Awa Sake: a bubbly message to the world

Bubbly and refined, awa sake can justly be called the champagne of the sake world.

The resounding pop of a cork and cheerful fizz of bubbles dancing in a glass immediately make any celebration more special, especially when it comes from a bottle of awa sake, the equivalent in the sake world of what champagne is to sparkling wine.

Sparkling sake has become increasingly popular in Japan, unsurprising in a country that already imports huge amounts of bubbly wine from overseas. But the concept of awa sake is more recent. It is a variety of sparkling sake with natural carbonation. While the brewing process is mostly identical to that of the more common “still” sake, the magic that occurs during the secondary fermentation is what gives the drink its iconic bubbles. Only a select number of sake that have passed strict testing criteria are granted the title of awa sake.


Fine streams of bubbles are a trademark of awa sake

Awa is one of those words in Japanese that loses much of its nuance in translation. While usually referred to as “sparkling,” the term has overtones of frothiness and delicate foam, like that on the crest of a wave.

The Japan Awasake Association was established in 2016, inspired by chairman Noriyoshi Nagai’s experience with the trade associations of the Champagne region of France. The association’s aim is to constantly improve product quality, raise brand awareness, and expand to new markets. Only the products that comply with the strict association standards and pass third-party quality control can receive the seal of approval.


Noriyoshi Nagai, chairman of the Japan Awasake Association

Much like the champagne it is based on, for a sparkling sake to be considered an awa sake it must fulfill a number of quality standards. For instance, it must be made with only 100 percent domestically grown rice, koji and water, and all carbonation must be natural (not added, as is often the case with sparkling wines). Awa sake must be clear and have bubbles that rise in a single stream when uncorked, and must have an alcohol content of 10 percent or higher, and gas pressure of 3.5 or higher.

But just because there are guidelines in place does not mean that the resulting sake are identical. Each brewery’s special know-how and preferences results in a wide range of entirely different flavor profiles, ranging from the very dry, pétillant Eikun from Kyoto’s Saito Brewery (which would elevate any type of raw seafood dish) to the surprising aroma reminiscent of strawberry yogurt and marshmallows with a creamy bubble of Hoshi no Kagayaki from the Shichiken Brewery in Yamanashi Prefecture.

Currently 33 sake breweries are members of the Japan Awasake Association, ranging from the northern reaches of Japan’s main island of Honshu to those in the warm climate of the southernmost main island of Kyushu. The results of the association’s efforts to share knowledge between the breweries are clear, as many of their bubbly brews have come away with top awards at major international competitions, such as Kura Master, International Wine Challenge and the Fine Sake Awards.


There are 33 breweries in the association, each with the own individual style of awa sake

Besides spearheading the efforts to share this bubbly brew with the world, Nagai is also the 6th generation owner of the Nagai Brewery in the idyllic village of Kawaba, Gunma Prefecture. Started by a former samurai who was drawn to the location near the source of the great Tone River, the brewery has risen throughout the years to become the largest brewery in Gunma Prefecture and, potentially, also one of the most avant garde.

After seeing the change in sake consumption trends and general low market price of sake, Nagai was inspired to look beyond the traditional framework and seek to create sake that would appeal not just to long-time local sake lovers, but also new markets abroad. With the worldwide market for sparkling wine ever increasing, starting out by focusing on sparkling sake was the logical next step. However, the wheels of progress did not run smoothly, as he spent 5 years and over 700 attempts trying to create the awa sake he envisioned. About to give up, he traveled to France to learn from the great champagne houses, and finally had a breakthrough.

The result of Nagai’s quest is Mizubasho Pure, a delicately sweet sake with a firm bubble that dances delicately on the tongue. The overtones of perfumed pear and levels of flavor are rounded out by the clean mineral cut at the end. Nagai’s awa sake have enchanted top food professionals like Fernando Adrià Acosta, former chef of El Bulli, who famously bought out an entire department store’s stock of one of his earliest vintages.


Mizubasho Pure from the Nagai Brewery

But Nagai’s passion for sharing the elegant bubbly sake goes beyond his own brews, and at a recent private tasting event, he nimbly demonstrated his corking and pouring skills as he rapidly introduced 11 varieties among the high-quality awa sake produced by the 33 breweries in the association.

Greg Beck, sommelier and owner of sake shop and tasting room Sake Secret in Long Beach, California, was onsite to offer his expert opinion on this new trend. Beck says that despite his wealth of knowledge regarding Japan’s most iconic brew, awa sake is a new discovery for him. “I was impressed by awa sake’s proximity to sparkling wine and champagne, making it an ideal alternative,” he notes. “It has a ‘specialness’ that makes it ideal for celebrations.”


Sake sommelier Greg Beck sampled an array of awa sake

Nagai offered helpful notes about the techniques and ingredients each brewery uses to create their awa sake, chatting with Beck as the he savored the pleasantly shocking diversity of brews. As the tasting progressed, Beck selected a few as his personal favorites, although he adds a caveat: “Don’t forget that, as a sake professional, I tend to love unusual choices that push boundaries!”

Among his selections was Awa Sparkling from the Nanbu Bijin Brewery in Iwate Prefecture, known for the owner’s love of experimentation. Beck noted that the deep umami and dairy-forward hints of cheese in the aroma make it stand out, and are very representative of the brewery’s ethos of pushing the boundaries of sake.

Sorah from the Tottori-based Chiyomusubi Brewery (and a firm favorite at the Kura Master competition) drinks very much like a wine, with hints of pinot grigio in the aroma, and a delicate flavor with a touch of sweetness and touches of woodiness and pear. Much in the same vein is Awa sake from the large Hakkaisan Brewery in snowy Niigata Prefecture, which boasts impressive bubbles and has a clean, slightly spicy flavor that is likely to please a crowd.

Kaika, from the historical Daiichi Brewery in Tochigi Prefecture (founded back in 1673) is more complex. Beck remarked on the light citrusy aroma that also blends herbal and floral influences, giving the feeling of a spring day.

Appropriately, the final sake at the tasting was Kikuizumi Hitosuji Sparkling from the Takizawa Brewing in Saitama Prefecture, a bold brew that would be an ideal dessert sake. Nagai pointed out that the strong layers of flavor reminiscent of chocolate and rum-raisin are the result of using the brewer using a blend of three kobo yeasts to jumpstart the fermentation process.


The aroma of each awa sake is influenced by ingredients, brewing techniques and the preferences of each brewery.

Those still unfamiliar with this type of sake may also enjoy the cider-like astringency of 8000 Dry Sparkling from the Hachinohe Brewery, which Nagai pointed out also took some inspiration from their experience of distilling shochu, another popular Japanese spirit. The light ginjo-forward notes of Garyubai from the Sanwa Brewery and creamy foam and surprising notes of cotton candy of Tenzan Sparkling Dosage Zéro from the Tenzan Brewery are also likely to appeal to awa sake beginners.

“Awa sake expands pairing options immensely, offering an alternative to champagne for indulgent pairings with ingredients like caviar, smoked meats and raw seafood, but also spicy cuisines as well” says Nagai. “We hope to create a Japanese-made sparkling sake that will become the world’s toasting drink of choice!”


Toasting to the success of awa sake


Tenzan Sparkling Dosage Zero

TENZAN SAKE BREWERY CO.,LTDExternal site: a new window will open.

This AWA SAKE was brewed using limpid subsoil water from the hillside of the Tenzan Mountains. Slow & in-bottle secondary fermentation produced this delicate sparkling sake with a powerful aroma reminiscent of red fruits with a refreshing dry taste. It is the perfect match for appetizers and meat dishes.


Chiyomusubi Sake Brewery co., LtdExternal site: a new window will open.

SORAH here means "beautiful aurora borealis" and "morning star". CHIYOMUSUBI SORAH was created with the intention to evoke clearness & mystic beauty. It balances acidic food and goes perfectly well with raw oysters served with lemon.


DAIICHI SAKE BREWARY CO., LTDExternal site: a new window will open.

This is an in-bottle fermented sparkling sake with fine bubbles and a light flavor. Its fresh citrus aroma is elegantly harmonized with creamy and delicate bubbles. It possesses a refreshing acidity and a clean aftertaste which makes it a great toasting drink that goes very well with festive meals.


Sanwa Shuzou Co., Ltd.External site: a new window will open.

The perfect AWA SASE for special occasions. This sparkling sake was the first AWA SAKE produced in Shizuoka Prefecture to be certified by the Japan Awasake Association back in 2020. The champagne brewing process that was used to produce this sparkling sake made tailings-free AWA SAKE possible. Its sharp taste, fine bubbles, and fruity aroma call for a very pleasant sparkling sake experience.

Nanbu Bijin Awa Sake Sparkling

Nanbu Bijin Sake Brewing Company Ltd.External site: a new window will open.

This well-balanced AWA SAKE possesses a pleasant ginjo aroma. Its gentle mouthfeel is soon followed by a refreshing sparkling sensation and a strong rice flavor in the aftertaste.

Kikuizumi Hitosuji

Takizawa Brewing Company,Ltd.External site: a new window will open.

The sweetness and acidity of this AWA SAKE harmonize pleasantly, and the fine bubbles pop mellowly in the mouth. Its natural flavor brings out the savoriness of Japanese food, while its refreshing bubbles and enjoyable acidity enhance the taste of Mediterranean cuisine. Winner of the IWC2021 Sparkling Trophy.

Hoshi no Kagayaki

Yamanashi Meijo Co.,Ltd.External site: a new window will open.

A spark from Japan. This is the star product of Maison Shichiken. This classic Shichiken Sparkling is a very well-balanced rice-based sparkling sake of the highest quality. Like stars twinkling in the night sky of Hakushu, its sparkling bubbles are fine and rich. Its fizz is beautifully balanced with its crisp rice flavor to reveal pure aromas.


HACHINOHE SHUZO Co., Ltd.External site: a new window will open.

A dry sparkling sake produced using in-bottle secondary fermentation techniques. Every step of the brewing process was done by hand including riddling and racking. The bubbles are fine with refreshing acidity and a slight rice flavor. This AWA SAKE can be served as an aperitif or with a meal.


NAGAI SAKE INC.External site: a new window will open.

This is the winner of the highest jury prize in the sparkling sake category at Kura Master 2020 in France. It is the pioneer of sparkling sake, which has passed in-bottle secondary fermentation standards and pressure of over 5 atmospheres. After 15 years of product development since its conceptualization, the product and manufacturing patents were obtained. Fine bubbles are used to bring out the character of Japanese sake and beautify this sparkling drink.

Hakkaisan Clear Sparkling “AWA”

Hakkaisan Brewery Co., Ltd.External site: a new window will open.

This clear Japanese sake has a delicate stream of bubbles rising up when poured into a glass. The secret behind its fine bubbles which tickle while bursting is its "in-bottle secondary fermentation". The carbon dioxide gas produced during the fermentation process is captured inside the bottle to create this fizz. Enjoy its fruity aroma, elegant sweetness, and refreshing sparkling mouthfeel.


SAITO SHUZO CO.,LTD.External site: a new window will open.

This sparkling sake is brewed using 100% Kyoto Prefecture grown rice. It has a mild citrus fruit aroma and a crisp mid-palate flavor with a very fine and smooth fizz. This drink goes perfectly well with any meal.

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