Written by Emily Ballard | Photos by Anthony Harden
It all started over a dinner party, as so many great ideas do. In a town submerged in the growing craft beer industry, as well as being the hometown for two major beer labels and dozens of smaller breweries, a group of four friends dared to be different. Born out of curiosity and experimentation, Blue Kudzu Sake opened its doors in early September of last year offering eclectic food and an alternative rice beverage, sake.
The River Arts District on the outskirts of downtown Asheville has undergone a transformation that only an artsy town can. Old warehouses and nearly dilapidated buildings have been restored into artist studios and trendy restaurants. You will find the Wedge brewery packed with people, dogs, and children on sunny afternoons. Driving along the train tracks that parallel the French Broad River you are greeted by rainbow colored buildings, artful graffiti, and open doorways beckoning the passersby into the artist’s realm. Near the end of this row you will find tall glass windows with a simple kudzu leaf emblazoned on the reflective door and an arrow directing you toward the main entrance of the sake brewery tasting room and café.
Upon entering the establishment you are greeted by a large mural of Godzilla and paper lanterns dangling from the ceiling. Booths and high top tables are arranged around the centerpiece bar. The bar is a reclaimed antique from a local seed shop, and the seeds have been replaced with rice, showcasing the main ingredient used to brew this specialty beverage.
There are over 60 bottles of sake that they offer, and after a long road of permitting and red tape, the other half of the building houses their brewing equipment and kitchen. Mitch Fortune, co-owner and head brewer, explains that brewing was always their passion, but when they were delayed in obtaining their permits they opened as just a restaurant and have enjoyed success in what they originally dubbed as Appal-asian cuisine.
The food is a mix of Southern Appalachian staples and Pan Asian influences. They have recently hired a new head chef from New York with hopes of escalating the restaurant side of the business into a more influential role in this foodie town, while maintaining the booming sake distribution side as well.
The Zu Crew
Mitch Fortune, Cat Ford-Coates, Mary Taylor, and Preston Coleman are the masterminds behind the Blue Kudzu operation. The idea to venture into sake all started at a cooking club dinner party. Mitch wanted to try his hand at rolling sushi and invited Cat and Mary over. The cooking club rules were that the host makes the food and the attendees provide the alcohol.
Several bottles and tastings of sake later, Mary turned one of the bottles over to look at the label and was surprised to find that it was brewed in Portland, Oregon. During this time Asheville was at the height of the competition for the title of Beer City with none other than Portland.
“Why doesn’t Asheville do this?” they pondered, and the gears began turning.
Mitch already had home brewing equipment, so they found a recipe and began an experiment in his basement that would morph into something much bigger than anticipated.
“The first batch was gross, but we were so proud. So was the second. The third batch was palatable, decent, and filtered properly. Would I drink them now? No,” admits Cat.
They started infusing the sake with flavors such as coconut, and began studying different techniques and practices. They would take it to dinner parties and cookouts for friends to taste, boasting the novelty of 19% alcohol.
The group realized they were onto something different and took their ideas to Mountain Bizworks, a program that helped them develop a business plan. They started a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of finding funding for their idea. They unfortunately did not reach their Kickstarter goal, but their ideas did not fizzle out.
“The Kickstarter was not traditionally successful, but it is how our investor found us,” recalls Cat.
This was the point that Preston entered the picture, and, with a solid business plan and the financial stability they needed to get off the ground, they found their location, opened the restaurant, worked to obtain their Certified Sake Professional (CSP) designations, and travelled down the bumpy road of permitting in order for the brewery side of the business to get up and running.
The First Year
It has now been a full year since Blue Kudzu first opened its doors, and in the restaurant world that can be an accomplishment in itself. Long hours, unexpected obstacles, and growing pains have plagued this group of young entrepreneurs, but, as they give tours of the brew room and demonstrate their processes, it is apparent in their faces and their wealth of knowledge that their dream has come to fruition.
During this time period Mitch has travelled to Japan for three weeks and lived and worked in a traditional sake brewery.
“I learned more about the sake process in those three weeks than I have in the past three years,” Mitch says as he tinkers with the brewing equipment.
[quote float=”right”]On any given day you can find one of them bartending, labeling bottles, busing tables, or teaching sake classes—multitasking at its best.[/quote]He lifts a lid off of a large plastic canister, revealing a bubbling murky liquid that gives off a pungent odor. This is all part of what the team describes as a rice-koji dance. Koji is steamed rice that has mold spores cultivated onto it. It is an essential ingredient in the brewing process that converts the rice into sugar and eventually into alcohol.
There is an intricate schedule that serves as a map for this delicate and detailed process. This group is not afraid to get their hands dirty, quite literally, and each one plays a part in every step, from washing the rice to cleaning the tanks.
Over the year, they have each found their area of expertise within the company. Mitch and Mary are in charge of the brewing, and Cat and Preston run the administration and marketing side. On any given day you can find one of them bartending, labeling bottles, busing tables, or teaching sake classes—multitasking at its best.
Both Mitch and Cat also own businesses separate from the restaurant and juggle their time. The camaraderie within the group is no doubt essential to maintaining their business and their sanity, and at this point they are hitting their stride in the restaurant and distribution industry.
“Entrepreneurs work like nobody else for years so they can live like nobody else later,” Cat quotes a saying when explaining how she handles the work load.
What keeps them motivated is their passion for what they are doing, and the excitement of being innovators, experts, and ambassadors in their field.
The Sake Culture
Sake originated around 4,800bc, and over the years there have been 10,000 different ways to make this beverage. It usually is 16% alcohol, but can contain up to 22%. It is not aged like wine, instead it is traditionally made to be consumed within a year of its bottling.
The four basic ingredients in sake are water, rice, yeast, and koji. Water quality is important in the process and can alter the taste. Asheville happens to have water that is conducive for brewing, which has been a driving force for the influx of beer breweries that have scoped out this area.
The rice used to make sake is specifically milled a special way, discarding the outer shell to reveal the pure starch core without cracking. The finer the rice is milled, the better the sake will be.
Sake is sulfite free, tannin free, gluten free, and vegan. It is low in fusel oils, which the group at Blue Kudzu says makes this alcoholic drink almost hangover free. Mary explains that there are numerous health benefits to sake, such as containing Selenium, a mineral with antioxidant properties.
When asked what drew her to sake she says, “it is a clean alcohol. It is different and has health benefits. No two sakes are really the same.”
Mitch explains that the Japanese culture says that traditionally you never pour sake for yourself and you never drink sake by yourself.
A kura is a sake brewery. While there are currently around 1,200 kuras in Japan today, when Blue Kudzu began their venture they were only the fourth sake kura in the United States.
Over the past year many more have been popping up and by the end of the year there may be as many as 12 new sake breweries.
Mitch explains that he is frequently contacted for advice by brewers that are just starting out. Although he is happy to speak with them, there are a few trade secrets he is not ready to give away. Much of the equipment used to brew sake is not available in the United States, and he has spent a lot of time hybridizing equipment for their needs. He created a koji incubator that is unique to only them.
“There is a fine line between keeping the trade secrets and fostering the industry,” Mitch explains.
He wants to see the industry succeed and has been excited by the growth in such a short time. He has even seen supporting industries being created, such as a rice grower in Florida that is experimenting in cultivating and milling sake rice, a component usually only found in California and subject to droughts and environmental factors that could be avoided in a different climate.
Blue Kudzu Sake is now being distributed across the state, and they are working on widening that to the entire East coast. Locally it is found in Katuah Market, local wine and beer shops, and restaurants, and they are negotiating with Whole Foods and Harris Teeter.
“The plan for the next year is roughly 250 cases per month to distribute from here to Florida,” Cat projects.
Blue Kudzu serves traditional Japanese sake but also adds their own personal twist. The chalkboard display changes each time they brew and can list flavors such as mango, pear, coconut, or hot ginger. “I love experimenting with the flavors to make sake more approachable,” Mary says.
[quote float=”right”]They also offer sake 101 classes and next year plan to teach more advanced classes. These classes teach the historical significance and the evolution of sake over the years, as well as the process of brewing it.[/quote]They also offer sake 101 classes and next year plan to teach more advanced classes. These classes teach the historical significance and the evolution of sake over the years, as well as the process of brewing it. The class culminates in a small plate tasting of their food and a flight of featured sake. The flight will demonstrate the difference between filtered and unfiltered sake, with the sample coming straight from the tank in the brewery. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.
“If you had told me five years ago that I would be head brewer at a sake brewery, I would have thought you were crazy,” Mitch recalls.
It has been an adventure and a learning process for each of them. Asheville is a town that embraces different, and in a market saturated in beer, this alternative beverage might just be the key to success.
As Mary affixes labels to the blue bottles she says she thinks about who will be opening this bottle and what they will experience. She wonders if they will be opening it for a celebration. For her, this job is important because it enables fun and creativity.
“It’s kind of crazy to tell people I do this for a living,” she says.
The future of sake and its place in American culture may still be unknown, but this group of friends and business partners are focusing on pushing themselves to succeed, offering something new, and enjoying the ride. Kanpai! (The Japanese equivalent of Cheers!)
BASIC SAKE BREWING PROCESS
The brewing process begins with polishing hulled rice, the main ingredient. As it passes through a special polisher, the proteins and bran that can produce off-flavors in the sake are removed.
Washing, steeping, and steaming:
The polished rice is washed in water to remove the residual bran and starch powders and is left to steep in water. When the grain has absorbed 30% of its weight in water, it is steamed. About 25% of the steamed rice is used to make koji rice.
Koji, shubo, moromi:
Making koji: Spores of the aspergillus oryzae mold (koji-kin) are added to the steamed rice, which is then incubated to produce koji. The koji is added to the yeast starter and later the moromi mash to help convert the rice starch into glucose.
Preparing shubo (yeast starter):
This is made by mixing steamed rice, water, koji, and yeast. It is allowed to ferment for two weeks and when finished, it contains large amounts of yeast, which is needed for the moromi fermentation process.
Preparing the moromi (primary fermentation):
Now for a three-step fermentation build up known as sandan shikomi.
On the first day, koji, steamed rice, and water are added to the yeast starter (this addition is called hatsuzoe). The mixture is left to stand on the following day to allow the yeast to slowly multiply (this step is called odori).
On the third day, the second batch of koji, steamed rice, and water is added to the mixture (this addition is called nakazoe). Then finally on the fourth day, the third batch of koji, steamed rice, and water is added to the mixture (this addition is called tomezoe) to complete the three-part process. The batch is then left to ferment for 28-36 days.
Once the moromi is completely fermented, it is passed through a press to separate out the sake lees (also knowns as kasu). The sake is then filtered, pasteurized, and placed in cold storage where it matures before being bottled.
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