(04/13/21) CROWLEY, La. — Short-grain rice developed by the LSU AgCenter has been planted for a New Orleans company to make sake, a traditional Japanese beverage that is becoming more popular in the U.S.
The Pirogue variety was planted on 31 acres at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station on April 6 by Rick Zaunbrecher, the station’s foundation seed manager.
After harvest in August, the rice will be sold to Wetlands Sake, and the field of remaining stubble will be used for crawfish.
The company’s co-founders, Nan Wallis and Lindsey Beard, were determined their sake would be made with rice grown in Louisiana.
“Living in the land of rice, we definitely wanted to use Louisiana rice,” said Beard, who is part of the Brennan restaurant family.
Dustin Harrell, resident coordinator of the Rice Research Station and former LSU AgCenter rice specialist, said Beard and Wallis contacted him two and a half years ago about growing rice for sake, but he wasn’t sure the station had any offerings that would meet their needs. Then he remembered Pirogue, which was developed in 2003 by Steve Linscombe, a now-retired LSU AgCenter rice breeder.
Linscombe said a south Louisiana rice company approached him for a short-grain rice that could be grown in Louisiana.
“That company was bringing in paddy short grain from California (S102) and milling it in Abbeville for the Puerto Rico market,” Linscombe recalled. “They asked if I could develop a short grain adapted to be grown in southwest Louisiana.”
The founders of Wetlands Sake knew little about rice when they started.
“It’s only because of Dustin and his patience that we’ve been able to come this far,” Wallis said.
A small crop of Pirogue foundation seed was planted at the Rice Research Station and used for testing.
“The short grain that Steve developed worked perfectly,” Harrell said.
Zaunbrecher said he grew 14 acres of rice for Wetlands Sake last year, and it yielded 49 barrels an acre. He said the approach to growing Pirogue is the same as a long-grain or medium-grain rice.
Wetlands Sake is challenging the traditional way sake is sold and consumed. Usually, the beverage is available in bottles and is considered a drink to complement Asian food, but Wallis and Beard wanted their product to be considered a stand-alone beverage like beer or wine.
“We want sake to become an everyday drink, so we decided that the best way to make that happen is to put it in single-serve cans,” Wallis said.
Buying an 8-ounce can of sake is an easier way for consumers who shied away from buying a large bottle of what they considered an exotic drink.
“You have the opportunity to try something you may not have tried otherwise,” Beard said. “I think we’ve opened up a whole new world.”
Their sake is intended to be served chilled and with or without food. It is available in filtered and unfiltered varieties and in a sparkling version flavored with blood orange or passion fruit.
Currently, Wetlands Sake is sold in the New Orleans area at grocery stores, bars and restaurants, but Beard and Wallis plan to have their products available nationwide. That would mean additional acres of Pirogue would be needed from Louisiana farmers, they said.
Unlike wine, sake has no preservatives or sulfites. Rice, water, yeast and koji spores are the only ingredients used in the five-week fermentation process. Wetlands Sake is handcrafted using traditional methods, Beard said.
Later this year, Wallis and Beard plan to open a tasting room at the brewery, located in the Warehouse District at 634 Orange St. in New Orleans.
The partnership began almost three years ago when Beard dined with Wallis, who had returned from a trip to New York, where she and her husband noticed sake on many restaurant menus. Days later, Beard found a package of rice on her doorstep with a “Let’s talk” note, and they met to sketch out a business plan.
The heron on the company’s logo symbolizes the concern Wallis and Beard have for wetlands in Louisiana and the rest of the U.S. The company is pledging to donate 2% of its profits to Save America’s Wetlands through the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
“Giving back to the wetlands is a big part of our mission,” Beard said. “We are passionate about wetlands conservation.”
Rice mills in Louisiana lack the capability of milling sake rice, so a sake mill in Minnesota is currently milling the pearl-shaped grain. However, Harrell said a new mill at the Rice Research Station will eventually have the capability of processing short-grain rice.
Wallis and Beard also plan to work with the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator to get help with marketing.
“It really is going full circle, working with LSU. It all started at the Rice Research Station,” Wallis said.
Harrell said he’s enjoyed working on the project.
“It’s been great to see their product in the market,” he said.
Harrell said the sake is a good promotional tool for Louisiana rice.
“It’s good from the standpoint that they’re using a rice developed in Louisiana, grown in Louisiana and brewed in Louisiana,” he said.
Rick Zaunbrecher, far left, explains how rice is being planted to Nan Wallis, second from left, and Lindsey Beard, second from right, both of Wetlands Sake as Dustin Harrell looks on. Zaunbrecher, manager of the Foundation Seed Program at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station, planted the rice to be sold to Wetlands Sake to make its products at the New Orleans brewery. Photo by Bruce Schultz/LSU AgCenter
Wetlands Sake cans stand on the 31-acre field planted with short-grain rice that will be used to make the beverage. Photo by Bruce Schultz/LSU AgCenter
Nan Wallis of Wetlands Sake holds a handful of rice. The short-grain rice variety, Pirogue, was developed in 2003 at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station by now-retired rice breeder Steve Linscombe. Photo by Bruce Schultz/LSU AgCenter