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Pioneering African-American Sake Sommelier

by  Maria C. Hunt on February 29, 2012

Inside-HomeGil Payne, a San Francisco sake sommelier, wants us to know two things: Good sake is not supposed to be served hot and sake bombs aren't cool either. Once you get past these two Americanisms, Payne says anything goes when it comes to enjoying and pairing this ancient rice beverage with food.

"I want people to see [sake] is not just for sushi and raw fish," says Payne. "It's for whatever food you're having in whatever cultural context."

Every evening at Nombe, the acclaimed izakaya-style Japanese restaurant Payne owns with his wife in the Mission District, he helps guests explore the wide world of fine sake; the crisp and delicate, the fruity and the bold.

And as he's getting people to open their minds about this ancient rice beverage traditionally associated with Japan, as an African-American, Payne is also challenging conventional notions of who can be an expert in what field.

Beau Timken, who founded True Sake, the nation's first sake store, says Payne is one of the country's leading sake evangelists.

"Gil is one of the pioneers out there doing a great job of teaching the true sake and getting people to understand the categories," says Timken, author of "Sake: A Modern Guide" (Chronicle Books, 2010). "He's out there introducing people to new brews and I admire and respect that."

Anyone who's scanned a sake article or taken a class probably remembers that sake is made from polished rice that's fermented, aged and then brewed into the alcoholic beverage. Names like junmai, ginjo and daiginjo refer to the amount of the rice's starchy outer hull that was polished away before fermentation.

But the subject becomes so much more richly textured when Payne starts talking about the different styles of sake.

"Dig deeper than ginjo, junmai etc," Payne says. "Sake has such a beautiful way of melding with food and when you find the right marriages it heightens the sense of satisfaction."

A visit to Nombe might start with a nama, a young, light and fresh style of sake that Payne compares to the wine Beaujolais Nouveau. Payne says it sings with vegetable dishes, fish and even fruit. Soon, diners at Nombe will be able to experience Gil Takahashi Sake, a signature nama that Payne is creating in Japan.

Yamahai sake is acidic and bone dry with unique flavors and aromas of leather, tobacco and wood that come from its slow natural fermentation. It's delicious with anything barbecued or meaty foods such as burgers, pepperoni pizza and chicken wings. Honjozo, a sake that's had distilled alcohol added, is a bit fiery, making it ideal for salty pub food like chicken skewers or chicken katsu (Japanese fried chicken). And then there's koshu, an unusual sake that's aged until it's golden and redolent with aromas and flavors of caramel and nuts. It's a perfect pairing for rich foods, cheese and dried fruit.

A native of Chicago, Payne became a student of sake by osmosis. He studied to be a diplomat at Georgetown University and needed to be fluent in another language besides English. His teenage fascination with the miniseries "Shogun" and the nation's then-booming economy led him to Japan.

Payne loved exploring izakayas, drinking house pubs in Japan, and eating spicy and crisp Japanese-style fried chicken with sake. After graduating, Payne did a second stint in Japan, teaching English and writing. While there, he met and married a Japanese woman named Mari Takahashi.

"My father-in-law Kiyoshi was a big sake aficionado," says Payne. "We bonded over baseball, and politics and sake."

His father-in-law encouraged Payne to study more about sake and buy books by John Gauntner who is considered the leading non-Japanese sake expert. When the couple returned to the U.S, they worked in high tech for a while, but when that industry slowed after 9-11 terrorist attacks, he encouraged his wife to open a catering business.

A few years later, the couple opened Sozai, San Francisco's first izakaya, where Payne first created a sake list to help diners explore and enjoy sake more. After selling Sozai, they opened Nombe, melding two small restaurants on Mission Street into one eclectic space. Nombe was recently at the top of 7x7 Magazine's list of the best ramen in the city and the restaurant scored two stars from the San Francisco Chronicle in a review that praised the sake list.

The sake list at Nombe has 90 offerings which covers the range of sake styles.  Pinot Noir lovers will explore the different expressions of that grape in wines from Germany, Burgundy and Oregon. The diverse list at Nombe allows diners to do the same with different styles of sake.

"With sake, it's the same way about rice. What kind of richness in terms of rice are you feeling or smelling in earthiness? There's a certain element of umami to it, not just with sake but in pairing it with food."

While he's a traditionalist, Payne isn't opposed to popular new styles such as nigori, a sweet and roughly filtered sake that has a milky quality and sparkling sake.

"If it still has the essence of sake, it's OK," Payne says. "If it ends up tasting like Smirnoff Ice, it's not sake anymore."

Nombe is located at 2491 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA.  For more information, call 415-681-7150 or visit

True Sake is located at 560 Hayes Street, San Francisco, CA. For more information, call 415-355-9555or



Sake starts with soft and starchy brown rice. It's milled and polished to remove some of the outer layer of the grain which has protein and fat that can ruin the taste of the sake. All sake rice is milled down to at least 70 percent of its original size; the rice for the best premium sake.

The rice is then washed, soaked and steamed to soften it. A special enzyme called koji is added and this starts turning the starch in the rice into glucose sugar. The yeast in the rice then eats the glucose and turns it into alcohol.  The raw sake will be pressed, filtered, blended and likely aged before bottling.

These are the main categories of sake:

Junmai: This class of sake is made with just water, koji, yeast and rice with nothing else added. The rice is milled so 70 percent of the grain remains. A junmai has a full flavor and is a little acidic.

Hojozo: These sakes are made with the addition of distilled alcohol, giving them a more intense character. The rice is milled so 70 percent of the grain remains.

Ginjo: This type of sake starts with the same ingredients as a junmai, except that some distilled alcohol is added. The rice is milled so 60 percent of the grain remains. These sakes have a light clean taste and tangy flavor.

Dai ginjo: Considered among the finest sake, a dai ginjo is made with rice that is milled down to 50 percent of the grain. Otherwise, it is made just like a ginjo. These are exceptionally smooth and aromatic.

Nama: A fresh, young style of sake, its name means "draft sake." It is microfiltered instead of pasteurized and has a fruity and fresh taste with pleasant aromas.

Nigori: This is roughly filtered sake, giving it a cloudy appearance - lending it the name crazy milk. The style of sake is sweet and bold tasting.

Koshu - The name literally means old sake. These are aged longer than normal, giving them a golden color and richer aromas and flavors of smoke, dried fruits and nuts.

Source: True Sake and Takara Sake Company

Maria C. Hunt

Maria C. Hunt

Maria C. Hunt is an award-winning food and drink editor and the author of The Bubbly Bar: Champagne & Sparkling Wine Cocktails for Every Occasion (Clarkson Potter, 2009). full bio



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