A tale of two sakes

Photo by Tim Robison

Blue Kudzu and Ben’s Tune-Up gear up to serve their first batches of house-made rice spirits


Blue Kudzu Sake Co.

There are only a handful of independently owned sake breweries in the United States (fewer than 10 at last count). So adding two within the Asheville city limits — within about a mile of each other, no less — is a pretty big deal.

“We were actually supposed to be brewing our own sake sooner, but our permitting took about three times as long as it was slated to,” says Blue Kudzu Sake Co. co-owner/brewer Cat Ford-Coates. Yet the delays have had an unexpected upside.

“We’ve been test-brewing for years, but it’s definitely different on a commercial system,” says Ford-Coates. “We used the extra time to refine our process. Also, Mitch Fortune, another owner/brewer, was able to visit and learn from Wakatake in Japan while we waited on our approvals. They’ve been brewing sake for 300 years! He learned more in a few weeks than we’d learned in the past year, and it changed our methodology.”

The sakes

The first three sakes weren’t yet ready to serve, but Fortune gave Xpress the breakdown:

Thundersnow Nigori: “Most people start with hot sake, move on to something sweet [and cold], like a nigori, and then as their taste for sake develops, they’ll move on to other styles,” says Fortune. In other words, Thundersnow is Blue Kudzu’s friendliest offering for the new sake drinker. It’s sweet, creamy, ricey and about 14 percent alcohol by volume.

Dancing River Nama Gensha: Both Dancing River and Spirit of the Sky are part of an elite class of sakes — the second-highest grade there is, Fortune says. Dancing River will be Blue Kudzu’s most challenging offering, as in addition to its dryness and considerable wallop (19 percent ABV), it’s unpasteurized. “That makes it zestier and zippier,” says Fortune.

Spirit of the Sky Junmai Ginjo: Meant to fill the gap between Thundersnow and Dancing River, this style is high-grade but pasteurized, with a more delicate, balanced acidity, Fortune reports. And at 15-16 percent ABV, the alcohol content also places it in between the other two.


What to expect

Blue Kudzu has a serious sake list already, with at least 60 bottles at any one time. It also does flights of sake (four pours for $14 to $18) and tasting classes. In short, it’s total sake immersion.

The tasting room and café are in the former Magnetic Field space in the River Arts District. There’s now a bar as soon as you enter, with glass tables and leather couches filling out the space. It feels like an airy wine bar. The house sakes will be available by the glass and the bottle, with glass prices likely around $5 to $7 and bottles around $18. The big release party, where all three house-made brews will be available, is set for Sunday, May 18.


Blue Kudzu Sake Co., 372 Depot St. bluekudzusake.com


ALL-AMERICAN STYLE: Ben's Tune-Up's unconventional approach to traditional Japanese sake offers opportunities for fun and experimentation. Photo by Tim Robison
ALL-AMERICAN STYLE: Ben’s Tune-Up’s unconventional approach to traditional Japanese sake offers opportunities for fun and experimentation. Photo by Tim Robison

 Ben’s Tune-Up

Ben’s is just a stone’s throw from Blue Kudzu, but the two breweries’ approaches to their first sakes are miles apart. If Blue Kudzu Sake is purely Japanese, Ben’s American Sake is, well — the name says it all.

Seated at one of the wooden picnic tables in the plant-filled courtyard, co-owner/brewer Meg Alt pours a glass of sake, saying, “We looked at it, and you have a town full of people who love to go out and socialize and have a drink. We love beer, and there’s plenty of great beer here … but sometimes you can’t drink beer all day.”

“So we’re thinking of this as something complementary,” says fellow co-owner/brewer Jonathan Robinson. “Drinking sake falls somewhere between drinking beer and drinking wine, but for our approach it’s closer to beer.”

This means that on Ben’s menu, the focus will be simple descriptions, with style notes or foreign words following in smaller print, Robinson explains. It also means Ben’s serves its on draft, rather than from bottles. There’ll be glasses for about $5, and flights of three sakes for about $9. “And we want guys to be comfortable ordering sake, too,” adds Molly Clark, the third party in Ben’s owner/brewer troika.

The sakes

Ben’s American: The only offering that was available to sample, Ben’s house sake makes for easier drinking than you’d expect from its 14 percent ABV, with a pleasant stone-fruit-and-banana aroma. “You don’t get fresh, unpasteurized sake too often. … It’s just a unique experience,” says Robinson.

Ben’s Natural: This will be Ben’s house unfiltered sake, Robinson reports. It’s going to be cloudier than Ben’s American, a bit richer and creamier, with a floral, fruity aroma.

Ben’s Ginger-Infused: The team is clearly excited about this one, the farthest removed from any classic style. The lightest at just 10 percent ABV, its light carbonation will play up the crisp, ginger aromatics. “It will be a patio-drinking sake,” notes Robinson.

What to expect

Ben’s unconventional takes on this traditional beverage are clearly something you’re meant to have fun with, just as the owners have had fun creating them. Still, they’re plenty serious about the brewing process. “All three of us have homebrewed sakes for years, and we’ve been working on the house sake for Ben’s since before we were open,” Robinson says.

So even if you don’t make it to the big release party at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 1, you’ll still have to grab a seat at Ben’s to give the sake a try. “We hope to start distributing it eventually,” says Alt. “But for the next few months, we’re going to keep our focus pretty tight: The sake is just going to be at Ben’s.”


Ben’s Tune-Up, 195 Hilliard Ave. benstuneup.com

About Thom O'Hearn
Thom O’Hearn is a writer, book editor and homebrewer. Twitter: @thomohearn

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