shochu. And it’s really part of gastronomic culture of Japan, as well.” There are three main species of koji and all have been used, to varying degrees, in shochu production.
The most ancient of the molds is black koji, whose scientific name, aspergillus awamori, reflects its most common use, as the microbe of choice in awamori—the long-grain indica-rice-based spirit that’s unique to Okinawa. Black koji is very high in citric acid and is known to produce extremely strong enzymes to break down starch. The microbe also has become popular among shochu producers, as it’s known to produce a drier spirit, with a rich, earthy flavor and aroma. The acid level is also a big plus, as it fights off any unwanted bacteria that might bring unpleasant elements to the mash. Some shochu makers that had dabbled with black-kojibased products have moved away, as aspergillus awamori, to put it lightly, has a tendency of taking over. “It’s sort of pervasive,” explains Stephen Lyman, founder of Kampai
US and one of America’s foremost experts on the spirit. “[Producers] start getting this distillery mold, mold that’s propagating and getting all over the place.” Lyman recalls that during one of his stints working at shochu distilleries in Kyushu (the southwestern-most of Japan’s main islands), such an infection occurred. “Even after doing a complete disinfection of the koji room, it shut down koji production for a day,” he says. “Any rice that fell on the floor ended up being propagated with black koji. It just overpowers white koji and yellow koji. You’ve got to be really careful when using it.” Black koji’s labor-intensity hasn’t deterred the makers of Mizu, as it’s crucial to the flavor profile they pursued for the flagship Saga Barley product, as well as its soon to launch green tea shochu. In addition to the barley and the rice koji, 10 percent of the mash is roasted green tea. Rice koji is the first mash and barley is added for the second. About mid-way through the second mash—six or seven days into the process—the distillers add the green tea. “The aroma of roasted green tea is not faint or delicate—
it’s pretty rich,” says Falowitz. “Pairing that with black koji gives it peak aromatics.”
For Mizu’s other release, its Lemongrass shochu, it uses the breed most commonly used for the spirit, aspergillus kawachi, aka white koji. White koji is actually a mutant form of black koji that’s also known to produce high levels of citric acid and powerful enzymes to saccharify starch. The Mizu team wanted to make sure that the predominant aroma notes were from the lemongrass—which accounts for five percent of the mash—rather than the koji, and the white variety offers more subdued aromatics for that purpose. It’s also not quite as invasive as aspergillus awamori, which makes it a bit easier to control in the koji room. “White koji tends to be much more mellow and balanced, I’d even say sweeter,” Lyman says.
Yellow koji, or aspergillus oryzae, is far less frequently used in shochu production— it’s the koji used in sake, soy
sauce, and miso—but when it is, it brings a pronounced floral quality to the spirit. While you still get some of the same strong enzymes to break down starches as you do with black and white, yellow is considerably lower in acidity and more sensitive to heat— hence its uncommon presence in the shochu world. However there are some notable brands that make an aspergillus oryzae interpretation of the spirit, including the sweet-potatobased Sakura Shiranami, from Kagoshima’s Satsuma Shuzo. There’s also Tomi No Hozan, another Kagoshima-produced sweet potato offering from Nishi Shuzo Co. “[A distiller] likes to say koji is honest,” notes Lyman. “If you cut corners on making koji, it’s not going to turn out well. You’ve got to do everything you can to propagate it efficiently, otherwise you’re not going to come out with a strong fermentation. And that means you can’t cheat.”
Jeff Cioletti is the editor at large of Beverage World Magazine, creator of The Drinkable Globe website, and hosts the web series, The Drinkable Week.
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Published on Dec 14, 2017