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Namazake – What is it all about?

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #9

May 23, 1999

In this issue:

Namazake: What is it all about?
End of the brewing season for BY11
Sake to look for
Sake-related events
Subscribe/unsubscribe information
Publication information
Namazake: What is it, and what’ it all about?

Namazake is a term that is commonly seen in Japan, and is becoming more and more common outside of Japan as well, especially in North America. In short, namazake means unpasteurized sake.

Nama is a term in Japanese that has several related meanings, like raw, live (as in live broadcast), in its natural state… things like that. When the term nama is applied to sake, it means that sake has not gone through the pasteurizing process, in which the sake is momentarily heated to about 65C or so to kill off enzymes and stabilize the sake.

Nothing could be more pleasantly refreshing in spring than a glass of nama-zake. It somehow conveys the essence of spring, the newness and youth of all of nature.  It is available all year round to some extent. But now, just after the traditional sake brewing season has ended, is when it is most commonly seen.

Namazake is usually quite noticeably different from pasteurized sake. It is young and brash, with contrasting flavors and sharper edges, much like a young wine. Often the fragrance is much more lively and apparent, and there is an unmistakable liveliness and freshness to the sake overall. A half year or so of aging would mellow these edges out, and tie the various flavor components together, but young namazake has its own special appeal.

Naturally, each sake will display these characteristic to a different degree. Not all is so brash. But it is this zingy, fresh lightness that makes chilled namazake so appropriate for the spring. Refreshing and awakening, it seems to blend with both the weather and the seasonal delicacies associated with this season.

After the sake brewing process is completed, there remains in the final product enzymes that could ?if activated ?alter the flavor significantly. To protect against this and thereby keep the sake from effectively spoiling, the sake is heated momentarily (usually by passing it through a long coiled pipe submerged in hot water) to an empirically determined temperature of about 65C. This permanently deactivates the enzymes, so that the sake will not go through any further drastic changes in flavor.

If sake is not pasteurized, therefore, it must be kept refrigerated. This ensures that the temperature will not rise high enough to allow the enzymes to activate. If namazake is not kept cold (like 5-10C or so), there is a good chance it will “o bad.”

Although it cannot hurt you, namazake gone south becomes cloudy, and the flavor can turn cloyingly sweet, acidic and yeast-ridden. This condition is known as “i-ochi,”and is very easy to recognize.

It is interesting to note that the pasteurization process, known as “i-ire”(very loosely translated as “dding the fire” in sake brewing, has been around in Japan since about 1560. This is a good 300 years before Louis Pasteur produced his findings on the subject in France.

Namazake is always labeled as such. Somewhere on the bottle will be the easily-recognizable character for nama, and a note that it must be kept refrigerated. Most sake is pasteurized twice, once just after brewing and once again before shipping. A variation on the process is to pasteurize it only once; before shipping.

Such sake is known as nama-chozo, or “tored as nama.”It retains some of the qualities of flavor and fragrance of fully unpasteurized sake, but has less danger of spoiling. In the end, it is not much more than a marketing ploy, and if you want to try namazake, go with completely unpasteurized namazake.

Namazake is easily available now at any good sake shop or department store. Naturally some brands are more often seen than others. See the “ake to Look For”section below for some recommended namazake.

Remember that namazake must be kept cold, and it should be consumed soon after opening (more so even than other sake). Also note that whether or not a sake is pasteurized is unrelated to the grade of the sake. This means there is good namazake available in any price range.

Spring in Japan is all too short of a lovely season. Do not let it pass by without complementing it with a glass of namazake.

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The End of BY11

We’e solidly into the month of May, if not almost through it, and for almost all of the nation’ 1700 or so sake brewers, this means brewing activities are over for the season. There are a handful of larger breweries that have climate-controlled factories, and do brew year-round (a practice known as shiki-jozo, or “our season brewing”. But everyone else is limited to the coldest months of the year. With the peripheral work involved, and cleaning up included, most places wrap up about the end of April.

Here are some significant facts, points and occurrences related to this time of the year.

-After the last batch of rice has been steamed for the season, plenty of work still remains. That steamed rice must then be added to the final hungrily-waiting fermenting tanks, the 18-day to month-long fermentation must run its course, and the sake must then be pressed and stored. Indeed, there is still several more weeks of work. But after that last steaming, a light appears at the end of the tunnel. And that is cause for celebration.

That celebration is called koshiki taoshi, and refers to the overturning (taoshi) of the rice-steaming vat (koshiki). Today, many koshiki are large, steel contraptions that do not overturn easily, unlike their ancient, wooden counterparts. But when wooden koshiki were/are used, the large cask is turned on its side for a thorough cleaning and storage for the summer. Regardless of whether anything actually gets flipped over, each kura celebrates the beginning of the end of each season with a ceremony, and perhaps a formal meal with wonderful sake (surprise, surprise).

-Until recent years, sake was brewed by a team of men, usually farmers from the boonies, with nothing else to do in the winter. As such, traditionally, just about this time of the year, the brewers of each kura (brewery) would head back to their families in the countryside, whom they had not seen in six months, since entering the kura the previous fall.

Today, however, things are changing in many ways, albeit slowly. Change is necessary, as modern society won’ support things the way they were 100 years ago, for example. Sake brewing work, wonderful craft though it may be, is very hard work, and young people have too many options available to them these days.

This includes options that don’ call for 14 hour days, seven days a week, for six months out of the year. People can now put in five eight-hour days in a company, and go drinking on Friday. As such, fewer young people are going into brewing, and so the average age of brewers has risen well over 60 years old. Naturally, the industry won’ last for long if this is the case.

One such solution has been to use local  people to brew, instead of the craftsmen from afar. Scheduling days off and utilizing labor-saving machines (without compromising the final product; a delicate balance, mind you!) are other areas where the industry is attempting change for survival. Still, progress is slow as tradition dies hard. Fortunately, so do all the experienced  brewers.

Note, too, that women are now commonplace in the sake brewery. Some of the old codgers may harbor a tad of resistance to the idea, but there are women helping in the brewing at many a kura these days. Not only that, several breweries in the country even have women as the toji (head brewer).

-Freshly pressed sake, also known as shiboritate, is relatively easily available. Most sake is aged for on the average six months, often longer, before shipping. This allows the brasher flavors to mellow and learn to work with each other, much as in wine or even beer. Shiboritate is available only this time of the year, and its appeal is that very brashness and youth it exudes. Not all breweries market their shiboritate, but enough do to make it fairly easy to find.

-Note that sake brewed this past six-month season will be referred to as being brewed in BY11. BY stands for “rewing year”(written and referred to just like that, in the English, for abbreviation purposes). The brewing season officially begins and ends in the fall, for all taxation intents and purposes, and it is referred to by the calendar year in which it began, which for the present year (2000) in Japan is Heisei 11. So sake pressed in the spring of year Heisei 12 is still considered BY11. Occasionally, sake will be referred to by its BY, especially aged sake. Now you know the secret code of the brewing industry.

Such are the rites of spring in the sake world. It’ time to put away the sake-warming equipment until next fall, enjoy what sake spring has to offer, and remember the toils of the past winter of the brewers that created what we sip.

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Sake to Look For

Dewazakura (Yamagata Prefecture), “ka”Nama Junmai Ginjo

Dewazakura from Yamagata makes a couple of namazake products that are easy to find, one being Oka. A junmai ginjo, it is fresh and light, and may even seem a bit sweet, but without being too loud about it.

Sato no Homare (Ibaragi Prefecture), “usura”Junmai Ginjo, “akunko”Junmai Daiinjo

Next, look for Yusura (a junmai ginjo), or the significantly more expensive Kakunko (a junmai daiginjo), both being made by Sato no Homare in Ibaraki. This fascinating brewery has the distinction of having written records of brewing dating back over 800 years, the oldest of any sake maker in Japan. Amazingly, they brew nothing but junmai ginjo grade and higher, and ?get this ?ALL of their sake is namazake.

Yusura, and to a significantly greater degree Kakunko, are extremely lively and very fragrant sakes, and will likely have both friends and foes.  (Both are available at www.esake.com. ) But they are extremely unique.

Nanbu Bijin (Iwate Prefecture) Nama Junmai-shu, Nama Junmai Daignjo

Nanbu Bijin is not all that hard to find, as their distribution is superb, even for a fairly small kura. But their nama, available only in the spring, is released in such small quantities that it is indeed hard to find. (Look for it at Shibuya Tokyu, among other places, in Tokyo). It is rich and alive, fragrant and flavorful, yet settled and decidedly not frivolous. Truly wonderful.

Yoakemae (Nagano Prefecture), Junmai-shu

Also, search for Yoakemae from Nagano. This junmaishu comes in both namazake and pasteurized versions. The namazake version if rich and seductive, smooth and full, yet clean. A nice, settled namazake fragrance draws you in to its charm.

These are just a few. Keep in mind that almost everyone makes some namazake, and it really does abound this time of the year, at least in Japan. Realize while shopping that namachozo is really only half-nama, and you’l only get half the nama joys you would from “on-nama,”a (not-so-common) term used to emphasize sake is totally nama.

In the US, the above may or may not be available, depending on where you are. But there are several domestically brewed namazake available as well. Be sure to check them out. At least one brewery does some shady process in which they super-micro-filter their namazake, then say it does not need to be kept chilled. Hmm. I have not had this,  but it seems to me that it could not possible retain the full brunt of real namazake.

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Sake-related events

June 10

Japan Times Ceramics Scene writer and Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin and I will be doing a joint seminar on sake and pottery on Saturday, June 10, at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin Ochanomizu/Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. The evening will include a meal, half a dozen or so good sake, and lectures by Rob and I (different topics than last month’ seminar). Seating is limited and fills up fast. I will speak on the Shinshu Kanpyoukai (New Sake Tastings) held by the government each year; their history, significance and standards. (No promises yet, but I am trying to weasel my way into getting one bottle of actual gold-prize winning sake. )

To make a reservation, email me or fax me at

June 17

There is often a natural tendency to hold a bias against large brewers, assuming that any sake from a mass producer of sake is simply swill. Yet, a blind tasting might indicate otherwise. It’ time to see for ourselves.

On the afternoon of Saturday, June 17, I and ten readers will do a blind tasting of a dozen or so sake from large brewers, with a ringer or two thrown in to keep us all honest, and see how they fare. Sake will be tasted and assessed in a professional manner. Results be will presented later. Those interested in participating should email me. There is no cost, but don’ expect much either: no food, fanfare or ambience. (If you’e lucky, we’l give you water.) Participants will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

Also…

Famed sake critic Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, May 27, from 6:30 until the last train at Romantei in Akebono-bashi (Yotsuya Yanagicho). Although this seminar will be entirely in Japanese, Matsuzaki-san’ level of knowledge and experience are incredible. Seminars feature a short lecture with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. Although there is not much time before this Saturday, those interested can make a reservation through me at sakeguy@gol.com.

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Reader Feedback

An obviously very well-traveled reader living in the Seattle area sent in a few comments about where to buy sake and east sushi on the West Coast, as well as in Tokyo.

“Just an opinion… Maruwa (a Japanese grocery store in Japantown stocking good sake. Ed.) in SF hasn’t nearly the selection of sake asUwajimaya in Seattle.  Not even close. And Nishino in Seattle is asushi bar you should know and list. Tatsuya Nishino, of Kyoto, is ex-of Matsuhisa in LA. Superb food and a respectable sake list. Betterthan all places I’ve tried (Saji in Jiyugaoka ), except for Hamaseiin Nishi-Shinjuku, which is the best ever, anywhere!

Editorial note: Although I have not been to Hamasei, I can vouch that Saji is wonderful. Both Jiyugaoka and Nishi-Shinjuku are Tokyo neighborhoods. I have been to Uwajima, although not lately, and do agree they have a formidable stock. They also use my writing for educational purposes in the store.)

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Publication Information

Sake World is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.

NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and distributed, or forwarded in electronic form, provided it is sent in its entirety, including this message and the copyright notice  below.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, sakeguy@gol.com

Copyright 2000 Sake World