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Unfiltered sake: how it’s made, and how to drink and appreciate it


Sake is typically a clear, transparent liquid. But it is not necessarily so. There is also cloudy white sake, called nigorizake.


Intentionally produced to be cloudy in appearance, nigorizake is a delight to the eye.


Sake actually starts out cloudy
Sake is made from rice, kōji (a mold culture that converts starch to sugar), and water. In addition, kōbo (yeast) is necessary for converting sugar to alcohol. A yeast culture in which the kōbo has been propagated to produce a starter for making sake is called a shubo.


The result of mixing the shubo with rice, water, and kōji is a fermentation process that ultimately produces sake. The mash produced by fermentation with these ingredients is called a moromi. When a moromi is pressed, unrefined sake is obtained. Sake in this form, known as arabashiri or shiboritate (first-run sake) is also found in stores nowadays.


The sake produced at this point has a white, cloudy appearance.


If the freshly pressed sake is set aside for a while, it settles into two layers. On top is a relatively clear and transparent portion. This is known as seishu.


In the lower portion is a white sediment — the lees — known in Japanese as ori. This white precipitate contains matter such as insoluble protein and yeast.


The white precipitate is rich in nutrients. Naturally, because it contains yeast and enzymes, if it is left to stand, the quality of the sake will deteriorate, and before long, it will perish. To prevent this, the ori is promptly removed in a step known as oribiki.


In the next step, the liquid is passed through an activated carbon filter. This filtering removes even more of the ori, producing a transparent sake, one that can be stored for a long period without loss of quality.


Nigorizake: partially filtered sake
Steps such as oribiki and activated carbon filtering are effective in removing unwanted particles very thoroughly. However, in making nigorizake, fine particles are allowed to remain, as the liquid is only passed through a relatively coarse filter.


As mentioned above, the freshly pressed sake has a white, cloudy appearance. This sake is passed through a loosely woven cloth or similar material, with the result that some of the ori, which is normally removed entirely, remains in the liquid. The fine white particles floating in the sake give it its cloudy appearance.


Nigorizake produced in this way can be further processed by being heated to pasteurize it. This step is called hi-ire. Nigorizake has a different texture depending on whether or not it has undergone this heat treatment.


If the nigorizake does not undergo heat treatment, it means that yeast and enzymes will remain. In that case, carbonic acid produced during fermentation will also be present, so that it is possible to taste sake with a carbonated fizz. This kind of sake is called kassei nigorizake.


However, it contains active elements such as enzymes, so if it is not kept in a refrigerator, it will soon start to go off. It is important to take care with the storage of this type of sake.


On the other hand, if the sake does undergo heat treatment (hi-ire), it is simply called nigorizake. Although it lacks the carbonated fizz, it will keep well because it has been pasteurized.


Nigorizake can be enjoyed either chilled or at room temperature. The liquid separates into two layers, with a clear layer on top and a cloudy layer underneath. Each layer has its own distinctive flavor, and it’s not a bad idea to taste them both. To do so, the sake should be poured slowly and gently.


Some people, using its soft appearance to advantage, mix it with soda water, or add a slice of lemon and drink it as a cocktail. Nigorizake can be consumed and enjoyed in as many ways as there are ideas for using it as an ingredient.

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