Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Nøgne Ø: Yamahai Muroka Junmai Sake From Norway

Almost seven years ago, back in December 2009, I wrote an article, Sake in Norway, about Nøgne Ø, a well-known craft beer brewery in Norway which wanted to also become a Sake brewer. They were poised to be the first Sake brewery in Europe and I was excited to see what developed.

Since then, Nøgne Ø accomplished their objective, becoming the first Sake brewery in Europe, and now produces four different Sakes, from a Yamahai Junmai to a Sparkling Sake. Even better, their Sake is now available in Massachusetts, through the Shelton Brothers Inc., which is primarily an importer of beer. Redstone Liquors in Stoneham is currently carrying the Nøgne Ø Yamahai Junmai ($19.99/350ml), and they hope to carry the rest of the Nøgne Ø Sake portfolio in the near future. I bought several bottles, eager to sample this Norwegian Sake.

The name "Nøgne Ø" translates as "naked island" which is "a poetic term used by Henrik Ibsen to describe any of the countless stark, barren outcroppings that are visible in the rough sea off Norway's southern coast." The brewery also has a subtitle, Det Kompromissløse Bryggeri, or “The Uncompromising Brewery.” They make more than 30 different types of ales, and, in addition, have made numerous guest brews & collaborations with other breweries from all over the world.

Nøgne Ø desires to create "bold, rich, flavourful Sakes" and because of such, all their Sakes are made using the Yamahai process. This is an older method of production in which commercial lactic acid is not added to the fermentation, allowing lactic acid from the air to naturally develop within the mix. It takes longer for this type of Sake to ferment, and it is riskier, with a chance of stray bacteria ruining the fermentation. Sake made by this process often tends to be more complex, earthy and gamey. I am a huge fan of Kimoto/Yamahai Sake, so I was especially interested in checking out Nøgne Ø Sake.

Their Sakes are also made from Ginpu, a type of Sake rice that has been imported from Hokkaido, Japan. This rice type was officially registered in 2002, having been developed by the Hokkaido Central Agricultural Experiment Station. It is rare for any Sake brewery outside of Japan to use a sakamai, a Sake rice, from Japan in their brewery. Even the U.S. Sake breweries which are using Yamadanishiki, also a sakamai, are using rice which was grown in the U.S. Nøgne Ø currently makes a Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, Yamahai Motoshibori, and Sparkling Sake.

The Nøgne Ø Yamahai Muroka Junmai is made from 100% Ginpu rice, which has been polished down to 68%. They use a foamless yeast, #701, in the fermentation process. The Sake has a 16% ABV, an acidity of 2.4 (which is very high for Sake!), and a Sake Meter Value of +3 (which is almost neutral between sweet & dry). As it is a Muroka, that means the Sake was not filtered and it was only pasteurized once (which means it technically could be a Namazake).

The writing and linework on the dark-colored label, as you can see at the top of this post, is very light so the label doesn't stand out on a store shelf. It isn't eye-catching so the average consumer isn't likely to pick up the bottle to check it out. I think a bolder label, which could be symbolic of the bolder flavors found in their Sake, would be more attractive to consumers.

However, the most important question is: how does it taste? First, the color has a slight greenish-yellow tinge, likely due to the fact that is is unfiltered. On the nose, there are appealing and mild stone fruit notes. Taking a taste, you immediately notice its rich mouthfeel, a full bodied Sake with good acidity and flavors of pear and melon, with a lengthy and satisfying finish. Unlike some other Yamahai, it doesn't possess a gamey/earthy element, though it does have that high acidity. That gamey/earthy aspect is very common with Yamahai, but isn't found in all such Sakes and this isn't the first time I have tasted one of those exceptions.

This is also a Sake with strong umami and would pair well with numerous foods. Because of its clean and fruity flavors, it would go well with seafood, from sushi to oysters, but with its high acidity and umami, it could also stand up to heartier dishes, from burgers to pizza. It would be killer with mushroom dishes. I initially enjoyed some of this Junmai with Shepherd's Pie, fine comfort food which worked with the Sake, and I've also paired it with Cheeseburgers, and that was a fine combo as well.

I'm impressed with the taste of the Nøgne Ø Junmai and am even more eager to taste the rest of their Sakes.

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