Hong Kong's most discerning sake bar has no sign and no obvious entrance. To reach Godenya, you need to walk down a dim alleyway and slide open a succession of unmarked metal doors before emerging into a warm, wood-hued hideaway with one table, a long bar and seating for eight people. Every night, the restaurant offers a single nine-course menu that pairs each dish with a different sake served at a specific temperature.
Presiding over every detail is Goshima Shinya, who opened Godenya's original location four years ago in Tokyo's down-to-earth Sumida district. In June last year, he moved the entire operation to Sheung Wan. "I have a mission to globalise sake," he says.
Goshima is not alone. After decades of decline, sake is undergoing a renaissance, thanks to a global boom of interest in the traditional Japanese rice wine. And with no tax on sake and Japanese cuisine on trend, Hong Kong is establishing itself as one of the best cities outside Japan for sake lovers. "I was blown away by the wine scene here," says author and sommelier Elliot Faber. "It's the same for sake."
When Faber came to Hong Kong in 2011 to run the drinks programme at the modern Japanese izakaya Yardbird, he drew up a "sake list as big as the wine list [at other restaurants]". Although Hong Kong has plenty of great sake, customers don't necessarily know what they want. Many gravitate towards daiginjo sakes because they've heard they are the best, but those designations only refer to how much the sake rice has been polished. "It doesn't mean it's better," Faber says. In September last year, he launched Sunday's Sake, a pair of junmai and junmai nigori sakes brewed exclusively for Yardbird and its sister outlets, Ronin and Sunday's Grocery. "People shouldn't be afraid to try something different," he says.
Other sake purveyors are hoping to make the drink accessible in other ways. Hong Kong-based Four Fox Saké recently launched a new brand of junmai daiginjo sake packaged in an eye-catching silver bottle designed to compete for nightclub table space with vodka and other spirits. "We wanted to create a sake that would change how Hongkongers perceive and enjoy this traditional beverage," says Four Fox co-founder David Innerdale. "We are seeing people order Four Fox along with Champagne and vodka, as shots in clubs, and enjoying it straight up where they otherwise might order a white wine."
Faber's interest in sake lies in its artisanal qualities. He recently wrote Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan's Artisanal Breweries. Along with Japanese co-author Hayato Hishinuma and photographer Jason Lang, Faber travelled to 60 breweries across Japan, interviewing toji (brew masters) and investigating the huge variety of sake-making techniques and regional traditions.
His interest in sake was piqued when he stumbled across Masa Shiroki, who makes sake in a tiny brewery on Granville Island in Vancouver. "He wanted to be a real artisan," he says, using a traditional wooden box press to separate sake liquid from the rice mash. Shiroki recently began growing his own sake rice on a plot of land just outside the city.
That level of craftsmanship is what drew Japanese-American filmmaker Erik Shirai to Tedorigawa, a 144-year-old family-run sake brewery in northern Japan, where he filmed The Birth of Sake, an intimate documentary that premiered in Hong Kong last November. "It's a magical feeling when you walk into the space," Shirai says.
Shirai wasn't much of a sake connoisseur when he first visited Tedorigawa, but he was struck by how fully invested its brewers were in making their product. All of the brewery's workers live together for the six-month wintertime brewing season.
"They compare it to raising a finicky child," he says. "You have to tend to it 24 hours a day, you have to take care of it in the middle of the night, people have to get up and make sure the temperature is right. You raise it and once it becomes a mature adult, that's when it can be called sake."
"Sake is very delicate," says Yasuyuki Yoshida, the sixth-generation heir to Tedorigawa. "We use some automated machines, but only for a few parts that don't matter for sake quality. The machines save our energy, and we can concentrate on our brewing process. The sake brewing technique is improving every year in Japan, but almost every part needs the brewer's feeling."
Sake falls somewhere between beer and wine. Like beer, it is made from boiling a grain and leaving it to ferment. Like wine, however, the terroir - the land and weather - plays a large role in determining the character of the final product. Rice is milled and polished to varying degrees, steam-cooked and then mixed with yeast and koji, which is rice cultivated with a type of mould called aspergillus oryzae. The next three steps - steeping the mixture in hot water for several days, then pressing and filtering it - are where the wisdom of the toji comes into play.
The brewery's 68-year-old toji, Teruyuki Yamamoto, has been making sake for 50 years. "He does everything by intuition," Shirai says. "He would literally stick his hand in the rice and just by feeling it he would know what adjustments to make." For Shirai, it's that kind of dedication that makes sake remarkable. "Just like anything, you can tell if it's handcrafted or mass-produced," he says.
Author and sommelier Elliot Faber says a common sake myth is that it only pairs well with Japanese food. "Sake and Italian food are best friends," he says. Goshima Shinya of Godenya was drawn to Hong Kong in particular because he thought Cantonese food made for especially interesting pairings. "I like to eat many countries' food with sake, but Cantonese - I love it," he says. "Sake has a lot of umami, and Cantonese food is very umami too. When you mix umami with umami, one plus one doesn't equal two - it equals seven."
That equation is the guiding principle behind Godenya's menu, which changes seasonally. Recent dishes include grilled wagyu beef with beetroot and Chinese fermented black bean sauce - paired with a young Inemankai red rice sake served at exactly 22 degrees Celsius - and hairy crab chawanmushi paired with a 2003 Tenyurin junmai ginjo sake served at 47 degrees. Different sakes must be served at different temperatures in order to showcase their best qualities, Shinya says.
It's yet another sake myth that only poor-quality sake is served warm, which has kept many people away from it. "For many people [in Hong Kong], it's their first time having warm sake," he says.
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