RECAP: UKBG Sake & Koji Masterclass | March 7

Earlier in March, we launched the first of our first large-scale digital masterclasses, as part of our KOKUSHU! season of Japanese Beverage Culture. Our event drew over 160 participants, from across the country (and the world!) to learn about the history and culture of Japanese SakeShochu and Awamori – and the amazing substance that helps create them all, Koji. Our 2-hour session ended up running to 3 hours – we vastly underestimated how much content we had to share!

First, we’d like to extend a huge thank you to the Japan Sake and Shochu Maker’s Association (JSS) and the JSS Academy for their support and sponsorship. In particular thanks to JSS Graduate, Miho Komatsu who was our bridge with the organisation, and co-organisational lead. Miho has been a colleague and friend to the UKBG for a long time, and its really been great that we’ve been able to get a project like this together!

Our Biggest Online Audience Ever

Clockwise from Top Left: Rie Yoshitake, Miho Komatsu, Akemi Yokoyama, Marie Cheong-Thong, Jun Ogawa

While we’re used to running international cocktail competitions and running bars six-deep, producing an online livestream to over 150 people was a little nerve-wracking and a whole new skillset!  Our event kicked off with an introduction to Koji and Sake from Rie Yoshitake, one of the UK’s leading ambassadors for Japanese culture and business. As director of the Japanese Culinary Academy (UK), as well as a representative of the JSS in the UK, Rei’s knowledge and experience imparted a fantastic grounder for our audience. We then welcomed Marie Cheong-Thong, Executive Director of the British Sake Association and recognised wine writer, who took us into a much deeper, more technical look at Sake and production methods, from fermentation right through to distillation and bottling. Akemi Yokoyama of Gohan London, culinary instructor and Sake educator then took over, with an in-depth lecture on the nature of the Koji-kin mould, how different strains and types produced different product flavour, finally finishing with our blind tasting session and tasting guide with Miho. Lastly, Jun Ogawa, Awamori advocate and product owner, gave us an opener into the fairly new Japanese spirits category of Awamori, Sake and Shochu’s Okinawan cousin.

Throughout the session we held polls and competitions, giving away free bottles of Sake and a ceramic Sake Warmer kit to a few lucky – and engaged! – guests. Congratulations again to all our on-stream winners! Even through we went really over-schedule – one whole hour! –  we were so grateful that everyone stayed and kept the conversation going.

Sake Panel Questions – Follow-ups 

You all had a lots of questions that we posed to our panel, but a few didn’t get answered on stream, so as promised we followed up with some pretty detailed answers from each of our guests!

Q: Is the higher the percentage (of rice polishing) mean a better quality of Sake?

Marie: In my opinion all Sake is of good quality! Whether Premium Sake or not. No Sake maker would dream of making a bad quality Sake. The smaller the grain left when making sake the more delicate and more fruity and floral it will be. Ginjo Ka – “Sake does not fight with Food” – Rie’s mantra. It’s a case of choosing the right sake to match what you are eating. Honjozo with a juicy steak, but maybe a Junmai Daiginjo with some slithers of sashimi!

Miho: It is not necessarily it is better quality of Sake if rice is polished a lot or not. Different styles of Sake result from how much the rice has been polished – i.e. whether you only use the starchy part of the rice, or if you include the protein, fat etc. The price of sake goes up with higher percentage of rice polishing – but only because we need larger quantities of rice to make them. As Marie says, all sake is judged as good quality. It’s merely the style of Sake that changes so it depends on the style we are looking at depends on the ingredients.

Q: Is Sake only ever aged in the bottle?
Marie: Most Koshu is aged in the bottle. This stops further oxidation. However Awamori is aged in terracotta jars in the Shitsugi (solera style of aging)

Miho: it can be aged in many different ways. Bottle, tank, refrigerator, cellar, Terracotta, cool temperature, room temperature, and so on. Depends on how you would like to age your sake.

Q: If Sake sales are going up, why are brewers in Japan diminishing?
Rie: Numbers of Sake makers and Sake sales within in Japan itself are both declining, sadly. There are lots of reasons for this – our aging population; people are drinking less and less; competition with other drinks like wine, and new alcoholic products. Sake share in the domestic alcohol market is around 6% and sadly also declining. However – Sake export is thriving, alongside Japanese food. Our export value tripled and volume increased by 50% in last 10 years. Still, Japan is exporting less than 5% of total production. The future of the Japanese Sake industry is in building our brands overseas.

Q: For brewing – how does fresh Koji differ from Koji that has been refrigerated – how long does it take to make ? And when is it done ?
Akemi: Freshly-made Koji is dried to an extent that it stops fermenting further. Drying maintains the Koji’s quality, stops self-saccharification and spore formation. Once dried it can be stored in the fridge and it could even be frozen. While most breweries use the koji straightaway but as Miho confirmed refrigerated koji is also used even for the premium sake.

Q: Is there any doburoku on sale in the UK?
Miho: I have not seen Doburoku in UK. Doburoku is an alcoholic beverage however it is not classified as Nihonshu (Japanese Sake), as there’s no pressing or filtration. Nihonshu has to separate the liquid from the solid. Doburoku has not been separated so it is not considered as Japanese Sake.

Q: What would you call a sake which had an ABV of above 22%?
Marie: It cannot legally be called a sake. Naturally, yeast will die at around 22%. The sake will be diluted or distilled to make shōchū.

Miho: If the liquid is above 22%, it will classified as Zasshu (雑酒)- translation – Miscellaneous Liquor. This definition is essentially from Japanese Liquor Tax Law.

Q: How many days from start to finish does it take to brew one batch of sake?
Marie: Rice polishing can take up to 50 hrs. Making kKoji takes 2 days. The starter – Shubo takes about 10-14 days. 4 days to build up the mash. Fermentation is about 18-60 days depending on the type of sake you are making. Pressing and resting 7 days. Filtration, pasteurisation, cooling and resting the sake another 6 months before final bottling and shipping.

Q: How do you polish rice?
Marie: Huge column mills. Rice is poured into the column with a central rotating stone. As grains fall, the stone gently polishes the grains. See the Masumi brewery video. A fab explanation.

Q: When were gradings for sake introduced?
Marie: Grading of sake began as a tax exercise after the First World War, initially using some very unfair methods based on the price of the Sake being sold. This gradually evolved into the 8 categories based on rice polishing around the late 1980s.

Miho: The grading what you see now was introduced in April 1990, and we formally stopped using The previous grading systemby 1992.

Q: How do you manage consistency of flavours and tasting notes in different batches of the same kind of sake, e.g. Akashi daiginjo?
Miho: We try to brew Sake always in the same methods and craft. We match the methods of koji production, fermentation, temperature control along with constant analysis – it’s a craft.  During the fermentation, the dryness, sweetness, acidity level and alcohol percentage are measured at every step manually – ensuring we always get the same flavour profile. The difficulty is even when we are following the same methods, have the same environment with same ingredients – each batch could be diffident. It the Sake maker’s skill and experience that determines how consistent sake can be with same raw material, We often say, one Sake’s taste and result are not from the raw ingredients but the skill of the Sake Master. Their skill determines batch consistency.

Q: That Ozeki commercial for the 50 year anniversary – clearly is aimed at an older audience. How is Ozeki trying to change its image?
Miho went to Ozeki to answer this question – they replied with the following:
We have been producing many limited editions of One cup in Japan, including collaborating with anime, movies, and special events. Through this collaboration, we are trying to reach a younger generation and new market. Unfortunately the limited editions have mainly been distributed only in Japan. But this year we have produced and distributed the LGBT Rainbow One Cup all over the world. We developed a limited edition label as a way to promote diversity and raise awareness. The Rainbow Label will reach consumers who don’t normally buy the One Cup and regain brand recognition overseas. The copy will join together the universal message of “One Love” with the product name of “One Cup.”

Q: What is the ABV of Nigori Sake? Does it vary widely ?
Marie: Depends on the Nigori style. Unless it’s a true Nama Nigori, pasteurisation has take place so the ABV is fixed. However for Nama Nigori, an estimated maximum ABV is stated. Most exported Nigori tends to be pasteurised. We don’t see so many Nama Nigori as it is not safe to keep as unpasteurised.

Miho: Nigori sake’s ABV can vary. It depends on the Sake maker, but usually it’s between 14-16%. However, it can be lower or higher than that! It really depends on the style and balance of the Nigori, that the sake maker would like to introduce – and it can also vary from a very thick Nigori to a very thin one. Nigori sake has many different styles and the ABV will vary with the style. For example sparkling-type Nigori which can be slightly lower ABV than, say a thicker still one!

Q: For brewing – how does fresh Koji differ from Koji that has been refrigerated? How long does it take to make? 
Akemi: Freshly made Koji is dried to an extent that it stops fermenting further. Drying maintains the Koji’s quality, stops self-saccharification and spore formation. Once dried it can be stored in the fridge and it could even be frozen. While most breweries use the Koji straightaway, but as Miho confirmed, refrigerated Koji is also used even for the premium sake. After washing, soaking and steaming the rice, it takes 48 hours on average to make koji. For brewing, koji is made during the sake-making season – generally during the winter time. However, some breweries make sake all year-round.

JSS: Nowadays, some craft brewers tend to use frozen Koji for their production. Enzymes etc, do not denature Koji when frozen. We usually dry out the Koji after it is made and we ensure that we’ve removed the moisture when freezing.

Q: Where can you buy affordable Koji spores in the UK?
Akemi: A limited selection of koji spores are available from and

Q: What sakes would you recommend for Cocktail making?
Miho: I would recommend something with a stronger taste profile, to preserve the flavour. Genshu from Honjozo or Jumna style would be very good, Yuzushu and Umeshu are also great choices for cocktails!

Q: How long does sake last, once opened?
JSS: After opening a bottle of sake, it gradually begins to oxidise. However, its flavour does not change as quickly as wine. To keep the freshness of an open bottle, cap it airtight and store it in a refrigerator.

Q: Where can we buy the samples and Sake brands covered in the session?
Amazake Samples #A B C
Gohan London

Sample #D: Shirakawago Nigori Zake 300ml
Trade: JFC
Retail/ Online: Atari-ya / Rice wine / SUSHI SUSHI LTD

Sample#E: Ozeki One cup 180ml
Trade JFC
Retail/Online: London SakeHyotan LondonKushi-ya

Sample #F: Akashi-Tai Daiginjo Genshu
Trade: Marussia Bevarages UKJFCSpeciality DrinksMatthew ClarkAmathusEnotria & Coe
Retail/Online: The Whisky ExchangeMaster of Malt, Natural Natural

Blind Tasting Sample #1: Denshi INE Junmai (Sake)
Trade: JFC
Retail/Online: London Sake / Tian Tian / Natural Natural

Blind Tasting Sample #2: Hakutake Shiro Kome (Shochu)
Trade: JFC
Retail/Online: Sous Chef /  Amazon UK

Blind Tasting Sample #3: Ryukyu 1429 MIZU (Awamori)
Trade: Champers Wholesale
Retail/Online: Drink Supermarket

Event Photo Gallery

Many sincere thanks to Marcella Murtas Photography for covering our event.

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