Like wineries and beer breweries, not all sake breweries (sakagura) are the same. You’ve got big conglomerates churning out millions of litres of product all year round, medium-sized breweries that make enough to cover Japan and a few exports and tiny ones that only make enough for the locals. What always amazes me though, is how some can appear quite small but still turn out quite a bit of sake. Kozaemon is such a brewery.
Located in Gifu Prefecture in central Japan, Kozaemon has quite a history as a 300 year old brewery founded in 1702. And these days they’re garnering a bit of attention as a forward thinking brewery both in Japan and abroad.
One of the things I love about Kozaemon is they are the kind of brewery that has a go at everything. Some breweries have the portfolio of a few sakes and they brew with little change to the portfolio year in year out. Kozaemon makes (in varying quantities) just about anything you’d care to try. Whether it be using different rice varieties, grades, yeast strains, brewing methods, namazake, aged they seem to find time to have a go at everything. And there’s only a team of three in the brewery! To me, when a brewery spreads their wings and tries different things it shows passion and it’d be fair to say Kozaemon are a passionate brewery. One thing of which they are proud is their relationship with their rice farmers. Many breweries buy sake rice from large co-op’s and have to make do with what they get. Kozaemon have contracted growers all over Japan and know exactly where their rice is coming from and how it is being grown. Of course you can’t get everything they have to offer here in Australia but of all the sake brands available in Australia they have arguably the largest range here thanks to their listing as the “house sake” for the Sake Restaurant group in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. Whether you want to try their daiginjo, junmai, honjozo, yamahai…they’re all there.
Not available retail sadly but if you’re lucky you might find their sake in other restaurants too so keep an eye out.
Kozaemon Junmai Ginjo Bizen Omachi
Rice Variety: Omachi
Upfront ginjo-ka (ginjo-esque aromas) of candied florals with hints of peach and boiled lollies. Quite settled, I’m not sure but I believe this may be slightly matured before release. I find Omachi to be the most easily recognisable rice variety, bearing in mind rice varieties are not as obvious as wine grape varieties. Omachi is often full, and savoury with some chestnut flavours in the finish-just like this guy. A full, opulent sake with moreish umami, would be a great match to slightly meatier fish dishes.
Thursday night I was lucky enough to attend a sake tasting/masterclass at Sake Restaurant in Brisbane. An event organised by Sommeliers Australia, it was great to see such a strong interest in sake from folks normally nose deep in wine. One of the things I love about these kind of events is the opportunity to try different styles and grades of sake alongside each other so the differences are even more apparent. And I think some of the sommeliers in attendance were pleasantly surprised at the range and diversity sake can display. On show for the evening was sake from Nakashima Brewing’s Kozaemon.
Nakashima is located in Gifu prefecture in central Japan. A fairly sleepy kind of area probably best known for its snow fields in winter. Boasting a 300 year history of sake making, Nakashima prides itself on their commitment to maintaining close relationships with all their contacts, in particular the growers of their rice.
The evening was hosted by Sake Restaurant sommelier and resident sake expert Miriam McLachlan along with Nakashima Brewing president Kozaemon-san himself who happened to be in town. After running through some sake basics, presented in a detailed slide show and a look at some rice samples milled to different sizes it was down to the business of tasting We had seven different sakes representing a good diversity of styles from Kozaemon’s portfolio.
First up was the Honjozo Kyoukai #7 Koubo Seimaibuai 70%- The seven refers to the number yeast used (sake yeasts are rather boringly numbered rather than having any names that refer to the type of flavour or aromas of the yeast). In true honjozo style there were some lifted aromatics with floral hints and aniseed notes. Not an overpowering or attention-demanding sake, more suited to everyday drinking and probably best served chilled (as the restaurant does) rather than warming.
It was great to try the junmai next as it accurately highlighted how much honjozos and junmai can differ when done conforming to typical style profiles. The junmai was rustic, earthy with peppery grip and nice full umami richness. The fact that it had a milling rate of only 80% (as opposed to the more common 70% or thereabouts) further highlighted the ricey, chewy characteristics junmai can sometimes have.
Next up was the Junmai Ginjo Shinano Miyamanishiki Organic (seimaibuai 50%). This proved to be the favourite among most of the crowd myself included. Beautiful banana, bubblegum and soft stone fruit aromas lead to a well-balanced palate with fresh acidity and satisfying fullness. You may notice that this sake has a seimaibuai of 50% which by rights would enable the brewers to label it the higher grade of Daiginjo. However as Kozaemon-san explained, it isn’t about claiming a certain classification just because you can. This particular sake was designed as a junmai ginjo and fits that flavour profile. The brewer will label the sake as he/she sees fit. If the sake is not a daiginjo in their eyes they will not label it as such even though they could and charge a higher price accordingly.
Quite noble and honest.
Speaking of daiginjos next up was the Kozaemon Junmai Daiginjo (50%) which I believe cemented Kozaemon-san’s words about labelling sake as appropriate to style. In daiginjo fashion, the elegant, floral perfumed notes jumped out the glass. Managing to be light yet still showing some body, this is a very good daiginjo.
A 3yr old Junmai Koshu was next. Unsurprisingly many of the sommeliers in attendance were keen to know about the effects of ageing sake and whether it was possible. Golden in colour, musty, cheesy aromas mixed with notes of old wood and hints of sherry. Definitely showing the possible outcome of ageing sake it was a fairly textbook example of koshu. It certainly aroused interest.
Kozaemon Tokubetsu Jikagumi was an interesting spin on namazake (unpasteurized sake). Jikagumi means “directly pumped out” or perhaps “straight from the source” would be a better translation. Basically it is sake that is bottled straight after pressing rather than being fine filtered and pasteurized so it actually contains some of the naturally occurring CO2 from the fermentation process which gives it a very slight spritz. Essentially nama in style; it showed plenty of over the top aromas of melon, some tropical fruit and a background of strawberries and cream lollies. A fun sake.
The tasting was topped off with a look at their Yuzu infused sake. Yuzu being a tart Japanese citrus fruit. Almost like a limoncello, it makes a nice digestif.
Overall, it was a great evening. Kozaemon-san was a most affable and approachable host and Miriam is as passionate as she is knowledgable. Sake Restaurant itself is a very cool venue with a nice mix of Japanese tradition and modern class both in decor and food. Kozaemon sake is exclusive to the two Sake Restaurants (other one is in Sydney) and cannot be found in any bottle shops. So, if you’re up for some quality sake and fusion Japanese food served by knowledgable staff – you now know where to go.
P.S. Apologies for the quality of the photos, I was far too engrossed in the sake.