Interview with a Brewer; Sake Kasu
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
March 20, 2001
IN THIS ISSUE:
-Interview with a brewer (Part 1)
-Sake Kasu: what it is and what to do with it
-Sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
[Interview with a brewer]
Last year, I had the opportunity to visit Kuji Shuzo, the brewers of Nanbu Bijin sake in Iwate Prefecture in the northern part of Japan. Kuji-san is quite the character. Here, he imparts his deep technical and cultural knowledge of the sake-brewing world as an energetic tour guide.
Kosuke Kuji walks quickly into the old kura (brewery building) from the more modern office space in the front of the building. His walk is quick and deliberate, his slightly short and stocky frame moving with a mission.
Just inside the entrance to the 160-year old structure he darts to the left, bending to slide open a wooden manhole cover. “This is our well. All of our water comes from here, including what we brew with, as well as what we wash everything with. Check it out; it’s only ten meters deep”.A quick glance into the small hole reveals little, as it is a bit dark in the corner here.
“It’s incredibly good water. We use it just as it is, right out of the well. It’s so good there is no need to filter it or touch it in any way at all”. Sake is more than 80% water; needless to say the quality of water contributes a lot to the quality of the sake. In fact, sake breweries have always been established in locations near sources of great water.
Kosuke takes a long-handled ladle and scoops some water from well, offering it as if in proof. It is indeed tasty and pure. “It’s got plenty of magnesium and phosphoric acid, and zero iron content”. The first two are necessary to promote a lively fermentation, whereas iron is extremely detrimental to both brewing and maturation of sake. Up to 0.1 ppm is acceptable, but here, there is no measurable iron content at all.
Beyond mineral content, the hardness or softness of the water (measured by the pH) also plays a big part in determining the flavor profile. Water at the Kuji brewery is a bit on the hard side for Japan, whose water overall is a bit soft. The water here has a hardness of 5.5 on the internationally recognized German hardness scale.
Kuji Shuzo, the brewery that makes Nanbu Bijin sake, is located in Iwate Prefecture. It is located in the north eastern corner of the largest of Japan’s four major islands, Honshu. Snowy, mountainous and cold, the sparsely populated farming region is home to but 1.3 million people, roughly the same as many small cities in Japan.
The water that rises into this shallow well has been filtered over the last few centuries through the layers of rock of the surrounding mountains, having once been pure snow on their peaks.
Back outside, Kosuke extends his arm, swinging it in a full circle, pointing at the range of mountains known as the Orizume Basenkyo that encircle the village of Ninohe,. “we are in a valley here, surrounded by these mountains. When it isn’t snowing, the sun shines in and warms the air down here. That causes the air to rise straight up, pulling cold air down from the mountain tops in to us. That’s why it is much colder here then the rest of this part of Japan.”
Returning inside the architecturally classic old kura, Kosuke approaches a small tank, perhaps a meter and half tall, and just as wide in diameter. The tank is steel, but the inside is lined with a white ceramic coating. Even in this shallow tank, the water has an ever-so-faint but discernible and lovely blue tinge to it, a result of its rich mineral content. It’s obviously a source of pride for this place.
Next stop is the koji-making room, known in the prevalent double-speak of the industry as the koji-muro. This is a natural enough next stop, as koji production is, in essence, the heart of the sake brewing process.
Rice is comprised of, among other things, starch. This must be first converted to simple sugar before it can be “taten” by the yeast cells. In beer brewing, enzymes in the barley husks, created when the barley is malted, come out and do this starch-to-sugar conversion. In sake, there are no husks and no malting, so the enzymes, too, must come from somewhere else.
Enter koji mold, known in English as Aspergillus Oryzae. Koji mold is sprinkled onto rice that has been steamed and cooled a bit, then taken to this special room, the koji-muro, which is kept at a higher temperature (about 35 degrees) and humidity. Here, it is nurtured and closely watched, and over the next 40 to 60 hours, this mold will work its way into the center of the rice grains, from which the saccharafying enzymes can do their work. The final product, after the two day plus period of cultivation, is known simply as koji.
The methods used to create koji very subtly from kura to kura, but as koji is the heart of the brewing process, even slight differences exert great leverage on the final product. Naturally, there are many different kinds of koji mold. Which koji is used is generally determined by the grade of sake you are using, and the choice of yeast. The greenish-black fine powder sells for about 10,000 yen for a 500 gram box.
Oddly enough, all koji mold is produced today at one of about five “koji houses” in Japan. These are modern, microbiology labs and factories that cultivate koji mold not only for sake brewing, but for use in miso and soy sauce as well. (Naturally, the koji mold used in these products is slightly different.)
Entering the warm and humid room, we find four or five men standing around two waist high tables, each about the size of a billiard table. On top of these sits perhaps a hundred kilograms of freshly steamed rice laid on large swaths of burlap.
The head brewer, or “Toji”,watches carefully as a younger apprentice sprinkles the koji mold delicately onto the rice. He holds a small silk bag at arms length and shakes it delicately, like some kind of sacred talisman, allowing the ultra-fine spores to dance delicately out in barely visible clouds. It looks more like smoke than powder. The mold takes its jolly old time settling down onto the rice.
Kosuke points to the young apprentice as he works. “See that? He is using a silk bag to sprinkle the koji. That was my idea”. With barely-suppressed pride, he describes his contribution to the craft. Most breweries simply put the powder in a can with a screen on the bottom. The silk bag makes a much better filter for dust and other nasties,・he explains.
Kosuke will someday inherit the brewery, and the title of president of the company. As is usual in this industry of family-owned breweries, he remains second in command until his father retires. Most people in his position are focused on business, marketing and sales. Compared to most young men in his position, Kosuke is extremely knowledgeable about brewing theory and practice. As such, all my questions are answered in overwhelming detail.
“Here, we use about 30 grams of koji mold for each 100 kilos of rice. But we have to constantly adjust this, for things like the water content of the rice. It takes about 55 hours for us to make koji for use in premiums sake. For more average sake, we can finish it in about 48 hours.”
Stacks of dozens of small wooden trays, each of which would comfortably hold a laptop computer, sit neatly along the far wall. “See those? Those are koji-buta (koji trays). We make koji for our premium sake in those.” He jerks a thumb toward the pile of mold- inoculated rice on the table. “After about a day we break that all up and transfer it into these small trays. This allows us to more accurately control the temperature, and keep an even distribution throughout it all. It makes a big difference.”
As Kosuke yaks on, the 74-year old toji (head brewer) glances over at us, smiling at the intrusion of a curious outsider. He nods in welcome. His name is Hajime Yamaguchi, and he is quite famous in his world; a craftsman of the highest degree. Most toji belong to one group or another, ancient union-like organizations formed to improve skill and ensure pride could be upheld in local sake. Yamaguchi-san belongs to the Nanbu-toji group, by far the most organized of the 30-odd toji groups remaining.
“That’s interesting”,continues Kosuke, ” He is that our toji is a Nanbu toji, right? Well, Nanbu toji don’t use those small koji trays, not usually anyway.” Satisfied he has impressed me with the comment, he spins and leads me wordlessly from the koji muro.
Just outside, he stops in front of a rack of closely-spaced trays, maybe a meter square each. A thin layer of completed koji laid thinly upon each. He offers me a generous pinch into the palm of my hand. “Sniff it. A bit like chestnuts, eh? Now taste it. Taste the sugar?” It did indeed have a moderately sweet flavor, a result of the enzymes converting the starch molecules into sugar.
At the end of the process in there, when the koji is done, it has reached about 43C. You will notice this outer room is heated, but not as warm as inside the muro, right?”Indeed, this “outer sanctum” between the koji muro and the cold, unheated kura outside was slightly heated. “This is called the dekoji room; it holds the koji after it is ready until we use it, which is within a day or two. Notice that it’s not too cold right here. If it were, you would get condensation on the koji.” The degree to which they watch each detail here is impressive.
(…..To be continued next month)
Should you frequent sake retailers with anything resembling a good selection of sake, you will often at this time of the year come across bags of sake kasu: beige chunks and chips of something resembling cheese or tofu. Sometimes, the unmistakable fragrance of sake wafts up from the clear plastic bag as it sits on the counter.
What is sake kasu? In short, sake lees. After a tank of the white fermenting mash called moromi has run its course– anywhere from 18 to 32 days –what remains is a white mixture of sake and the solids that did not or could not be fermented. This must now be pressed to separate the slightly amber sake from these suspended solids.
There are several methods of pressing, but all accomplish the same thing: the sake is squeezed out, leaving a compressed form of the solids, or lees, behind. This caked stuff is kasu.
When sake is pressed by machine, the kasu comes out in nice, tightly pressed, square pancakes. Usually this kasu is drier, having been manhandled by the high pressure of the pressing machine. Sake pressed in the older methods, using a big wooden box called a fune, in which the lid gets cranked down on moromi that has been poured to small canvas bags laid neatly inside the fune, will yield sake kasu that is more chunky, broken up, and formless.
Also, some sake is pressed with more pressure applied to the moromi than other sake. Sometimes the brewers want every last drop, at the expense of flavor, and other times sake is treated more gently, to maintain fine lines and subtle facets. The difference is quite noticeable in the sake. It is also apparent in the firmness of the kasu.
Why is it so easy to find this time of the year? Because this is the height of the brewing season. Since perhaps mid-December, most kura have been pressing tanks of moromi on a regular basis, perhaps every other day (although larger kura press daily).
Sake is easily available in Japan. In the US, at least some of the breweries there make it available on a limited basis. Contact them using contact information at www.sakeusa.com to check on kasu availability.
Sake kasu has long been used in Japanese cuisine, and imparts a unique flavor and touch. Below are a few tried and true examples of cooking with kasu, all worth trying.
—-Kasu Jiru (Kasu soup)—–
There are countless recipes and variations. Basically vegetables such as carrots and daikon (radish) are boiled along with kasu broken into small pieces. Salmon is then added, with miso or salt added for flavoring. Some recipes call for the reassuring addition of a dash of sake as well.
In his excellent book An Insider’s Guide to Sake, Philip Harper presents a pork kasu jiru recipe from his wife Yasuko. Although salmon kasu jiru is more common, I personally prefer this version, which is simple to make. That alone is reason enough to buy his book.
Break kasu up into small pieces and mix it with water to a pleasing consistency, similar to a soup. Heat it up and add sugar to taste, and a dash of ginger. Warms you to the core in winter.
There is another kind of amazake that uses over-the-counter koji and rice, creating a sweetish beverage as the koji converts the rice to sugars. Note that neither type contains any alcohol.
—–Kasu-tzuke yaki-zakana (Kasu-marinated grilled fish)—–
Soak a fillet of fish like salmon, or tai (sea bream ) in a thick porridge of kasu dissolved in water for ten days in an airtight container, then grill and serve. Many kinds of fish can be grilled this way, provided you have the requisite patience. The sake pub Akaoni in Sangenjaya (03-3410-9918) serves several varieties of fish this way.
Grill or fry slices of kasu until soft. Dip in soy sauce or sugar. A particularly tasty variation (but a particular hassle to make) is to coat the sides with miso and then fry. A delicious sake accompaniment (surprise, surprise). Naturally, flat, tightly-pressed chip-like kasu works better than chunky, moist kasu.
Sandwich a 1-2 cm layer of cream cheese with kasu, either in a casserole bowl or in cellophane wrap. Let it sit for 10 to 12 days, and enjoy on crackers with –get this– sake. It’s a bit hit-and-miss, but generally good, and never boring.
One I have never tried. Soften kasu by mixing it with a very small amount of sake or water. Then mix it with a bit of sugar and form into ping-pong-sized balls, and grill over a gentle flame. (You’re on your own on this one.)
Not all sake kasu in the industry is used for cooking, by the wayt. Some is used as livestock feed (lucky pigs), and some is actually recycled and distilled to make pure grain alcohol.
Sake kasu is relatively rich in protein, with 100 grams having as much as 70 grams of beef, as well as being full of vitamins B1, B2 and B6. Not bad for the dregs of the sake brewing process.
[Sake to look for...]
>Nanbu Bijin (Iwate Prefecture)
The sake brewed by the lively character of this month’s interview. Two of their products are worth special mention.
Available in the US as well, Nanbu Bijin Junmai-shu is an extremely reasonably priced sake for the quality. Simple and straightforward, it is solid with a good suffusing acidity, clean and well crafted. Neither ostentatiously fragrant nor overly complex, it works well with much lighter flavored dishes and is somehow pleasing to all.
Nanbu Bijin Junmai Daiginjo is subdued and subtle, with mild fruity fragrances and a fairly complex flavor. It is fairly soft but with a firmness to the center of the palate. While significantly more expensive than the Junmai-shu above, it is much more of a delicate brew. Soon to be available in the US.
>Rihaku (Shimane Prefecture)
Named after the highly respected poet-philosopher of 8th Century China, better known in English as Li Po. Rihaku is another must-know name in the sake appreciation world. It is indeed hard to find anyone who does is not fond of Rihaku. This Junmai Ginjo (which, along with their Tokubetsu Junmai-shu, is available in the US) has a nice, nutty touch with a very slight fruity center, all well-propelled by a good acidity. Mildly fragrant; solidly built overall.
>Fukucho (Hiroshima Prefecture)
The toji at this brewery is the owner’s daughter, Miho Imada. Years ago, when women weren’t allowed to even set foot in the kura, this was of course unthinkable. But today, Miho brews sterling, character-laden sake.
Fukucho Biho is a junmai ginjo, available in the US, that is light and clean, with a slightly soft and sweet overall touch. Fukucho Hyakuju Heisei is a daiginjo (soon to be available in the US) with a more solid, dryer flavor, clean and thick on the tongue. Finally, Fukucho Daiginjo is fragrant, lively, layered and complex. All Fukucho sake is quite fairly priced.
>Suwaizumi (Tottori Prefecture)
Brewed in the least populated prefecture of Japan. Suwaizumi Otori is an almost-buttery, rich but elegant Junmai Daiginjo that is hard but not impossible to find in Japan. More accessible in the US is Suwaizumi Mantensei, a junmai ginjo with a great balance of flavor and fragrance, crisp and almost grainy on the palate, not overly light nor overly dry. Well balanced in all respects.
>Iso Jiman (Shizuoka Prefecture)
Brewed at a fairly small kura near one of the best 100 water sources in Japan. Naturally, like most breweries, Iso Jiman (The Pride of the Penninsula) makes several grades of sake. However, they make nothing lower than honjozo grade, meaning all of their sake is premium sake. Also, while their higher grades of sake are indeed wonderful, the distinctive essence that is Iso Jiman is perhaps most evident in this “lowly”Tokubetsu Honjozo. An unmistakable ripe fruit essence suffused with a slight bitter note in the essence, and a mild but well-grounded autumnal fruit and herb tinged nose. Truly wonderful. While one of the most popular sake in Japan, they are modest and quiet, and as such it can be hard to get. Iso Jiman is not exported, but nevertheless, if you want to know sake, the name is worth remembering.
[Sake events and other miscellany...]
UPCOMING SAKE SEMINARS
April 14, 2001 (English)
On the evening of Saturday, April 14, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist, and Japanese yakimono (ceramics) expert Robert Yellin and John Gauntner will be hosting their second joint sake and Japanese pottery seminar of the millenium, 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 Gauntner. Participation is limited to 45, and is already a third full. The cost for half a dozen sakes for sampling, ample food, and a hopefully enlightening lecture with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.
April 19, 2001
On the evening of Thursday, April 19, from 5:30 to 7:30 at the Akasaka Prince Hotel in Tokyo, the Ginjo-shu Kyokai will hold its semi-annual event. Over 300 sake from amongst more than 80 brewers; all of it knock-down sterling sake. This spring event features much nama-zake, recently brewed unpasteurized sake. If you are anywhere near Tokyo on this day, you MUST be there. Admission is only 4000 yen, and you get a bottle of sake to take home as a gift, so that the whole thing is rendered basically free. You can pay at the door, with no reservations. Note, NO food is available. Call 03-3378-1231 (in Japanese) for info, or contact me by email if need be.
April 21, 2001 (Japanese)
Famed sake critic Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, April 21, from 6:30 until the last train at Romantei in Akebono-bashi (Yotsuya Yanagicho; you can take the brand new O-Edo subway line!). The topic is related to the sake production styles of the various regions of Japan. 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 by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Sake Companion, published by Running Press
A hardbound, well designed book, The Sake Companion approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch. Unlike my first book, The Sake Handbook, this new volume 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 numerical rankings and 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).
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: , and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.
To subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word subscribe without the quotes to firstname.lastname@example.org . To unsubscribe, send the word “unsubscribe”, without the quotes, to email@example.com. For a list of other useful commands, send the word “help”, less the quotes, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to email@example.com
I think this sake home-brewing effort needs to be encouraged and supported, as it will lead to a faster grass-roots knowledge of sake and its complexities, which in turn will lead to more consumer demand for the good stuff, which will lead to more availability and lower prices. Or so we hope.
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Look for the next issue of this newsletter March 15 – 20, 2001.
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