The sake lovers camp has been divided for years regarding sparkling sake. Some always keep dismissing it as a gimmick. Others praise the innovative way to attract new consumers. However, the scale is gravitating towards the latter. When I was judging IWC Sake in April, I realised that the quality of sparkling sake has shot up in recent years. Many sparkling sake I tasted that time were on par with very good champagne.
Fizziness has always existed in certain types of sake similar to spritz in some wines. As a part of the fermentation process, yeast breaks sugar into alcohol and CO2. Some CO2 might still remain in sake after bottling. If you drink namazake, you can often feel slight fizziness in the sake. Kassei nigori, which is basically unpasteurised nigori (cloudy sake), could be very effervescent as the fermentation process is still going on in the bottle.
So technically, effervescent sake always existed. However, until the 1990s no one thought of making it a marketing point. During that time sake sales were nose-diving losing to beer, highballs and other drinks favoured by the younger generation. Many sake breweries were frantically searching for new products that would appeal to those who normally didn’t drink sake: young people, women, consumers outside Japan.
One of those breweries, Ichinokura, pioneered sparkling sake by releasing its brand, “Suzune” (すず音) in 1998 to the market. Suzune can be translated as “bell sound” and refers to the sound made by bubbles in a glass reminding small tin bells.
The story goes that Ichinokura’s president, Kazuo Suzuki, was travelling in Europe, where he tried Belgium lambic beer, which is generally more acidic and has higher alcohol content as well as Sturm in Austria (known as Fedderweisser in Germany), underfermented fizzy low-alcoholic wine, which is sweet and acidic. It gave him an idea of sparkling sake.
While a lot of other breweries were experimenting with making sparkling sake around that time, Suzune definitely started the trend.
It’s not all that sparkling: brewing challenges
There are two main hurdles for sparkling sake which the brewers had to overcome. The first is ABV. Sparkling alcoholic drinks generally have lower alcohol content. Fizziness usually exaggerates the alcohol so the usual 15-16% ABV of sake could feel a bit too strong. However, if you dilute sake too much, its quality generally starts deteriorating.
The hurdle was overcome by brewing lower alcohol sake, which can be diluted a bit further. Generally, sparkling sake is between 4 and 12% of ABV. It makes it easy to drink and you don’t get drunk quickly because of the bubbles. The lower alcohol content is reached usually by stopping the fermentation earlier as usual. As a result, the yeast doesn’t have enough time to turn all sugar into alcohol resulting in low-alcoholic and sweeter sake.
The second problem is that in Champagne or other sparkling wines, the acidity, sweetness and the level of carbonation are controlled by adding a mixture of sugar and yeast called liqueur de tirage to the base still wine. You can’t do it in sake due to the strict regulations. So Japanese sake brewers had to control the taste of sparkling sake relying on their amazing brewing skills.
Three sparkling techniques
There are three main methods of making sparkling sake. The easiest and cheapest method is through carbonation. Under this method, sake is brewed as usual, probably to lower alcohol content. Then CO2 is just pumped into the sake as with many other sparkling drinks like carbonated soft drinks.
This way, the brewer can control the level of carbonation and the taste of the sake. This method produces very consistent results. The downside is that the bubbles are generally quite big and dissipate very quickly, not like in naturally carbonated drinks like Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava of French Champagne.
Also, CO2 is still considered as an additive in sake, so you can’t have Tokutei Meishoshu or special designation sake like junmai or ginjo. So any sparkling sake made by the carbonation method should be labelled as futsushu, table sake. Even if junmai daiginjo is used as a base.
The second main method is tank fermentation. As we know, yeast breaks sugar in alcohol and CO2. If you trap the resulting CO2 in the tank, where the sake is fermenting, it will dissolve in the sake making it fizzy. However, the process requires a tremendous skill to control the attributes of the sparkling sake like sweetness/acidity and the level of carbonation.
Breweries spend years to find the perfect balance through trials and errors. This method could use primary fermentation or secondary fermentation when some of sake lees are added back to the tank after the main fermentation and filtering to create bubbles.
The upside of the tank fermentation method is that sake is usually filtered before bottling resulting in clear sake. Also, the sake made this way feels more natural and smooth with the bubbles lasting much longer than with the carbonation method.
Secondary fermentation in a bottle
The third method is secondary fermentation in a bottle. After the primary fermentation, sake is pressed but the lees are not fully filtered and make their way into a bottle during the bottling. Alternatively, sake lees might be added after pressing straight to the bottle. As the fermentation process continues in the bottle, it creates bubbles in a few weeks’ time.
This method usually produces cloudy sake as the remains of sake lees and yeast cells are left in the bottle. There are, however, techniques to remove the sediment similar to disgorgement in champagne making. The advantage of this method is that it’s easier than tank fermentation. You can go through trials and errors with just a few bottles to refine the technique before making your first batch of sparkling sake.
How to enjoy sparkling sake
You might say: “OK, cool. But what’s the point of sparkling sake especially outside Japan, where a lot of excellent sparkling wines are available here?”. Well, first of all, sparkling sake has its own taste profile, different from champagne or prosecco. It has milder acidity and a higher umami factor. Secondly, it’s something new and unique. Thirdly, it’s a great entry drink into the sake universe for those who never tried sake.
Sparkling sake is great as an aperitif. It’s light and gentle and works great at the start of any party and pairs perfectly with nibbles. More acidic it is amazing with sushi. So it can be a main drink of the meal if you are having nice sashimi or maki. It’s also fantastic with cheese as the combination of umami in cheese and umami in sparkling sake creates wonders. And again, it’s light. So you can have it as an afternoon drink with cheese and crackers.
You can drink sparkling sake from a champagne flute or coup or just a normal wine glass. Serve it chilled but don’t overchill. It might lose its bubbliness and will be too cold to release its nice aromas and flavours. Be careful as with any sparkling wine as the sake in the bottle is under pressure and might geyser out of the bottle which is a waste. Though the pressure is usually lower than in champagne.
What to look out in sparkling sake
When sparkling sake was first introduced to the market, the breweries created an organisation, Japan Awasake Organisation, (“awa” in Japanese means foam) in order to create certain standards for sparkling sake. Unfortunately, their website is only in Japanese. So I will list the main points below.
- Sparkling sake has to be junmai (made of only rice, water yeast and koji)
- It should made only of domestic Japanese rice of a certain grade
- Bubbles should be created only through natural fermantation
- Sparkling sake should be clear, transparent and bubbles should form after it’s opened and poured into a glass
- Alcohol content should be at least 10% and the pressure has to be 3.5 bars.
However, keep in mind that not all breweries that make sparkling sake are members of the Awasake Association, so they are not bound by the above rules. They still might make amazing sparkling sake.
It’s New Year/Christmas time and a very good excuse to try sparkling sake. Make a surprise and bring a bottle to your party (well if we can still have New Year parties) or just to your own Christmas/New Year Eve table and toast the new 2022 with a glass of sparkling sake!
I will follow this article with recommendations of sparkling sake you can buy outside Japan. Stay tuned and sign up for a notification newsletter if you don’t want to miss it.