By Cari Marshall
Photography by Jody Horton
When Yoed Anis was a fourth grader in Corvallis, Oregon, his teacher regaled the class with stories of her travels in Japan. Anis was immediately entranced. “She instilled a sense of awe about the country and its culture,” he says. “I’ve had a lifelong yearning to travel there and experience it for myself ever since.”
Fast-forward 14 years to 2006, and he did just that—falling even more in love with Japanese customs, culture and, especially, with the country’s national drink—sake.
After returning home to Austin, Anis became fixated on quality sake, and he wondered how difficult it would be to make his own. After some investigating, he was surprised to learn that Texas was once the largest rice producer in the country—and still produces large amounts of the grain. “I was curious to see if I could make my own sake from the local rice,” he says. “It took a while, but I learned that I could, and I wanted to share the result with as many people as possible.”
Meet Anis’s Texas Sake Company—the first alcohol producer to be certified organic by the Texas Department of Agriculture, the first sake producer to use Texas rice, and the first organic-only sake producer in North America. Slated to open October 1, 2011, Texas Sake Company will produce two types of sake—junmai tokubetsu (a premium clear sake) and a junmai nigori (a premium cloudy sake)—and will not only handle brewing and distribution of the drink, but offer a tasting room, as well. “We’ll do classes and tastings there, and throughout town, at partnering restaurants and events,” he says.
In an interesting twist, Texas Sake Company sake is made from a type of Japanese rice that was first established in Texas more than a century ago. Before he started brewing, Anis researched the history of sake making in the state, and couldn’t find evidence that it had been done before. “But I did learn that a Japanese delegation made it to Texas in 1904, remarked at how wonderful the rice fields were and committed to sending aristocratic farmers, capital and seed to utilize this great land to help feed their growing empire,” he says. “They set up a colony near modern-day Clear Lake. The Japanese rice grew better and milled better, and so was quickly adopted.”
The rice is still in production on the lower Colorado River around Wharton and Bay City, about 150 miles from Austin. “The fact that this rice is Japanese rice is the only reason we can make sake out of Texas rice,” he says, noting that the type and amount of starch found in Japanese rice makes it the only kind that reacts properly to the koji spores used for fermentation. “One reason we believe our sake is so great,” he continues, “is because our rice and sake are made with the same water, which gives it great balance.”
For Anis, the decision to go organic with his product was a no-brainer. “We care about Texas and our local environment. Choosing organic rice versus conventional allows us to make a difference in this regard,” he says. “We also think that since greater care is taken in growing organic rice, the rice tastes better and this is reflected in its ability to make better-tasting sake.”
Anis is devoted to brewing sake the way it was done 100 years ago. “Today, the large brewers use highly automated processes and will add additives to get larger yields of sake and produce a batch more quickly—to the detriment of the product’s quality,” he says.
This young, self-taught sake brewer also seeks to reinterpret the traditional connection between sake and art—putting a unique spin on a centuries-old craft. “You’ll notice that high-end Japanese sake bottles are always designed with great calligraphy,” explains Anis. “Calligraphy is a delicate and refined art that takes a lot of determination and attention to detail. Once you make a stroke, there is no eraser, no take-backs. You have to plan carefully and execute exactly—a natural parallel to sake making. We wanted to share and extend this part of sake culture to Austin, as well.”
With this in mind, Anis hired Austin artist Eli Halpin to design the label for his bottles. The commissioned emblem reflects the company’s philosophy: encased in a circular pattern, a majestic Texas whooping crane, rice and a lone star represent the interconnectedness of the state, its agriculture and the environment. With this more Western take on the traditional, calligraphy-graced Japanese label, Anis acknowledges and embraces the cultural differences between Texas and Japan. “We don’t have a calligraphy tradition in the West,” he says. “But we hope that our customers will appreciate that both the art and the sake were made with pride in Austin.”
For more information about Texas Sake Company, visit txsake.com.