Long known as "Beer City USA," as well as a strong contender on the craft distilling scene, Asheville has an obvious and unapologetic propensity for imbibing. But now that inclination extends to sake, thanks to two area restaurants that have recently launched sake breweries.
Ben’s Tune Up, a former auto shop that’s now a much-loved ramen restaurant with an expansive outdoor courtyard, was the first out of the gate and new serves several varieties via flights and single servings. A few weeks later, Blue Kudzu in the River Arts District jumped on the scene with an in-house bottling operation that will eventually allow the small batch brewer to sell Blue Kudzu sake nationwide.
Ben's Tune Up has a wonderful outdoor courtyard — Photo courtesy of Explore Asheville
Besides an offering of more than 60 different sake varieties, most from Japan, Blue Kudzu boasts three styles of housemade sake: Junmai Ginjo Spirit of the Sky, Nigori Sake Thundersnow and Nama Genshu Dancing River, a full-strength unpasteurized sake with 18 percent alcohol.
Inside the minimalist dining room with a wall-sized Godzilla graphic, sake is served alongside a dozen small plates and several full-size entrees including Blue Kudzu Ramen, Coconut Curry Noodles and Golden Japanese Curry.
Ben’s American Sake, as it’s known over at Ben’s Tune Up, is a fabulous complement to the fare offered at this hip eatery. The airy, upcycled aesthetic married with the reasonably priced menu of everything from ramen (a noodle soup) and yakitori (grilled skewered meat) to Korean short ribs, fried chicken and hamburgers has translated into success for Ben’s Tune Up, which opened in summer 2013.
But the new sake operation is sure to make the restaurant even more chic, especially with its aims to make sake more accessible to American drinkers. One way co-owner Jonathan Robinson hopes to achieve that goal is by touting the benefits of fresh, unpasteurized sake versus its bottled and internationally imported counterpart. Robinson does not pasteurize Ben’s sake, which some argue creates a more flavorful and lively sake.
Sake, which is made by milling, soaking and steaming white rice, is rarely aged and is sometimes served just weeks after brewing. Plans to infuse the sake with honey and kumquats as well as roll out a bourbon barrel-aged sake should also raise some eyebrows and perhaps convert a few beer and spirit drinkers.
Blue Kudzu and Ben’s Tune Up are North Carolina’s first sake brewers but join a small list of similar operations around the country, including SakéOne in Portland and Moto-I in Minneapolis.