Alcohol farm

alcohol with local ume, the tangy Japanese fruit and candy

Raw, the fruit is inedible, like an olive before it ripens. But when made into a drink, it turns into a tangy, creamy explosion reminiscent of the sweet and sour taste of favorite childhood treats – Sweet pies, fruit leather, lemon drops.

The fruit is called ume (OOO-mai) and comes from the Prunus mume tree, a close relative of the apricot tree. (Contrary to popular belief, ume is not a type of plum.) And while relatively few ume are planted in California, there are a growing number of creative food and beverage makers working with the fruit, producing spirits, syrups, vinegars and more.

In Japan, ume is traditionally macerated with alcohol and sugar to create a liquor called umeshu, and pickled to create a condiment called umeboshi. Many Japanese cooks preserve fruit each spring for a short ripening window, similar to canning tomatoes or cooking jam in the summer. Locally, some makers follow Japanese customs, producing traditional-style umeshu; others diverge, with creations like ume-infused rum or a shrub that mixes ume with pineapple guava.

True to tradition, however, all of these ume products seem to indicate an explosion in popularity in the Bay Area. The timing of demand, however, may have a hurdle: Supply may not be able to keep up as some California farms, including the one SF chef Sylvan Mishima Brackett is buying from, shrink in size. Still, some say it won’t discourage overall growth.

“Ume is going to have a big time soon,” says Brackett, who makes umeshu every year for his Mission District restaurant, Izakaya Rintaro. “I think there’s huge interest in that and a lot more players are going to come to market.”

Ume is inedible when raw, like an olive before it is dried.

Courtesy of Therese Agnew

Rintaro moves a lot of umeshu. In some years, Brackett buys as much as 1,500 pounds of ume from a farm in Yolo County. He follows a very simple recipe inherited from his Japanese mother, who made umeshu at home: in a bucket, mix the ume with neutral alcohol and sugar, then leave it for about a year. The result is a fragrant, honey-colored liquid, which Brackett fashions into Rintaro’s sparkling house cocktail – umeshu and sparkling water on the rocks, with salted and pickled umeboshi in the glass.

The umeshu cocktail has become one of Rintaro’s signature products, as ingrained in the restaurant’s identity as its fluffy homemade tofu and creamy carbonara udon. When the pandemic started and Rintaro had to shut down, Brackett started selling small 12-ounce bottles of his take-out umeshu, and it proved hugely popular.

Tasting Rintaro umeshu was compelling enough to convince Nate Darling, who runs a Berkeley liquor company called Pekut & Carwick, to try making it himself. It felt like a typical California business: capturing the essence of that fresh fruit and trying to preserve those flavors. “I want to showcase raw agricultural ingredients,” says Darling. To this end, he sticks to the simple and traditional method of sugar, neutral spirit and ume.

While Brackett likes to pick the fruits later in the season, once they’ve started to turn from green to pinkish yellow, Darling prefers to put his ume on the less ripe side. Brackett likes aromas that result from sweeter fruits; Darling seeks citrus flavors that emerge earlier in the season.

Yume Boshi's ume plum syrup and Pekut & Carwick's prunus mume, two Berkeley-made products made from ume, a Japanese stone fruit closely related to the apricot.

Yume Boshi’s ume plum syrup and Pekut & Carwick’s prunus mume, two Berkeley-made products made from ume, a Japanese stone fruit closely related to the apricot.

Esther Mobley / The Chronicle

This balance of acidity and sweetness is key to ume’s appeal – and, for those who make umeshu and similar products, deciding when to choose is the key stylistic decision. “Traditionally, umeshu is made with green fruit,” says Ayako Iino, owner of a specialty food company called Yume Boshi in Berkeley. “But you can also make it more mature. Green makes a sharper umeshu. Riper gives a more floral aroma.

Iino started his business after working at local restaurants like Chez Panisse and Oliveto. She wanted to give up the arduous schedule of the line cook, but she still wanted to make food. Back in her native Japan, Iino had worked on a semi-self-sufficient farm, where she pickled everything from daikon to cabbage to ume. When she heard about an ume orchard in Oroville, Butte County, she jumped at the chance to buy some fruit.

What started as a few homemade batches of ume jam and pickles has blossomed into a range that includes herbs, vinegars, relishes, syrups and even ume-flecked furikake seasoning. (Iino also makes several products made from red shiso leaves.) All of Yume Boshi’s creations tap into the tantalizing sweet-salty ume matrix. Many oppose traditional Japanese models, mixing Japanese fruits with flavorful California produce like mandarinquat.

Although none of the Yume Boshi products contain alcohol, all of the shrubs, syrups and vinegars make excellent cocktail mixers. This is especially true of Iino’s Ume Plum Syrup, a reduction of ume and sugar, undiluted with water or vinegar. It offers an irresistibly zesty hit of fruity, umami-rich flavor. Iino recommends mixing 1 part syrup with 3 parts Tequila and a squeeze of lemon. I like it with a sparkling rosé and a grapefruit wedge.

Ume flavored rum from Mosswood Spirits in Berkeley.

Ume flavored rum from Mosswood Spirits in Berkeley.

Courtesy of Therese Agnew

A similar type of ume syrup forms the backbone of an intriguing rum bottled by Mosswood Spirits of Berkeley. Co-owner Jake Chevedden begins by steeping whole ume in a light, unaged rum, the same base for Mosswood’s Day Rum. After a few months, he removes the ume from the rum, pours sugar over the ume and waits for it to liquefy. Once a syrup is rendered, Chevedden combines it with the ume-kissed rum and adds a splash of salt. The result is a savory, nutty version of umeshu with bright, crunchy, and even a little vegetal fruit flavors – like a stalk of rhubarb or an unripe white peach.

Making ume a tasty drink is easy, agree these creators. What is difficult is to find the trees. Only a few farms in Northern California grow Prunus mume, and often they don’t grow many. Sometimes it’s planted as an ornamental — the pink and white flowers are gorgeous when in bloom — and sometimes as a windbreak for more popular crops like strawberries, according to Chevedden.

The area may even decrease. After selling to new owners, Brackett’s spring in Yolo County recently uprooted many of its ume trees and replanted wheat. Only a few ume trees remain.

“Procurement is a very difficult part,” Iino said. Even if she can find a farm that grows ume, there is no guarantee that it will be one of the varieties she likes. “Sometimes it’s not my kind of ume plant, or not enough acidity – it doesn’t do what I need.”

This acreage shortage may limit the growth of umeshu’s efforts in California, at least for now. But local ume enthusiasts don’t see that deterring the growing popularity of the category.

“It’s a very special fruit that you don’t eat raw because it’s super sour and not good for your health,” Iino says. “Then, by keeping it, it turns into a delight.”

Esther Mobley is the principal wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail: [email protected]
Twitter:
@Esther_mobley

ume Bay Area products to try

Mosswood Ume Plum Flavored Rum ($40). The current version is largely out of print, although Copper Spoon in Oakland still has some.

Plum Syrup Yume Boshi Ume ($22/13 ounces). Other products include Ume plum vinegars, Umeboshi, Ume plum jam, and various ume shrubs. Available at yumeboshiplum.com

Rintaro Umeshu ($22 for a half carafe or $35 for a full carafe). Available at Izakaya Rintaro, 82 14th St., San Francisco.

Pekut & Carwick Prunus Mume ($32.25/375ml). Available at pekutandcarwick.com

St. George Spirits Baller Single Malt Whiskey ($70/750ml). This whiskey has been aged in casks that had previouslylily umeshu outfit. Available at various Bay Area stores including Gemini Bottle Co. and Healthy Spirits.