Over the past centuries California has lured people to it for its many assets: its climate, its farm lands and, most of all its gold. Today the gold is still here, not only in the ground but also in the water.
In 1989 Gekkeikan Sake (USA) , Inc. was established in Folsom, California, the first Gekkeikan sake brewing facility outside of Japan. And what would bring them here, two things, the first being obvious since Folsom is near a major rice growing area and rice is needed to make sake . The second and most important to them was the water.
The company had been looking at a location in Louisiana, but Folsom won out because of the water. Remove the chemicals and minerals from the public water, put back everything but the chlorine and you have water with many of the qualities of the water found in Fushimi, Japan, where Gekkeikan originated, just what they were looking to find.
Japan’s tradition of sake brewing began more than 2,000 years ago shortly after rice cultivation was introduced from China. Though the first few centuries yielded a beverage quite unlike that of today, years of experience perfected brewing techniques and increased sake’s overall appeal and popularity.
In 1637, Gekkeikan’s founder, Jiemon Okura established his sake brewery in the town of Fushimi, a location well-known for its high quality of water. Access to the ideal ingredients combined with a convenient location enabled Okura and his successors’ business to thrive in the years that followed.
In 1905, the brand name Gekkeikan (meaning “crown of laurel”) was adopted as the company’s formal pledge to excellence. Through this commitment, the company became a true leader in the industry and pioneered a number of research and development efforts. The successful results of these endeavors have enabled Gekkeikan to become their nation’s most popular brand in 1953.
With a greater world wide appreciation of Japanese cuisine over the last decades, Gekkeikan sake has been experiencing a tremendous growth in popularity. To meet this increase in demand is why Gekkeikan Sake (USA) , Inc. was established in Folsom. And, in reply to the increased demand for their product, the Folsom facility is in the process of expanding.
Sake is a naturally fermented alcoholic beverage classified in the same general category with wine and beer. Made from the simple ingredients of rice and water, it goes through a fermentation process which, essentially converts starch into sugar and sugar into alcohol through the work of koji (a fungi enzyme) and yeast.
To start the process, the rice, short-grained Japonica, is first polished to remove the outer layers. The starch in rice in in the middle, so the amount of polishing determines the quality of the sake. Depending upon the type of sake being made, 30 or 40 percent of the outer layer is removed and two either used independently or blended.
The Folsom plant makes only five of Gekkeikan’s many types of sake: Haiku (premium), Silver, Black and Gold, Traditional, which is also available in in Traditional Light and Draft, a sake that is not pasteurized, but cold filtered and meant to be served cold.
Using simple terms to describe this 2000 year old process, the polished rice, which arrives in one-ton bags, is cleaned, steeped and steamed. To a portion of the rice is then added the koji enzyme and to the other portion, the yeast and water. Then everything is combined in a fermentation tank where the starch is ultimately converted to alcohol. After 30 days, the fermented mixture, now called Moromi, is pressed through filters to remove the liquid which is then pasturized. The Draft Sake is not pasteurized, but instead undergoes ultra filtration to achieve this same result, protecting its smooth, fresh flavor. The remaining solids, or sake cake, are recycled as cattle food.
Then the sake is transferred to aging tanks where it rests for several months and acquires its mild and smooth taste. Finally, about a year after starting, the sake is bottled.
The sterile bottles are filled on a bottling line similar to one used to bottle wine. While rapidly moving through the line the bottles are filled, capped and labeled, after which they are boxed for shipment. A bottle from each batch is kept for testing purposes should there be a comment or complaint from a consumer.
Although most is, not all sake is bottled. Some is put into 18 liter cubes for restaurant use and even a1000 liter “tote” for shipment to other places, such as Brazil, where it will be later bottled.
Not all sake that leaves the Folsom facility is the same. Sake can have an alcohol content of from five to 20 percent and certain countries and even states have regulations on the maximum amount of alcohol it can legally contain. To insure that the sake meets the high standards of Gekkeikan and any government regulations, all batches of sake made are tested for quality and alcohol content at a lab in the facility.
To Gekkeikan, consistency in all the aspects of the process is most important. That is why Gekkeikan sake is the number one selling sake in the world.
In addition to sake, the Folsom facility also makes a Kobai Plum wine, which is California white wine to which the essence of the Sonoma plums is added.
At the tasting room you can taste Gekkeikan sake and plum wine and purchase them. All are available in bottles of different sizes, while the Traditional sake is also available in the 1.8 liter “taru,” a smaller version of the large ceremonial Japanese barrel, which makes an excellent gift. In addition to the sake made at the Folsom facility, they also have other Gekkeikan sakes, imported from Japan to taste and for sale.
The pleasant tasting room personnel are delighted to teach you about sake, the proper serving containers (porcelain for warm sake, glass for cold sake and bamboo or lacquer boxes for either) and the proper temperature at which it should be served, depending upon the type. This is especially important as the present trend is to drink sake at colder temperatures, rather than as traditionally warmed. They will also explain to you that each kind of sake, like different kinds of wine, has a slightly different aroma and taste. To complete your education on sake they will also tell you how sake can be used to prepare unique and delicious mixed drinks and will even provide you with a brochure of delicious recipes. And, don’t miss the beautiful shirts, hats and accessories for sale in the tasting room.
The tasting room also periodically hosts informative hands-on introductory sushi making classes taught by local sushi chefs as they share inside secrets and techniques from the exotic world of Japanese cuisine. Called Simply Sushi the classes focus on three specific elements of sushi making: preparing sushi rice, selecting fish and making California and hand rolls.
Classes are held on three levels: Children, adults and advanced. the next series of classes starts in February. Call for more information.
The tasting room at Gekkeikan Sake in Folsom is in a beautiful building with a large Koi pond on three sides. It is open from10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. In addition, self guided tours of the facility can be enjoyed by groups of less than eight, while guided tours are available for larger groups by appointment.
Gekkeikan Sake is located at 1136 Sibley St., in Folsom. For more information, call (916) 985-3111.