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Lowdown on Koji; Sake of Fukuoka

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #36
October 1, 2002

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In this issue:
-Announcement: The Sake Professional Course
-The Lowdown on Koji
-The Sake of Fukuoka Prefecture
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information

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Readers and kindly asked to handle subscribing and unsubscribing themselves. To unsubscribe or change your subscription address, please see Subscribe/unsubscribe information

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Sake Professional Course to be held in January, 2003

Announcing the first Sake Professional Course, to be held in Japan in January of 2003.

Sake is poised to take its rightful place amongst premium alcoholic beverages, but there is a dearth of proper education and training related to sake. Wine professionals and others with a deep interest need a source of accurate, thorough and useful information, plus an opportunity to leisurely and thoroughly taste the wide range of sake available. This course will provide the environment for a focused, intense, and concerted training period. The one week course will consist of daily lectures with tastings, 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 nearby, with a dedicated tour bus providing transportation to kura (breweries) and other related sites. Evening meals will be off-site at various sake-related establishments (sake pubs of all shapes, sizes and environments). A one-day guided tour to the historic city of Kyoto is included, as is one night at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn).

This 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 basics and will thoroughly 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.

More information, including a detailed schedule, syllabus, and pricing, can be found at http://www.sake-world.com. Just click on the Professional Course link found on the main page.

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The lowdown on Koji

When looking at what makes sake special, beyond its flavors and aromas, one thing that often comes up is koji. Koji this and koji that, koji is the heart of the process, koji makes sake unique in the world, yada yada yada. I am certainly as guilty as anyone of kreating a koji kraze surrounding sake.

But it is all true, I must konfess. No beverage in the world uses koji in its production the way that sake does, and it is the one step of the brewing process that exerts the most leverage on the final product. As such, it is deserving of a bit more detailed attention.

For those that might need it, a quick review: koji mold is propagated onto about 30% of the steamed rice  in sake production, and enzymes produced as this mold grows into the individual grains breaks starch molecules down into glucose. This can then be fermented by the yeast cells.

It takes about two days to prepare the koji for use in a fermenting tank. And, once added to the tank, it continues to slowly trickle sugar into the mash as the yeast cells eat that sugar, and give off alcohol and carbon dioxide. So the starch-to-sugar conversion and fermentation of that sugar take place at the same time in the same tank. This makes sake unique, by the way; in other beverages the conversion to sugar occurs first, and fermentation later.

This makes the whole thing massively complicated. Too much sugar at one time chokes out the yeast cells, too little curbs them. To further complicate the issue, a plethora of factors affects how sprightly the yeast is, including temperature, the chemistry of the water, and the aimed-for flavor profile (sweet or dry) and style of the sake.

So, obviously, how fast the koji works is of paramount importance. How quickly it converts starch to sugar must be balanced with how quickly that sugar will be needed later. And how fast it will work is determined by countless subtle adjustments during its two-day preparation in the special koji-making room in the kura.

A quick break for some terminology: koji itself is steamed rice that has had koji mold cultivated upon and into it. That mold itself is known as koji-kin, or tane koji, and its formal name in the scientific world is Aspergillus Oryzae. Its nickname in the brewing world is moyashi, due to its similarity in appearance to bean sprouts (at least under a microscope).

The mold is similar to that which grows and left-around fruit and bread in the West, but is much more commonly found in more humid regions, especially Asia. Different strains of koji are also used in making natto, soy sauce and miso paste.

Back to the koji-making room: if the mold (in powdered spore form) is applied generously and allowed to haphazardly propagate onto and into the rice, it will in essence go nuts, and create sugar from starch at a fast rate. If it is restrained and curbed in its growth, however, it will trickle the glucose in at a slow speed. Note, neither of these is inherently better than the other, but rather, getting it just right for the million conditions of that batch and day are the key.

But wait. The plot thickens! It is not just about glucose. As the koji is prepared, other compounds that will wield considerable leverage on the final flavor profile are created as well. These include various vitamins, amino acids, peptides (combinations of amino acids), malic acid, succinic acid, and others. In fact, it is precisely these compounds that make each sake unique in terms of the myriad of fruit, herbal, and textural tones. Naturally, just how carefully the deliberately the koji is created determines what kind and how much of these compounds there will be.

As for the koji-kin, or tane-koji, i.e. the spores themselves, there are only about six companies in all of Japan that make the mold for sake brewers. Today, this is done in high-tech, super clean micro-biology companies. Indeed, there are a dozen or so strains of spores each company will offer; some are for ginjo-shu use, other for use in different types of sake. But we rarely hear about the brand or kind of spore used, most likely because the most important aspect of koji production is the skill with which the spores are lovingly and precisely propagated onto the rice.

There are machines that make koji, but *almost* without exception, the best koji is made by hand, and calls for constant attention. Even the room itself (called the koji muro) has a big effect on things. There are countless variations on building koji muro. Most are made with wooden, cedar walls that breathe, but can also emanate less than desirable odors if not scrupulously cared for. Some koji muro are made with stainless steel walls, a construction that has its supporters and detractors as well. Then there are a ton of tricks and jury-rigged methods of keeping the air circulating and temperature and humidity consistent and at correct levels.

I once had a sake presented by the brewer, who clutched the bottle before serving us as she explained that she had to apologize in advance because they had just rebuilt the koji muro, and the smell of the new cedar walls came through in the final product.

Yeah, right, I thought. She’s paranoid; her product is always good. But when we tasted it, amazingly, she was correct. Faint, it was, and not totally unpleasant, but the essence of cedar had come through into the final product. That’s how much influence koji-making can have on the sake that ends up in the bottle.

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The Sake of Fukuoka Prefecture

Fukuoka sake, in general, hovers just below the surface of mass attention. You don’t here about it too much, and it doesn’t have an image of overall style in mind of *most* folks. But this belies its historical significance, and more importantly, what great sake can be found in Fukuoka.

Currently, there are about 80 sakagura in Fukuoka. Many of them are concentrated in the region of Jojima, known as the “Nada of Kyushu,” in reference to Japan’s largest sake brewing town, Nada in Kobe.

Historically, Fukuoka has always been a source for great sake, and one reason for that the climate is conducive to growing great rice. Sitting on the northern part of the island of Kyushu, it does not bear the brunt of most typhoons and tropical storms that spin through each summer and fall. Thus, it is a relatively safe place to grow the tall, lanky, top heavy rice that makes fine sake. In fact, behind Hyogo Prefecture, Fukuoka is one of the main sources for Yamada Nishiki rice. That in and of itself is quite significant.

The water posed a bit of a problem for many years. Chemically, it is a bit soft, and doesn’t lend itself to as vigorous a ferment as harder water does. In fact, in the early Meiji period (the late 1800s), brewers in Fukuoka went to “the real” Nada to study sake brewing from the Nada brewers, who were at that time already light years ahead of the rest of the competition. They even paid for Nada brewers to come down and give lectures and instruction in Fukuoka.

But things weren’t getting much better. Nada has very hard water, and so the brewing techniques were not completely transferable to a region with much softer water by comparison. Eventually, brewers picked up on the fact that they had to alter their techniques slightly to allow for the lackadaisical yeast. Two other regions with soft water, Hiroshima and Kyoto, had already learned this lesson, and they eventually figured it out here in Fukuoka as well.

In the late Meiji period (the early 1900s), Fukuoka sake took off and the industry grew well throughout the prefecture. In fact, it grew so well that Fukuoka rose to be the second largest brewer in Japan in the 1940s, even ahead of Kyoto and Niigata, right behind Nada-led Hyogo.

This was all aided by an interesting twist of fate.  For some reason, awkwardly enough, Fukuoka sake became popular as “senba no sake,” or battlefield sake. This reputation began with a war with China in 1894, continued with the war with Russia in 1911, and again in World War II. Fukuoka sake was *the* sake for drinking by soldiers and those that supported them, especially in war-affected times.

However, peering only momentarily into the dark side of the sake brewing world, there was later a concerted effort on the part of Nada breweries (the very same region that helped Fukuoka so many years previous) to eliminate the threat of competition from Fukuoka. Several large producers deliberately and successfully began to undermine the sake brewing industry in Fukuoka, of course by selling effectively, but also by buying breweries within the prefecture. Fukuoka soon fell from its number two position, and never recovered. Today, they are tenth in Japan in terms of brewing volume.

Fukuoka sake does indeed have a thread of consistency running through it. As might be expected, it is often soft in texture, and perhaps overall it is sweet in comparison with many other prefectures. But much Fukuoka sake is laden with great bursts of flavor that unfolds in waves. Much of the higher grades are elegant and smooth, while preserving this general soft fullness.

A disproportionately high (in a good way, that is) number of my personal favorite sakes are from Fukuoka. The list of recommendable brand names is long (and grew longer as I began to write it out). At the top of the list are Shigemasu and Kurodajo Otemon. The latter brewery is known as Mori no Kura, also makes two other fine sake, the straightforward Toji no Uta, and the wonderful-for-warming Komagura.

Also worth looking for is Niwa no Uguisu, and one of the several fine sake made by Isonosawa. Bandai is a largish producer with excellent sake as well. The list continues with Mii no Kotobuki, Tomi no Kotobuki and Kitaya.

Interestingly enough, I find Fukuoka sake relatively hard to get in the Tokyo area, although it may be easier to find in Kansai. This is curious, as many of these brewers are of decent size and should have excellent distribution. But with its soft and full unfolding style, and its fairly storied history, Fukuoka sake is worth the effort to find.

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Sake events and other miscellany…

USA:
October 29, Japan Society, New York City

On the evening of October 29, at the Japan Society in New York City,
there will be a presentation on sake entitled “Of Women & Wooden Tools:
Changing Traditions of the Sake World.” I will be joined by Sarah Marie
Cummings, Managing Director Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery and named the
prestigious “Nikkei Woman of the Year 2002,”in discussing the role of
women, as well as Sarah’s efforts to keep alive the use of traditional
wooden brewing vats amidst the rapidly modernizing brewing industry.

The presentation will be followed by a tasting of sake from a variety of
breweries from around Japan. Co-sponsored by the Sake Export Association.

Tickets are $25, Japan Society members & seniors $20.
For more information, see http://www.japansociety.org and select October
29 on the events calendar. This event will fill up fast!

Japan:
Ginjo-shu Kyoukai Fall Tasting
If you can at all help it, don’t miss the Ginjo-shu Kyokai’s fall sake tasting events. For those that do not know, the Ginjo-shu Kyokai is a group of 80-odd sake brewers from around Japan that gather for a sake tasting open to the public. Each will present five or so of their sake for sampling. If you want to find out and taste what really good sake is, this is the place.

There is also a spring event, but the fall event presents sake that has been laid down for six months or so, and is usually a bit mellow and mature, more rounded, balanced and pleasant.

The cost is a paltry 4000 yen, and you receive a bottle of ginjo-shu to take home, so that the tasting itself is basically rendered free. Be warned that there is no food at all available, only bottled water. A pre-tasting small meal is highly recommended if you want to avoid la-la land. (There will be spittoons, should you have such will power.)

The event will be held in Osaka on Wednesday, October 9, at the Nankai South Tower Hotel Osaka. In Tokyo, it will be held on Wednesday, October 23 from 5:30 to 7:30 at the Akasaka Prince Hotel. To attend, for either event call the Ginjo-shu Kyokai at 03-3378-1231 and ask for an invitation to be sent. Or, fax them at 03-3378-1232 with a written request to have them mailed. (You can actually just show up on the appointed day and pay at the door, too.) If you are interested in sake, this one is worth leaving work early for.

FINAL MUSHU SEMINAR
On the evening of Saturday, October 19, Japan Times Ceramics Scene
columnist, and Japanese yakimono (ceramics) expert Robert Yellin and I
will be hosting the final sake and Japanese pottery seminar to be held at
the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu and Awajicho Stations, from 5:30
pm to 9 pm. The sake topic will be Autumnal happenings, a description of
just why the fall is such a significant season in the sake world. The
pottery topic will be kodai, or “feet” of a piece; its significance,
importance and what it reveals.

Mushu will be closing, or more accurately, slightly changing its name
and moving to Ginza. The new venue may or may not be conducive to these
seminars, as the layout is different. While much remains to be seen,
this will be the final sake and pottery seminar to be held at Mushu.

If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me.
Participation is limited to 40. The cost for half a dozen sakes for
sampling, ample food, and a hopefully enlightening couple of lectures
with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.

For reference:
Directions to Mushu:
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.

Also:
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.

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Sake books:

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. (say again: A good high acidity may increase the sense of dryness of a sake by lightening and spreading out the flavor. A low acid content, on the other hand, can help a sake to feel fuller and heavier, and increase a sense of sweetness.

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).

Also worth searching for:
-The Sake Handbook (John Gauntner): A bit more technical but with a listing of 50 sake pubs in Tokyo.
-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 (Rikyubai in Osaka) in Japan.
-Sake: A Drinker’s Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.

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Home-Brewing Sake
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 jliddil@vms.arizona.edu. 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: visau@iname.com, 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 sake-request@hbd.org . To unsubscribe, send the word “unsubscribe”, without the quotes, to sake-request@hbd.org. For a list of other useful commands, send the word “help”, less the quotes, to sake-request@hbd.org. Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to sake-owner@hbd.org

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Publication Information
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.

Most of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted in their entirety on the Sake World website. Just go to www.sake-world.com, click on the Sake Newsletter tab, click on Archived Email Versions, and select the issues you want to read from the chart. For those that have only recently signed up, all the past issues can be downloaded and perused at your leisure.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, sakeguy@gol.com
Copyright 2002 Sake World

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