By Chris Heagney
Outside of Japanese restaurants, sake is often overlooked as a craft beverage option here in North Carolina. The drink itself can seem like an enigma among the well-chronicled processes of beer or wine making. Is it a rice wine? But it’s made in a “sake brewery”? And at what temperature should it be served?
A great place to explore this traditional Japanese drink in Asheville is Ben’s Tune Up. They have been producing Ben’s American Sake for a few years, but after putting the program on hold during the winter of 2017, they returned with a newly renovated space dedicated to sake, and hired Patrick Shearer to lead their sake program. His diverse background in fermentation made for a perfect fit at Ben’s. “I think that having such a wide range of experience working in the craft beverage industry has made me very flexible and adaptable to different situations,” says Shearer. “Also, I’m not afraid to try anything or work with any obscure raw material. From wild yeast fermentations on pinot noir must, to varying strains of koji mold, rice varietals and sake yeasts, to propping up and prepping cultures meant for long-term, barrel-aged beer projects.”
Many of Ben’s sakes are classified as “American Infused Sakes.” For these brews, they start with a Junmai Ginjo sake base—a simple mixture of brewing rice, water, yeast and koji—and infuse it with fresh juices, herbs or spices. At the brewery, you can find flavor combinations such as Lemon Ginger and Pineapple Jalapeño.
Although Shearer says that “Ben’s has always been unabashedly American and will always be so,” he produced its first Daiginjo-Premium style sake this past winter. “Daiginjo is the high grade of sake brewed in Japan, which requires that at least 50 percent of the outer layers of rice have been removed before brewing with it,” explains Shearer. It is traditionally released in limited batches by small breweries in Japan. Requiring cold fermentation, it is a sake with a clean, crisp and delicate profile.
Another brewing concept Shearer has brought to Ben’s is the practice of sourcing the spores directly from Japan. Koji is a cultivated fungi that is tossed on the rice to convert the starches into fermentable sugars that the yeast will eventually consume. Koji is a crucial part of sake brewing, which makes it very distinct from beer brewing. “I view the koji growing process as the heart of the sake brewing process,” says Shearer. While Ben’s is satisfied with last year’s brewing results, experimentation is still on the horizon. “We aren’t done brewing with different spores and our flavor profiles might shift as we do,” Shearer says. “I can’t help myself. Part of why I got into brewing was experimentation, and I am very happy to be brewing sake again in a small pub setting that allows the team freedom to explore new raw materials and brewing processes.”
Ben’s Tune Up is located at 195 Hilliard Avenue in Asheville. Christopher Heagney is the owner of Daidala Ciders, located in Asheville at the Historic Cotton Mill Studios at 122 Riverside Drive.