An exclusive drink
When the inhabitants of a small Japanese village were passing by the local sake brewery, they always kept an eye on a ball made of cedar twigs hanging outside. The ball was called “sugidama” and always appeared on the eaves of the brewery’s building every autumn when the brewing season started. At the start, it was green and fresh. But as time passed it was turning first yellow and then brown.
“Oh,”, the locals were thinking, “the sugidama is brown, so sake must be ready”. And they were heading to the brewery to have a new season’s sake, fresh and lively. A bit unruly but so invigorating. The sake was called namazake, “a live sake” if you read Japanese kanji (生酒) and was only available at the brewery. For hundreds of years, only the people who lived around a sake brewery could enjoy namazake.
What is namazake
But what is namazake anyway? Often referred to simply as nama, the word can be translated from Japanese as live, raw, fresh, or even natural. It’s written with the Chinese character 生, which means “life” and is a stylised picture of a plant, which changed into its current form after a few thousands of years.
The first mention of the process was recorded in 1560, about three hundred years before Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurisation. However, the process likely came to Japan from China even earlier. There are records of monks stabilising freshly brewed sake with heat long before that.
So namazake is generally unpasteurised sake. Normally sake is pasteurised twice: the first time after pressing and the second time after bottling by heating it up to 65 degrees Celsius (about 150 Fahrenheit) for 30 minutes. The process is called hi-ire (火入れ) and was already used by sake brewers in medieval Japan.
The heat deactivates the enzymes, which stops fermentation, and kills unwanted bacteria. Without pasteurisation, sake might get spoilt. The process involves either running the sake through a coiled metal pipe that is submerged in heated water or simply putting the bottles with sake into hot water. So namazake is sake, which either hasn’t been pasteurised at all or only once, either after pressing or after bottling.
What is hine-ka
There is a Japanese word for the unpleasant smell of spoilt sake, hine-ka (老ね香). It can be translated as an old stink. It reminds the smell of tsukemono, Japanese pickles. While it’s nice in a pickle, it’s completely out of place in sake. So if you smell pickles in sake, something is wrong with it. I have heard quite a lot of stories when a bottle of namazake, which wasn’t properly stored was opened and this smell was discovered.
A delicate brew
So why could only local people enjoy namazake in old times? There’s no surprise here. Indeed, it was very difficult to transport unpasteurised sake without it going spoilt. Only with the emergence of refrigerators and refrigerator trucks, sake breweries could start to ship namazake to sake stores, restaurants and bars outside their local area. But even now it’s not unusual to open a bottle of namazake and find out that it’s a dud.
Types of namazake
Let’s now look at types of namazake. Given that there are three options in terms of pasteurisation: not at all, after pressing and after bottling, we have three main types of nama sake. Completely unpasteurised sake is easy. It’s pressed and either let mature for a few months without heating up or bottled straight away and shipped in refrigerator trucks. In restaurants and shops, it has to be stored in fridges.
So namazake is the wildest one of the nama bunch. It’s fresh and lively with a lot of stuff going on in terms of aroma and taste. While it’s been pressed with all the moromi left behind, namazake still has a lot of enzymes switched on that produce those sharp edges for which namazake is famous.
The second type of namazake is sake, which is not pasteurised after pressing, stored in a tank for 3-6 months and pasteurised just after bottling. It’s called namachozo (生貯蔵), which means “stored nama”, or the sake, which is stored unpasteurised. As it’s stored unpasteurised, namachozo has a fresh and clean character, slightly mellowed by storage. It’s usually enjoyed chilled.
Namazume (生詰め) means a sake bottled without pasteurisation. So the sake is pasteurised after pressing and then usually stored for 6 months, bottled and shipped without the second pasteurisation. As the sake is pasteurised before storage, it has a calmer character. It’s usually more mellow than namazake or namachozo, but namazume still keeps those interesting aromas and flavours of an unpasteurised sake. It’s still fresh and lively.
How to pair namazake with food
The main thing in namazake which attracts people is its freshness and wild character. Namazake’s aroma profile largely depends on the underlying style. Like ginjo usually will be fruity or flowery, while junmai is more savoury. However, the nama element adds its own notes to the base aroma: a bit of rice and yeast, zesty overtones, and a very fresh feel. So you will have more tones and undertones in namazake compared to its pasteurised counterparty.
In terms of taste and flavours, again, namazake has certain sharpness and complexity, with a lot of wild and funky notes. Its umami component is much more prominent, especially in junmai nama. So it works very well with grilled meat and fish, salty food, and oily and creamy dishes. But again, it depends on the style of a particular nama.
For example, daiginjo namazake will be fine to drink on its own or with gently flavoured food, like cauliflower, cheese, and grilled white fish. While junmai nama will be terrific with spicy food, like fajitas, Thai or Indian curry, or Chilli con Carne. So when you are deciding on the food to have with your nama, consider all factors: style, type and variety of the sake.
When nama sake becomes available
Traditionally, spring is the season for namazake. Young sake similar to young wine is very attractive for its unruly character. It epitomises spring itself: everything is impatient, bursting with life and energy. Same with fresh nama which just captivates you with its amazing aroma and taste feast.
But it doesn’t mean that you can’t find namazake during other seasons. Of course, you can. Matured namazake, and I mean matured here as a step in the brewing process when sake sits in a tank for 3-6 months after pressing… So matured namazake is quite common. It has more rounded edges but still a wild character.
A bottle of namazake is easy to recognise for its distinctive Chinese character on the bottle, nama. In Japanese, it usually has a warning that you have to keep the bottle in a fridge and consume it as quickly as possible. But, and it’s always but in the sake universe, some brewers make nama which can be kept at room temperature for ages.
Philip Harper is one of them and his Tamagawa Nama Genshu “Red Label” can be left open in the cupboard for months. I don’t know how he does it, but it just gets better as it matures.
How to buy and store namazake
A few words about how to store namazake. Unopened, it can be stored for a few months in a fridge. But don’t wait too long before drinking it. It’s quite unstable compared to pasteurised sake, so it might go off at some point. When a bottle of namazake is opened, try to drink it in the next couple of days. It will start losing its freshness straight away and also can go off.
Namachozo and namazume are more stable than totally unpasteurised namazake. But still, you have to be careful. Nama genshu is also more stable due to the higher alcohol content. I mentioned Philip Harper’s nama muroka genshu, which just gets better with time but it’s quite an exception.
Also keep in mind that when nama is off, it’s not really poisonous. It’s just unpleasant. So you are unlikely to have food poisoning if you drink it without realising that it passed its expiry date. If you intend to keep namazake for a few weeks in the fridge before opening, then it’s better to wrap it in the paper just to make sure that it’s not exposed to sunlight, just in case.
There are many pleasures in sake you start appreciating only with time. When your first aha moment has passed and you went through the ginjo stage, you start looking beyond your comfort zone. There are many types of sake that you start discovering: nigori, junmai, koshu. But namazake is probably the most exciting discovery you make. It still has this whiff of exclusivity despite refrigerator trucks and sake fridges.
As customary for such posts, I will follow this one in a couple of weeks with my recommendations. However, if you have any comments or your namazake story, either comment below or drop me a line. It’s always interesting to find out other people’s stories about their sake discoveries!