Episode 11 Show Notes
Our Sake Production Series marches forward with John and Tim exploring Koji – the magical fungus among us that is needed to make sake. Koji is a friendly mold that we grow or propagate onto sake rice. This mold gives off an enzyme that breaks down starch into sugar. We need sugars for fermentation. Rice starch as it is won’t ferment. Koji, this molded rice is created in-house by every sake brewery. It’s not something you can order up from a catalog. As such, hand-made koji is a big expenditure of resources for a brewery and it’s a difficult process. 48 hours of constant attention is needed to craft top quality koji and the work is done in the cramped and hot “koji muro” or koji room.
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Welcome to the show from John and Timothy
Tedorigawa Yamahai Daiginjo
Rice Type: Gohyakumangoku
Classification: Daiginjo, Yamahai
Brewery: Yoshida Shuzoten
Brand: Tedorigawa (手取川)
Importer: World Sake Imports
Eiko Fuji Honkara Honjozo
Brewery: Fuji Shuzo (Yamagata)
Brand: Eiko Fuji (栄光冨士)
Where to Buy?
NOTE: Use Discount Code “REVOLUTION” for 10% off your first order with Tippsy Sake.
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Episode 11 Transcript
John Puma 0:23
Hello and welcome to Sake Revolution, America’s first sake podcast. I am your host John Puma, sake nerd at large, founder of the SakeNotes.com and Administrator of the internet Sake Discord.
Timothy Sullivan 0:36
And I’m your host Timothy Sullivan. I am a Sake Samurai, sake educator and the founder of the Urban Sake website, and together John and I will be tasting and chatting about all things sake.
John Puma 0:48
That’s right and Tim, we’re doing sake production. The sake education corner is rockin
Timothy Sullivan 0:55
John Puma 0:55
We’ve gone through the extensive process of rice preparation. Rice has been washed nine times.
Timothy Sullivan 1:04
John Puma 1:05
It’s soaked. It’s been soaked to perfection. It’s been steamed. Next is koji making right?
Timothy Sullivan 1:15
That’s right! Koji making – it is the sweatiest 48 hours in the entire process of making sake.
John Puma 1:24
That sounds unpleasant. And from your tone. I’m gonna assume that you’ve got some hands on experience with this.
Timothy Sullivan 1:31
Well, I did work in the Koji room. And John, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Working there as kind of a bummer. It’s tough, back-breaking work. But we need koji to make good sake. So I’ll say it’s worth it.
John Puma 1:47
Well, I’m all for good sake. And I’m not afraid of a little back breaking work, especially if I’m not the one doing it. So let’s get into koji.
Timothy Sullivan 1:57
Let me paint a picture for you. So you walk into the sake brewery, and one of the most hidden away areas is what we call the “Koji Muro” or the koji room. And this is the space where the Koji is made. John, do you want to remind people what koji is and why we need it in sake?
John Puma 2:18
Koji is where we take the steamed rice that we talked about previously. And then we add mold to it. And then that becomes Koji.
Timothy Sullivan 2:32
That’s right, and what role does koji play in the sake mash?
John Puma 2:37
That’s going to break down starches and turn them into sugars.
Timothy Sullivan 2:42
That is absolutely right. So this this Koji molded rice plays a very, very pivotal role in the sake production process. And to make this molded rice it’s something that brewers do not buy from a catalog. They have to make it in house. So every brewery has this room this Koji room in their facility. And the specialized brewery workers, it’s their job over the course of 48 hours – that’s how long it takes – to grow the mold onto the rice. And again, this mold is going to give us an enzyme, as you said, that breaks down starch into sugar. That’s how we get glucose or sugar out of the starches that are in rice. So making this koji has, some brewers have told me that has more of an impact than any other step. If your koji is crap, you’re you can’t make good sake with it. So it’s very, very important. The rooms are very, very narrow and long and very cramped. The reason that they’re cramped and very tight is that when you sprinkle the mold onto the spores, if you had a big spacious room, that would dissipate through the air and you couldn’t concentrate the mold onto the rice so it’s very cramped and very narrow. Where does mold like to grow in our house?
John Puma 4:03
Places that are dark and a little dank?
Timothy Sullivan 4:07
John Puma 4:08
Timothy Sullivan 4:08
The little corner in your shower where it’s humid and dark. So it’s very similar in the koji room. It’s very, very hot. The temperature is around 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And koji requires around the clock attention like a little baby, so you need to pay attention to it every hour for 48 hours. So someone is always working the night shift when you’re making Koji
John Puma 4:37
Sounds like an exciting 48 hours. Now, I’ve had the opportunity to witness people making koji. I’ve gotten to see them sprinkling the mold on there, see them, turning the rice sprinkling again, turning the rice sprinkling again. And my primary takeaway was that I was very happy that was not me.
Timothy Sullivan 5:01
Yeah. So you were in the room when they were doing that.
John Puma 5:04
I was I was, yeah,
Timothy Sullivan 5:05
That’s actually kind of a rare opportunity. Most breweries Do not let visitors into the Koji room. So to get to see that process in person is a real honor. And they are very meticulous about cleanliness, when when I would go in the room, they make you spray alcohol on your hands. And, you know, if you accidentally touch anything, they don’t want any stray microbes getting in there. So they’re very meticulous about that. And, you know, it is something that some brewers specialize in for their whole career. Like they’re the Koji master at a brewery and that’s, that’s their job for their career. Oh, wow. Yeah. Amazing.
John Puma 5:45
And I assume it. I mean, you mentioned how important it is. And I assume that when you’re I mean, at this point, you’re, you’re essentially cultivating microorganisms. Like that’s highly specialized. And I can see why somebody would end up like making that the thing that they want to do, especially if they feel like they have a really good knack for it, or if they, or if they just get to a point where they’re like, I like the results I’m getting from here. I don’t know if anybody can do this the way I’m doing it, I’m gonna do. And I could see that I can see somebody taking a personal pride is what I’m trying to say.
Timothy Sullivan 6:20
Yeah, absolutely. But one of the biggest challenges, I think, is that you are, as you said, you’re working with a microbe, it’s a living thing. And it never responds exactly the same way. So trying to make excellent Koji day after day after day is a challenge because you’re working with a living thing that, you know, you need to wrangle it into a certain state of being. And it’s, it’s I’m sure it’s never boring, that’s for sure.
John Puma 6:50
Yeah, I’m gonna say it seems boring is not as a term I’d use to describe it.
Timothy Sullivan 6:56
So there’s, there’s a whole bunch of different steps to making Koji. When during That 48 hours, we’re not going to go into all the individual steps today. But the main purpose of making the koji in the koji room is to basically control the temperature, the more heat that the koji gets, the faster and more aggressively it’s going to grow. So one of the skills of the person making the koji is to manipulate that and get the mold growth to be very even over the rice grain. If you let it run rampant, it’s just gonna grow out of control. And you have to keep it much more in line. So what they do is they stack the trays where the koji growing in these little trays, and they shuffle them around. The koji at the bottom is sending heat up through the stack. And if you put the koji at the top, it’s going to get the most heat from all the other trays below it. So if you bring that one down to the bottom, you reduce the heat. So a lot of the work of the koji room is adjusting the amount of heat and the amount of activity that the koji mold has.
John Puma 8:07
Tim I actually encountered at a brewery once an automated tray adjuster, so it would rotate out the top tray to the bottom, and so on so forth for like five or six different trays. And I imagined that it was purely to to save the employees. A couple of hours of back breaking work every now and again.
Timothy Sullivan 8:30
Yeah, there are machines that make koji
John Puma 8:33
Oh, really make koji?
Timothy Sullivan 8:35
John Puma 8:36
It’s automation is stealing our koji making jobs, Tim?
Timothy Sullivan 8:38
Not anytime soon.
John Puma 8:40
Timothy Sullivan 8:40
Koji you that you get from making koji by machine is not very good. So all the premium breweries that I’ve visited and that I know they don’t use machine made koji for any of their products. Humans can still do it better. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but for now their jobs are safe.
John Puma 9:01
At least we still have koji making. Yeah, I do think that koji making is kind of something that is to the to somebody who’s new to sake or something that they undervalue, perhaps or don’t know about. It is such an important component. Like you’ve mentioned if if the Koji comes if the coach is bad, there’s no way you’re making good sake out of that. And that’s like, that’s a critical 48 hours of, as you mentioned, incredibly uncomfortable, very difficult work, where you have to have to control so many variables to make great sake out of it.
Timothy Sullivan 9:42
Absolutely, yeah. It’s a job at the brewery that I wasn’t crazy about doing myself but I have so much respect for the people that take it so seriously, and they’ve really dedicated their days and nights to making sure that this Koji comes out perfectly. But the most amazing thing I saw was the Master Brewer. So this is the guy who has the most experience in the brewery. He’s in charge of all aspects of production. And every morning at about 5am, the brewers who were on staff in the Koji room, pull some of the koji from the latest batch, they put it on a little black tray. They put a napkin over it and they set it out in the little waiting area right outside the koji room. And the Master Brewer would come by 5am pull the napkin off look with a little with a little loupe, you know, a little magnifying glass right and he could judge the quality of that koji in two seconds flat and he told them no temperature needs to come up five degrees. Temperature needs to come down two degrees. You better open we need some more air circulation. He knew exactly what to do by looking at it for like three seconds.
John Puma 10:51
That I suppose if you’re if you’ve done it for enough time, you get good at it. You know, you’re looking at it where you’re at. That’s amazing.
Timothy Sullivan 10:58
Yeah, I mean to me, it all looked exactly the same, but he knew it down to the millisecond, how much you needed to change the growth time or the temperature or whatever. It was just amazing. A lot of respect for those guys.
John Puma 11:12
Awesome. All right, so Tim 48 hours growing this Koji, we monitoring, we are not sleeping.
Timothy Sullivan 11:22
John Puma 11:23
We’re sweating. Someone is not sleeping and somebody else hopefully, I’m assuming their shifts being done. And then somebody who’s not just trying to stay awake through this whole thing. That would probably lead to some questionable Koji. What’s next? When do we know we’re done?
Timothy Sullivan 11:38
Well, at the end of 48 hours, the master Brewer is going to give the signal that it’s time to pull the plug. And I mentioned that a lot of the work in the koji room is about controlling the temperature. You can raise the heat to make the koji more active or lower the heat to quiet it down a bit. The way that they stop the mold growth is they actually take the koji out of the koji room. So most Koji rooms have these like emergency escape doors that they fling open, and they bring the koji out on usually on trays and then the temperature drops very rapidly and that stops the mold from growing. That step is called “De Koji”, like D-E- Koji, and that step is the final step. And from that point on, you have the finished product of koji. The finished ingredient of koji.
John Puma 12:27
And I assume that we’ll get into the continuing Adventures of this koji in our next sake-making education corner.
Timothy Sullivan 12:35
Yes. So we’ve washed our rice, we’ve soaked our rice, we steamed our rice, we’ve “kojified” our rice. And, to be continued,
John Puma 12:44
Is “kojify” a word? It is now. We’re going to use that.
Timothy Sullivan 12:49
You heard it here first.
John Puma 12:50
We’ll make some t-shirts or something that say “Kojify”. Excellent. All right. So as is customary on this show, we’re going to be sipping some sake.
Timothy Sullivan 13:03
It’s time for a tasting.
John Puma 13:04
It’s time for a tasting. Now, I don’t know how to represent koji in a really important way here. So, I think this is a bit of a potluck.
Timothy Sullivan 13:11
Yeah. It’s a potluck.
John Puma 13:13
All right, good. We’re just gonna drink things that we think are fun. Tim, what do you bring today?
Timothy Sullivan 13:18
John Puma 13:20
Timothy Sullivan 13:20
I’m not gonna disappoint you. This is a sake from a brand called Tedorigawa. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.
John Puma 13:28
I have heard of it.
Timothy Sullivan 13:30
Yes. And anyone with Netflix… there’s a famous movie: The Birth of Sake.
John Puma 13:37
I am I’m a backer on that film. My name is in the credits someplace.
Timothy Sullivan 13:40
I am too!
Yes, so Tedorigawa is the brewery that was featured in this movie The Birth of Sake, which many many people have seen. And the family that runs the brewery is just absolutely delightful. So I’m so happy for all their success. This is their Yamahai Daiginjo. So Daiginjo again is that super-premium grade with the alcohol added. The English name for this is “Chrysanthemum Meadow.”
John Puma 14:09
That’s it. That’s a damn good name. I like that.
Timothy Sullivan 14:12
Yeah. And the rice is gohyakumangoku and it’s milled to 45% remaining.
John Puma 14:20
45. That’s nice. Yeah. 45% on a Yamahai. Ooh, that sounds… that sounds special.
Timothy Sullivan 14:26
John Puma 14:27
Timothy Sullivan 14:27
So John, what did you bring today?
John Puma 14:30
So I brought… well Tim, I went back to Yamagata but I brought something that’s completely different and outside of my typical Yamagata comfort zone. This is a sake from a brand called Eiko Fuji. And it is their “Hon Kara” is what they call it is their Honjozo Karakuchi. Karakuchi just means dry basically but usually when a sake says karakuchi they want you to know that it is seriously dry. This is a little dry…no, no. This is they are serious about about giving you a dry sake so having a very dry sake from a region like Yamagata seemed like a very interesting little thought experiment. So here we are.
Timothy Sullivan 15:29
Yeah, so as we’ve said many times on this show Yamagata is known for being like, more fruity, kind of aromatic style, so to have a super dry from Yamagata will be interesting.
John Puma 15:41
Timothy Sullivan 15:42
All right. Well, I’ll get into mine.
John Puma 15:45
Timothy Sullivan 15:47
Give this a pour. All right, let’s give it a smell. Hmm. Oh my god. Smells really good. Lovely. It smells a little bit — This is the power of suggestion because they just said chrysanthemum meadow, right? — it does smell like wild flowers like there’s this little bit of a grassy, herbal, flowery note in there that is just intoxicating. It’s so deliciously fragrant. I love it. Not much ricey-ness at all but it’s not fruity either. It’s this really herbal… floral… maybe even a little cut grass. Just really really delicious aroma going on here. Let me give it a taste. So, that 45% rice milling that gives us a silky smooth body very, very smooth and the finish has a hint of dryness to it but just goes down like silk. Really great. This is a food friendly daiginjo for sure. It’s not too sweet. It’s not too fruity. It’s not too froofy. It has a nice…
John Puma 17:16
Timothy Sullivan 17:17
balance to it. A little bit of again, this little bit of a very pleasant herbal note and a dry finish. Just fantastic. Gosh, when a sake is good, it’s really good, isn’t it?
John Puma 17:31
That’s why we’re here. I think the magic of delicious sake. All right, I want some of that. Sounds great.
Timothy Sullivan 17:42
It is great.
John Puma 17:44
So this is the dark side of not doing this show in person anymore is that I can’t just be like, ooh, let me have some of that. So I’m going to pour some of my Eiko Fuji HonKara which is a clever name, I like that. I think they they also refer to it as Dry Mountain, which is okay. It’s kind of fun. All right.
Timothy Sullivan 18:17
Well, the Japanese love to contract things. So honjozo karakuchi: “hon-kara”. That’s how you do it.
John Puma 18:23
So this one is, it’s interesting. So it’s the rice is Hai-nuki which is actually a Yamagata table rice.
Timothy Sullivan 18:35
John Puma 18:36
This is not exclusively grown as a sake rice. It’s actually grown as a table rice. And that’s interesting. It’s gonna be it’s gonna make for something a little different, I think. It’s milled down to 60% by the way. So The nose is still a little fruity. It’s not like Yamagata fruity… but it’s fruity.
Timothy Sullivan 19:07
That’s like a plot twist.
John Puma 19:09
Yeah. That their honkara is a little fruity still.
Timothy Sullivan 19:16
“Mi Kara es tu Kara”
John Puma 19:18
I like that sounds good. Tim this is this is silky. This is I was not expecting. This is um, it’s light. It’s silky. It’s dry and crisp is a little sweetness in the middle. Like a little fruity. Also, this is very surprising. This is really interesting. I was having a super dry honjozo made with table rice. My expectation was going to be very rice forward and you know something that you really need need but really want food with and not want to sip. This is very simple. However, that dry crisp snap at the end really does tell me that I need to do something with this. It really does. I think it would acclimate well to grilled meats. I know that you know last week we talked a little bit about yakitori and perhaps perhaps that’s the power of suggestion but I’m thinking I’m thinking some yakitori here. The Fire Escape is looking pretty good. Maybe I can bribe the fire department with with sake and yakitori.
Timothy Sullivan 20:43
Yamagata never has failed us, has it?
John Puma 20:48
Yeah, this is again, just like I’m just completely surprised at how how light it is. I expected something really heavy.
Timothy Sullivan 21:00
Yeah and that they can take an eating rice… a table rice…
John Puma 21:03
Timothy Sullivan 21:05
and convert that into something so delicious that takes- that’s where the craftsmanship really comes in, I think. The skill of the brewer to make that happen is amazing.
John Puma 21:14
right? I mean, I think that when you have when you have great tools, it’s – I’m not gonna say easy – but it’s easier to take them and make something great with it. There’s a there’s an idea with photography, that if you are really good photographer, you can take a good photo with a not-amazing camera. And that sometimes you need to make up for experience by having a really good hardware by having a really good lens. And so in this case, they’re taking a table rice and making this delicious, delicious sake out of it. It’s amazing.
Timothy Sullivan 21:57
That’s fantastic. Well, good now I want to try yours.
John Puma 22:02
Timothy Sullivan 22:04
dang social distancing.
John Puma 22:06
Yeah, I don’t know if that’s gonna work. I can get an Uber but its goning to be a) expensive and b) time consuming. I don’t think that’s a great idea. We’ll have to get together one of these days when everything gets back to normal,
Timothy Sullivan 22:20
…as soon as we can…
John Puma 22:21
and we’ll get this. I’ll bring a bottle of this, you bring about that., and we’ll swap.
Timothy Sullivan 22:26
So John, I want to talk about one more thing. My sake again was a daiginjo. But there’s this other word in front of it yamahai.
John Puma 22:35
Yeah, we we haven’t really talked much about yamahai yet.
Timothy Sullivan 22:40
Yeah, well, I can explain really briefly what Yamahai is. When you make sake you make what’s called a fermentation starter or a yeast starter and there’s different ways to make that yeast starter. Yamahai is one of the more traditional, old fashioned ways to do that. And it takes a longer amount of time and more wild yeasts, wild bacteria gets in there during that process. So the end result is that yamahai is a style of sake that can give you more funkiness, more earthiness, a little bit more robust flavors. So to have a Yamahai that is also an alcohol-added super premium is not very common. No, I didn’t want to make sure everyone understands that.
John Puma 23:21
It’s a it’s a very interesting juxtaposition.
Timothy Sullivan 23:27
Yeah, and that that’s the Yamahai aspect of this Daiginjo I think gives it that structure. So we have silkiness from the added alcohol and from the very, very low rice milling rate, but the fact that they used the gohyakumangoku sake rice, which is originally from Niigata, right, but it’s used for airier cleaner sakes. And on top of that they use this yamahai production method which gives us a generally more layered notes, more earthiness, a little bit more robust funkiness sometimes, but they give it a very elegant spin, I have to say.
John Puma 24:09
Timothy Sullivan 24:11
Let me think about food pairings for my sake. This is a really interesting one because it has the structure of a more robust sake, but it has the the body and the finish of a super premium. So it’s a really interesting blending of styles. I think of things like kind of lighter dishes, not something heavy, not something too rich or smokey. But I think of things like different types of seafood salad like a crab salad would be excellent with this. Ceviche would be excellent with this. You know, it’s interesting, if you have sashimi, sashimi is kind of light, clean and a very pure taste. But ceviche kind of like turns up the volume a little bit on that. You have the acid in there, the citrus in there, probably some spices. And I think that this has the structure to stand up to that additional layer of flavor. So I would really love to have this with different types of seafood. Even raw preparations of seafood would be really good with this like ceviche as I mentioned. So, yeah, now I’m getting really hungry again. This is this is the occupational hazard of our podcast,
John Puma 25:31
I think so. I think after this it might be after we’re done recording, it might be dinnertime.
Timothy Sullivan 25:40
All right. Well, we’ve learned all about koji. And we’ve tasted two amazing sakes. This has been a lot of fun.
John Puma 25:49
Yeah, this is a this is an interesting and informative episode. I like this and I like that we got to have some sakes that define our expectations in a couple of ways.
Timothy Sullivan 26:00
Absolutely. And in future episodes, we’re going to continue our Sake Education Corner series on sake production. And we’re going to get into the fermentation parts of sake production, which will be a lot of fun.
John Puma 26:15
I’m looking forward to that. But we are going to be breaking those up every now and again, with some I’d say less serious…? I don’t know if this is too serious. But, you know, just to just to kind of keep things interesting. We’re going to throw a few changes, a few curveballs every now and again, as we move along during the series.
Timothy Sullivan 26:38
…and maybe a few more Sake VIP interviews too
John Puma 26:42
maybe that, Tim.
Timothy Sullivan 26:44
You never know who might show up at the Sake Revolution studios,
John Puma 26:49
Timothy Sullivan 26:54
All right, thank you so much for tuning in. If you can, please take a moment and rate our show on Apple podcasts. We’d really appreciate it.
John Puma 27:04
And if you enjoy listening to us cast pods every week, I might recommend that you subscribe wherever you download your podcasts, so these episodes will magically show up on your phone or listening device of your choice every time we release one.
Timothy Sullivan 27:19
And as always, to learn more about any of the topics we talked about, or any of the sakes we tasted in today’s episode, be sure to visit our website SakeRevolution.com, and there you can check out the detailed show notes.
John Puma 27:33
And of course, please send us your feedback, your questions or comments and your show ideas to our email: [email protected] So until next time, please remember to keep drinking sake and Kanpai!