Food & Drink

Summer sipping: How sake is getting creative in the heat

by Phoebe Amoroso

Contributing Writer

A cube of frozen coffee is placed into a glass with a satisfying clink. Then another, and another, before a chilled sake is poured over the top. The brainchild of Marie Chiba, owner of renowned sake bar Gem by Moto, the 27-second video caused quite a stir on Twitter in late May.

Less than two months later, Simone Maynard, an Australia-based sake consultant and private educator, watched with astonishment during an online event as Kuniko Mukai of Mukai Brewery heated an unusual, umami-rich black rice sake and then poured it over a bowl of vanilla ice cream in a pairing inspired by affogato.

“Despite not really being an ice cream fan… I was pleasantly surprised,” wrote Maynard. “The maltiness and umami character of this sake blended so well with the flavor and texture of the vanilla ice cream.”

Maynard says a lot of sake fans tend to steer away from experimentation, fearing it would be “sacrilegious.” But she says people within the industry are increasingly pushing the boundaries of how the drink can be enjoyed, with those in Japan leading the way.

Sweet success: Sake-flavored ice cream is a sweet entre into the world of the drink. | Phoebe Amoroso
Sweet success: Sake-flavored ice cream is a sweet entre into the world of the drink. | PHOEBE AMOROSO

Right on trend, Tokyo got its first specialist sake ice cream store in March, Sakeice. Its main customers so far are women in their 20s and 30s who are unaccustomed to sake. “Many have never drunk sake before,” says PR manager Yuko Tamba. “Our ice cream has become a way to introduce it to them.”

This summer, more than ever, innovations may be needed. Maynard, who has lost most of her work during the COVID-19 outbreak, established the Taste with the Toji online events primarily as a passion project to support brewers. “I wanted them to find a little bit of hope and realize there are people all over the world who have not stopped drinking sake,” she says.

Breweries are struggling with especially sluggish sales as they head into their traditional low season. Consumers generally eschew sake in the warmer months: At 15 to 17 percent alcohol by volume, sake occupies an awkward position on the beverage spectrum. Often paired with food, it suffers from consumers’ lower appetites in the heat. However, not anywhere close to the strength of spirits, serving it on the rocks results in a diluted beverage with a wishy-washy character.

It wasn’t until 2007 that natsuzake — summer sake — was born. According to Takahiro Nagayama, fifth-generation sake maker at Nagayamahonke Shuzojo, a Tokyo-based sake store put out an appeal to brewers to make sake that was easier to drink in the summer in response to customer requests. Given the sharp downward trend in sake consumption since its peak in 1975, and diversifying alcoholic preferences among the younger generations, the industry welcomed a chance to boost sales with a fresh offering.

Often presented in striking blue bottles, natsuzake is usually refreshing, and aims to appeal to those more inclined to grab a crisp beer or a glass of sparkling wine as the temperature rises. Nagayama, who has begun publishing on YouTube to reach customers during the COVID-19 outbreak, outlines natsuzake’s three main features: sparkling; lower alcohol (around 13 percent); and higher acidity, particularly notes of citric acid, often created by opting for white or black kōji (Aspergillus oryzae) for converting the starch in the rice to sugar, as opposed to the most commonly used yellow varietal.

Affogato upgrade: Kuniko Mukai of Mukai Brewery made waves when she poured sake over a bowl of vanilla ice cream. | Courtesy of Kuniko Mukai
Affogato upgrade: Kuniko Mukai of Mukai Brewery made waves when she poured sake over a bowl of vanilla ice cream. | COURTESY OF KUNIKO MUKAI

Inspired by a visit to the Alsace region of France, during which he fell in love with petillant naturel (lightly sparkling wine), Nagayama has released his own lightly sparkling natsuzake. “In general, sake is very rigid and not very fun. I wanted to focus more on the enjoyment.” True to his word, his video sees him sporting a Hawaiian shirt and a grin. “Particularly in the summer, I want everyone to freely enjoy sake,” he tells viewers.

Without a set definition, natsuzake invites freedom of interpretation and allows both brewers and consumers to get creative. Nagayama hardly considers his approach as maverick. “In the world of wine, you have sangria, right? So why would it be bad to drink sake like that? We should relax about it.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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