Sake and the Culinary Secrets of Traditional Washoku

I’ll just come right out and say that “Taking an Interest in Yet Another Fermented Beverage” is pretty high on my list of “Things I Don’t Need In My Life.” Beer, cider, kombucha, mead, wine – I have those covered, but until recently, I hadn’t much cared about sake, the traditional Japanese “wine” made from fermented polished rice. I’d drink it if someone placed it in front of me, sure, but I wouldn’t derive any real enjoyment from it, or subject it to critical thought beyond “meh, it tastes like funky rice-water.”

What changed? Well, a couple years ago, I finally took the plunge and dined at the venerable NAOE, Miami’s preeminent Japanese restaurant, helmed by the talented chef Kevin Cory. There, I tried sake from his family’s brewery, the Nakamura Brewery in Kanazawa, Japan. Paired with the delicacies I was enjoying, I finally had my sake revelation – it could be every bit as complex, as refined, as great a partner for certain foods as the finest Belgian saison or Napa Valley cab.

It follows that when recently given the opportunity to attend a culinary demonstration and sake tasting at the residence of the Miami Consulate General of Japan, I was excited. The event was held in two parts – first, we were treated to a brief demonstration from chef Shuji Hiyakawa, formerly executive sushi chef at the highly-regarded restaurant Kuro inside the Seminole Hard Rock. He showed us how to make sushi rice, mixing it in a large traditional wooden bowl and adding vinegar at precisely the right time:

Then, he processed a lovely side of bluefin tuna fresh from the waters off Spain into different cuts – the deep-red akami, the lean, meaty loin most are familiar with, chutoro, which is a cut between the akami and the more fatty tuna belly meat, and otoro, a very fatty, rich tender cut. The demonstration was fascinating, but at this point I was becoming hungry, and also curious about the chutoro, as I’d not had that cut of tuna before. After chef Hiyakawa finished, we were invited to make ourselves a plate of delicacies – as you can see, I was most interested in tasting and comparing the different tuna cuts:



While all the cuts were delicious, I have to admit that otoro is still far and away my favorite. The texture is just so luxurious, so rich and tender, it comes close to physically disintegrating upon the palate with little or no chewing required. Akami is something I could eat every day – it’s so lean and downright meaty, if I close my eyes it almost seems as if I’m eating rare beef. Chutoro, as I stated above, is kind of an intermediate cut between akami and otoro, not as lean as the former and certainly not as fatty as the latter – this is chef Hiyakawa’s favorite. Moderate marbling is noted, and it is indeed a very pleasing bite. If pressed for a choice, however, I would still reach for the otoro almost every time!

Time for some sake tasting. 13 sakes that currently aren’t available in South Florida were set out on the table. I wasn’t sure that I’d have the chops to get around to tasting all of them, but the tasting portions were mercifully small enough that I was able to indulge and try all of them, without rendering my next morning at work a hung-over struggle.



Most of these were daiginjo and ginjo – premium sakes. Daiginjo is a sake made with rice that has been milled and polished to at least 50%, up to 75%. It’s a matter of grades – the idea is, the more the rice is milled and polished before fermentation, the more fats and proteins are stripped away from the grain, attempting to leave only the starches at the core, which is really what the sake brewer is looking for. This leads to a very clean, yet complex flavor profile.

Most of the sake I tried was indeed quite clean, floral and perfume-y, with no off-flavors; however, my favorites ended up being Gokyo from Sakai Shuzo, Yuki No Bosha from Saiya Shuzouten, and Tateyama Ama Harashi from Tateyama Shuzo. After trying all of these excellent bottles, I felt as if I was able to further refine the kind of flavor profile I prefer in a sake – I tend to like them off-dry, not treacly sweet, but then again, not so austerely dry either…..just a light honey sweetness with notes of elderflower and hints of coconut.

Coming from a longtime beer appreciators’ background, I feel that tasting sake is much more of a delicate endeavor. The entire flavor spectrum of the beer world is notoriously vast, from the lightest-bodied table beers to adjunct-laden high-ABV imperial stouts that taste like Mexican chocolate. A rank novice would be able to immediately taste the difference between, say, a Baltic porter, and a Belgian witbier. Even in wine circles, a casual imbiber can easily taste the difference between a sauvignon blanc and a malbec. With sake, it’s just not that simple and easily-defined. I find the flavors to be more delicate, requiring me to pay closer attention to get a handle on what I’m tasting. Evaluating sake requires more of a refined, dialed-in palate, and I’m not quite “there” yet. I know that this will prove to be a fun education, though….and if it requires an eventual trip to Japan in the name of furthering said sake education, so be it!

Many thanks to the Japanese Consulate General for hosting this event, and inviting me to take part.

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Funky Buddha Maple Bacon Coffee Porter (2015)

Greetings! It has been a while, hasn’t it? My apologies for being such an anti-prolific blogger, but why focus on that? There’s no time like the present to jump back into things. What better way to reboot, than to take a look at one of the most infamous beers ever produced in the state of Florida? I am referring to none other than Maple Bacon Coffee Porter, from the pride of Oakland Park, the Funky Buddha.

The Buddha needs no further introduction – at this point, the place isn’t much of a secret. Whenever I make it up to Broward, the brewery is typically one of my favored stops, and I can attest that it is rarely lacking for patrons, boasting healthy crowds at almost all hours of the day. Maple Bacon Coffee, a dark beer featuring flavors of, well, maple, bacon and coffee, is probably the Buddha’s most-sought-after beer. It is released only once per year, in January, in conjunction with “Maple Bacon Day,” a massive day-long blowout of a beer festival held at the brewery. To date, this beer has been bottled in mass quantities twice, in 2014 and 2015.

I say “in mass quantities,” because the first “bottling” of Maple Bacon actually occurred several years prior to the opening of the Buddha’s Oakland Park brewery. It was bottled, in an extremely limited quantity, at the original Funky Buddha Lounge in Boca Raton. The bottles had a very plain black and white label, fashioned to look like a doctor’s Rx on a prescription drug container. To answer your inevitable question, no, I do not have one of these. At the time, I wouldn’t have known whose leg I would have had to rub up against in order to get one of those bottles. I did, however, get to try some of the earlier batches of Maple Bacon at the Lounge, well before ground was ever broken at the Oakland Park location. Even then, there was a ton of hype surrounding this beer, but the hype back then tended to be confined more to the hardcore beer geek community. Ten thousand people didn’t descend upon the Lounge whenever this beer was tapped. Instead, you had South Florida’s earliest beer fans begging and pleading for bottles or growlers of this stuff to be sent out around the country for trade. They always denied me – nicely, but no dice. Still, many of these bottles must have been sent out, somehow….because once the country’s beer cognoscenti tasted (or even heard of) “MBCP,” the tracks for the Buddha’s hype train had been laid….a train that is still barreling along a few years later.

On to the beer itself. Is it still worth the hype? I would give a qualified “yes.” In today’s American brewing scene, where it seems that almost every combination of style and adjunct under the sun has been tried many times over, there are still comparatively few “maple, bacon, coffee” beers, and still fewer that are anywhere near as satisfying as the Buddha’s groundbreaking iteration of breakfast-in-a-glass. I don’t quite like the 2015 batch as much as I liked prior batches, for one reason on which I’ll elaborate further, but it is still a highly enjoyable beer. Let’s drink:


Per the back label on the bottle, chill this to around 50 degrees, and pour it into a snifter. The knee-jerk reaction I had is that 50 degrees seems a little cold, but then again, at just over 6% ABV, this is not a terribly “strong” or chewy beer that would benefit from much warming. It seems to me that drinking it colder leads to a more angular, crisp flavor, whereas at 60+ degrees, it becomes a little runny and thin. With some beers, you want to let them warm up because doing so unlocks more desirable aromas and flavors – letting them “open up.” Maple Bacon doesn’t seem to need this. Chill it, pour it, and it’s fine right off the bat.


Aroma is most obviously acrid coffee, something reminiscent of a glass of cold brew. There’s a touch of “cigarette,” but not nearly enough to be unpleasant. Rounding out the aroma is French toast, generally, but more of a French toast if one was to cook said toast in duck fat – a little meaty smell, though I wouldn’t immediately identify it as bacon.

Having had this beer on Maple Bacon Day, I thought it tasted very coffee-forward, much more so than in years past. A friend I was talking with then made the good point that the coffee will probably calm down a little in a month or two, and give the other flavors more of a chance. Here we are, a little over a month after release day, and I have to say, he was absolutely right. The flavors are melding better than they had initially. It is still very much dominated by coffee, in my opinion, but I am getting more of the sweet maple and some of the smoke that represents bacon. Occasionally, every fourth sip or so, I’m getting the slightest aftertaste hint of sweet red licorice.

I do think that this is better than it was upon release. However, I still think that the batches from prior years were better. At first, I just chalked it up to “too much coffee?” but then I realized that the flavor profile of this beer was always driven by coffee, so I don’t think that’s my main issue – it just seems that the particular coffee character this year is more acrid and muddy than it had been. Again, this is just one point of criticism – this is still one of the best beers of its type out there.


Drink up within the next few months, if you have bottles – based on the 2014 bottling, this beer is still drinkable at 6 months to a year out, but it won’t be anywhere near as good as it is right now. It’s not much of an aging candidate, so don’t hoard it. Drink it now.

The Funky Buddha has been aggressive in getting its beers out to bars and restaurants throughout South and now Central Florida all the way up to Orlando….so if you missed Maple Bacon Day, don’t worry, it is still possible to catch this beer on tour. Follow your favorite beer-centric bars and restaurants on social media, and be vigilant as to what’s being tapped – you might get your chance.

Until next time….see you at the Buddha!

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Funky Buddha Veruca Snozzberry Gose

If you follow any part of the South Florida beer community on Instagram or Twitter, more than likely over the past couple weeks, you may have noticed pictures of these fun blue-labeled bottles from the Funky Buddha Brewery in Oakland Park for its Founders Club members:


Like most in the aforementioned beer community, I am a big fan of the Funky Buddha. This brewery is chiefly well-known for its “No Crusts” PB&J brown ale, and its Maple Bacon Coffee porter – two of the beers that really best express the culinary-driven philosophy to which this brewery adheres. However, the people behind the Buddha were also among the pioneers of the now famous, and widely debated, sub-style known as Florida Weisse. This is essentially an uncompromising tart, sometimes all-out sour, wheat beer brewed with fruit, frequently tropical fruit. Given the nearly tropical climate of peninsular Florida and the relentless experimentation of our local brewers, it’s not surprising that fruits like Key lime, guava, passionfruit, guanabana, black sapote, dragonfruit and a whole host of others have helped carve out this unique niche for Florida beer. Let’s face it, you’re not growing starfruit or mamey in Chicago…that’s only happening south of Lake Okeechobee.

So, with that in mind, back to the beer at hand. The name “Veruca Snozzberry” blatantly alludes to Willy Wonka, which makes perfect sense to those who have visited the Buddha’s Oakland Park facility and seen the large Wonka-inspired mural – they are fans of the nutty candymaker of classic books, and let his imaginative ethos inform and guide their brewing. That, more than anything, is what we all love most about the Buddha. We love that it doesn’t just brew a good straightforward IPA, but that it also brews beer that tastes exactly like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a slice of apple pie, a Mounds bar, or a square of blueberry cobbler. That’s channeling Wonka.

What is a Gose? Wow, I’m all over the place with this one today. Gose is an old, obscure style of ale indigenous to the German brewing tradition. It’s somewhat similar to the lactic, tart Berliner style in body and flavor, but with curious additions – coriander and salt. This may sound odd to the uninitiated, a beer brewed with salt, but believe me, this can work out very well. Don’t worry, the Gose experience is not akin to drinking seawater. Typically, the salt just provides a mild note at the back end that dovetails well with the upfront lemony tartness, and coriander provides a little peppery flavor.

Analogous to what Florida brewers have done with Berliners, the same brewers are also adding tropical fruits to Gose. This one is brewed with Snozzberries, or at least what the brewers imagine a snozzberry tastes like. Apparently, a snozzberry tastes a lot like guava and passionfruit 😉 This beer’s aroma is very round and full of those two tropical standbys, with perhaps a hint of pineapple as well. Maybe it’s the power of self-suggestion, but I’m also getting a jasmine note that recalls one of my favorite Buddha Berliners, their Guava Jasmine.


Flavor is also very full, making use of sweet, tart and salt sensations on the palate. It’s a little sweet guava/passion/pineapple up front, then that typical Berliner sour rushes strong on the back and top, then a salty finish – a bit saltier than I would have expected, actually, but here the salt works…kind of how those salted dried mango slices you buy as snacks work.

I was hoping that the first Founders Club bottle would be something like a sour tropical fruit beer, and clearly, this one didn’t disappoint. It’s worth noting that per the brewers themselves, this one should be consumed fairly fresh. Like now. As much as I want to save “The First Founders Club Bottle, Ever,” doing so would be utterly pointless – this one isn’t a good candidate for aging. Drink it.

Cheers to the Funky Buddha’s first year of operation in Oakland Park – I’m looking forward to what the future brings.

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Fantome Saison

The inimitable Brasserie Fantome out of Soy, Belgium, brews a number of seasonal beers and assorted rarities highly sought-after by beer geeks everywhere. The Blanche in particular was a favorite of mine; it smelled and tasted strongly of white grapefruit. And who can forget the green Magic Ghost, aka Soylent Green-in-a-Glass?

However, the original Fantome Saison is the odd ghost’s flagship beer, and if you ask me, when it’s on its game, it’s still probably the best saison out there. Unfortunately, here in Florida, we don’t get a whole lot of it – so occasionally, I’ll hit up my favorite out of state online retailers, and make it a part of my order. Alternatively, go to Chicago or New York and bring back a bottle or two – it’s far more common in both of those areas. I don’t open these up very often, so this is going to be a well-savored 750ml bottle! I plan to travel to Belgium later in the year, and you can be sure that Fantome is high on my list of places to visit.


What makes Fantome’s eponymous saison so special? It’s dry, tart, herbal, powerful and yet, immensely drinkable. Let’s get drinking!

The Saison pours a clear straw (the below picture is of the cloudy, yeasty last pour of the bottle) reminiscent of many lesser beers, with a billowing, but rapidly subsiding bone-white crown. On the nose, it comes off as similar to some gueuze – musty sour apples and leather, but without the barrel character. Little bit of cut grass and wildflower bringing up the rear with more traditional “clean saison” characteristics.


Recently, I’d had some disappointing bottles of this particular beer, but I’m happy to report that this one is an awesome return to form! This is a lot closer to the Fantome I knew, and still love. Up front, it tastes a bit like kombucha with lemon – a tart impression that makes you think this is going to be a “sour beer,” but it’s more of a 1/5th tartness that, while pervading the entire duration of the pull, somehow manages to recede into the background and let the dry complexities of a world-class saison pull through – flowers, weeds, honey, slightly rotten orange juice, and that pinpoint hop bitterness, with just the right amount of carbonation. A beautiful beer,

Even though it seems easy to drink, at 8%, this Saison is no weakling. Savor this bottle over a couple hours or share it with friends who’d appreciate it. Not surprisingly, it pairs well with food – moules frites would be an obvious match, but I’m thinking a nice Florida lobster would be great too, or most crustaceans. I wish I could tote a bottle of this into Joe’s Stone Crab – who needs the Sauvignon Blanc? Also, as this is an artisanal farmhouse product, don’t forget the obvious match with another artisanal farmhouse product – cheese. Unfortunately, I only have a wedge of aged Gouda on hand. This wouldn’t have been my first choice for pairing with this beer – I might have picked a stout for a Gouda, or a triple creme for this. But lo and behold, it turned out to be an amazing pairing! The cheese actually muted some of the beer’s tartness and brought out more of the weedy honey flavors – an incredible match I would never have thought of. Lesson to be learned here is……when in doubt, pair saison with cheese. Ingrain that one into your brain cells. Cheers!


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Cigar City Cubano-Style Espresso Brown Ale

It’s time to make my “triumphant return” after a rather lazy, unforced hiatus, and what better way to do that than with a local Florida beer? Since it came out a couple years ago, Cubano Espresso has been one of my favorite Cigar City beers. Brewed with coffee from Mazzaro Italian Market, cacao and vanilla, it packs a lot of flavor punch for what would otherwise be a relatively modest brown ale at 5.5% ABV.


One whiff in the snifter, and it’s plain to tell exactly where this is going. It smells like a mocha latte – you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a glass of iced coffee. I get no hint of “beer” at all, which could be a little off-putting but for the fact that I love the aroma of coffee. And this smells like good coffee, too – like cold brew-at-Panther Coffee good.


Taste follows aroma. No doubt, this is a coffee-forward beer, and easy to predict whether someone will like it or not. Coffee fans will, coffee haters won’t – it’s that simple. The chocolate and vanilla help lend an impression of sweetness, which leads to a remarkably clean, mineral-dry finish I like. It’s still not the most refreshing beverage out there, but with that dryness and low ABV, it’s an easy drinker. I’ve already worked through the 4-pack I bought a few weeks ago, which is high praise considering my beer-ADD.

I could see this going well with grilled meats, with a little char – think that would tie in with the coffee. Alternatively, drink it with dessert instead of a cup of coffee! Maybe not so much with fruity desserts, but anything chocolate/vanilla oriented.

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Mikkeller Funky E * – Sauternes Barrel Aged

First of all, I’m popping open a beer and writing this because I’m annoyed that I’m not at the Funky Buddha tonight for its orgy of special release beers. To those of you who are there, I’m jealous, and you suck. Anyway, nothing I have can match what’s going down at the Buddha tonight, but I’m hoping to open something at least a little interesting to begin to ease the pain of missing out.

I never know what I’m going to get with the “gypsy brewer” Mikkeller, and I like that. These guys are pretty experimental, and while not all of their experiments pan out so well, when I open up one of these beers, I’m guaranteed to not be bored. Sometimes Mikkeller is at the height of brilliance (in the key of “Beer Geek Brunch Weasel”), other times complete weirdness (a la Spontankoppi) – but either way, there’s always something to talk about.

All I know about this Funky E * beer is what I’m reading on the label – Belgian Wild Ale aged in Sauternes barrels. Note for the uninitiated – all “wild” implies is that we’ve got some Brettanomyces “wild yeast” helping make up some of the flavor profile. It’s not “wild” in the sense that the beer’s going to leap forth and bite you, requiring a visit to the doctor for a rabies shot.


Sauternes will be familiar to the wine enthusiast, but many beer aficionados may not know that it’s a sweet white wine produced with noble rot-infected grapes in the Bordeaux region of France. Like many of the best sweet wines, they’re fairly expensive. My most obvious beery reference point here is Dogfish Head’s Noble Rot, an interesting saison-Viognier hybrid beer that definitely left little doubt as to its vinous origins.

I guess my questions here are going to be 1) how funky is it, and 2) how much Sauternes comes through?

It pours like an red ale, decent level of foam that wants to stick around a while, over a clear dark amber. It actually is clear, even if the picture I took doesn’t show that.


The nose is nuanced, varied – there’s the expected apricot and honey from the sweet wine influence, with a little bit of that telltale cat pee and molded plastic from the yeast. It’s pretty funky, and smells tart – if I didn’t know any better, I might think it’s an old lambic, or at the very least a tart saison based on the smell. As it warms, I seem to get less of the Sauternes, and more of the underlying base beer – a thick Cointreau-cake malt character.

Here’s one that is nowhere near as sour on the palate as it smells. It’s just a little tart, and a very smooth tartness at that, delivered by a surprisingly creamy mouthfeel. In fact, I think the texture might be my favorite part of this beer, its creaminess dovetailing perfectly with a hint of vanilla on the back end; that’s probably the wine barrel influence. Up front, it’s a little off-dry stonefruit, not terribly sweet, but certainly nowhere near the typical austere dryness of a saison. Some cat pee and leather make their way from the aroma to the palate, but no big deal on that score, I’ve had funkier.

Alcohol is almost at 10% – I feel it, but don’t taste it. This one isn’t a chore to get through, as some of the higher-ABV brews can be. I can’t say it slapped the hell out of me with wine-like acidity, but I’m not sure I was in the mood for that anyway. This one’s more balanced and creamy, with an apparent, but more restrained wine and barrel influence than some other comparable beers. I’d almost call this easy drinking if not for the fact that I can already feel the alcohol going to my head.

Well, it didn’t make up for the Buddha, but that was always going to be a tall order. If you can find some of this in a dusty corner of an out-of-town liquor store, don’t hesitate to give it a go. It’s a shame that South Florida’s Mikkeller availability is so spotty-to-barely-existent.

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Dogfish Head/Sierra Nevada Life and Limb: Rhizing Bines

This one kinda took me by surprise when I saw it on the shelf at my local store. A Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada collaboration? I know these two breweries did a “Life and Limb” before – a strong ale brewed with maple and birch, but I wasn’t anticipating any more such collaborations. This was probably foolish of me, because the collaborative trend in craft beer is showing no signs of abating.


OK, so this is an IPA. Big deal, right? If I picked up every single IPA I ever saw on the shelves, I’d be swimming in beer bottles. Well, even more so than I already am, I guess. Anyway, Rhizing Bines promises to be a little more interesting than the standard Cascade hop love-fest normally associated with Sierra Nevada’s beers. The bittering hop here is Bravo, a very high alpha acid American variety. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a beer that prominently features this hop, so I’m already in unknown territory. Plunging me deeper into the hop bine thicket is the variety used here for dry-hopping, experimental Hop 644. This is what’s going to give me most of the hop aroma, and I have no idea what this particular hop is all about. My typical American hop aroma expectations are of grapefruit, pine, cannabis and maybe a little cat pee…but a hop that doesn’t have a name yet? No clue.

The malt bill featured here is also interesting. Southeastern US foodies will likely recognize the name Anson Mills. If not, if you’ve ever been to a nice local gastropub and ordered anything with grits or farro……South Carolina’s Anson Mills was probably the purveyor. Anyway, a further deviation from the standard American IPA style is the use of red heirloom wheat grown by these guys. This should add a dimension beyond the standard cakey barley malts found in the majority of IPAs.


Now that I’ve set the stage, I’ll give it a try. The pour is gold with a tinge of amber, very typical of IPAs. Good clarity and foam retention. Aroma is not the usual IPA aroma at all – it really doesn’t have much beyond a soft bready component and the smell of a field of wildflowers and weeds.

Thankfully, there’s more to the taste. Typical IPA, this is not. I was looking for some fruit in the aroma, but I’m getting it on the palate in the form of strawberries. The use of heirloom wheat here is also really softening the mouthfeel and adding an intense but not unwelcome bready underpinning with a hint of lavender. Aftertaste seems to be an impression of strawberry jam, with a firm residual bitterness.


It’s a tough IPA to put my finger on – it has the bitterness, but beyond that the aroma and flavor components are out of the mainstream. I’m a sucker for the soft texture wheat gives, and I like the rustic, floral smells and flavors going on, so this is my kind of beer. However, if you want a traditional American IPA out of this one, you might want to steer clear. If you don’t mind stretching the boundaries of what an IPA can be, though, pick one up.

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