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Q&A with Byron Stithem of Proper Saké Co.

Kevin Peterson

Woodland Wine Merchant: How did you get into saké?

Byron Stithem: My background is in fermentation – I’ve been in food and beverage in culinary science for the last decade or so – and so koji, which is the enzymatic mechanism that makes the whole thing work, was something I got into for food related ferments, and the next logical step was saké. Especially after living in New York and having access to a lot of really great saké, which we don’t necessarily have access to here, I wanted to do my best to show the South what full-flavored, more traditional style saké tastes like.

WWM: You were into fermentation without an interest in saké at first?

 
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Byron: Um, yeah. I mean, I certainly consumed plenty of it. I had helped do some consulting for some different fermentation projects in Tennessee before moving to New York, and it wasn’t until I moved up there and pieced all that together. You know, realizing the actual fermentation mechanisms in saké. Ultimately, as far as koji goes, it’s one of the more exciting ferments surrounding that particular style.

WWM: You touched on one of my questions: saké is made from four ingredients: rice, water, koji & yeast. What is koji?

Byron: Yeah, so I guess when I say that I’m trying to exemplify a more traditional varietal of saké, typically it’s just made with four ingredients: rice, water, koji & yeast. A lot of the sakés that you come across, especially in the South, at like a sushi restaurant or Japanese restaurant, they’re some sort of hybrid of saké and distilled alcohol. So, when I say traditional, I mean the original juice that was just made with those four ingredients. And as far as things go, saké pre-1970 was more full-flavored junmai style, very little filtration, very little dilutions. You have full alcohol on it, you have color on it, you have a lot of body, a lot of flavor. In the past three or four decades, it’s moved to this more subtle approach, so that’s why what is often considered to be high-end saké, is saké that tastes very subtle. It almost tastes like nothing. It has some floral or fruit aromatics to it, but other than that, ultimately, the pinnacle of a successful a brew is that it doesn’t taste like much. And there’s a time and a place for that, too. I don’t think most people have had much access to that.

WWM: Do you strive to make a saké here in Nashville that is as similar to a traditional, Japanese saké as you can get?

Byron: Yeah, and there are certain barriers to entry there, as regards to sourcing and equipment. Our rig is quite a bit different than a lot of traditional Japanese brewers, but at the same time there is kind of this counterculture re-emerging in Japan of people that are trying to do that full-flavored junmai style, and I guess that’s kind of tipped the scale back in the other direction, and a lot of these brewers are using less conventional techniques, less conventional equipment. Craft beer and whiskey are really big in Japan right now, so a lot of people are using different elements from those styles of brewing and incorporating it, which is really cool.

WWM: Can you please talk about the three saké that you produce?

Byron: The first one, I guess it’s more the flagship, called The Diplomat, basically it is a saké made from a No. 9 yeast, which is one of the more common saké yeasts, made with a koshihikari rice at the moment, which we get made in Arkansas, and then it’s shipped to Minnesota to get milled. It’s milled to about 60%, which basically means that when you have 100% of the rice of a whole grain, 40% of that gets milled away back down to 60%. Typically on the spectrum, the more you mill, the less flavor you get, but there is a nice balance you have to hit if you are trying to make sure that you have eradicated a lot of off flavors that might come if you didn’t [mill]. Anyway, The Diplomat is made with that rice, that yeast, and it’s a ginjo style, basically, so like I was talking about, very little dilution, very little filtration - just enough that it cleans up the flavor a little bit and prolongs the shelf life, but also retains a lot of color and body and texture, and it ages in a way that really exemplifies those aromatics. It’s a less subtle style of saké than what you might have typically in the South.


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The second varietal is an unfiltered version of that. It’s a nigori saké, which just means that some of the rice sediment is left in it. When you get done with the ferment, you separate the solids from the liquid, but when you do that there’s still some sediment in it, and that’s how you get cloudy saké. It’s actually relatively common in the States. The biggest difference with this one is that there is a little more sediment in it, so it’s got a little more texture, which as far as things go is a little more traditional. Sometimes unfiltereds in Japan can be as thick as yogurt, but I think this is a nice middle ground.

The third one is made from a saison yeast. It’s a Dupont Saison, and it’s the same rice, same production, same water, slightly different temperature ratios because of the yeast. Ultimately, I was looking for something that had some astringency to it and kind of mimics some of the minerality and funkiness of a sharp, white Eastern European wine, and of all the wine yeasts that I tried, none of them really turned out like I was hoping, but this saison one, for whatever reason, ended up hitting those notes. It does have that same astringency and dryness to it, but it also – especially as it ages – picks up a lot of saison aroma: a lot of wheatiness, a lot of citrus.

WWM: How has Nashville been receptive to your project? Has there been interest, willingness to jump into something that maybe most people are not familiar with?

Byron: I think right now is a really great time to be in Nashville doing this, because obviously the city has really turned a corner on population growth and cultural growth. I’ve been lucky enough to foster a lot of really valuable relationships in the culinary world over the years, so I think Nashville will be always more receptive than whatever market we go to next. All that to say, I wanted to get this particular style of saké in front of people who don’t normally drink it, so there are a lot of really unconventional places that have been carrying it, no questions asked, just like, this is cool and interesting, and we want to help you with that, like Bastien and Husk and Catbird Seat – places where you wouldn’t normally think that you would find saké.

WWM: And you’ve got a tasting room at the brewery?

Bryon: Yeah. We’ve been finalizing the permits on that, and just last week got the last one.

WWM: Congratulations.

Byron: Thanks. It only took about a year and a half. October 28 will be the launch date.

WWM: What’s the tasting room going to consist of?

Byron: It’s a little room that a buddy and I built all the furniture in. It will have saké on draft, some snacks, some more experimental sakés. Ultimately a place to come and enjoy saké and hopefully have an open mind and learn about it.

WWM: When pairing saké with food, something like sushi comes to mind, but what are some of the other traditional saké pairings?

Byron: Traditionally, it really spans the gamut, but a lot of Japanese food is really subtle, which is why that particular saké is really becoming the fashion over there: the more subtle, daiginjo style. That said, there are a lot of really interesting cultural delicacies that are super full-flavored - have lots of fat, have lots of acid - that don’t pair as well with that kind of saké, and so another part of my mission is to take saké as a beverage and open it up to being paired with less conventional cuisine. Western cuisine. It’s just like wine, you know, it’s as pair-able as anything else, and there are so many different varietals that one may work with your Western-style food and one may not.

WWM: Saison saké and fried chicken. That sounds pretty good.

Byron: Yeah.

WWM: Any new projects – in addition to the tasting room – that you’re dipping your toes into?

Byron: Another thing we’re working on is trying to import some more of these counter-culture sakés. They’re really small breweries for the most part and don’t necessarily have the means and/or the knowhow to start exporting their product. My business partner and I just got back a couple weeks ago, and part of the trip was traveling around meeting with these head brewers and directors of operation for a few of our favorite places and talking to them about figuring out how we can get their stuff over here. There are some logistical hurdles there and there are some more permits that need to be opened so that we can actually serve their product at our space.

WWM: When you’re not drinking saké, what’s a go-to drink of yours?

Byron: I drink a lot of saison, which is probably why I lean so heavily toward the saison style. Also, a lot of Eastern European whites. If I could have one beverage for the rest of my life, it would probably be a nice bottle of grüner veltliner. Especially on a hot day. It’s a beautiful thing.

WWM: I hear that. I had one last night.

Byron: I like it.

WWM: Cool. Anything else you’d like to get on the record here?

Byron: Well, I’m really pumped about Saturday. I think we’ll have a good time. I’ve been excited about getting in here and doing a tasting.

WWM: Yeah. It should be fun. Well, thanks for coming by.

Byron: Thanks, man.


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Proper Saké Co. is located at 628 Ewing St. in Pie Town, Nashville, TN. The tasting room is slated to open on October 28, 2017.

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Proper Saké Co.
The Diplomat
Junmai Saké
$13

Proper Saké Co.
The Diplomat Unfiltered
Nigori Saké
$13

Proper Saké Co.
Grand Parlay
Saké Brewed with Saison Yeast
$13