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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 2002

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Sake with a raw bite



With the sakura in bloom -- in some places, anyway -- this is one of the best times for experiencing Japan's wonderful knack for tying just about everything in to the seasons. Clothing, food, drink, design; all seem to resonate with the sakura this time of the year. The sake world's seasonal equivalent of blooming cherry blossom buds is nama-zake, and now is when it is most easily and widely available.
Hanami-zake (Chiba Prefecture)
In short, nama-zake is unpasteurized sake. Almost all sake (anything not labeled nama) has been pasteurized twice; once just after brewing and once again after a maturation period or before shipping. This is done by either running the sake through a pipe submerged in hot water (about 65 degrees is the norm), or submerging already bottled sake in the same.

Pasteurization is done to deactivate heat-sensitive enzymes left over from the koji, thus ensuring they will not kick in at higher temperatures and send the sake flavors out of kilter.

On the other hand, sake that is not pasteurized has a much fresher, livelier and zingier touch, with usually a much more active aromatic aspect. Although care and refrigeration are needed, it is often worth the effort.

Note, however, that there are various ways of leaving sake unpasteurized, and the handful of terms used to refer to these can be a tad confusing. Here is a lexicon of all things nama to help clear things up.

As mentioned, most sake is pasteurized twice. When the need to differentiate arises, such pasteurized sake is referred to as hi-ire. Full-fledged nama-zake can also be referred to as nama-nama or hon-nama; these are identical terms that indicate totally unpasteurized sake. Again, this would be used most often in comparisons to other types of nama.

Another type is nama-chozo. Chozo means "store," so it means sake that has been stored in its unpasteurized form, and pasteurized once only after maturation (usually a six-month period) or just before shipping.

Then there is the opposite of this, nama-zume, which is sake that has been pasteurized once before storage, but not pasteurized before bottling (zume comes from tsumeru, "to bottle"). When this is traditionally released in the fall, just as the weather begins to cool down, it can also be known as hiya-oroshi.

The difference between these two is very subtle and a bit gimmicky. Nama-chozo and nama-zume have simply both been pasteurized once only and not twice. This gives the sake stability and yet allows it to retain some of the nature of nama-zake. In theory, anyway. More often than not nama-nama is what you want to drink.

For all its user-friendliness, however, nama-zake is not unequivocally better than pasteurized sake. On the contrary, often that lively zing imparted by omitting pasteurization can overpower the more subtle aspects of the sake. All you can taste is its "nama-ness," so to speak.

Yet, if meticulous care is taken by the brewer in terms of storage temperature and preventing oxidation, the lissome freshness is more often than not an enhancement. Just be aware that there are various opinions out there.

Fortunately, in the end, all you really need to remember is that nama-zake is usually fresher, livelier and more stimulatingly enjoyable than pasteurized sake. That's the raw truth about nama and should get you through the hanami party.

Like the beautiful, ephemeral sakura, nama-zake is short-lived -- and a perfect accompaniment for your cherry-blossom viewing. A word of warning, though: Nama-zake must be kept quite cold, or it will undergo drastic changes. When nama-zake goes bad, it becomes sweet and yeasty and quite funky in an unpleasant way, a condition known as hi-ochi. A white muck that floats in suspension in the bottle (like those old lava lamps) usually appears in bad nama-zake. That is your visual clue to steer clear.

Biwa no Choju
"Hanami-zake" (Shiga Prefecture)

A wonderful choice for hanami parties. It features mild peachy fruit tones and a complex and layered flavor profile that keeps your attention, yet it is friendly enough to mix with just about anything and anyone. Low acidity and a mildly sweet finish make it very easy to drink.

On April 6, Robert Yellin and John Gauntner will host another sake and pottery seminar at Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu and Awajicho stations, 6-9 p.m. The sake topic will be sake rice varieties. Participation is limited to 40. The cost is 7,000 yen, including half a dozen sake for sampling, ample food and a lecture with printed handouts. For more information, e-mail

The Japan Times: March 31, 2002
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BELOW PHOTO: Hanami-zake


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