Japan Times Archives – 2001, John Guantner

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2001/07/22

Gifts from the god of sake

By JOHN GAUNTNER

Throughout the history of sake brewing, there has been a handful of individuals who have had a huge impact on the craft in the form of technical developments or discoveries. One such benefactor of brewing was Professor Kin’ichi Noshiro of Kumamoto.

Hired as a sake taster by the Finance Ministry in 1902, Noshiro advanced to the head of the department within a few years. In 1909, with the aim of improving the quality of sake from Kumamoto, all of the breweries in the prefecture contributed funds and founded the Kumamoto-ken Shuzo Kenkyujo (Kumamoto Prefecture Sake Research Center). It was equipped as a proper sake brewery, and its aim was to perform research and instruct the local breweries on how to brew better sake. They invited Noshiro to be the first head of the center.

Although there was much progress under Noshiro’s direction, two things stand out in particular. One was the installation of an elaborately controlled window on the ceiling of the koji-muro, the special room where koji is made, that allowed for very precise temperature control. Temperature and timing are everything in koji production, which is the heart of sake production.

The other major development under his tutelage was the discovery of a yeast strain that is still today the most commonly used yeast for ginjoshu. Known as Number Nine, this yeast creates as its byproducts the kinds of acids, esters and other ditties that give ginjo-shu its fruity, lively fragrance.

After its discovery, the research center “donated” the yeast to the Japan Central Brewer’s Association, which sells ampules of pure yeast to brewers. Hence the generic product name, Number Nine. It is also known as Kumamoto Kobo (kobo means yeast), especially in Kumamoto, and much yeast used today under another name is actually a descendent of this yeast.

A decade later, in 1919, the research center was turned into a proper brewing company that could legally sell its product, which is how it continues today. They produce but a few products, all under the brand name Koro.

For his contributions, Noshiro became known as “Sake no Kami-sama,” or “the God of Sake.” A bronze bust of this great contributor sits near the entrance to the brewery. His efforts and successes certainly are felt even today all over the sake world.

About 10 or so years ago, prefectures everywhere jumped on the yeast bandwagon and developed their own yeast strains for intraprefecture use. Although the result has been wonderful, it is hard to keep track of all the yeasts, their funky names and the main qualities they impart. Number Nine may not be as widely used as it once was, but it certainly got the ball rolling.

A commonly heard formula for great sake is known as YK-35. The Y is for Yamada Nishiki, that rice of rices, and 35 is for the 35 percent seimai-buai (degree of milling). The K is for the yeast. Question is, does it stand for kyu (nine), Koro or Kumamoto? Anyone for a game of Trivial Pursuit?

* * *

Koro (Kumamoto Prefecture)
Junmai ginjo-shu
Koro can be hard to get, especially in its more sublime manifestations. At the biannual Ginjo-shu Kyokai tasting, Koro is always on a table by itself, with the longest line, the brewers stingily pouring small samples.

The fragrance and light but crisp flavor profile are unique and pleasing. A wide range of fruit, heavy on the citrus, greet the nose and palate, with the flavor settling out soon thereafter. A moderate but not excessive amount of acid rings true of proper balance.

This junmai ginjo-shu is perhaps easier to find than the lively but refined daiginjo.

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