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Interview (continued); Sake and Golf

# 20

May 2001

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #20

May  25, 2001


-Interview with a brewer (Part 3)
-Sake and Golf
-Daiei at Tokyo Station
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information

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. Here is the final part of the long visit with Kosuke Kuji, the face and spirit of Nanbu Bijin sake.

Kosuke walks through the labyrinth of tanks, noting the progress of each batch as he goes. Before sake makes it into one of these larger tanks for its 18-day to 35-day long ferment, it finds as its home a couple of smaller tanks. The first is the meter-high by meter across small tank for the moto, the initial yeast starter. After about two weeks, this is ready to have water, rice and koji added to it, and is transferred to a larger tank. Kosuke explains one more area where Nanbu Bijin refuses to cut corners.

After the moto yeast starter has been created, rice, water and koji are added three more times over four days. Each time, the amount of mash is roughly doubled. After this, it is allowed to sit and ferment. The first of these additions is called 塗atsu-zoe,・the second is called 渡aka-zoe,・and the final is called 鍍ome-zoe.・

鄭fter the moto is ready, we transfer it into a very small tank for hatsu-zoe, because the big tanks will allow it too cool down too quickly. We need to maintain a temperature of about 13C to 15C for the hatsu. If we go ahead and use a big tank at first, we would have to heat the moto to about 20C first to compensate, and that痴 not good for the yeast cells. Most places don稚 bother with this, you know!・

The mash in the tanks is known as the moromi, and in the end, about 20% of the rice put in to a tank is in the form of koji, with the remaining 80% being straight rice. The temperature aimed for drops with each addition: for naka-zoe it is eight to 10C, after the final tome-zoe addition, the moromi should be at about six to eight C.

Naturally, this varies with style, yeast and grade. But temperature is vitally important, and many places have thermometers placed in to the tanks, monitoring at all times the temperature of the moromi. Kuji Shuzo, however, eschews such approaches. 哲ah, there痴 no guarantee that the temperature in the center, where the thermometer is dangling, is the same as the temperature closer to the walls of the tank. Those methods don稚 provide much leverage; it is better to check ourselves on a regular basis,・explains Kosuke.

The tanks of junmai-shu and honjo-zo will ferment for 30 days; this is quite long for that grade of sake. The ginjo and daiginjo will sit for 32 to 35 days before being pressed. When pressing time comes, some tanks will have a bit of pure alcohol added to them just before pressing; others will not.

This added alcohol will serve one of several purposes. In less expensive products, it is indeed used to increase the yield. While this is not the most pure or traditional of practices, it does help the industry to survive.

In premium sake, however, a very small amount of this pure alcohol is added for a technical reason. Much of the fragrant and flavorful components in the moromi are soluble in alcohol. As such, temporarily raising the overall alcohol content just before pressing will help pull these components out of the moromi, and contribute to a more flavorful, fragrant sake. Or so say proponents of this practice. Sake labeled junmai-shu, junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo will not have any alcohol added to it at all. (The jun- prefix means pure.)

Kosuke explains that even the adding of that alcohol is not a trivial or simple practice. 添ou put it in just a few hours before pressing. This is important! Remember, by adding all that alcohol you are going to kill off all the yeast cells. Once you kill off your yeast, after about ten hours all this amino acid comes out. This would give rise to a lot of off-flavors.

Kosuke leads me around to where freshly-pressed sake is trickling into a small gathering tank. He grabs a ladle resting nearby for just this purpose and scoops a bit out, offering it after tasting it himself. Sake just pressed has a unique appeal, still brash and zingy and fragrant.

迭emember that water I let you taste? Well, that water, and the careful way we brew our sake, is so fine that we don稚 even have to filter our higher grades of sake. We ship it just as it is,・Kosuke brags.

Most sake is charcoal filtered. It is a curious process in which very fine black powdered active charcoal is put into pure sake, creating this ink-black liquid. This is then forced through a series of special filters that pull out the charcoal, and rough flavors along with it. It is a very precise process that can be used to adjust color and flavor.

Although here at Kuji Shuzo, they do charcoal filter their standard-grade sake, similar to a 鍍able sake,・none of their premium sake is filtered at all. 的f you make it carefully enough, you don稚 need to filter it,・states Kosuke confidently.

In total, there are 14 types of sake brewed here. 鄭nd we致e been fooling around with aging sake for about six years.・About half of what they make is Special Designation Sake: honjozo, junmai-shu, gingo-shu or better. 鏑ook at Gekkeikan or Ozeki. The brewers there cannot really brew the kind of sake they want to brew. Here, I can. About 30 percent of what is brewed here is sake I simply want to try and brew, or sake I am personally fond of. It makes it all so much more fun,・beams Kosuke.

As if in proof of this principle, Kosuke leads me into a small meeting room with a kerosene heater humming in the corner. He pulls out an unmarked bottle and pours me a glass. 展hat do you think of this?・he asks mischievously. The sake is brownish in color and much sweeter than average. It seems a bit aged. 的t痴 made entirely from koji.・Ah. That would explain the sweetness. Most sake is maybe 20 percent koji, and 80 percent straight steamed rice.

鄭 couple other places are experimenting with this kind of stuff. Like I said, it痴 a lot of fun.

念ne admirable point about Kuji Shuzo is that their best sake stays here, in Iwate. Some breweries ship their best stuff off to the big cities, leaving the locals with less premium sake. The practice stinks a bit of betrayal, as until not too long ago, all sake was consumed very locally.

But the best Nanbu Bijin sake stays home. 添a gotta come here to drink it,・says Kosuke. Of course, plenty of premium Nanbu Bijin is to be found in Tokyo and Osaka. But the absolute best is for the locals.

Nanbu Bijin sake has taken a gold medal in five of the last ten years in the Tax Department痴 Shinshu Kanpyoukai (哲ew Sake Tasting Competition・ held each spring. Sake submitted to those contests is very special, almost exaggerated in flavor and fragrance. Few people prefer that kind of sake over regular sake. Beyond that, as it is not what is normally sold on the market, many question the meaning behind it all.

But Kosuke has a wonderful philosophy toward these competitions and the this sake. 典he Shinshu Kanpyoukai is like the compulsories of an ice skating competition. Most people would rather watch the freestyle skating, with its fast and freewheeling action. But the compulsories, which call for the ability to exhibit complete control over every aspect, are just as important and valid an expression of skill.

典his is what brewing sake for the Shinshu Kanpyoukai is all about. There are very specifically delineated fine lines that need to be meticulously traced to do well. It may not be half as interesting or a drinkable as a kura痴 regular sake, but it is easily just as important and reliable indicator of a brewer痴 skill, especially when considered together with the standard sake of a brewery .

                                 * *  *

 徹oh, ooh, you gotta see this!・says Kosuke excitedly. He leads me up a set of stairs, to an old part of the kura only used for storage. Wading through boxes and bottles, he leads me to a pillar. The walls are clean and white, with the old plaster and wood having received a cleaning and a polishing to renew their luster of 120 years ago. It痴 a gorgeous building, and its classical beauty is revealed in this old room.

鼎heck this out.  When we began to clean this room up we discovered this.・Kosuke removes a wooden cover that allows access to the center of the pillar, where the connection between two large logs can be checked. No nails were used back then; it痴 a structural work of art. Inside, in dark, black paint that has not even considered beginning to fade, were two signatures of the original carpenters: 典oranosuke and Naonori: Daiku (carpenters).・The year was the 12th year of the Tenpo era: 1834.


In industry that is in dire need of a pick-me-up, Kosuke Kuji is a breath of fresh air. Although his energy and enthusiasm are boundless, it helps that his sake is wonderful as well. If he represents the future of sake, everything is going to be just fine - at least at Kuji Shuzo.


                               Sake and Golf

Recently Tiger Woods secured his place in golfing history by winning the this past Masters tournament. Although some say it was technically not a "Grand Slam," being relegated by some to the level of "Fiscal Slam," it was nevertheless an impressive performance. But there's a secret to Woods' recent success that few know about: sake.

It seems that last month, Tiger was in a bit of a slump. After the first day of the Bay Bridge Invitational, Tiger stood at 71, wading in a quagmire of mediocrity down in 35th  place. Ouch.

According to an article in the Nihon Keizai Shinbun on March 20, Tiger left the course without saying a word to the media. That evening, with close friend and fellow pro golfer Mark O'Meara, Tiger went out and relaxed with a drink or two of none other than nihonshu.

It is said that while on tour, Tiger doesn't drink a drop of alcohol. But apparently he needed to break the pattern, and the sake helped relax enough to do just that. He shot in the 60's from day two onward, and ended winning his first victory of the season. Who knows; this may have fueled his momentum enough to help him make history at the Masters this month. And most people think it's his concentration and diligent practice.

See what sake can do for you?


Daimaru Department Store at Tokyo Station

Visiting Japan on a business trip or vacation? Wondering where to pick up some great sake on your way home? Try the basement of Daiei department store at Tokyo station for an excellent selection of sake. Most likely, you have to pass through Tokyo Station anyway...

The stock here covers an incredibly wide range of price, brewing region and bottle size. There is a rack of 1.8 liter bottles, a huge selection of the more manageable 720 ml bottles, and even several dozen brands in tiny 300ml bottles.

The staff are usually actively promoting several sake, so you can sample one or two. They also are fairly knowledgeable, and as you peruse they may of their own accord step in to suggest a sake or point out what is rare or particularly good. Quite helpful, actually.

A few of the myriad sake available include straightforward Urakasumi (Miyagi), fruity Koro (Kumamoto), several nice Niigata sake like Shimeharizuru and Hakkaisan, as well as earthy Shinkame (Saitama) and rich Kaiun (Shizuoka). Mellow and sweet Nishi no Seki (Oita), smoky Kamoizumi (Hiroshima) and sturdy Narimasa "Jun" are available here as well.

Ask for any of these, or wade through the shelves for some of your own favorites. A more complete listing of what is available can be found on my web page, where there are no space limitations, at

There are several rather hard-to-find sake here, including a bright red sake called, surprise surprise, Akaisake. Looking much like a fruit drink or lighter red wine, Akaisake is made with a special koji mold that gives the sake its reddish hue. Akaisake seems to be popular with some tourists for its uniqueness. While it may not be as delicate, fragrant and fine-grained as some sake, it is soft and slightly sweet, and perfectly enjoyable.

Whether you are going to and from Narita, to business in Osaka, or skiing in Nagano, there are a plethora of opportunities to pass through Tokyo Station. Daiei gives a reason to dawdle a bit on the way.


               Sake events and other miscellany...


May 26, 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 this time is the sake of the island of Shikoku, comprised of the four prefectures of Ehime, Kochi, Kagawa and Tokushima. Seminars feature a short lecture with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. The cost is 6000 yen. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing me at

June 16, 2001 (English)On the evening of Saturday, June 16, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist, and Japanese yakimono (ceramics) expert Robert Yellin and John Gauntner  will be hosting their third 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. 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. Japan Times Article ChangesFor those of you that follow my articles in the Japan Times, either regularly or sporadically, please note the days on which it appears have changed. The articles until now have appeared on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. However, as of this month they appear every other Sunday. The next article will appear Sunday, May 27.

FEEDBACKIf any readers at any time have any opinions on this newsletter, its format or its content, please do not hesitate to contact me at If there is anything you would like to see more of (or less of), I am always open to suggestions.

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.

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, is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).

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 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

To subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word 都ubscribe・without the quotes to . To unsubscribe, send the word "unsubscribe", without the quotes, to For a list of other useful commands, send the word "help", less the quotes, to Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to

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 June 15 - 20, 2001.



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.

All of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted in their entirety on the Sake World website. Just go to, 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, now all the past issues can be downloaded and perused at your leisure.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner,

Copyright 2001 Sake World



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