What’s so “nama” about Nama Beer?

After work one sweltering summer day, you and your coworkers slip into an izakaya to tip back a few pints before heading home. The server comes to take your order and the first words out of your coworker’s mouth is “toriaezu nama” or “draught beer to start.” Except the word he uses, nama, does not mean draught, or anything resembling draught. Nama means “raw.” But what is raw about beer from a tap?

Advocates of Japanese draught beer will tell you the word nama is used to indicate freshness, and that beer from the tap is much more fresh than canned or bottled beer which contains preservatives. The truth is that nearly all beer in Japan, whether it be in bottles, cans or from a keg, is technically speaking, nama. In fact, all but three labels – Kirin Classic Lager, Asahi Stout, and Sapporo Lager Beer, are legally classified as nama beers. So what makes a beer raw?

To answer that question, we need rocket scientists. No really, we do. Because this story begins with NASA engineers. Until the late 1960s, nearly all Japanese beer was pasteurized in order to remove leftover yeast, and any unfermented residue from the beer. Failure to do so could result in irregular quality and off-taste flavors as beer would continue to ferment on the shelf. For decades pasteurization was the best way to assure consistency and quality control. That all changed during the space race, as NASA began developing technology to recycle waste water from urine and sweat into drinkable water for astronauts, resulting in micro-filtration. One of the many NASA spin-off technologies, micro-filtration is now used worldwide to remove bacteria and impurities from water, and has been adopted by most major beer companies.

The first Japanese company to introduce this technology was Suntory, in 1967 with their new beer 純生 jun nama. This product was an immediate hit nationwide and riding on that success, the following year Asahi made a rival product called Asahi Hon Nama – “the REAL raw beer.” This resulted in a trade war, ultimately with Suntory filing a suit against Asahi. Ten years later, in 1979 the Fair Trade Commission ruled that all unpasteurized beer can legally be called “raw” or nama. Of course by this time, nearly all beer in Japan already was unpasteurized, meaning all beer in Japan could be labeled nama.

So if nearly all beer in Japan is technically nama, why then is only draught beer called nama by Japanese people. Technically it isn’t. Go out to the convenient store and have a close look at the Asahi Super Dry and Sapporo cans and you will notice a giant 生 on the front of the can.

The beer companies couldn’t be more forthright with advertising their beer as raw and fresh. Yet most Japanese beer drinkers would be shocked to learn that beer from a can and beer from the tap is made of the exact same ingredients, processed exactly the same way. Most likely, the word nama used in reference to draught beer is probably equal parts a marketing scheme, and also a linguistic issue unique to Japanese. There really is no other word for draught beer in Japanese, and the phrase “on tap” conjures up unappetizing images of a water faucet or spigot.

So the next time you go out drinking, whether you find yourself in a beergarden, an izakaya, or just relaxing in the park, keep it fresh! Keep it nama!