Raising a Sake Glass
President, Nanbu Bijin Sake Brewery
Kosuke Kuji is president of Nanbu Bijin Sake Brewery, an international award-winning sake producer based in northeastern Japan. What drives his efforts to bring sake to a wider global audience?
The following are excerpts from our interview.
To make a world-class sake, I believe there are two key elements. One is terroir. The other is the marriage of that sake with food. What I mean by terroir is that we make our sake locally, using local ingredients. When I started at the brewery 23 years ago, we weren’t using so much as a single grain of rice made in Ninohe City here in Iwate Prefecture.
At a tasting event in New York I told a client that we used the best rice in Japan to make our sake. They said “Nonsense. What would happen if a winery in Burgundy used Cabernet Sauvignon grapes?” “A wine is not a wine unless it’s made of grapes from the region. What about sake? Don’t you think that’s odd?” I came back to Japan and realized that in order for sake to compete on the world stage, we needed to make it using local rice. So, I wanted to make sake using rice from this region. Not just Iwate brand, but specifically Ninohe brand. I wanted to embrace the idea of terroir. I have pride in Ninohe.
We use local rice called “Gin-otome”. It’s a kind of rice that really compliments food. It results in sake that is mild, soft, and heartwarming. And when you drink it, it makes you want to eat. You want to pair it with food. If you asked me what the best pairing was for our sake “Nanbu Bijin”, I would say...oysters. Oysters with a dash of lemon. No sauce. If you can get your hands on some oysters from Iwate, it’s a hundred out of a hundred--a match made in heaven.
There’s this sake brewery called Brooklyn Kura, started by two Americans. I’d been visiting since they started construction, giving advice. And recently their facilities were completed, so I went try out their sake, look at the fermentation, the aroma, and provide guidance. In order for Japanese sake to spread around the world, it needs to be brewed locally. Look at wine. It became global because it is produced in regions all over the world. The same phenomenon needs to happen in the sake industry. And it’s not just about brewing the sake. It also needs to be great-tasting sake. If I can pass on what I’ve learned to brewers in America and the U.K., and they can make quality sake, then I will have done my part.