemistry, the Future Is the Periodic Table

More than a decade before we ever thought to open a ramen restaurant, back in the days when Donald Trump's best-known line was "You're Fired," we were organic chemists.  I met Hiroko in the summer of 2002, at the tail end of a miserable July 4 Boston heatwave.  She had arrived from Japan for a postdoctoral year over the holiday weekend, and was there in lab getting set up when I came back from a summer trip to my native Akron, Ohio.  Unlike today, her English wasn't very good.  Much like today, my Japanese was non-existent.  Well, in 2002 it was totally non-existent, and now it's only relatively so.  

Despite the language barrier, we got to know each other pretty well, with the assistance of two things: chemistry and beer.  Hiroko worked with me on my PhD project, the total synthesis of a complex small molecule, Norzoanthamine.  

After lab we and our chemist friends excelled, like many graduate students, at drinking. Hiroko had a surprisingly good tolerance, given how skinny she was.  And at 24, I not yet accepted what was becoming increasingly clear: that my body was not made for binge drinking.  That winter I had ramen for the first time, at a place in the little Japanese mall in Porter Square.  At the time I thought that first ramen was so amazing, but Hiroko assures me it was terrible.  And man did we drink a lot of Guinness.  And Harpoon and Sam Adams.  We were in Boston, after all.  That Xmas, Hiroko came to Ohio, where she was so very fortunate to witness the Ohio State Buckeyes defeat the Miami Hurricanes for their first national title since 1968.  That spring, I made my first trip to Japan.  

Norzoanthamine.   Alkaloid molecule isolated from a sea anemone.  

Norzoanthamine.  Alkaloid molecule isolated from a sea anemone.  

Fast forward thirteen years, and we're married with two dogchildren and one real child. Norzoanthamine never got made, despite the awesome boron-catalyzed diastereoselective Diels-Alder reaction we developed together to make the molecule's core six-membered ring.  I moved on from science as a career in 2005 when I arrived in the Bay Area for law school. Hiroko quit research the next year, when she left her pharma job in Japan to join me in California--where, incidentally and somewhat shockingly, we rented an apartment in downtown Palo Alto for a paltry $1500/month.  Hiroko worked in a consulting job for Japanese biotech companies for a few years, and for a brief while I dabbled in chemistry in the context of pharma litigation.  But a couple things have not changed in all this time.  I still use the Sigma-Aldrich company Periodic Table mousepad I had in graduate school.  We still love science.  And of course we drink a lot of beer.  

Future Site of The Periodic Table .  Taproom and sake bar right there next to Shiba Ramen.  Just put a hole in the wall to send over Shiba Wings.  Photo of a recent beer event we had with 21st Amendment and Triple Voodoo B

Future Site of The Periodic Table.  Taproom and sake bar right there next to Shiba Ramen.  Just put a hole in the wall to send over Shiba Wings.  Photo of a recent beer event we had with 21st Amendment and Triple Voodoo B

The Periodic Table

When the opportunity to develop a taproom in Emeryville Public Market unexpectedly came up this summer, you won't be surprised to learn that we jumped at it.  After a series of long post-toddler-bedtime conversations, we came up with a taproom and sake bar concept, appropriately called The Periodic Table.  

The Periodic Table will be in the kiosk right next to Shiba Ramen, but because it will have no kitchen, there will be space for a full bar counter and other inside seating.  We'll operate 10-15 rotating taps, mostly featuring craft beer from the robust Bay Area scene, alongside selections from Japan and elsewhere.  We'll use Shiba Ramen's kitchen to make bar bites: Shiba Wings, of course, along with pickles and other tasty things tbd. 

But beer is only half the story.  We see The Periodic Table as a forum to bring sake to the American consumer.  Sake [pronounced sa-keh, not sa-kee] is still the province of sushi restaurants and boutique shops.  Bottles are branded with Japanese names and characters, making it next to impossible for anyone but a true connoisseur to distinguish between one product and the next. When you go to the grocery store, if there's any sake on the shelf, it's probably a mediocre American-made product buried on a bottom shelf, somewhere near the vermouth or the margarita mix.    

That's a tragic state of affairs.  Sake is delicious and a natural substitute for white wine.  If anything, it goes down easier than a glass of chardonnay.  But to change consumption patterns, somebody needs to present sake in a familiar domestic context, and make it as easy as possible for people to give it a shot.  More than that, somebody needs to figure out how to brand sake to get non-connoisseurs to recognize and remember products.  That's the challenge we're undertaking with The Periodic Table. 

Just the Beginning.   Shiba Ramen's Japanese drink collection.  This is a good start for sake, but we've got a lot of ground to cover at The Periodic Table.  

Just the Beginning.  Shiba Ramen's Japanese drink collection.  This is a good start for sake, but we've got a lot of ground to cover at The Periodic Table.  

And now to come back to where we started: chemistry.  The Periodic Table will build on the "chemists start a ramen shop" theme we've explored with Ramen Chemistry, in a context--alcohol--readily suited to association with science.  We're working with a fabulous team of Oakland-based architects and designers at Arcsine to create an awesome space that blends design inspiration from chemistry and Japan. 

We expect to start construction this winter and be open by Summer 2017.  In the meantime, we'll be doing sake-tasting pop-ups in The Periodic Table's future space.  The first one is this coming Friday, October 14.  Of course, you can still get great sake and craft beer seven days a week at Shiba Ramen.

We'll have lots of updates on Ramen Chemistry as The Periodic Table project unfolds.  Until then, kanpai!

Japan Ramen Tour: Tokyo Ramen

On our first and last days in Japan we ate ramen in Chiba and in Shizuoka prefectures.  But in between, we ate ramen in Tokyo.  And, as a good friend of mine would say, Tokyo is the man.  So let's head to Tokyo and talk about some ramen.  Things are pretty good there.  

Tokyo Subway Map.    Figure this out and you can tour ramen in Tokyo.  Link to Deep Japan   here   for help  .

Tokyo Subway Map.  Figure this out and you can tour ramen in Tokyo.  Link to Deep Japan here for help.

The Best: Kyouka (Tachikawa, Tokyo)

Kyouka is run by regular Shoku no Dojo sensei, Keiichi Machida.  His ramen was the most sophisticated, without question.  He uses 21 ingredients in his broth, including 6 different kinds of niboshi (dried sardines).  The flavor was strong, balanced, nuanced.  It was like there was some essence of the ocean in the bowl.  But it wasn't heavy and it wasn't fishy.  The presentation was fantastic.  The space was mostly dark, but the chefs (visible working on a platform behind the bar counter) were illuminated by carefully placed spotlights, and the food by adjustable lamps at each seat along the bar.  Salt content a relatively restrained 1.2-1.3%.

Soupless Ramen (Ginza, Tokyo)

We wanted to try soupless ramen, called aburasoba in Japan.  We're planning to feature it at Shiba Ramen, but not many places here serve it.  So it was important to try it in Japan.  We looked at some best-of lists sitting around in our hotel room and found a place in the Ginza district of Tokyo.  The restaurant, Mugi to Olive ("Wheat and Olive"), also specialized in clam ramen.  I thought the aburasoba was awesome.  Tasted great and it was topped with the most orange egg yolk I've ever seen, which created a really nice texture.  Clam ramen was good, but pretty salty (1.8%).  We liked the space. Modern, using wood, concrete, and even rebar.

One-Item Menu, 1500 Bowls a Day (Yokohama, Outside Tokyo)

We had read about Yoshimura Iekei ramen months ago, in a book Hiroko picked up in Japan last year.  This is a place that serves a single kind of ramen, a salty tonkotsu shoyu (pork, soy) that came to define a local style of "Iekei" ramen in Yokohama (technically outside Tokyo, but it's close and it still feels like Tokyo).  There are a ton of places that serve this kind of ramen in Yokohama, but this is apparently the original.   

Because they only serve one thing, they just keep a single running pot of soup going all the time and dispense it right into the serving bowls.  There are just 25 seats at the bar counter (I counted), but they supposedly serve 1500 bowls a day!  They're open for 13.5 hours each day.  That means they need to turn over the entire bar every 15 minutes or so.  Nobody's screwing around.  You sit down, the food comes out, you eat it, you leave.  It was good.  It's no frills and completely without style or pretension, but there's always a line to eat there. Kyouka's Machida said he makes it a point to eat there every time he's in Yokohama.  We thought the ramen was pretty good, very salty (over 2%!), but not quite as good as we expected.  It was also rumored to be thicker than we experienced.  There's probably very little quality control just using a single ongoing vat of pork broth; you can imagine the concentration of the soup is constantly in flux.

There's good writeup of this place on Ramen Adventures, a really comprehensive English-language blog about ramen in Tokyo written by an American expat living there.  A great resource if you're going to Tokyo.

Tan Tan Men, Spicy Ramen (Kanda, Tokyo)

We wanted to try tan tan men, preferably a spicy one.  We're going to serve a spicy tan tan, so we wanted to try one in Japan.  The place we found (Hokiboshi Plus) had a good reputation for this kind of ramen.  We also found Taiwan maze-soba on the menu, so we decided to try it too. Taiwan maze-soba is a spicy soupless ramen that originated in Nagoya, Japan (not Taiwan), and recently took off in Tokyo due to the arrival there of a popular Nagoya restaurant, Hanabi.  We had wanted to try Hanabi but it was too far out of the way, so we were excited to find this dish at Hokiboshi Plus.

Both ramens we tried featured a singular and over-the-top flavor.  The spicy tan tan (below left) made wild overuse of really distinctive Chinese spices.  Meanwhile, the Taiwan maze-soba (right) was practically wallowing in fish powder, every bite a mouthful of katsuobushi.  See pile of light brown powder at 4 o'clock in the bowl (in retrospect, who knew?).  I like katsuobushi, but I still had to work pretty hard to finish this stuff.  

I don't know what was the deal with this place, but I suspect it is an example of (what Chef Machida told us is) a current ramen trend in Tokyo: focusing on singular strong flavors.  Otherwise the ramen seemed to have really good fundamentals, but the these super-dominant flavors overwhelmed everything else and made it pretty unpalatable (in my opinion).  My guess is that most Japanese wouldn't find this ramen as jarring as I did; flavors like fish powder are just more ingrained and familiar.  But there's no way we could sell a product like this in the U.S.  Salt = 1.5%.