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Sake Style – Nama or Unpasteurized Sakes Are Awesome!

Wrap your mind around this one! In the “olden” days sake makers realized that if they heated their sake after production it would act like a preservative and would help sake travel and store better in terms of stability. This documented process occurred before Louis Pasteur. It happened before Louis was born. It happened before Louis Pasteur’s father was born. It happened before Louis Pasteur’s father’s father was born. And so on. 

Let’s just say that the Pasteur family were very good marketers, but Pasteurization was actually born within the walls of sake breweries. Period. End of story. 

This fact is one of the great selling points about sake, but we don’t tell this whole glorious story at each sale, rather we simply say, “There are no sulfites in sake - it’s pasteurized!” And voila! Another sake drinker has joined the family. 

The vast majority of sake produced in Japan and all over the globe gets pasteurized in one form or another. Some breweries only pasteurize their sakes once, others use lower temperatures to heat their brews, and still others pasteurize at different times of storage all to achieve the flavor of the sake that they want to produce. Typically sake is pasteurized twice, and this does alter the flavor and feeling of a sake. We know why they do it, to preserve the sake and to keep it from altering or changing stability in the bottle, but it does change the brew. 

Wait there’s more, and this is the crux of this piece. Some sakes are produced and released without ever being super heated or pasteurized. What? OMG! No Way! (Way!) This category of “Unpasteurized” sakes is called Nama sake or Nama-zake and Louis would be turning in his grave if he knew about them 

I have always had a love affair with Nama-zake. And for the past decade I have been pushing my importers to add more and more raw brews to their portfolio. Way back when things on the nama front were pretty bleak. The general public had access to less than 5 different namas and they came in sporadically and always sold out so quickly. You need more namas! That was a cry I often greeted my importing friends with even before saying hello. (See what love will do to you!) And slowly but surely more and more namas and seasonally released namas started to grace the shelves in the US. (I think at one point last year we had a record of 20 namas in the store.) (That’s AMORE!) 

So what’s the big deal about Nama sake? Why did I push so hard to get more of these frisky and sometimes spastic brews on the shelves. In a word – taste and feeling! Crap! That’s two words. Nevertheless the taste and the feeling of Nama-zake is the difference between a pasteurized sake and an un-pasteurized sake. As a hand-seller of sake, which needs to be sold by hand and you need to talk and talk and talk about sake before a sale (unlike wine where most people know what’s going on) I used to say the following shpeel. “What kind of car do you have?” “A Jetta!” the customer would say. “Well imagine that VW came and took your Jetta and tricked it out with a huge new engine, super suspension and all that other car speak about making your car more race-car-like. You would recognize the general feel of your car, but all of that new speed and new handling would feel entirely wild and different. It’s as if your car was now on steroids and it was bigger and “badder” and a beast” 

In a sense Nama sakes are like sake in Three D. They can be bigger, friskier, sharper, more acidic, brighter, brasher, fruitier, yeastier, zestier, and they can also drink like a twice-pasteurized sake, which is more controlled and collected. The fun of nama is also in the nose. Unpasteurized sakes have amazing aroma components. They are raw and wild and quite different to brews that have seen heat. 

When I go to Japan I drink so much nama-zake that my (sorry in advance to do this to you and please jump to the next paragraph if you do not want to read about one of my bodily functions) pee smells like a yeasty rodeo. (Mom – I am so sorry that I just wrote a yeasty rodeo) It is so fresh and raw and young and amazing that I really get a thrill out of trying as many as I possibly can. And when I get to visit breweries and drink freshly pressed sakes – forget about it! 

Are nama sakes the end all be all? Hell no! They are just another expression in the sake realm. But they are a fun expression worth your exploration. And as you read this we have 22 pure namas “no pasteurization whatsoever” in the store and a bunch of sakes that have been heated once. (Another record!)

Get your nama on! 

PS. And please note that a dear friend of mine in NM has started an importing company that only imports Nama-zake, but I will not mention names or promote her awesomeness until she gets those brews to us in the Bay Area……. Hurry up!! 


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