What is Namazake??

Posted October 4, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: Sake-General Information

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), 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 65°C or so to kill off enzymes and stabilize the sake.

Nothing could be more pleasantly refreshing in Spring than a glass of namazake. 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 in Spring, 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.

If sake is not pasteurized, it must be 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 go bad.

It is interesting to note that the pasteurization process, known as “i-ire”(very loosely translated as “adding 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.

Namazake is easily available in the Spring at any good sake shop or department store and van be found now too. 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.

I hope this post inspires you to give Namazake a try and I’d love to hear what you think about it.

To try this and more than 90 other varieties of Sake, join me at the Sake Professional Course that will be held in Portland, Oregon on November 7, 8 and 9. For more information, click here, or email us at info@sake-world.com.

If you’d like even more recommendations, check out the Sake Notebook.


What is this Cloudy Stuff?

Posted September 27, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: Sake-General Information

Many people have inquired about the white, cloudy, usually opaque sake sometimes seen in shops and restaurants. Often readers liken it to a “icy pina colada.” What is it? How is it made, how does it differ from regular sake? How does it taste?

That is nigori-zake, which simply means “cloudy sake.” The “clouds” are nothing more than unfermented rice solids floating around inside.

Let’s backing up a step or two..when sake is made, the rice ferments in a large tank for a period of anywhere between 18 and 36 days. The bubbly, chunky, fermenting mash at that time is referred to as the “oromi.” After that period, it is still a white, cloudy, soup of rice solids that could not ferment; yeast and other components. The clear, amber sake is then separated from these solids in one of several ways, all of which call for passing the sake through a mesh of some sort.

Sometimes this mesh is inside a pressure-driven machine, sometimes it is but a canvas bag into which the moromi has been poured. There are various ways, some better than others. But regardless of which method is used, the moromi passes through a mesh, with the pale amber ambrosia passing through and the white solids, or lees, remaining behind.

So, in most sake then, we have an almost clear liquid as the result of the pressing of the lees away from the sake. In nigori-zake, however, not all of the lees are pressed away; some of the unfermented solids are left behind deliberately, giving a rich, creamy, fabulously interesting flavor. Note this “eaving of the lees” is done in varying degrees, depending on the whims and fancies of the brewer.

There are also a couple of moromi-zake on the market, in which the product looks like nigori-zake, but was never really pressed. In other words, it never passed through a mesh of any sort. These are rare, and only serve as curiosities, but what is interesting about them is that they cannot legally be sold as sake. How they are taxed and sold I am not sure, but I know one brewer that serves it only on the grounds of his brewery, somehow skirting the law in that way.

Next, there is the “till live and kicking” variety, in which the yeast is still very much active. Sake like this is not stable, and will change quickly, but it is indeed fun to try. Often, the bottles into which this has been put are equipped with special caps that allow the carbon dioxide to gently and slowly escape. This type of sake is often very tart and acidic, and while fun and lively, it may not appeal to those looking for a gourmet sipping experience. Shinkame from Saitama, a tiny brewery with unusual but wonderful sake all around, is the best example of this type of nigori-zake.

Have you tried nigori-zake? I’d love to hear what you think, and if you haven’t tried it yet – what are you waiting for?

I encourage you to give it a try if you can find it. To try this and more than 90 other varieties of Sake, To try this and more than 90 other varieties of Sake, join me at the Sake Professional Course that will be held in Portland, Oregon on November 7, 8 and 9. For more information, click here, or email us at info@sake-world.com. This annual event is great for sake and wine lovers alike, read the review of the Sake Professional Course from Wine Enthusiast Magazine to learn more.

Reader Question – Where Can I Find Good Sake…

Posted September 20, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: Sake-General Information

One of the most common questions I get asked from my US readers is “Where can I find good sake near my home?” Almost as frequently I’m asked “Can I buy any good sake over the internet?”

Unfortunately, the answer to this questions isn’t all that easy and I can’t be a huge help here. But…let me explain why…

As far as helping readers find what sake is available near them, or where their favorite brand is, or where good sake in general can be found in a specific area, that information is changing constantly and certainly not located in one place. The closest thing to a US directory is the book, “Sake Pure and Simple,” which lists places that sell and serve sake all over the US. It certainly does not have the absolute latest information.

So, that leaves the Internet. Ah, yes, the Internet.

Since we know there is plenty of good sake out there, why can’t we just contact those who are selling it, wherever they may be, and have them ship it to us? In this day and age we would expect that we could just order it over the Internet and it would show up on our doorstep. In a perfect, free-commerce world, this would be true. But the U.S. has a few old laws on the books left over from the days when Prohibition ended that, it could be argued, no longer serve the public. In short, with the exception of some states, it is not legal to ship alcoholic beverages to consumers over state lines.

In short, there are three tiers to the industry. The top tier is that of the producer, like winery, brewery or distillery, or importer and/or out-of-state-shipper (OOS). The second tier is that of wholesaler or distributor (for all intents and purposes, the same thing). The third tier is the retailer. To keep unsavory elements from controlling the industry, no company is allowed to own an interest in more than one tier.

In order for sake to get into the hands of a consumer in the U.S., it must pass through all three tiers. In other words, a sake needs to go through an importer, wholesaler, and retail shop or restaurant before coming to you. Naturally, each tier takes its margin, adding to the final price along the way.

Finally, sake cannot be shipped from a retailer to a consumer in another state, with the exception of the states that allow it. This means that if a distributor in your state does not carry a certain sake, it is all but impossible for you to get it.

Sorry I don’t have better news for you, but the good news is that you can find a local retailer and work with them to help you get what you would like, and plenty of sake groups popping up all over the place, so you may just be able to find what you need after-all.

If you’ll be in Portland, Oregon in November, I’ll be hosting the Sake Professional Course. This  event will teach you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about sake and give you the chance to taste over 90 different types of sake. You can read more about the Sake Professional Course that was conducted earlier this year on “The Professional Foodie” or “Wine Enthusiast Magazine”.  For more information, click here, or email us at info@sake-world.com.

Heating Sake – Tips and Tricks

Posted September 13, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: sake tasting

There seems to be a theory that how you heat sake affects how it tastes. More precisely, putting sake in the microwave is frowned upon by many tipplers and connoisseurs. Sake warmed in hot water and sake warmed in a microwave taste completely different, or the theory goes.

Well, I took it upon myself to find out the truth. I am more of a traditionalist in most things, but this just didn’t make sense. Energy is energy, and it shouldn’t make a hoot of difference!

I began with one of my absolute favorites for warmed sake: Kamoizumi from Hiroshima. Rich, earthy and straw colored, I felt I could easily note any differences that arose.

Next, the vessels. Got to be Bizen. I selected two Bizen tokkuri and two Bizen chokko, almost identical. I warmed the tokkuri themselves in warm water beforehand, as they were quite cold off-the-shelf. I also allowed the sake to come up to room temperature before beginning to avoid the unpredictability of drastic temperature changes.

I then got a thermometer. Even slight differences in temperature affect flavor, so I wanted to control the process as much as I could. I used the O-kan meter, a thermometer specifically designed for tokkuri insertion – which I recommend for those with disposable time and income. It has these wings on the top that keep it from sinking all the way into a tokkuri. If you’re in Japan, you can find it at Seibu Loft for 1000 yen. A must-buy for sake otaku (geeks).

One tokkuri of sake was heated in a microwave oven, and checked every 20 seconds or so. The other was simultaneously heated in a pan of water over a gas flame. When the temperature of each reached 48°C, my arbitrarily chosen target for the exercise, I had my assistant fill the two chokko, not telling me which was which. And I sipped.

And sipped. And slurped, swished and thought. And sniffed. And what did I find?

There was, to my honest and great surprise, a difference.  The flame-heated sake was ever so slightly livelier. Almost imperceptible, it was, but there was indeed a difference. The microwaved sake was a bit quieter. It seemed to me that the flame-heated version brought out more of the original nature of the sake.

It wasn’t just me. In an equally blind test, my assistant came up with the exact same results. The flame-heated sake was a bit livelier.

However, we really had to search for that difference. We had to try as hard as we could to find it. Considering how much effort went into the flame heating and how little went in to the microwave version, I would go out on a limb and say it isn’t worth it. The purists might boil me (or microwave me) alive for saying so, but unless you are going to focus on nothing but the sake, the labor/performance curve is in favor of the microwave.

So, try it yourself and let me know what you discover with your taste-test, I’d love to have hear about your experiments.

More to Come

Coming up in a future post learn about why it is still hard to get great sake in America. For more information on great sake take a look at the Sake Notebook where you can discover 250 different sake to try – either heated or cooled – it’s up to you!  If you’d like to try more than 90 varieties of Sake and receive your Level 1 Sake Specialist Certification, join me at the Sake Professional Course  in Portland, Oregon on November 7, 8 and 9. For more information, click here, or email us at info@sake-world.com.

Sake: Some Like it Hot, Some Like it Cold

Posted September 6, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: sake tasting

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The question often arises: How do you know which sake to drink hot and which sake to drink cold? With most Asian restaurants serving sake piping hot out of sake-warming machines, and others insisting sake be drunk chilled, it may be confusing.

The quick answer is this: in general, good sake is served cold. Sake that is served warm is served that way for two reasons: one, that is the older, traditional way to serve sake and two, heating masks inferiority.

But wait! It is not all that simple! The above is just an executive summary. There is so much more that needs to be said. Most importantly, that there is plenty of good sake, premium sake even, that is quite good when gently warmed. Plenty indeed! It is too easy, in this era of chilled premium ginjo sake, to overlook how fine warm sake can be, especially in the winter.

Which brings us back to the first question: How do you know whether to warm a sake or to serve it chilled? Fortunately or unfortunately, it is purely an empirical exercise a matter of personal preference.

Many sakagura (sake breweries) will tell you that a particular sake of theirs is especially tasty when warmed. Some list that information right on the label. Also, tasting a wide variety of sake at a wide variety of temperatures will soon make it clear which flavor profiles appeal to you at warm temperatures and which do not.

First, a little history and background as to why the whole issue has come about. Long ago, almost all sake was served warm, or even hot. Sake back then was much rougher, and heating it smoothed out the rough edges, making it more palatable. Even sake that was considered decent back then would suffer little from being warmed.

Things that were done “ong ago” often become tradition. And so, serving sake warmed became tradition. Even today, in Japan as elsewhere, most sake is consumed warm or hot, especially in traditional little pubs and restaurants.

But there is more than just tradition to the why of it. Heating, as mentioned before, masks off-flavors and smells. The curiosity of drinking a hot alcoholic beverage replaces the Epicurean approach. It can be fun to slam down piping hot sake poured from tokkuri (flagons) into those cutesy little cups (o-choko). How the sake at hand tastes or smells becomes a secondary issue, and all too often counting how many you’ve had becomes tertiary at best. No doubt, this has its appeal.

More to come
In an upcoming post discover my results of heating sake with a flame and with the microwave  – some very interesting results, indeed! I’ll also share some of the new advancements in heating and cooling sake. For more information on sake, check out the Sake Notebook, a 14-page guide that includes a list of 250 recommendable sake, and provides enough education on all things sake to fuel your study, appreciation and enjoyment of sake for years to come.  To  more than 90 other varieties of Sake, join me at the Sake Professional Course in Portland, Oregon on November 7, 8 and 9. For more information, click here, or email us at info@sake-world.com.

Tell us what do you prefer – do you like it hot, cold or both?  You can share your comments below!

The Sake-Brewing Process (Part 3)

Posted August 30, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: Sake brewing

Tags: , , , , , , ,

For information on the first steps of sake brewing please visit part one and part two of the sake brewing process.

Finally, most sake is left to age about six months, rounding out the flavor, before shipping. Before shipping it is mixed with a bit of pure water to bring the near 20 percent alcohol down to 16 percent or so, and blended to ensure consistency. Also, it is usually pasteurized a second time at this stage.

Changes Over the Years
Over the centuries, there were many adjustments and changes to the sake brewing process. These arose to either make better sake, or to make sake more economically. Sometimes, advances in the economic forum also lead to improved sake quality.

One of the most important advances was the improvement in rice-polishing equipment. Originally, rice was stomped in a vat to remove the husks. Later, water wheels and grinding stones were used. Today, there are great computer-controlled machines that will polish off the specified percentage of the outside of the grains, and do it in a specified amount of time (with longer being better). This minimizes damage from friction heat and cracked grains.

Another major advance was the use of ceramic-lined or stainless steel tanks, now the standard, over cedar tanks, which were used for hundreds of years. This has drastically improved the quality and purity of sake since the beginning of this century.

Then there is the pressing stage. Until the early 1900’s, all sake was pressed by pouring the moromi into canvas bags which were then put into a large wooden box called a fune. The lid was then cranked down into the box, squeezing out the sake. Now almost all sake is pressed with a huge, accordion-like machine that squeezes the moromi between balloon-like inflating panels, making disposal of the lees (called kasu) simple.

Almost all breweries will still press some of their best sake in the old way, using a fune. It does make noticeably better sake. But the accordion-like machine (called an Assaku-ki) is so much more efficient, and the fune so labor intensive, that the trade-offs are only worth it for top-grade sake.

Most controversially, however, is the koji making equipment. It is truly amazing how the slightest differences in koji can affect the flavor of the final product. Traditionally, koji is all made by hand in wood-paneled rooms kept warm and humid. As this is such a labor-intensive step, many changes have come about, and a lot of them are rejected later. (It is interesting to note that almost all super premium sake like daiginjo is made using hand-made koji.)

There are now large machines that will perform part or all of the koji making process, doing the work of several individuals.

Visual Explanation
If you would like an even more in depth look at brewing sake take a look at the Sake Production Slideshow, an indispensable tool to help you visually understand how sake is made. Confused by some of the terminology?  Get the Sake Dictionary, a downloadable guide to Sake terms, there’s also an iPhone app, so you can easily look up terms when you’re on-the-go!  Plus, if you’d like to sample more than 90 varieties of Sake, join me at the Sake Professional Course  in Portland, Oregon on November 7, 8 and 9. For more information, click here, or email us at info@sake-world.com.

The Sake-Brewing Process (Part 2)

Posted August 23, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: Sake brewing

Tags: , , , , , ,

For information on the first steps of sake brewing please visit part one of the sake brewing process.

Koji Making (Seigiku)
This is the heart of the entire brewing process,  and could have several chapters, if not books, written about it. Summarizing, koji mold in the form of a dark, fine powder is sprinkled on steamed rice that has been cooled. It is then taken to a special room where a higher than average humidity and temperature are maintained. Over the next 36 to 45 hours, the developing koji is checked, mixed and re-arranged constantly. The final product looks like rice grains with a slight frosting on them, and smells faintly of sweet chestnuts. Koji is used at least four times throughout the process, and is always made fresh and used immediately. Therefore, any one batch goes through the “heart of the process” at least four times.

The yeast starter (shubo or moto)
A yeast starter, or seed mash of sorts, is first created. This is done by mixing finished koji and plain steamed white rice from the steaming and koji making steps, water and a concentration of pure yeast cells. Over the next two weeks, (typically) a concentration of yeast cells that can reach 100 million cells in one teaspoon is developed.

The mash (moromi)
After being moved to a larger tank, more rice, more koji and more water are added in three successive stages over four days, roughly doubling the size of the batch each time. This is the main mash, and as it ferments over the next 18 – 32 days, its temperature and other factors are measured and adjusted to create precisely the flavor profile being sought.

Pressing (joso)
When everything is just right (no easy decision!), the sake is pressed. Through one of several methods, the white lees (called kasu) and unfermented solids are pressed away, and the clear sake runs off. This is most often done by machine, although the older methods involving putting the moromi in canvas bags and squeezing the fresh sake out, or letting the sake drip out of the bags, are still used.

Filtration (roka)
After sitting for a few days to let more solids settle out, the sake is usually charcoal filtered to adjust flavor and color. This is done to different degrees at different breweries, and is goes a long way in dictating the style.

Most sake is then pasteurized once. This is done by heating it quickly by passing it through a pipe immersed in hot water. This process kills off bacteria and deactivates enzymes that would likely adverse flavor and color later on. Sake that is not pasteurized is called namazake, and maintains a certain freshness of flavor, although it must be kept refrigerated to protect it.

More to come
There are some final steps to brewing sake that will be covered in next weeks’ post. If you would like an even more in depth look at brewing sake take a look at the Sake Production Slideshow, an indispensable tool to visually understand how sake is made.  To learn more about Sake and sample more than 90 other varieties of Sake, join me at the Sake Professional Course in Portland, Oregon on November 7, 8 and 9. For more information, click here, or email us at info@sake-world.com.