December 2009

Sake Challenge - Sake vs. German Food!

Posted by Beau Timken in 2009, December, Newsletter, Sake Challenge
I am on a spiritual sake quest that will finally put a nail in the coffin of "sake can only be consumed at a sushi restaurant" mantra. Wake up people! Food and sake go together - always have and always will. If it has a tail, roots, feathers, leaves, or a damn beak sake will go with it - anytime and any place. And that is my quest - the place or origin of the cuisine does not matter. It can be Spanish, Italian, Brazilian or ughhhh British chow and sake will walk the walk. Japan has chickens! Japan has salad! Japan has beef! Japan has spicy and savory dishes! Japan has sweet and salty fare, so why not think about having sake with these "tones" from other countries?

The Sake Challenge is my way for you great consumers to see outside of the sushi paradigm, and to achieve this "new view on brew" I will usually select two different sake styles and price-points and bring them to a non-Japanese restaurant with a celebrity, sake-sleuth or hell even a friend in tow. Read about past challenges:

When reviewing restaurants and their specific cuisines paired with sake I use the following criteria:
  • Works World Class (WWC)
  • Works Well (WW)
  • Works (W)
  • Does Not Work (DNW)
This criterion is more true to the mission of bringing a beverage to a restaurant not knowing what you will pair with. The point is to make the general pairings "work." Rare is the day that you bring a specific wine or sake to pair with a specific dish - we look for generalities and the entire eating/drinking experience. Think of fishing with a net as opposed to a hook and line - a pairing is supposed to reach out and catch more flavors as opposed to just hitting one match.

Well you knew it was coming - sake vs. German fare! It had to come. Seriously! German cuisine represents one of those "No way" categories of what sake can and does go with. Luckily the gentleman who accompanied me on this month's Challenge had no basis for understanding German food - none - as in - in his entire life he has never eaten a "German meal." Super importer Kazu Yamazaki - a Japanese guy! - said that he never had an interest in eating German fare, so he jumped at the idea.

There are several good German destinations in SF, including one a half block from True Sake, but under a very strong recommendation we decided to venture to Walzwerk, ( which leans a little closer to Eastern German food! The brilliant thing about these Challenges is that there is always one of those "Holy Sh#t" moments when two flavors from opposite parts of the world collide and dance in the most beautiful way - creating a super flavor! Don't believe me - then try aged sake (koshu) with pickled herring in a light cream sauce! Ahhhh but we are getting ahead of ourselves aren't we?

The brews that I selected - usually I pick sakes that are connected to my guests as in it's their imported or distributed sakes etc - were pre-thought to go well with what I believed to be large and comfort food flavors - meats, potatoes, vinegar veggies et all. I have much success pairing koshu - aged sakes - with meat dishes, so I brought A-zen "Ai" (LOVE) from Fukuoka prefecture that has been aged for 5 years. For the second brew I wanted something dry with some body, so I selected the Kariho Namahage Yamahai Junmai from Akita which boasts SMV of +17! (On a side-note - the Kariho is drinking extremely well at the moment!)
  1. A-Zen "Ai" From Fukuoka Prefecture. SMV: - 14 Acidity: 2.2
    More Information >>

  2. Kariho Namahage "Devil's Mask" From Akita Prefecture. SMV: +17 Acidity: 1.7
    More Information >>
And away we goooooooooooo!

1st Course: Kleine Kartoffelpurz - Small potato pancakes with chive & sour cream and applesauce.

Kariho - This brew acted like a wash for this dish, moving the flavors through the palate and ending nicely. It worked with the oils of the pancakes and actually made the sake drink a little sweeter. The sour cream and sake worked too with a gentle creaminess - the Yamahai effect here? - But the applesauce did not. And Kazu agreed on both counts
BT - W
KY - W

A-Zen - The koshu and the potato conflicted from the get go! The textures were okay but a sweetness came out that felt disjointed and un-even - the dish and the brew were at odds, especially when the applesauce came into play. Kazu liked this pairing a little better when the sour cream was part of the mix.
KY - W

2nd Course: Matjes Herring in sour cream with apples, onions, pickles, and pumpernickel bread.

Kariho - This was a very nice pairing as the creaminess of the dish got enhanced with the creaminess of the sake - almost making the dish a little sweeter for the better. The Kariho makes the dish brighter - livelier and light with the cream getting sweeter and it all washed down the back very well. I wrote, "this is so weird considering that we are dealing with a +17 brew here. Kazu enjoyed this pairing very much saying that the flavors worked.

A-Zen - BINGO!!! What a flavor - what a feeling! Who would have guessed this? Truly amazing joining of forces. Creamed pickled herring and 5-year aged brown rice sake? The sweetness of the sake brings out a deep richness in the dish creating an almost honey- like flavor that plays off the strengths of the herring. Unbelievable! Such harmony - such balance! A great union on so many levels! Brilliant! Kazu's jaw was on the table! He said it washed the fishy flavor and balanced the creaminess. A pairing for the ages!

3rd Course: Bratwurst - Grilled bratwurst (pork and veal sausage) with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut.

Kariho - The Yamahai Junmai has a function to play in this dish and it does it well. The oils of the sausage are prevalent and the brew takes the oily flavors and disperses them nicely throughout the palate. Then the brew has to get soft and starchy to dance with the mashed tators! Which it does to a "T." A very nice salty and savory play became evident and the brew balanced out all elements. The evil sauerkraut got blander with the Kariho. Kazu liked how this brew enhanced the spice of the sausages.

A-Zen - Quite a nice pairing as the sweetness of the brew jumps right at the spiciness of the sausages. It conflicts - however - with the mustard. The acidity of the brew goes right at the sauerkraut and works! Kazu said the koshu toned down the flavors and made them more refined.
BT - W

4th Course: Schnitzel - breaded porkloin with mashed potatoes and veggies. This dish is very similar to pork tonkatsu in Japan!

Kariho - Sadly this dish got cold waiting for us. Darn - made the mistake of ordering all at once and thought that they would space things out, but alas the best laid plans. The brew went perfectly neutral with the pork, which is neither good nor bad. It just worked. It did not enhance or take away from the simplicity of the dish. Kazu liked how all the flavors washed through leaving the flavor of the pork. He thought the brew did well!
BT - W
KY - W

A-Zen - "The koshu helps this dish!" That's what I wrote. "It envelops the breaded pork and creates a new savory flavor and enhances the feeling. It stays soft and pulls the salt, which I like." I also wrote the words "Honey Magic" and don't know why! Perhaps it made the dish sweeter. Kazu preffered this pairing as well, and said that it blends the flavors to create a new flavor.

5th Course: Saurebraten - Marinated beef with potato dumpling and red cabbage. I did not eat this dish as I do not eat beef, but Kazu said the meat was very vinegary!

Kariho - "Washes off the strong flavor of the vinegar and the sake goes a little sweeter," said Kazu.
BT -
KY - W

A-zen - "Sake creates a smoke and sweet flavor and makes the beef taste better by removing some of the strong vinegar elements."
BT -


As I can trace my roots back to a small village outside of Bremen Germany I was hoping in my soul that this pairing would work out! Oh for the sake of my forefathers - please GOD let it work! And like that - my German forefathers smiled deeply! What a great pairing this turned out to be! Both sakes worked very well at the action of enhancing a dish. There was not a lot of distractions out there, and more often then not the sakes made the dishes taste and feel better - what more can you ask? Yes a grain beverage does indeed rock with German food, but maybe we already knew that with the old thing called beer! And that koshu and herring pairing will go down in history as one of those tremendous finds! So go forth and take sake to your next German meal - I challenge you!

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