Master Sake Sommelier Yuji Matsumoto
Born in Kobe, Japan, Yuji Matsumoto first explored a career in finance, eventually finding himself living in Los Angeles, California after a transfer from Tokyo in 1991. With a love of the culinary arts, he didn’t limit himself in his career choices, however. In 1998, he founded the highly successful California Sushi Academy. “Because sake was part of the school culture," it was here in his role as president and sushi chef that he really began to delve into the world of sake. He later left to join Mutual Trading with an aim to promoting sake culture in the US, educating as a speaker at various events and as a writer for American and Japanese magazines. In 2004, Yuji received his Sake Sommelier certification from the prestigious Sake Service Institute (SSI) in Japan. In 2006 as a finalist in the World Sake Sommelier Competition, he was selected as the West Coast representative for North America. In 2008, the Institute recognized his educational efforts and approached him to upgrade his sommelier status to Master. He traveled to Japan, passed the intense exam, and became the first Master Sake Sommelier in North America. In 2011, he was recognized in a formal ceremony as a Sake Samurai through the Japan Sake Brewers Association and International Wine Challenge (IWC), an award honoring worthy individuals for “their outstanding contribution to the understanding, appreciation or promotion of sake," and has been the Panel Chairman of the IWC Sake Division since 2012.
He currently is the beverage director for Kabuki Restaurants, having joined the team in 2008, and it was in this capacity I first met Yuji. In 2014, a friend and I attended his annual Sake Tour, one of the programs he instituted when he joined Kabuki. With a schedule of five cities in Nevada, California and Arizona (I visited the Glendale Kabuki) he introduced Kabuki patrons to some of the sakes, beer, and sochu on the Kabuki menu. The $15.95 cost included seven beverages and appetizers, and his informative Session Handbook was a handy guide to the world of sake making readily apparent his knowledge and educational skills.
A common misconception is that sake is a rice wine. In fact, it is brewed or fermented. “Sake is made from simple ingredients and a complex brewing process," his handbook reads. “The main ingredients include finely polished rice, koji (molded rice) and water. The complexity of flavors depends on many factors, including the brewing process, level of water, types of rice and geographic conditions.” Yuji goes on to explain to to me how "the mold, or koji, is added because it contributes enzymes that break down the starch into sugar." "I’ve toured many sake breweries. There are more than 1200 in Japan. Some are big companies with a computerized system, and others are smaller breweries called kura. Water is always different from each region and they only use spring water because the mineral content is very important."
He tells me how sake is categorized by the rice milling process and points me to the picture of a rice grain in his helpful Matsumoto Sake Chart found in every Kabuki menu. "There are two general types of sake - sake using only fermented alcohol from koji (0therwise known as junmai), and sake made with a combination of rice, koji, and distilled alcohol (known as non-junmai)." Further categories are determined by how much of the rice kernel remains after being milled or polished. Honjozo is 70% rice remaining, ginjo is 60% rice remaining, and dainginjo is 50% rice remaining. Yuji describes how to use this knowledge to read a sake label. For example, if a bottle is labeled daiginjo, it means 50% of the rice remains after polishing and distilled alcohol was added, while the words junmai daiginjo mean no distilled alcohol was added. "Junmai means 'pure rice' in Japanese," Yuji adds. "People think it’s a grade but it’s really a category of sake.". He hopes this knowledge helps people become less intimidated about drinking sake. "My goal with the sake tour is to have people experience different styles of sake. Most people have had only one type of sake – hot sake – and when they come here and try these, they say 'oh, I didn’t know sake had so many flavors!'. I also want it be entertaining and make sure everyone is having fun. I see more and more people enjoying cold sake rather than hot sake, so that’s a good thing."
Did a lot of people sign up for the first one? No, even though it was free because I wanted to educate. Only a couple people joined. Then I started doing the food and sake pairing dinners. People started coming in; maybe six or ten people came. This was five years ago, so I’ve seen a lot of growth since then. Our last Sake Tour in Tempe had to be capped at 65 people.
How do you choose your Kabuki selection? Value, quality, and appeal. I get a lot of questions like “what’s the best sake?” It depends on how much you pay and the value. If I pay $10 and it tastes like $10, that’s good. But if I pay $10 and it tastes like $15, that’s better. This is a list I chose to appeal to everybody and offer quality sake. The interesting thing is, on the last menu I discovered and put three to four undervalued sakes on the Kabuki menu. I tasted them and said to myself, this can’t be $12, but I put them on the list. Then six months later, the vendor tells me they made a mistake on the calculations.
What are the best regions in Japan for sake? One of the most well-known regions for making sake is Nada, Hyogo (near Kobe city) due to its mineral-rich underground water called "Miyamizu". But recently the northern region (Tohoku area) has been making very good sake, as proven in the IWC Sake Competition. Many gold medals are from this region.
How about the US? California has a good source of water and rice. It is fairly inexpensive too.
Are there any trends you see in the US with sake? People are getting more comfortable about drinking cold sake, and also sparkling and flavored sake are getting popular. At Kabuki, we tend to sell more sake by the glass, but we also sell a lot of bottles of nigori unfiltered sake. The unfiltered is popular, and the Ty-Ku coconut is doing great.
Aside from Japanese cuisine, what do you like to pair sake with? I like cheese with junmai or chocolate with nigori. Of course, beef is good with junmai or hongozo, and oysters or caviar with sparkling sake.
What do you enjoy most about what you do? I enjoy seeing people who open their eyes - who never thought sake would go well with food and making them think of it like wine. I just want people to remember and think of sake. My Matsumoto Sake Chart lists sweetness, dryness, and the body so people can choose what they like. Maybe people will start by drinking rolls with flavored sake, and then I’d like them to move on to uni or yellowtail or ankimo and pair them with different kinds of sake. Hopefully with sake they can start with nigori and then move on to the others. I’d like to see people graduate from sake bombs.
What sake would you recommend for people who like...
Gin? Daiginjo with herbal aromatics.
Tequila? A spicy honjozo.
Whiskey? It is not sake but people who like whiskey will like shochu made from barley, especially the aged ones!
White wine? A dry, fruity junmai daiginjo, especially with seafood.
Red wine? An earthy and bold honjozo.
What do you hope to see with sake? My goal is to have a sommelier in any restaurant ask, "Would you like wine to pair with this dish, or a junmai daiginjo?" Sake should be on any wine list, because sake can compete with wine. Like wine, sake has different flavor profiles and styles, but I can also change the temperature to match the food. Remember, with wine you cannot change the temperature - you can’t heat up a chardonnay - but you can with sake.
What is coming up next for Kabuki? The Sake Tour next spring will be in March. It is a good event to taste and enjoy varieties of sake with food.