Nøgne Ø Brewery in Norway is best known for its line of award-winning craft beers, but the company is quickly gaining a reputation for another brewed beverage: sake. Located in the maritime town of Grimstad, about 300 km south of Oslo, the brewery began producing sake in 2010. In 2012, Nøgne Ø took home top honors in an international competition organized by the Sake Sommelier Association in London. Since then, the brewery’s Yamahai Muroka Junmai-shu has become the second-biggest selling sake in the country and is exported throughout Scandinavia, as well as to the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Spain.
Cofounder and brew-master Kjetil Jikiun came to sake via beer. An airline pilot by trade, Jikiun developed a taste for bold, full-flavored beers that were not available in Norway and started experimenting with home brewing, which was still in its infancy, in the late 1990s. “No one in Norway understood what I was doing,” he recalls. Sake making was the next logical step.
Sake has become a global phenomenon, and in recent years enthusiasm for the drink has led some fans abroad to try brewing their own. Although sake has been produced outside of Japan since the early 1900s, most of the breweries are outposts of large Japanese manufacturers. A turning point came for international sake production in 2007-08, when microbreweries began popping up in North America. The first was Vancouver’s Artisan SakeMaker, followed by the brewpub Moto-i in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The scene has flourished in the last few years. There are now three microbreweries in Canada and six dotted around the United States — often in unlikely areas such as Texas and North Carolina. Nøgne Ø remains the only sake brewery in Europe, although rumor has it that a new brewery may be opening in Scotland soon.
One of the greatest challenges facing sake makers abroad is sourcing suitable rice. “I wanted to know if it would be possible to grow rice as far north as Norway,” says Jikiun. The answer, alas, is no. Jikiun imports Ginpu rice from Hokkaido; he uses yeast from yeast banks in the United States in two of the brews, but the flagship Yamahai Motoshibori is fermented with naturally occurring yeast. All three of Nøgne Ø’s products are created in the yamahai style, which tends to be earthier, with high levels of acidity and umami. “We like flavorful expressions,” says Jikiun.
Nøgne Ø sake is not sold in Japan (although the beers can be found at specialty shops in Tokyo), but I recently had the chance to sample the latest brews. After speaking with Jikiun, I had expected to encounter fruit bombs, but both the Junmai-shu and Junmai Ginjo were elegant, clean and crisp, with stone fruit aromas and flavors. The Yamahai Motoshibori, on the other hand, was a mouthful — unabashedly fruity, with a hit of high-toned sweetness that matched the sake’s vibrating acidity. Jikiun says that he’s now working on a “slimmer and drier” honjōzo-style variety, as well as aged brews. In 2013, Nøgne Ø released Europe’s first shōchū, distilled from sake lees and made with yeast derived from one of the brewery’s IPA beers. I’m dying to try it, but Jikiun tells me that I’ll have to go to Norway for that.