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True First - The New Sake Frontier

Call me a sake geek - sake dork - sake dweeb - whatever! But I simply love talking about the evolution of the greatest libation ever gifted to mankind. And in this respect it is pretty important to circle the year 2010 on the sake historical calendar. Why you may ask? Well it's the year that international sake brewing took a large leap into the unknown.

In past Newsletter issues I have informed you about small breweries opening in Canada, where more are on the way, I have mentioned the opening of sake micro-pubs in the Midwest, and I have spoken about operations in Australia and South America, but nothing gives me more sake goose bumps (You mean you don't get sake goose bumps?) than the launch of a new line of sakes produced in Norway.

Kjetil P. Jikiun Head brewer of Nogne is a brewing mad man and you may have read my past offerings about his beer that he makes using sake kobo (yeast) - Red Horizon (which is coming soon to the US. You may also recall me mentioning that he sent a sample of his first sake efforts in a plastic water bottle. Well lo and behold several months later he sent me three - no not samples - but rather three different sakes that are currently for sale in Norway. And the best part of the story (more goose bumps yo!) is the fact that each sake has the words "Batch No. 001" on the label. I love that! We are a small part of the living sake history.

When Kjetil went to a beer summit in Chicago this spring he was kind enough to take the three bottles and wrap them in newspaper and send them to my shop. That said when speaking about conditioning this was not the best as one of the brews was a nama, and it did fly over with him from Norway, so in a perfect world I did not get to taste his brews in pristine tasting conditions. But who the heck cares? I also tasted the sakes with several industry folks from sake sommeliers to chefs to Chris Pearce of World Sake Imports. Everybody had their own impressions, but the bottom line conclusion was that the brews were "drinkable" albeit a little "large."

Without going too crazy with specifics on each brew I'll outline the first-ever saleable sakes from Norway. Kjetil made three different sakes from one batch - ye 'ol Batch #001. As a result the ingredients and necessities are all similar just the means of production differed. For example each of the three was made using 15% Yamadanishiki and 85% Ginpu milled to 70%. Using Ginpu was a smart idea as this Hokkaido- centric varietal could very well grow in the climate and conditions of Norway, whereas a taller more fragile varietal like Yamadanishiki or Omachi may have problems. Secondly the yeast used in all three was the association foamless 701 of Masumi fame.

Sake # 1 - Nogne Yamahai Muroka Junmai (as appears on label)
  • SMV: -4
  • Alc: 16%
  • The nose on this brew was a collection of cream, yogurt, rice, mineral and blueberry elements. The first sip was rich and zesty with a vivid acidic meatiness to it. There was a hint of bitterness, which evolved into a sourness that sticks to the side of the pallet. A very fat and chewy brew that has different plays of acidity depending on the size of glass. There is a theme of minerality and some rice tones, but the ever-present sour face is what shows from sip to finish. The sake has great body and a weightiness that feels good in the mouth with an overall dry appearance.
  • grape tones that opens up with air." "Maker can take more risks."
Sake # 2 - Nogne Yamahai Genshu Muroka Shiboritate Nama Junmai (as appears on label)
  • SMV: -6
  • Alc: 19%
  • The aroma field on this unpasteurized brew is made up of rice, cream and yeast components. An explosive start that is large, bright, zesty and sour. A very robust sake that has different shades of sour from deep rich sweet sour to zesty citrus sour, all on a fat and gooey flow. The acidity of this brew is a flashpoint for different sensations - in a large vessel more tingle and in a smaller vessel a hint of sweetness. This sake had a very unique Greek chicken lemon soup-like flavor component. The impact on the tip of the tongue is equaled by a very long and expressive finish on this brew.
  • THOUGHTS OF OTHERS: "Sour but has more balance than YMJ." "More drinkable!" "Maker uses acidity to offset the sweetness."
Sake # 3 - Nogne Yamahai Nigori Junmai (as appears on label)
  • SMV: -3
  • Alc: 17%
  • The nose on this roughly filtered sake is a collection of sour milk, cream, koji rice, yeast, and vanilla elements. A very unique sparkling nigori that is zesty and bright and drinks with an acidic kick. There is a compact sweetness that sticks to the teeth with a tannin-like effect, but overall the drinking experience is dry for a nigori. Again a layer of sour expressions comes forth in larger vessels, but the main push of the sake is a briskness that is tingly and zesty. What is great about this sake is the size of the unfermented rice particles. They are huge - literally uncrushed pieces of rice floating in the brew. They dissolve between the teeth for a great feel sensation. Almost like amazake size (or milk-soaked Rice Crispies). A very fun nigori.
  • THOUGHTS OF OTHERS: "Sour and creamy with lingering bitterness." "Bubbly." "I've tasted far worse first efforts." "Saleable."
In conclusion I would like to thank Kjetil for taking sake to a new frontier. I would also like to say that his Yamahai efforts remind me very much of another white boy sake brewer in the form of Philip Harper, which is high praise indeed. I look forward to seeing Batch #100 and then #1000 etc.
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