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Sunday, April 14, 2002
Where sake runs wild, unfiltered and free
Over the past few years, there has been a small surge in the popularity of muroka nama genshu sake. While it is hardly shaking the industry to its foundations, quite a few brewers -- usually smaller kura -- have begun to market this kind of sake.
In short, muroka nama genshu is sake that is unfiltered (muroka), unpasteurized (nama) and undiluted (genshu). In other words, this is the drink in its most natural form, just as it is immediately after it's been pressed.
Let us look at these three qualities in a bit more detail.
Note that "unfiltered" does not mean the sake is white and cloudy, like nigori-zake. Unfiltered here refers not to the step where the clear sake is pressed from the unfermented rice solids, but rather to a curious process in which charcoal powder is mixed into the sake, which is then pumped through a series of paper filters. The charcoal latches onto unwanted coloring or off-flavor components, and these get removed with the charcoal.
When this charcoal-filtering is not performed, often the sake is rougher and fuller in flavor, since a few more zatsumi (flavors typically construed as just not belonging) will get through. Also, most unfiltered sake will have that lovely amber hue that is the natural color of the fresh-pressed brew.
Charcoal-filtering has been around for decades and is a very precise step that gives sake its refined touch. However, whether or not this is done is often a matter of preference, brewing styles and ingredients.
As one example, a brewery in Iwate, Nanbu Bijin, charcoal-filters none of its premium sake. Nanbu Bijin has extremely pure water, and this, in combination with the skill of the brewers, renders it unnecessary. Its sake is anything but rough and wild. On the contrary it is clean, elegant and refined -- much more so than a lot of charcoal-filtered sake. There are doubtless others out there like Nanbu Bijin as well.
Genshu is undiluted sake. Sake ferments to about 20 percent alcohol and is then usually watered down to around 16 percent for the market. Genshu has not had this water added, and that extra 4 percent or so can really boost the drink's overall punch.
Nama-zake, as was described in depth in the last column, is unpasteurized. The fresh, zingy and fragrant aspects that remain when pasteurization is omitted complement the full, powerful impact of undiluted sake. It's kind of the icing on the cake.
Perhaps the popularity of muroka nama genshu is due to the air of artisan-crafted quality associated with it. Perhaps the trend is due to the appeal of its perceived simplicity and naturalness: nothing added, no extraneous operations performed. Perhaps for some it suggests true jizake, sake that is decidedly not mass-produced or commonplace. Whatever it is, I wish it would go away.
In short, the combination of not filtering, not pasteurizing and not diluting leads to a sake that is so busy and alcoholic that you can't taste anything. Muroka nama genshu ends up tasting like, well, muroka nama genshu -- and not any particular brand.
For people who think all sake tastes the same, this will open their eyes. But at 20 percent, the alcohol is a bit too strong to really taste the finer aspects that may or may not be there. It can be harder to match with food. And often the roughly hewn fullness of unfiltered sake is a bit too overpowering and cloying to enjoy anything subtle.
Although muroka nama genshu is not be the most subtle sake in the world, it is certainly enjoyable to most people, and its impact, fullness of flavor and freshness are likely to convert more than a few folks to the pro-sake camp.
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Jokigen (Yamagata Prefecture)
Most sake from this popular brewery seems to be trying to burst with flavor while sticking to the typical Tohoku sake-flavor profile -- narrow, tight and understated. It's a tall order, but they fill it. This particular sake is made with a Yamagata-only rice called Dewa Sansan (apparently the owner actually goes out and helps in the rice fields), lending it a layered, textural flavor. Being nama, muroka and genshu, the impact is indeed very full, and the flavors imparted by this special rice seem to go with the style.