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Koji in sake vs. Koji in other beverages

# 28

Feb. 2002

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #28
February 1, 2002


-Koji in sake vs. Koji in other beverages
-Marutoku: A wonderful standing sake pub
-Sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information


Koji in sake vs. Koji in other beverages

There are two things that make nihonshu unique among alcoholic beverages in the world. One is the process known as heiko fukuhakko, or multiple parallel fermentation. In short, this means that saccharification and fermentation take place simultaneously in the same vat, as opposed to sequentially, as in other fermented beverages. The other thing making sake unique is the use of koji.

Well, sorta. In fact, other beverages in Asia, most noticeably shokoshu and baichu from China, use a form of this marvelous mold. But the way it is done is a bit different.

As many readers may recall, koji is a mold that creates enzymes as it grows. These enzymes break starch molecules down into sugar molecules that can be fermented by yeast cells. Koji also breaks proteins down into flavor-enhancing amino acids.

In Western malt-based beverages, koji is not necessary since enzymes are created when the barley is malted. In many traditional beverages of Asia, since milled rice is used, no malting is possible, and therefore the enzymes must come from something else.

In the beverages of China and other Asian countries, rice, barley, chestnuts and other starchy grains are ground without cooking to a powder and mixed with water. This is allowed to firm up, and then formed into shapes varying in shape and size from little balls to small bricks. It is onto this that the koji mold is either deliberately propagated or allowed to naturally occur.

From here, the enzymes that are produced by the mold convert the starch to sugar, and following that, fermentation and/or distillation take place. This type of koji is known as mochi-koji, and the methods of creating it have been around for about 2700 years.

In sake, however, koji mold spores are sprinkled onto rice that has been cooked (steamed) and left to cool and dry just a bit. This is then mixed up every couple of hours, so that at the end of the two-day koji propagation period, each and every one of the grains has the koji mold growing on its surface and into its center. As they have dried out a bit, too, the grains are not stuck together, but exist as discrete little enzyme factories, so to speak. This type of koji is known as bara-koji, as the rice grains are all bara-bara (all broken up), and is really what makes nihonshu what it is.

Beyond this propagation methodology, the molds themselves are different as well. In Japan, sake is made using a koji mold known in English as Aspergillus Oryzae. Rhizopus and Mucor, while they may sound like a couple of alien characters from a sci-fi movie, are the two main molds used in mochi-koji. These two molds are very typically found on fruit and bread.
Sake brewing in Japan was actually influenced in the early days (the Nara era) by brewers from China and Korea, most famously by a brewer known as Susukori. Back then, it seems, mochi-koji was actually in use here as well. But, over the next several centuries, experimentation led to the bara-koji methods, which were much better suited to the climate of Japan.

These various strains of koji have other differences as well, including the amount and type of enzymes produced, as well as color. The strains used in Chinese mochi-koji are grayish in appearance, whereas the bara-koji of Japan is a mellow goldenrod when properly propagated.

While all beverages made using koji have their own rich heritage and history, they are all extremely different from each other in terms of the final product. Such is the leveraged effect that koji can have ? in whatever form it is used.


While I realize most readers are *not* living in Japan, I cannot resist from time to time recommending good places to drink sake in Japan. Should you travel to Japan occasionally, or plan to at any time in the future, these are the places to check out.

Marutoku in Shinjuku is one such pub. But it isn't really a sake pub, per se. It is a stand-and-drink place, referred to as a tachinomiya.

Tachinomiya hold a special position amongst drinking establishments. There is something about standing while drinking that puts a whole new spin on the sake experience. They are found in crowded business regions of mostly Tokyo and Osaka, and are usually meant for slamming one or two quick ones down on the way home. What such places lack in serenity they more than make up for in value and fun.

Naturally, most tachinomiya are low-budget affairs. The whole point is to keep things cheap. Most of them serve low-budget sake as well, and rarely is more than one type available - much less anything above bottom-shelf.

But there exceptions. Several, in fact, and Marutoku is one of the most recommendable of those anomalies.

Situated just minutes from the West Exit of Shinjuku Station, Marutoku is very local: a steady stream of regulars peppered with a dollop of hapless souls that wander in for the first time.

You're not in the door five seconds before you're asked by the too-busy-to-make-eye-contact guy behind the counter "Nani shimasu ka?" (What'll it be?) Be prepared to answer fast; you have about another five seconds before he bears down on you and asks again, this time with authority: "What will it be?" No malice here, he's just busy.

He somehow has the knack of knowing who walked through the door without looking up. I don't know; maybe he can smell 'em. The many regulars may make that easy. "How many are you *today?*"

Orders are placed on the way to the two small but high tables in back. Remember, there are no chairs, and not much room. Sake is poured, names are called. "Here, come and get these, will you? I will be around for the money in a sec."

You pay for everything up front. Since all sake is 300 to 400 yen for a proper ichi-go (180ml), and the simple food is no more expensive, a round will get you change back from your 1000 yen.

This loose change is dropped with a quick thank you into one of the black and red lacquered ash trays stacked five or so high all along the seven-person counter. Your first thought is, "Dude, that's the ash tray. Don't put my money there."

But a glance around reveals that this is the style of the place. It is not clear whether they differentiate between ashtrays for money and ashtrays for ashes, but what the heck, they are all clean. The next thing you realize is that the cool thing to do here is to nonchalantly leave your change there, knowing full well you're just going to use it again soon.

The only beer in site is 350ml bottles of Asahi Super Dry with twist-off caps. Um... stick with the sake, is my advice.

And why not, with a selection and price like this. They have more than a dozen sake, all fine selections, all dirt cheap. Beyond the usual suspects like Asahiyama, Kikusui, Tengumai and Umenishiki, there are some rarely seen sake as well. Jozan from Ishikawa is a chunky but crisp brew rightly enjoying some popularity these days; try it here for 400 yen. Akita Towada, Kasumitzuru from Hyogo, and Suwa Izumi are three lesser-known selections from their rotating stock of great sake.

Forget about a menu. This place is WYSIWIG all the way. Most of the food sits on dishes wrapped in cellophane. Much of it is cold, but there are a few tofu dishes and such they will run through the microwave for you. There is also a countertop cooler full of yakitori and other stuff-on-a-stick for your grilling pleasure. Just point and pay.
The place is dead until about six, but steadily fills to about a million percent capacity over the next hour. Unlike most tachinomiya, the clientele is not limited to business men slamming one down before the long trek home. Here, all kinds and ages drop in to wet the whistle, and the atmosphere is boisterous and fun.

One favor please: When you drop by, don't say you read it here. Tell them you heard it about them from a friend, or just stumbled on in. I don't want them to ding me next time I go; that's a scary prospect.

To get to Marutoku, go out the West Exit of Shinjuku Station, and take a right, heading toward Ome Kaido. Take a left a bit beyond the McDonald's and just before the gaudy pachinko parlor. Marutoku is on the left just before the next main road. Marutoku, Dai-ichi Otoku Building 1F, 1-4-17 Nishi Shinjuku; tel (03) 5325-2139. Open 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., closed Sunday but open holidays.

There is a map to Marutoku at
There is a bare bones web site at
if you would like to see a snapshot of the place.

Sake to Look For

Fumotoi (Yamagata Prefecture)
"Honkara" Kimoto Junmai-shu

Fumotoi makes a whole range of sake, but this kimoto is one of their most distinctive. Readers may remember that kimoto refers to an older, traditional method of preparing the moto - initial yeast starter - that leads to a wilder, gamier flavor profile. In that sense, it is similar to sake made by the yamahai method as well.

Fumotoi Honkara has an interesting mix of citrus and strawberries in the nose lead to a blazing but well-utilized acidity in the full and grainy flavor. Impacting and memorable, but balanced and approachable too.

Sawanoi (Tokyo)
Junmai Ginjo-shu

While Tokyo may not be that bastion of sake-brewing tradition that Kobe, Kyoto and Niigata are, there is still some fine sake being brewed there, a point that is all too often overlooked. Sawanoi, brewed just 60 kilometers from the center of Tokyo out in Tama, is made with some of the finest water in the country. So proud of it are they that the mineral analysis results are posted for all visitors.

This junmai ginjo has a light apple trace to the nose, bolstered gently by a drying acidity. The flavor is light, yet with a solid and slightly grainy feel to the tongue and clean finish.

Niwa no Uguisu (Fukuoka)
"Daruma Label" Tokubetsu Junmaishu
Nihonshu-do: +5
Acidity: 1.5
Seimai-buai: 50% for the k~oji rice, 60% for the rest of the rice

Niwa no Uguisu (The Nightengale of the Garden) is brewed at a tiny firm known for putting great care into their brewing. They have been getting quite a bit of media attention as a new sake to be looking for lately. I must say, such attention is well warranted. This "Daruma" sake, of which there is also a daiginjo version, bears the image of the founder of Zen.

Daruma is dry and narrow in flavor, clean but with a soft pull to the recesses. There is a slight essence of dried autumnal fruit to the fragrance and flavor, backed and delivered by a nice standing acidity.

There production is small and they do not seem to be exporting. But that may change.
The Monthly Updater

Readers interested in buying excellent sake over the Internet should go to the eSake Updater sign-up page at:

The Updater is a monthly email service that provides information about what sake is available, what specials eSake may be running, and what US states may have recently come into the fold of deliverability. Also included will be information on updates to the site, including stories on the various brewers and seasonal happenings. The eSake Updater will be significantly shorter than this email newsletter, and is intended only to keep readers updated on available sake and updates to the site. At the moment, eSake sells premium sake over the web in Japan (nationwide delivery) and in the US (20 states).

-------------- is now shipping premium Japanese sake to 20 states, with 15 more
to come online soon. All eSake sake comes from small brewers of
super-premium product. Please check out the website at
It offers a wealth of information on sake, and is easily the largest and
most comprehensive sake knowledge center on the web. The site alone is worth hours of browsing time. To find out if eSake currently ships to your state, or if shipping is scheduled to begin soon, please go to: opup.html

Sake events and other miscellany...


Brewery Visit: March 16, 2002
On Saturday, March 16, I will be leading a tour of a sake brewery in Chiba. The brewery we will visit, Iinuma Shuzo, brews sake sold by the name of Kinoene, and is located out near Narita Airport. (I myself have not yet seen this brewery, and do not know what to expect - except a good time.) If you are interested in sake, there is nothing that can replace seeing where it is actually brewed, smelling the smells, tasting the product through each step of its manifestation. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me. There is no charge, but participation is limited to 20.

March 23, 2002
On the evening of Saturday, March 23, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist, and Japanese yakimono (ceramics) expert Robert Yellin and I will be hosting our second sake and Japanese pottery seminar of the new year, at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu and Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. The sake topic will be sake rice varieties, and the flavors and fragrances they impart. 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 lecture with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.

February 2, 2002(Japanese)
On the chance you are in Tokyo and free tomorrow:
Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, February 2, from 6:30 until the last train at Shin-Romantei in Yotsuya Yanagicho (a ten minute walk from Akebono-bashi station on the Shinjuku Line, or two minutes walk from Ushi-gome Yanagicho station on the O-Edo line). The topic will be the brewing styles of Niigata and the Hokuriku region. Seminars feature a short lecture in Japanese 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, or Matsuzaki-sensei directly at

The next seminar hosted by Matsuzaki-sensei will be Saturday, March 30. The seminar will focus on the "Queen" of Sake Rice: Omachi.

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).

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.


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 "subscribe" 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

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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.

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Copyright 2002 Sake World



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