Nigori, History of Warmed Sake
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
October 1, 2003
In this issue:
-Clearing Up Nigori-zake
-The History of Heating
-Sake Professional Course Announcement
-Sake Worth Seeking
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Clearing Up Nigori-zake
It seems as though many people are a bit unclear about what nigori-zake is. Indeed, the facts are a bit murky, if not downright cloudy. It has been almost four years since the topic of nigori-zake has been mentioned here, and since the memory of those who have been reading this newsletter back then may be a bit foggy, let’s look at nigori-zake again, lest the topic remain opaque to too many.
Certainly most people have seen nigori-zake: the white, cloudy sake available at most places that carry a wide range of sake. The word nigori means “cloudy,” so that “nigori-zake” is just what it sounds like it would be: sake that is not clear like most sake is. (The s of sake becomes a z for phonetic reasons.) What are the billowing clouds within, the fine white particles that will settle to the bottom when the bottle sits for a while? Where did they come from? Why is it that way?
In short, the white clouds are remnants of rice; particles of rice that did not or could not ferment during the several-week fermentation period. In regular clear sake, these have been filtered out, leading to a more refined, delicate product. But in nigori-zake, some of the remaining lees have been allowed into the final product.
How is this done? First of all, when a tank of sake has completed its allotted fermentation period, the white, bubbling mash known as a moromi is “pressed” through a mesh of one sort or another. Sometimes this mesh is a panel inside a pneumatic powered machine, sometimes it is but a large cotton bag into from which the sake drips out. There are various ways, some better than others. But regardless of which method is used, the moromi passes through a mesh, with the faintly amber sake passing through, while the white solids, or lees, remain behind.
But when a brewer makes nigori-zake, not all of the lees are left behind; some of the unfermented solids are allowed to pass through deliberately. While there are several methods of accomplishing this, they all call for the use of a coarser than usual mesh of one sort or another. Various degrees of coarseness or fineness (i.e. bigger or smaller holes) can be used to create the desired for thickness of the final nigori-zake.
I have heard, albeit in hushed tones and with a nudge-nudge wink-wink, that some brewers cannot be bothered with special meshes, and just kind of slip some of the white lees (called “kasu”) back into the sake after pressing in a normal manner. This allows the brewer to avoid interrupting the normal rhythm of pressing within the brewery. Technically, they are not supposed to do that, so you didn’t read that here.
In general, nigori-zake is less refined, and more full. While enjoyable and potentially tasty, it usually does not allow more the subtle and delicate flavors and aromas to shine through. So, then, why do they make it at all? Because it is fun, chewy, ricey, and a throwback to ancient times. Comparatively thick and textured, nigori-zake can be satisfying and filling as well.
Actually, in a very real sense, originally sake was all nigori-zake. For hundreds of years, no one ever bothered to press their sake through a mesh. When did pressing begin? Records show that during the Heian era (794-1192), much of the sake being brewed was being pressed by putting it into bags and squeezing it out, much like modern methods.
But when the modern sake-brewing laws were written in the early Meiji era (the late 1800s), although almost all good sake was already being clarified then, it actually became illegal to make nigori-zake. Even today, it is stipulated that “seishu,” legalese for sake, must be pressed through a mesh. These laws were written this way basically to reign in bootleggers. Back then, farmers everywhere were making their own sake, but few had the willingness and/or tools to filter out the lees. These were hardly aficionados!
In fact, nigori-zake did not appear again until 1964. Tsuki no Katsura, an old and regal brewery in Kyoto, worked very closely with the Ministry of Taxation to develop a legally unassailable method of making nigori-zake. Their method consists of dropping a large metal mesh box down into the tank of sake, and then scooping out the product from inside this box. By using boxes with varying hole sizes, they can create different consistencies of nigori-zake.
Explained Mr. Izumihiko Masuda, the president of Tsuki no Katsura, “At every single step of the process, we got the Ministry to sign off, making very sure they were okay with it. We would ask, ‘So if we do it THIS way, it will be legal, RIGHT?’ It took a few years and adjustments, but finally we were able to become the first modern brewery to make nigori-zake again.”
Today, the styles of nigori-zake run the gamut from light, dry and tart to thick, creamy and sweet. There are very thin nigori-zake, and stuff so thick you can still see chunks of rice, and you will be tempted to eat it with a fork. And, although most cannot be considered premium, there are exceptions. There is even ginjo nigori available.
But more often than not, nigori-zake does not offer the subtlety and refinement of ginjo 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.
Note in the above I have referred to the step of removing the lees as “pressing,” and not “filtering,” even though the latter might be more appropriate terminology. This is because there is an actual filtering step that takes place later, usually involving powdered active charcoal. So to avoid confusion, I consistently refer to the removal-of-lees step as pressing.
Finally, those lees that are left behind: this is referred to as “sake kasu,” and can be used in a wide variety of ways in Japanese cooking. Kasu is wonderful in miso-based soups and as a basting or marinade for baked fish. Pungent and unique, it is usually available at Japanese grocery stores everywhere, especially in the fall and winter.
The History of Heating
For most of us, our initial introduction to sake was likely atsukan, or (very) hot sake. We often hear that these days, most premium sake is best enjoyed slightly chilled. As a quick follow-up to that, we also hear that traditionally sake was heated to smooth over the rough spots, and that today, with modern milling and methods and yeasts, sake is much better, and does not need to be heated.
While all of this is true, it is not quite that cut and dried.
The first historical written references to warmed sake were found in a compilations of laws detailing imperial court ceremonies and etiquette, called the Engi Shiki, written between 905 and 927 AD. Here were detailed both the ceramic and bronze vessels to be used, and how to properly heat it.
However, other records show that sometime in the early 1600s it became customary to drink warmed sake between the ninth day of the ninth month, a seasonally significant day called the “Chrysanthemum Festival,” and the third day of the third month of the following year, known as the “Plum Festival.” The rest of the year they were drinking cool sake.
It wasn’t until the middle of the Edo era, so say 1700 or so, that folks began drinking warmed sake all year round. In fact, the written character for “kan,” the general term for warmed sake, was not created until just a few decades before then. Today, o-kan is the slightly honorific term for warmed sake in general. Atsukan refers to very hot sake, while nurukan indicates gently warmed sake. The “kan” part of all of these is the aforementioned character.
While it is not clear what possessed them to warm it in the first place, there are several theories. Not surprisingly, the most plausible among them is health. In neighboring China, people had been drinking warmed alcoholic beverages in the winter since long before, and certainly this practice must have made its way to Japan. And in the Eastern health traditions that, to a certain extent, were shared by both countries, eating and drinking warmed things was much better than cold things, which were thought to chill the center of the body. So staying warm in the winter and overall health seem to have been the driving factors.
As mentioned at the beginning, today most premium sake, in particular ginjo-shu, should be enjoyed slightly chilled. The advanced rice milling techniques developed but 50 or 60 years ago in combination with carefully isolated yeast strains and newly crossed rice strains create fruity, complex sake that does not stand up to heating. All that lovely complexity, that range of fruit, rice, herbal tones and more – it would all be bludgeoned into nonexistence with excessive heating.
Having said that, it would be irresponsible of me not to emphasize that even today there are many premium sake, even daiginjo, that are very, very enjoyable as nurukan, i.e. GENTLY warmed. Often, brewers make ginjo specifically so that it will indeed taste better warmed. How do you know which to warm? Well, that is the tricky part. Often it is written on the label. But the surest way to know is to taste enough that your preferences will tell you.
But for the most part, enjoy your premium sake slightly chilled. And remember that even though warmed sake is in a sense “traditional,” it wasn’t always that way.
Announcing the Second Annual Sake Professional Course
From Sunday night, January 11, 2004 to the morning of Saturday, January 17, 2004, I will hold the second annual Sake Professional Course here in Japan. Open to anyone with an interest in sake, this course will provide the environment for a focused, intense, and concerted training period. It will consist of daily classroom sessions on all things sake-related, followed by relevant tasting sessions, and will include several sakagura (sake brewery) visits, and exposure to countless brands and styles in several settings, both in comparison to other sake, and with food.
Participants will stay together at a hotel in Osaka. Lectures will take place inside a sake brewery, and evening meals will be off-site at various sake-related establishments (sake pubs of all shapes, sizes and environments). The optional final night will be spent at “onsen ryokan” (a traditional Japanese inn at a hot spring resort).
The course is geared toward wine professionals and other industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake, but anyone is welcome to participate. It will certainly be fun! The course lectures and tastings will begin with the utter basics and will thoroughly progress through and cover everything related to sake. There will be an emphasis on empirical experience, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of sake both in class sessions and with evening meals.
The dates (Sunday night, January 11, 2004 to the morning of Saturday, January 17, 2004) allow participants (from the US at least) to leave on a Saturday and arrive home the following Sunday. (A second weeklong course period is being considered for February.)
The weeklong course, with all instruction, materials, sake, accommodations, and evening meals with sake is JPY350,000 (at 120 yen to the dollar: US $2999). Participation is limited to ten (10) individuals.
For a more detailed description of the course, its content, pricing, and a testimonial reference, please go to www.sake-world.com.
Sake Worth Seeking…
The sake reviewed here, except where noted, are available in the US. (Apologies to readers not in the US or Japan!)
Take no Tsuyu (Yamagata Prefecture)
The name means “Bamboo Dew,” and with just a little imagination, the name seems fitting considering the somewhat delicate overall nature of this sake. Clean and tight, yet absorbing and gentle, with mild peach-like tones around the edges. They like to brew with a lot of Kame no O and Dewa Sansan rice here.
Hakuro-Suishu (Yamagata Prefecture)
Made by the same brewery as Take no Tsuyu, but a relatively new product line. Very, very refreshing, light, clean and slightly fruity. Delicate and somewhat subtle, though, rather than big and lively.
Tedorigawa “Gold Label” (Ishikawa Prefecture)
Made using the yamahai method, in which the yeast starter is created the old way, leading to more tart and bitter undertones. Ishikawa, with its hard water, is ideal for this kind of brewing, and as such many Ishikawa brewers make some yamahai sake. A broad, full flavor, although relatively mild, with subdued aromas. Much better at room temperature than chilled, methinks. I dare say it would also be enjoyable gently warmed.
A daiginjo made at the second kura owned by the Yoshida family, brewers of the above-mentioned Tedorigawa. Hence the name, Yoshida-gura. This daiginjo is perhaps one of the best values on the market, with a wonderful flavor, excellent weight and viscosity, and a mild but classic ginjo aroma. (But alas, it is not currently exported.)
Denshu (which might be known as “Nishida Denshu” in some places in the US) is a small but stable brewery that enjoys great popularity amongst fans of sake from tiny brewers in Japan. They have remained small and very, very consistent. An incredibly enjoyable weight and very unique grainy feel to the sake is almost more noticeable than its lovely rice-evocative and redolent flavors and aromas. Nice slightly chilled, but fans in Japan love it gently warmed as well.
Made by the same brewers as Denshu above. The Denshu line is all junmai (or junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo), whereas the Kiku-Izumi line is all non-junmai. And, as is often the case with non-junmai sake, this sake is both light and lively, while maintaining a solid semblance of the rice-laden flavors for which this brewery is known.
All Taruhei sake is stored for a time in cedar casks – called “taru” – for a short, specific amount of time. Before glass bottles existed, this was how all sake was stored, and as such this is a bit of a throwback. While not as strongly woody as sake sold as “taru-zake,” there is enough to make the flavors and aromas special. A strong acidity and strong amino acid content bolster the rich, earthy and woody essence of this sake. Taruhei in general, and this junmai-shu in particular, has “umami” in spades.
Made by the same kura as that which makes Taruhei above. While all Sumiyoshi is also stored in a wooden cask for short time, the woodiness is much more restrained and light. The overall nature is dry and crisp, light and easy to drink. Still, it is much more solidly constructed and less flowery than most sake.
Sake Events and Announcements
TRUE SAKE : Correction
I wrote last month about the opening of True Sake in San Francisco. The announcement is repeated below. But there is a correction: the correct phone number for True Sake is 415.355.9555. (The number I gave last month was the owner’s cell phone.) Apologies for any inconveniences my oversight may have caused.
From last month’s issue:
On August 7, the first sake-only retail store in the United States opened in San Francisco. True Sake, owned and operated by Mr. Beau Timken, began selling sake – and nothing else – in his small but slick shop in the Hayes Valley section of town.
Currently, True Sake stocks 90 different brands of sake, covering a wide range of flavor profiles, regions and prices. Mr. Timken (a graduate of my Sake Professional Course last season) is making great efforts to educate all of his customers along the way, and the shop is chock-full of sake education material as well.
This effort certainly needs to be encouraged and supported. Be sure to stop by, buy a bottle or two, and say hello to Beau at True Sake should you live in or pass through the Bay Area.
560 Hayes Street
San Francisco, CA
Sake and Pottery
On the evening of Saturday, October 25, from 6:00 to about 9:00, there
will be a sake seminar at Takara, near Yurakucho Station. The topics
will be a comparison between the world of sake and the world of wine.
Where those parallels converge and diverge can help to give those interested a jump-start into understanding sake thoroughly, based on their current knowledge of wine.
The cost for the evening – half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and
printed material – will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot
by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. No deposit is required.
In the US:
Wednesday, November 5, The Japan Society of Boston
Thursday, November 6, Japan America Society of New York
On these two consecutive evenings, there will be a presentation on sake and pottery followed by a tasting of dozens of sake. The evening is co-sponsored by the Sake Export Association, and presentations will be given jointly by myself and Robert Yellin, Japanese pottery specialist, with whom I give regular seminars together in Tokyo. Sake will be poured by the ten or so sake brewers in attendance. For more information and those all-important reservations, contact:
The Japan Society of Boston at 617.451.0726
The Japan Society of New York at 212-715-1229
Sake Dinner at Amuse Cafe
796 Main St., Venice CA
Sunday Oct. 26, 6:30 pm (#2599) $75.00
The Wine House and Amuse Cafe cordially invite you to a sake dinner featuring
the fine sake of Manotsuru brewery. Trevor Hammond, importer of Manotsuru,
will join us for this tasting of great artisan sake and Amuse Cafe’s
exceptional fare. This dinner is not to be missed , as chef Brooke Williamson
will display her renowned creative talents in our pairings of Sake and gourmet
food. Menu is available by request. For reservations, call The Wine House at 310 479 3731
Cancellations must be made 72 hours prior to event for refund. Questions can be sent to Coffield@winehouse.com.
Do you work for a company in Japan? John Gauntner is available for corporate sake seminars. A wide variety of formats are possible: in house, at a sake pub, with food, without, with lectures on a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more information.
THE SAKE HANDBOOK, published by Charles Tuttle.
This second edition of my first book, with more sake, more sake pubs in the Tokyo area, and updated information, is the most detailed on the brewing process.
THE SAKE COMPANION, published by Running Press
This book approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch, and covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember.
Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.
The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, Amazon.co.jp is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).
NIHONJIN MO SHIRANAI NIHONSHU NO HANASHI, published by Shogakkan
This anecdotal read describes aspects of the sake world from a foreigner’s point of view, including the personalities, events, and techniques that make the sake world so unique and special, things that may be lost on those that are too close to the subject. Written in Japanese.
Also worth searching for:
-SAKE: PURE AND SIMPLE (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake.
-Sake, An Insider’s Guide (Phillip Harper): A pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura in Japan.
-Sake: A Drinker’s Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.
If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at email@example.com. On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.
Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.
Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing: firstname.lastname@example.org, and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.
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Sake World is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.
NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and distributed, or forwarded in electronic form, provided it is sent in its entirety, including this message and the copyright notice below.
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