Hello, Moto

America’s first sake brewpub debuts in Minneapolis

Wine connoisseurship has its dark side: You can devote a decade to the subject and still find yourself at the tip of the iceberg, even after you’ve acquired a financially imprudent fascination with age-worthy Bordeaux. Beer connoisseurship also has its dark side: Go down that path and you will invariably find yourself in the company of people who have strident feelings about shareware. You’ll also end up drinking things that taste like salted, carbonated molasses.

What’s a would-be connoisseur to do? You could become a sake expert—and you could accomplish this with a single visit to Moto-i in south Minneapolis, America’s first and only sake brewpub.

As far as owner Blake Richardson knows, there is only one other sake brewpub in the world, and it is, of course, in Japan. Why is drinking sake that’s brewed on-site a big deal? Because sake is a living, breathing thing—in the same way beer or yogurt is a living thing—and pasteurizing or bottling it to make it shelf-stable and fit for a long journey from Japan to America kills a lot of its flavors and nuances.

What’s that? You didn’t know sake had flavors and nuances? Well, settle in for a quick-course on sake connoisseurship. (I promise it will be quick.)

First, good sake is meant to be served cold. When chilled, the smell of alcohol is tamped down, allowing all sorts of beautiful scents—cucumber, melon, minerals—to emerge. (This is the same reason why wine is supposed to be served at cellar temp-erature; if served too warm, the scent of evaporating alcohol dominates the nose.)

Second, you need to understand that there are only three real variables in sake production: The rice, the yeast, and the water. Sake rice is different from table rice. Each grain is a little heavier and contains a “starch pocket” in its center. Once sake rice is milled to achieve the right ratio of solids to starch, you turn the starch into sugar, which is done with the help of one of the world’s most venerated molds: koji-kin. Then, any one of a number of yeasts turn the sugar into alcohol (just as the sugar in grape juice or beer mash turns into alcohol in wine or beer). Because each of these yeasts creates a slightly different flavor profile, they are very important—so important that at the beginning of the last century, Japanese brewers codified them numerically. Yeast number 7, for instance, is prized for its elegance, while yeast number 14 creates the fragrance of pears and apples.

Water is the final variable. Pure, clean water is utterly necessary for sake, while other elements in the water (minerals and such) impact the yeast and create final flavors.

So, there you go! If you read the above paragraphs and then go and taste one of Moto-i’s sakes, you will be a bona fide sake connoisseur. (Of course, you could go totally nuts and learn the Japanese words for sake-making terms—like nama, for instance, which means unpasteurized—but if you did that you wouldn’t have anything to learn from Moto-i’s lovely place mats.)

Photo by Terry Brennan

And I heartily recommend a trip to Moto-i. In fact, I am adding Moto-i to the list of places you must take visitors when they visit Minneapolis. When you go, you’ll find a large, spare room painted in many wood-colored tones. There are wooden booths, wooden slats covering the windows, and glass screens overhead, topped with long branches and gauzy fabric. Somehow, the overall feeling is one of being in Portland. I don’t know why, other than it seems too spacious to be San Francisco, too dark to be Minneapolis or Los Angeles. So I’m sticking with Portland. When you go, you’ll also find a menu of little bar snacks and casual eats in the model of a Japanese izakaya, a drinking-snack-and-casual-eats bar.

What should you eat at Moto-i? Definitely the house-roasted peanuts, which are complimentary with a full glass of sake (they’re also available on their own). These peanuts, served in their red skins, are roasted with minced Thai chiles and pulverized kaffir-lime leaf, resulting in a smoky, spicy, dusky, devourable little drinking snack. The mussels, steamed in a bit of sake, garlic, and mint, are served with a bowl of rice, like a Japanese versionof the French bistro classic moules frites. A lively little plate of cold soba noodles in a zesty sesame sauce is another treat, and you absolutely shouldn’t miss the rice buns. Each is a sweet, pillowy, admirably tender pancake of rice folded around pickled vegetables and your choice of filling (sweet hoisin pork, less-sweet hoisin chicken, or fried tofu). If you subscribe to the like-goes-with-like wine pairing theory, nothing makes more sense than pairing a rice pancake with a rice beverage. If you subscribe to the all-drinking-goes-well-with-fried-chicken theory, be sure to try the karaage: boneless morsels of soy-marinated chicken dipped in batter and fried till they’re
shatteringly crisp.

Of the big plates, I recommend the truly spicy green coconut curry, with a choice of chicken or mock duck, which adds good flavor to the fire. Of the desserts, the can’t-miss treat is the Okinawan doughnuts: four little piping-hot, fresh-from-the-fryer nuggets of sweet goodness made vaguely Asian by a tiny bit of five-spice powder in their sugar-coating. I defy you not to burn your tongue when presented with hot doughnuts after a night of drinking. I double-dog defy you.

I tried a number of other dishes at Moto-i that left me underwhelmed: unremarkable dumplings, underseasoned ramen, dull Singapore noodles. But even those misses did nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for this utterly novel place. It’s dinner, it’s drinking, it’s smart, it’s inexpensive—what more could you ask from a bar?

Izakayas have been all the rage on the coasts the last few years, and while coast-dwellers get all zany deciding which izakaya is truer to its mission (because it has charcoal grills or whatnot), I really like that we have, in pure Minnesota-eccentric style, leapfrogged ahead of them.

The Minnesota eccentric in question is Richardson, the owner of both the Herkimer brewpub and, now, Moto-i. “When Fuji-Ya opened around the corner from us, I became fascinated with sake,” says Richardson. His idea to open a sake brewpub was only reinforced after a series of trips to Japan, tours of sake breweries, and an apprenticeship at the Japanese sake brewery Momokawa. This led to three years of petitioning the state for permission to open a sake brewery, which he received after cutting though a mountain of red tape. Will Minneapolis fall in love with sake the way Richardson and I have? “A lot of people thought I was crazy to think this would fly here,” Richardson says, “but I studied how much sake people drank in Uptown.” How does one study sake consumption in Uptown? Evidently, you go to Chino Latino, Sushi Tengo, Fuji-Ya, and Azia, and tip well. “I think once people taste the nama-ness, the unpasteurized-ness, the liveliness, the fragrance, the zing, they’ll love it as much as I do,” Richardson says. And they’ll tell their friends in other cities, which will make them jealous. What more could you want in connoisseurship?


Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.

2940 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
Lunch and dinner served daily.