There’s a sake trend that I first noticed last year but has become increasingly common, and I’m actually quite unhappy about it. I’m not sure what the real name is, but I’m calling it “faux nama.” In other words, there is a move toward sake that is actually pasteurized but retains many of the traits we associate with nama: retained gas, notes of ethyl acetate (nail polish remover) and acetaldehyde (cedary wood). It has that zippy sharpness of a freshly pressed sake and all the rambunctiousness that entails.
Which sounds like a lot of fun, except when it isn’t. I’ve been at sake breweries and enjoyed the eye-opening freshness of a sake just out of the press, but it is often TOO eye opening. It’s nice for a sip, but can be quite abrasive beyond than that.
At the same time, there is now a kind of… Dare I say cult? of Freshness in sake. The idea was perhaps best encapsulated by Kuji Kosuke of Nambu Bijin when he appeared in the NHK program SAKE R-Evolution, saying “Wine has aging. Beer has froth. Sake has, without a doubt, freshness. We have to conquer the market with freshness. This is sake’s last trump card to take on the world.” The insistence that sake is at its best when fresh as possible, and that the pinnacle of this incredibly diverse, complex beverage comes right after pressing, is…
Well, it’s nonsense.
Fresh pressed sake is an exciting, fun experience. It’s something that gets people’s attention, and that’s great. It can inspire interest, but it’s not something people want to drink every day. Not even sake brewers do that, and they have access to the freshest sake possible. For a regular drink, for something that goes with meals and warms cold evenings, sake needs age. I’m not even talking about koshu or anything, just a couple of months (at least) to take the sharp edges off, because sake just off the press really is, honestly, harsh.
But now, with all the talk about freshness and nama being “sake’s trump card,” it appears that breweries are finding ways to keep that fresh-pressed sensation even through pasteurization (so they can export it, of course…). Methods apparently include bottling immediately, storing/pasteurizing in the bottle, and using new pasteurization methods, but the upshot is things like Kinsuzume’s Akiagari—which should indicated a richly mellowed, mature sake—that FIZZED when I opened it, or a Kamikokoro Junmai that tasted like fresh pencil shavings.
That’s not what I wanted when I opened those bottles, and that’s why they ended up as cooking sake.
In the end, I think, there has to be some kind of indication to the consumer as to what is inside the bottles, because otherwise people aren’t going to be able to find what they’re looking for. Personally, I’m never buying another bottle of Kamikokoro that isn’t aged again, and Kinsuzume Akiagari is dead to me.