Around the world, the sound of popping corks brings just one thing to mind — Champagne. However, a new organization of sake producers is working to tweak that image.
Launched last year, the Japan Awasake Association consists of nine brewers who are committed to raising the quality of sparkling sake — a category more closely associated with simple, low-alcohol styles than elegant brews — to a level that can compete with France’s most beloved prestige beverage. In April, the JAA’s effervescent offerings were on display at a tasting at the ANA Intercontinental Hotel in Tokyo.
The association takes its name from awa, the Japanese word for “foam” or “bubbles.” The group deliberately chose it to distinguish their products from the other varieties of sparkling sake on the market. “We want to create a role for sparkling sake as a luxury drink to be enjoyed on special occasions,” says Shuzo Nagai, JAA chair and president of Nagai Brewing Company, which produces the Mizubasho brand in Gunma Prefecture.
Prior to the event, the group presented a list of criteria that producers must meet in order to be considered for certification. To gain the JAA’s seal of approval, the sake must contain only rice, water and kōji (the enzymatic catalyst that converts starches into sugars), with a minimum alcohol content of 10 percent and carbon dioxide resulting solely from natural fermentation.
There are no legal specifications to define the sparkling sake category. Although exact production numbers are difficult to discern, the sector has been expanding as a whole in recent years, thanks in part to the drink’s popularity among younger and female drinkers. Most varieties are slightly cloudy, sweet and tangy with alcohol content below sake’s average 15 percent ABV — the sake world’s equivalent to wine coolers. The JAA, however, aims to show sparkling sake as a handcrafted beverage that can be appreciated by connoisseurs.
The most common way to make effervescent sake is to inject the liquid with carbon dioxide — a quick and cost-effective process that typically yields an aggressively fizzy drink. Other methods include keeping the tank at high pressure and low temperatures so that the carbon dioxide created during fermentation dissolves into the mash (a technique frequently used in beer making). Some producers add a small portion of the yeast-laden lees to the sake before bottling to induce secondary fermentation, mirroring Champagne production. Bottle fermentation imparts more complexity and finesse, resulting in brews with smaller bubbles and finer texture. Naturally, these premium varieties come with a heftier price tag, starting around ¥4,000 per 750-ml bottle.
The bubbles I sampled at the JAA tasting demonstrated an exciting range of styles — from Nagai Shuzo’s demure and mildly sweet Mizubasho Pure, to the richer, creamy-textured Shichiken Hoshinokagayaki from Yamanashi Meijo Brewing Company. Sorah, from Tottori Prefecture’s Chiyomusubi Shuzo, exhibited a distinct sake-like character, while Tenzan Sparkling from Tenzan Shuzo in Saga Prefecture (known for the Shichida brand) takes its cues from Champagne, with mouth-watering acidity that President Kensuke Shichida says “pairs with any kind of food.”
An intriguing new release made with local rice and yeast from Akita Seishu Brewing Company, Dewatsuru Ashitahe delivers berry flavors on the palate, a smooth mouthfeel and a dry finish.
Some of the brews are still in the developmental stages, but the potential is clearly there. I won’t be giving up Champagne any time in the near future, but I will be keeping a close eye on the sparkling sake sector.
To learn more about the JAA, visit www.awasake.or.jp/rule.