Memories from a pioneer – Elise Gee recalls how they created moto-i

Well over a decade ago, I became smitten with nihonshu at NYC sake bar and drinking institution, Decibel.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my experience there–its hidden-away, speak-easy location; a secret grotto showcasing a depth of sake that I had no idea existed–would lead me on a pilgrimage to learn more in Japan and eventually to brewing sake commercially.

In January 2006, I travelled to Kamakura where I met eight other foreigners interested in sake. We gathered at a local art space to learn and discern the drink with John Gauntner, preeminent American sake expert and author, who has lived in Japan more than half his life.

Blake Elise and John at moto-i
Blake, Elise and John at moto-i

Little did I know I was in the company of several pioneers who would spread the gospel of sake to their respective cities and countries in the years to come. Among them was Nancy Cushman, my tatami mat buddy. She and husband, Tim, would later open Boston’s o-ya, one of the best modern Japanese restaurants in America. Johnnie Stroud was in attendance, before he and wife, Taiko, opened Sake Nomi—a premium sake retail shop in Seattle. Kjetil Jikiun owned a micro-brewery in Norway called Nogne-O, which gained considerable traction in recent years with the craft beer boom. Kjetil dreamt of making sake, and last year began brewing “Hidaka Jima” at Nogne-O’s facilities. And there was this guy named Blake Richardson, who owned a brew pub and had lofty ideas of creating the first sake brewery restaurant outside of Japan—in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

In 2008, I would meet Kjetil and Blake again in Japan, this time in Tokyo, with a  much larger contingent of sake enthusiasts interested in attaining certification from Gauntner’s newly-accredited, Sake Education Council. We were the first of many to come, in receiving our Level I and II certifications.

Blake and I became fast friends in Kamakura when we discovered our mutual appreciation for the relatively obscure 80’s British pop-synth band, Blancmange. I don’t think I’ve met anyone else who could reel off any of their song titles or albums. This, along with our deep passion for sake cemented what would become a working relationship at moto-i, Blake’s sake brew pub vision, realized.

Blake in moto-i space before it was...
Blake in moto-i space before it was...

I was about to leave my newspaper paginator job in search of more sake-related pastures, and I knew my hometown of Vancouver, Canada’s limited sake interest was not going to fulfill my want to learn more. With Blake’s moto-i project under construction, he realized an imminent need for an assistant sake brewer and educator, and offered me a position.

Leaving Vancouver’s mountain and ocean backdrop for the American Midwest, to the Land of 10,000 lakes, seemed counter-intuitive, but this was about truly understanding sake, and what better place than Minnesota to learn the art of brewing nihonshu? It was certainly cold enough during the winter months and the water was on the hard side, good conditions for emulating northern style nihonshu. After spending a month writing moto-i’s sake training manual, I boarded a plane for Minneapolis, with sake stars in my eyes, and the promise of one day tasting my very own batch.

But before that could happen, we had the task of setting up the kura (brewery), which involved some of the hardest, most creative and fulfilling work I have ever done.

One might imagine a sake brew pub being quite similar to that of its brewed kissin’ cousin, beer. It is, in there’s a wonderful house-made elixir on tap to tantalize the taste buds, preventing you from leaving the joint—yes there’s the parallel—but that’s where it stops.

With moto-i, there was no one to emulate or guide, no one had ever done this before on such a scale, and certainly not in North America. Blake’s brewing background, entrepreneurial spirit and sheer gutsy determination made him the de-facto expert. He would get it done, and I would be there for the ride and help out. It was a good brewing partnership filled with big ideas, respect and lots of laughs.

Elise and Blake with some of the first equipment
Elise and Blake with some of the first equipment

Blake obtained a rice washer from Japan, but that was pretty much the extent of anything imported from sake’s place of origin we would have available to us.  For moto/shubo (yeast starter), Blake picked up two stainless beer fermenters; for moromi (main ferment), three 1500 liter jacketed wine fermentation tanks, and a handful of wine storage tanks. We had an industrial-sized kettle with removable custom-made stainless steel cylinder, which cradled the rice during steaming. After some time in storage, the various namazake would get transferred to wheeled beer kegs and moved to a cooler below the bar, conjoined to the taps above, via nitrogen gas.

Blake with Rice washer from Japan
Blake with Rice washer from Japan

The plan was to serve only nama, unpasteurized sake, on tap, with the intention of eventually having seven namazake available.

If you enjoy sake, but have never had the opportunity to experience its delightful unpasteurized counterpart, please get thee to a liquor store with sake fridge, ASAP! Typically, you will find nama in the spring/summer months. It has a zingy, fresh, lively quality that is highly enjoyable on the palate.

The idea of having an endless supply of draft sake still gives me goose bumps—sure it can be crazy cold over there, but those Minnesotans get to enjoy namazake all year round! Perhaps there is a God, well at least, a Sake God.

To outfit the rest of the kura, we made well over a hundred trips to Home Depot, Fleet Farm (a Midwest farming equipment and supply superstore), Ikea, and various local shops who would all do a double-take when we explained our intention with their supplies.

Buckets for soaking washed rice were actually colorful plastic Ikea chairs turned upside down; gauzy pillowcases became vessels for measuring and holding rice during the soak. Eventually flexible mesh laundry hampers took their place. We designed and sewed by hand, a canvas cover and mesh polyester cylinder to fit the steamer specifications; industrial ratchets held the cloth lid and tube in place. Plastic paint scrapers worked to remove the kasu from the filter cloths after pressing.

Originally we thought of pressing the sake using a fune, which would involve obtaining porous bags (sakabukura), placing them in a stainless steel box and pressing the bags using a counterweight. The clear liquid would trickle out of the box and the lees would remain inside the bags.

We did obtain sakabukura with the gracious help of Keith Norum from Miyasaka Shuzo, makers of Masumi brand sake, and eventually they were used to make kubi-tsuri (aka shizuku)—sake pressed using pure gravity. It yields the least, but produces some of the most exquisite sake you will ever try.

After spending hours upon hours sourcing out equipment online and over the phone, I decided to try more sophisticated search strings and happened upon what would be my biggest coup. I hit the veritable golden o-chokko paydirt: a Yabuta mechanical press in excellent condition sitting in the California desert.

I remember rubbing my eyes in disbelief and making a frantic call to Blake telling him to check his email. I was yelling something like: “Holy Crap! A Yabuta, a real freakin’ Yabuta in California!!”  Blake was incredulous and kept asking calmly if I was joking. Finding the press was truly serendipitous—the timing was perfect and a lot cheaper than getting one shipped from Japan.

So a failed attempt by a Japanese sake brewery to make inroads into America, would provide a Midwest upstart to make sake history years later.

Blake contacted the seller, it was still available and could be shipped within a matter of weeks. The Yabuta was small, fit perfectly in our brewery cooler and afforded us some efficiencies in pressing. Since it was a two-person brewery, being able to ensure processes ran smoothly was helpful, to say the least.

Yabuta Delivery
Yabuta Delivery

The manual was in Japanese, so it didn’t help us much. But resourceful Blake somehow got it functioning. After endless hours of cleaning and sanitizing, and a few electrical upgrades, we had a working Yabuta just in time to press our first batch.

moto-i opened its doors officially October 2008. We had great staff in those early days–they are, I daresay, still some of the most knowledgeable sake people in America. They took an intensive 4-day class with us, tasting sake, watching slides and listening to our stories. In the end, they took a test and understood we were serious about this sake stuff.

That tenacity, that will, imparting the passion for all to experience, came together during our official opening. We were working like dogs, trying to get the sake out before the first guests arrived. It was noisy in the brewery with air compressors pumping moromi into the Yabuta. From there, out came the first rush of clear liquid into the storage tank.

Blake took a sanitized glass beaker and placed it under the spout. For a brief moment, all seemed quiet. He took a sip and passed the vessel to me. Looking at each other, slightly teary and weary, we declared simultaneously, “Hey that’s pretty good!!”. A loud whoosh from the press motor awoke our proud moment, and we jumped back into the fray. We had promised three namazake on tap for opening and we were not going to disappoint.

Blake the joker: one time as we were steaming rice for a batch, he asked me to check on the rice. I climbed on the step ladder and checked the steamer and saw this written inside.
Blake the joker: one time as we were steaming rice for a batch, he asked me to check on the rice. I climbed on the step ladder and checked the steamer and saw this written inside.

Follow Elise on Twitter as @seishu


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2 thoughts on “Memories from a pioneer – Elise Gee recalls how they created moto-i”

  1. I liked very much your history is like a Novel….with ups and downs and a gut end but I am sure it has not ended…, I am planning my first kome-koji in the next two week

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