708 Addison Street (between 3rd St & 4th St), Berkeley, CA 94710. (510) 540-8250.
My friend Misa and I have known each other for about 8 or 9 years now. By happenstance we met in a Japanese language group and clicked. It must have been kismet because it turned out we had a similar ethnic background (Caucasian/American dads and Japanese moms) and we both have an intense love of Japanese culture. Over the years, she's always been my go to girl for hitting up Japanese restaurants, movies and cultural events. So when I mentioned to her that there was an izakaya in Berkeley that we should try, she was down. We decided to make a mini day trip out of it by also swinging by the Takara Sake Museum. I had heard about the museum a few years ago and had wanted to stop by on several occasions but it always seemed like I was rushing to get to the Bay Area or back home and a side trip wasn't feasible.
Takara Sake USA (as this division of the company is called) has been in West Berkeley since 1982; however, Takara (which means "treasure" in Japanese) has been making shochu, sake and mirin in Kyoto since 1842. The Takara Sake Museum is located on Addison Street in Berkeley in an area populated by large industrial warehouses and cute cafes and includes a brewery and tasting room. It's in a very nondescript large, cream colored building. Look for the small sake tasting clapboard out front and when you enter, go up the stairs to the second level. For their naturally fermented Sho Chiku Bai brand they utilize rice from the Sacramento Valley and the snow melt from the Sierra Nevadas and apply their traditional sake making techniques.
Upon arrival, Misa and I watched a short interesting film on kurobito (sake makers) and the process of sake brewing. We learned about the meticulous process of milling and polishing of high-quality rice, washing and soaking the rice, the steaming, the planting of the Koji spores and the mixing of the mash. After the mash, the sake is exposed to yeast, pressed, filtered, settled, pasteurized and then aged. Whew! Lots of steps and each step is done with precision and care.
Diagram Source: Takarasake.com
Afterwards, we took a stroll through the mini museum and took in the various antique mixing paddles, heavy wooden buckets, cedar barrels and the giant turn of the century press with stone weights. I have to confess- I loved the smell in the museum...have you ever been in a wine cavern? To me it was a similar experience, it was like an intoxicating perfume composed of intermingling notes of sweetness and sharp tanginess. I kept taking deep breathes to inhale more of the potent aroma as it seemed to have a relaxing zen-like effect on me. (Too bad they don't sell sake factory candles.) We made our way back to the tasting room which I found to be beautiful- it was spacious and airy with granite floor tiles containing glass from recycled bottles and a wooden roof framing made from reclaimed Douglas fir. We took a few photos at the raised tatami floor sitting area and checked out the giant bird mobiles that circled over our heads. I particularly loved learning about the fresh cedar leaf balls (sakabayashi) that are hung outside of a sake maker's brewery to signify when a new non-aged sake has been completed. The browning of the cedar leaves parallels the sake aging process and when the leaves turn a dark brown, the sake is considered matured and ready.
Sho Chiku Bai Classic- a traditional sake, served warm. It's slightly dry and full bodied
Shirakabe Gura Tokubetsu Junmai- served warm, complex taste, very smooth
Sho Chiku Bai Kinpaku- served chilled, contains gold flecks, has a slight mellow aroma
Sho Chiku Bai Kinpaku - recognizable by its tiny gold flecks
Sho Chiku Bai Antique- served chilled, has a strong floral aroma and is super smooth
Sho Chiku Bai Nigori Crème de Sake- served chilled, delicate fruity smell, a subtle honeydew finish, milky white in color
Sho Chiku Bai Nigori, Silky Blend- served chilled, sweet, slightly coconut undertone, milky white in color
Koshu Plum Sake- served chilled, beautiful almond scent, sweet cherry taste
Mio Sparking Sake- served chilled, effervescent, sweet aroma, slight fruity flavor, tangy, refreshing
Takara Sierra Cold- served chilled, very light, gentle, would be a perfect summer drink
Sho Chiku Bai Nama- served chilled, unpasteurized, slightly fruity with a vanilla undertone
Sho Chiku Bai Rei- served chilled, classic unpasteurized, floral scent
We also sampled some flavored sakes- Fuji apple, lychee, white peach and raspberry- these tasted like candy. Very delicious and sweet.
Bottles are available for purchase in the tasting room and are budget friendly. The ladies who work at the tasting bar are super friendly and helpful. I think they liked us a lot because they chatted with us in Japanese, let us taste a lot of extra sakes and even gave us a special otoso sachet to take home. An otoso is a special drink that the Japanese partake in during New Years. It consists of a special spice blend that you steep in either warm mirin or sake. Kind of like a Japanese version of mulled wine, I suppose. The sachets we were given had a lovely scent including hints of cinnamon. Otoso supposedly keeps you healthy in the coming year and casts away evil spirits, so I'm excited to try it.
Otoso packet, slightly wrinkled from being in my purse
If you get a chance, I would highly recommend visiting the Takara Sake Museum. It's such a fun little day trip and you'll learn so much about the history of Japanese sake making and the various sake tastes.