Sake World Newsletter #6

Nigori-zake: Just what is that cloudy stuff?

Many people have inquired about the white, cloudy, usually opaque sake sometimes seen in shops and restaurants. Often readers liken it to a "ricey pina colada." What is it? How is it made, how does it differ from regular sake? How does it taste?

That is nigori-zake, which simply means "cloudy sake." The "clouds" are nothing more than unfermented rice solids floating around inside.

Backing up a step or two, when sake is made, the rice ferments in a large tank for a period of anywhere between 18 and 36 days. The bubbly, chunky, fermenting mash at that time is referred to as the "moromi." After that period, it is still a white, cloudy, soup of rice solids that could not ferment, yeast and other components. The clear, amber sake is then separated from these solids in one of several ways, all of which call for passing the sake through a mesh of some sort.

As an interesting side note, the sake must pass through a mesh to be legally classified as nihonshu (legalese for sake as compared to other alcoholic beverages).

Sometimes this mesh is inside a pressure-driven machine, sometimes it is but a canvas bag into which the moromi has been poured. There are various ways, some better than others. But regardless of which method is used, the moromi passes through a mesh, with the pale amber ambrosia passing through and the white solids, or lees, remaining behind.

These lees, by the way, are known as kasu, and are used in a wide variety of ways in cooking. Wonderful in soups and as a basting or marinade for baked fish, sake kasu is pungent and unique. Be sure to see the many recipes for cooking with kasu at www.esake.com.

So, in most sake then, we have an almost clear liquid as the result of the pressing of the lees away from the sake. In nigori-zake, however, not all of the lees are pressed away; some of the unfermented solids are left behind deliberately, giving a rich, creamy, fabulously interesting flavor. Note this "leaving of the lees" is done in varying degrees, depending on the whims and fancies of the brewer.

Note that there are really two ways that this is done. A coarser than usual mesh can be used that allows more of the lees to pass through. This can be done in varying degrees to create just the right consistency. This method is actually less common, since special tools (like a coarser mesh) are called for. Sometimes, however, the lees are added back into the freshly pressed sake and re-mixed into it. This allows the brewer to avoid interrupting the normal rhythm of pressing within the brewery. Neither method is significantly superior to the other.

There are also a couple of moromi-zake on the market, in which the product looks like nigori-zake, but was never really pressed. In other words, it never passed through a mesh of any sort. These are rare, and only serve as curiosities, but what is interesting about them is that they can not legally be sold as sake. How they are taxed and sold I am not sure, but I know one brewer that serves it only on the grounds of his brewery, somehow skirting the law in that way.

There are several styles or forms that nigori-zake can take. Much nigori-zake is sweet and smooth and creamy in texture. One good example is Tsuki no Katsura from Kyoto, who makes quite a bit of nigori-zake; an inordinate percentage of their production in fact. This sake is apparently available in the US as well.

Then there is the "so chunky you'll want to eat it with a fork" variety of nigori-zake, of which Biwa no Choju in Shiga is representative. Tart and rich, there are an abundance of recognizable unfermented rice grains floating that give it a special charm.

Next, there is the "still live and kicking" variety, in which the yeast is still very much active. Sake like this is not stable, and will change quickly, but it is indeed fun to try. Often, the bottles into which this has been put are equipped with special caps that allow the carbon dioxide to gently and slowly escape. This type of sake is often very tart and acidic, and while fun and lively, it may not appeal to those looking for a gourmet sipping experience. Shinkame from Saitama, a tiny brewery with unusual but wonderful sake all around, is the best example of this type of nigori-zake.

Naturally, nigori-zake does not offer the subtlety and refinement of good premium sake. Although it can indeed be tasty and fun, the remaining lees and their flavor easily overpower any other fragrances or gentle nuances of flavor. Also, nigori-zake should always be served a bit chilled.

In the US, SakeOne in Oregon makes at least one variety of nigori-sake, which apparently is infused with a hazelnut flavoring. One or more of the other breweries may produce some nigori-zake as well.

Nigori-zake can be a bit harder to find, and not that much of it is produced. Its unique character seems to appeal to many, and it certainly worth a try once in a while.



A Brief History of Sake (Part II)
(continued from last month)

Under the relatively stable and peaceful reign of the Tokugawa regime from the late 1600s, connoisseurs in Edo (present-day Tokyo) began to demand the finest sake available. The access to a seaport that provided easy shipping to Edo combined with the discovery of excellent water for brewing made Kobe become a major brewing center, which it remains today.

In 1871, just after the Meiji Restoration which wrested power from the Tokugawa Shogunate and returned it to a government under the Emperor, a law was passed allowing basically anyone with the wherewithal to begin brewing. As many as 30,000 breweries opened in one year, but these faded into oblivion as the government slowly increased the taxes on sake each year. By the turn of the last century, there were about 8000 breweries.

Many of the breweries that came into existence in this era were operated by land-owners, relatively wealthy already. Much rice was grown on such land, and sometimes sake breweries were opened as a way to deal with excess rice, since rice could not be stored for long periods. Although the economic environment has naturally changed drastically since then, many breweries are still owned by the same families operating them centuries ago. Heading into the 20th century, brewing technology began to improve almost exponentially. The tax department of the Treasury Ministry established as sake brewing research institute in 1904, and three years later held the first official government-sponsored tasting competition for just-brewed sake, a major industry event that still continues today.

Just about this time, the Central Brewer's Union began to provide pure yeast strains for brewing, isolated at either breweries or research centers which soon sprung up all over the country. Soon, enamel-coated fermentation tanks replaced the cedar tanks that had been used for centuries. Massive improvements in the rice-milling equipment, a deceivingly important step in the brewing process, also came about.

When World War II hit, however, a crushing blow was dealt to the industry as almost half of the nearly 7000 breweries were forced to cease brewing for one reason or another.

During the war, the process of adding alcohol to a fermenting sake mash - actually in use by brewers since about 1700 - began to get a bit out of hand. As rice was short, the use of flavoring combined with distilled alcohol allowed sake to be produced with less rice, and in some (rare) cases none at all. As such, quality naturally suffered, but the practice was never entirely discontinued even after the war ended.

Although more will be said on the addition of distilled alcohol in another issue of this newsletter, there are some good technical reasons for adding alcohol - in small amounts anyway - to a batch of sake. Admittedly, during the war and in hard times the reasons were certainly almost entirely to make more sake with less rice, or to make less expensive sake. But later it was found to have some added benefits to the flavor and fragrance, arguably with a price.

Somehow surviving that calamity, the industry gradually returned to where it was before the war, in terms of production volume. The industry continued to grow, but as western influences penetrated Japan, other beverages came into the equation. In 1965, the consumption of beer surpassed the consumption of sake for the first time.

Perhaps it was this threat of competition from beer and other beverages, or maybe it was an industry-wide desire to return to traditional-type sake, but the sake-brewing world itself began to move toward more user-friendliness and clarity in labeling. A general trend toward better rather than cheaper arose as well.

A set of rules for labeling arose in 1975 that, while only self- regulated, helped consumers know what they were buying. If non-rice adjuncts or flavoring were used, this was listed on the label. More about ingredients, brewing methodology, and quality was also indicated on labels.

The word sake itself is a generic term in Japanese for all alcoholic beverages. In 1973, the Central Brewers' Association began to use the term Nihonshu, which merely means Japanese sake. Legally, however, sake is known as seishu, loosely (but ubiquitously) rendered as refined sake. By law, seishu must be filtered, where filtered here means it must be pressed through a mesh of some sort. (This is why nigori-zake, or cloudy sake, has the white cloudy mash put back into the sake after it has been once pressed.)

Today, usually the term sake suffices, and when differentiation is needed nihonshu is brought in to play. Rarely does one see the term seishu anywhere but on a label.



Sake to look for

Taki no Koi, Junmai Ginjo, Hyogo
A classic, old, beautiful kura right in the heart of the brewing center of the planet, the Nada region of Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture. A fairly subdued nose, as is appropriate for a sake from Nada. Yet, the impact is lively and layered, with a well rounded and multi-faceted flavor profile overall. Finishes somewhat sweeter than you would expect. Note, this sake is one of those gems that is tasty both chilled as well as gently warmed. Soon to be available in the US. Rating: 90

Wakatake Onikoroshi, Junmaishu, Shizuoka Prefecture
The term Onikoroshi, or Demon Killer, has an interesting history to it. It originally was used to refer to a sake that was so bad that it would kill a demon, should a demon drink it. Yet, as the decades passed, some confident kura somewhere took the risk and called their sake Onikoroshi, indicating it was so damn good, it would kill a demon. Well, this usage caught on, and now there are sake called Onikoroshi all over the country (somehow this is not a violation of trademark laws). This one, Wakatake Onikoroshi, is perhaps the best of the lot. The Junmai version mentioned here is very mildly fragrant, soft on the tongue at first, but with a fattening back end. Nice clean tail and smooth touch. Available in the US. Rating: 88

Yamatzuru, Junmai Daiginjo, Nara Prefecture
Yama (mountain) and Tsuru (crane) are the two most commonly used characters for sake names in Japan. This sake uses them both, for what that might be worth. The average seimai-buai (degree of rice milling) here is 50 percent, with nothing higher than 60%. Overall, the sake has a soft and inviting fragrance with a flavor that manages to ride the thin rail between being rich and full, and being clean and slightly dry. It was available in the US at one time. Rating: 92

Asahi Tenyu, Junmai Ginjo, Shimane Prefecture
Unique and memorable. Overall soft and clean but with a rising richness reminiscent of ripe berries in the center. Very distinctive in that sense. Fragrance is slightly rice-like with a tad of yeast and berries in it as well. Very nice when warmed as well. Rating: 90




On the evening of Saturday, March 4, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist and yakimono expert Rob Yellin and I (John Gauntner) will be hosting the second sake and Japanese ceramics seminar of 2000, at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu/Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email John at sakeguy@gol.com. Participation is limited to 45, and should fill up fast.

The content will be completely different from our January seminar. I will cover sake vital statistics, like nihonshu-do and acidity. Rob will cover some aspect of sake-implement related ceramics. Rob will also have many wares on display, with perhaps some for sale.

The cost for half a dozen sakes for sampling, ample food, and two enlightening lectures with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.

DIRECTIONS: The seminar is from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm (or so). Mushu is the big red door just above exit A5 at Awajicho station on the Shinjuku and Marunouchi Subway lines, which are also connected by underground pass to the Shin-Ochanomizu station of the Chiyoda line. Mushu's number is 03-3255-1108. The address is Awajicho 1-1-1. John's cell phone number is 090-1996-9578 should that be necessary.


Famed sake critic Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, February 26, at Romantei in Akebono- bashi (Yotsuya Yanagicho). Although this seminar will be entirely in Japanese, Matsuzaki-san's level of knowledge and experience are incredible. Seminars feature a short lecture with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. Those interested can make a reservation through me at sakeguy@gol.com.



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Sake Newsletter copyright (c) John Gauntner.

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