The Secret of Long-loved Flavor of Naraman Sake
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Yumegokoro Brewing Company is famous for their award-winning Naraman series. The brewery president, Nobuo Shoji, shares his humble work ethic of cherishing the local community and customers in this interview.
The journey of becoming a sake brewer
Mimi (Tippsy Staff): You started working at Yumegokoro Brewing Company in 1995. That same year, you studied at the National Research Institute of Brewing (hereafter “NRIB”). How does your learning at the NRIB reflect your sake-making today?
Nobuo: I participated in the study at the NRIB as an intern. The institution was originally run by the same organization as the Annual Japan Sake Awards. I didn’t study sake brewing at a university nor had I worked at a sake brewery previously. Of course, I was familiar with the brewery as I grew up there , but it was at the NRIB that I actually began learning the A–Z of sake brewing. I apply 100% of what I learned there to my sake-making today. There is so much knowledge about sake stored at the NRIB. It might sound like an exaggeration, but I truly consider the NRIB as a sanctuary of sake.
Mimi: That’s interesting! What was studying at the NRIB like?
Nobuo: The institution just moved its facility to Hiroshima from Tokyo. So there was nothing around. I still remember eating at a university cafeteria nearby the facility and living in the dorm with fellow interns. Many were fresh college graduates, but my cohort also had a wide range of participants, from 20–50 years old from various backgrounds. Although everyone now has unique careers, I still keep in touch with some of them and talk to them about sake.
Mimi: It’s wonderful that you’re friends with your cohort even today! Yumegokoro Brewing Company was founded in 1877 with almost 150 years of history. Are there any traditions that are being carried over since the beginning of the brewery?
Nobuo: As most of our sales came from our local community, I was always told to cherish the people in my local community. That’s why we don’t like to splurge, but stay humble and always appreciate our customers. That’s how we keep the trust of our customers.
Mimi: That’s a beautiful tradition. May I ask you if your [Zoom] virtual background represents that philosophy by showing a bicycle but not a nice luxury car? (Laughs)
Nobuo: Oh, this was actually taken in the Maldives! One of our partner hotels in the Maldives decorated their entrance with our sake barrels. I also saw they had a postcard with an image of our sake barrels and bicycles sold at their gift shop. So this is my attempt to recreate that.
Maintaining long-trusted flavor while heeding new trends
Mimi: Could you share your goal for the future?
Nobuo: Kitakata City (where the Yumegokoro Brewing Company is located) was not suitable for growing Yamadanishiki (one of the most popular strains of sake rice). However, due to global warming, it’s changing and we slowly started growing Yamadanishiki here. So one of the new goals for my brewery would be to make sake with the Yamadanishiki grown locally.
Mimi: Wow, global warming is affecting your sake making in an interesting way! Sounds like a goal that would take some time to achieve, but that’s what makes it even more exciting!
Nobuo: That’s true. At the same time, we want to maintain the flavor that our customers have loved for many years. But if the taste stays exactly the same, people might get bored of it. That’s why we need to draw upon the trends of the times while also making sure to keep our signature Naraman flavor. Although our customers might not have noticed, the sake we make today and that of 20 years ago might be totally different if you were to drink them side by side.
Mimi: What would be the trend today?
Nobuo: The popular sake taste today would have a sweet aroma with a hint of acidity. Lots of young brewers are making sake successfully with this kind of taste. So we incorporate this trend a little bit in our own way as well. Of course, that doesn’t mean doing the exact same thing as other breweries or changing our flavor to a completely different one. We add the essence of the trend in a subtle way.
Mimi: I see, that sounds like the secret of Naraman’s timeless popularity! Now, I’m curious to know your favorite sake flavor.
Nobuo: My favorite flavor—or our flavor—is something very light with a subtle aroma. Our goal is to create a flavor that goes down so smooth, you feel like you can keep drinking it forever.
Mimi: Sounds like a dangerous drink!
Nobuo: Yes, it is. (Laughs) But that’s our Naraman.
Mimi: Speaking of the Naraman sake series—your Naraman “Junmai” has won gold medals for three consecutive years in the U.S. National Sake Appraisal. It is one of the most highly recognized sake in the world. It sure is a popular bottle within the Tippsy community, too!
Nobuo: Thank you!
Mimi: I heard that Naraman is made only with the local ingredients in Fukushima Prefecture. What’s the story behind developing this sake?
Nobuo: We started using the Utsukushima Yume Yeast which was developed here in Fukushima about 30 years ago. We chose locally grown Gohyakumangoku for our sake rice. It is often said that these ingredients aren’t very suited for making sake that could win at competitions. However, we were able to prove that Naraman is a great sake by winning an award at the Annual Japan Sake Awards. Since then, we are even more confident that what we are doing is right.
Mimi: Wow, that’s a wonderful story! Sticking to what you believe in is so impressive and not an easy thing to do.
Nobuo: Thank you. One of my brewer friends once said that if I switch to Yamadanishiki (one of the most popular sake rice), my sake would win at competitions much easier. (Laughs) But that’s not really what I want. Changing the sake rice would change the flavor of my sake—I don’t want to lose our signature flavor that our customers have loved for a long time. I don’t want to betray our customers just to win a competition.
Naraman: an eco-friendly sake brand
Mimi: Are there any food pairing suggestions with Naraman that the Tippsy community members should try?
Nobuo: In the U.S., the easiest pairing would have to be sushi. The sake will cut through the fishiness and salt of the soy sauce. I heard that poke bowls are also becoming popular over there, which is another great pairing for Naraman. Our sake has a subtle aroma that won’t disturb the taste of any food because I believe Naraman’s role is to support the meal, not to be the focus of the meal. I want my sake to win the Best Supporting Actor Award for sake!
Mimi: I think Naraman already won that! How about recommended ways to drink Naraman?
Nobuo: I enjoy warming it to around 122℉. You’ll find a soft sweetness in the sake at that temperature. You might also enjoy drinking it in a wine glass with ice.
Mimi: Ice in sake? That’s so unique!
Nobuo: It’ll lighten up the flavor, but be careful not to drink too much!
Mimi: I’ll definitely be careful when I try that! Lastly, what does sake mean to you?
Nobuo: It’s a drink that connects people with joy. Once, I met one of my customers and they thanked me for bringing joy to them through my sake. That’s when I was convinced that sake delights people. Even when something makes you sad, we drink sake looking forward to happier days. So to me, it is a tool that brings people together with joy.