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014 The 3 M's, “Mold, Mash, Make!” Part 2: Mash

In Part 1 of "The 3 M's" we took a look at the biology of kōji mold. In Part 2, "Mash", let's trace the journey of kōji's adoption and how it influenced the sake we all enjoy today!

Monk statue and temple building at Enryaku-ji temple. Warrior monks would help overthrow the monopoly on Koji trade during a Bunnan era uprising.
Enryaku-ji temple. Warrior monks would help overthrow the monopoly on Koji trade during a Bunnan era uprising.

Kōji was adopted into sake making as follows:


1. Spontaneous propagation method: ancient peoples noted that molds had some sort of desirable power for food and drink production, but as methods to identify and select specific strains were yet unknown, it was necessary to wait and hope for the right mold to spontaneously form.


2. Seeding from malt method: a portion of good rice malt is set aside to seed a future batch of sake. This was similarly performed for other products such as miso and vinegar.


3. Fermentation starter technique: eventually mold was able to be isolated and raised for use as a starter. In the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) the Kyōto-based kōji production and trading guild, "Kōji Za", would go on to share techniques for selectively growing kōji. The key to it was to mix the mold in ashes and selectively raise them that way. It is currently understood that this slightly alkaline medium would both suppress the growth of competing organisms and serve as a good source of potassium.


4. Sake malt (kōji) producers and traders are thought to have been dotted around Kyōto during the Muromachi Period, with some possibly having Kōji Za roots.


Next, let's talk about some key records referring to mold utilization for sake production (editor’s note: as well as the industry and its history at large!) as has been gathered from a number of historical publications.


1. Excerpt from the historical record "Harima no kuni fudoki" (8th century): "From blessed rice left to mature, grows mold from which sake is made and ceremoniously offered to the gods in thanks." indicates that some form of mold and malt may have been used to make alcohol. Interestingly, the Chinese character that represents "mold" in the original passage, today means plum/plum tree.


2. Definition of "Kamutachi" (which today could be equated to "kōji malt") from the famous Heian-period dictionary, "Wamyōshō" (10th century): "decaying grain matter produced after coating with mold."


3. There are historical references to the use of wood ash, "grass kōji" and "rice kōji". At a guess, such records refer to selecting and isolating desirable molds by mixing molds derived from the ears/heads of rice and other grasses with wood ash.


4. Regarding "Yone no moyashi" (a term for malt, roughly translating to "fuzzy mold sprouting on rice"). A clause added in the Engi-shiki (set of ancient Japanese regulations), volume 40 (authored by "miki no tsukasa", a governmental department overlooking sake manufacture; established 927 AD) came into effect in 967 AD.

Much of our current understanding of sake manufacturing between the 6th and 10th centuries comes from such documents. Through analyzing excavated ruins, it is believed that the miki no tsukasa governmental department was located within the grounds of the Imperial Court in Kyōto. 

The department's work related to the production of various alcoholic sakes, amazake, etc., and the supplying of these products for court festivals and banquets, as well as giving them to government officials and laborers alike as a form of salary. The kanji (Chinese-derived written characters) for "sprout" (糵) was used to depict "Yone no moyashi".

(i) Brewing sites were established after first blessing the construction site, then constructing one each of the following facilities: brewing house, milling house, and kōji room. According to one theory, they may have had thatched roofing.

(ii) What was the fermentation method for Imperial Court sake? Taking into account the viscosity of unrefined sake samples, it is surmised that a variety of red rice was used.


5. Following the collapse of the "Ritsuryo" administrative system, Japan moved from a society ruled by Heian aristocrats to one ruled by samurai. In turn, sake production would diffuse out from the imperial court into the hands of the common class with sake being brewed both at home and at more professional brewing establishments alike.


6. The Kamakura Shogunate (ruling from 1185-1333) would impose a prohibition on the trade and consumption of sake. In Kamakura City, sake trading was outright banned and residences were inspected for sake jars, with all found being promptly destroyed.


7. The Imperial Court established a sake taxation system called "Tsubo Sen" ("壷銭"; "jar money"). At this time the country operated under a diarchy (ruling authority belonged to imperial court and the bakafu feudal military).


8. The prohibition on alcohol would be abolished when national rule transitioned from the Kamakura Shogunate to the Muromachi Shogunate (1336-1573), seeing trade resume and taxes imposed on the industry. The 14th century saw a strong shift toward commercial sake brewing and distribution, succeeding the prior norm of "self-sufficient" production.


9. In 1371, a levy would be imposed on those in the sake industry and money-broking business* nationwide to support the enthronement of the emperor. This would amount to: 30 kanmon** for money brokers, and 200 mon per jar of sake for sake dealers. Put simply, levies for money brokers were calculated based on assumed incomes generated per 30-50 hectares of (rice) farming land. The government adopted a policy that made commercial/industrial bodies, rather than individual farmers, pay the levy. Sake dealers would be taxed based on their inventory, being charged on a per jug basis. This was known as the zōkokuzei, or "Brewing Tax".

* in fact, some sake dealers were also money brokers!

** "mon" (文) is the name of the currency of that time with "kanon" (貫文) meaning a unit of 1000 mon.


10. In 1393, taxation policies for the sake industry were more formally outlined and documented. Levies imposed on the sake industry became a "general income source" for the Muromachi Shogunate.


11. By the 15th century, sake brewing had spread across all of Japan.



The unending flow of the Kamogawa river
The unending flow of the Kamogawa river

12. By 1426, the number of sake-producing/selling businesses rose to 342 in the Kyōto capital, with more than half of them having expanded to provide money-broking services. The central Shijō and Gojō, as well as the outer Saga, Kamogawa East Bank, and Fushimi districts, were notably prosperous in their endeavors. It appears that the so-called "liquor shop tax" would apply to sake businesses, starting with those with an inventory of about 15-120 sake jars. Among them, the Gojō Bōmon Nishi no Tōin store of the famous "Yanagi Sake" brand is recorded to have had a tax obligation amounting to 720 kanmon.

Even though Kyōto was void of rice fields, it became famous for the sake trade owing to the fact that it was the capital and that generous tributes of rice were given to the estates of its numerous feudal lords. The rice markets of Sanjō Muromachi and Shichijō Dōri, being notably stocked with rice from the north and west of the country, were famous for large crowds and roaring trade.


13. The manufacture and trade of sake kōji malt became monopolized by guild traders of the Kitano Shrine (present day Kitano-Tenmangu Shrine).


14. Sake brands belonging to makers in outer provinces start to become widely renowned such as "Amano Sake" by the Kawachi Tendai sect of the Kongō Temple at Mt. Amano, "Badaisen" by the Yamato Bodai Mountain Temple, and the sake of the Hyakusai Temple in Ōmi (located in present day Shiga Prefecture).


15. The rise and decline of the "Kōji Za" kōji trading guild.

Once the authority and primary source of kōji for brewing, the Kōji Za would fall in the face of increasing competition from independent producers, and would finally dissolve in response to an economic crash. Some facts:

(i) The Kōji Za would form in the 13th century, being granted rights to carry out business activity in prime territories.

(ii) In order to practice their special kōji production techniques utilizing wood ash, they would require talented staff and the appropriate facilities. The Kōji Za would diversify by becoming a sake trader in addition to being a manufacturer and provider of kōji.

(iii) The "Za", or "seat" in English, primarily refers to the guild for performers, commercial professionals, and industrial workers that existed in Japan in the middle ages. Guild businesses would be directly affiliated with the Imperial Court and/or temples and shrines, where they would establish their main offices and offer guild and other services in exchange for exclusive rights to conduct trade and business in their allocated territory.



16. The "Bunan-era Kōji Dispute" refers to a rebellion staged in Kyōto concerning the control of kōji malt production and would have a significant effect on the sake brewing industry. Kōji malt production started out as an independent venture, but in time a deal between the Kitano Shrine's "Kitano Kōji Za" and the ruling Muromachi shogunate was struck, granting them exclusive rights to produce and sell kōji malt in Kyōto in exchange for generous financial backing. The Kitano Kōji Za exercised their financial power to achieve this as they felt pressured in the face of increasing competition by independent producers. The Enryaku Temple along with independent malt producers, malt traders, and other negatively-affected entities would band together in defiance of the regulations and forced monopoly. Conflict would erupt and the Shogunate would lose, resulting in it abolishing the exclusive malt trading rights it had granted to the Kitano Kōji Za. Protests on the outcome by upset Kitano Kōji Za members would motivate a battle between themselves and the shogunate with the shogunate conquering them, leaving many dead and areas around the shrine extensively burnt. This left the Kitano Kōji Za no option but to give in, opening up the malt production enterprise to all and triggering their decline. As it was now allowed, the practice of brewers making their own kōji in-house would become normalized, giving makers more power to create their own distinct products and put up their own malt for sale.


Though the loss of the Kitano arm of the guild was a setback, the Kōji Za would continue to produce and sell kōji, co-existing alongside its competitors and experiencing smooth sailing for the next 600 years or so, thanks no doubt to the demand of their fine products imbued with many years of knowledge and expertise. In time though, the Muromachi shogunate would fall and the Sengoku "warring states" period would begin. After over a century of war, came the unification of the country. With this, new political policies came into effect including one loosely translated as the "free markets and open guilds" policy that would eventually cause the decline of the Kōji Za.


Visitor “A”: I now understand how kōji malt has been so instrumental to the sake industry both practically and historically.


Tour Guide “K”: With the start of the Meiji era, our scientific understanding of yeast and kōji molds would further advance. Looking back at the long road of sake development, we guess that little by little, microorganisms key to production including kōji molds, yeasts, and lactic acid bacilli were slowly identified, isolated, and developed. It would be fun to see how far we have come by visiting sake producers of the ancient past and elucidating the microbial makeup of their batches.


To understand what it was like in this era, one must know that power and influence did not lie with one entity, in fact not even two. There was a three-way split between 1) the Imperial Court, 2) the Shogunate, and 3) the Temples & Shrines, with each commanding policing powers of their own. With multiple seats of power, naturally comes "gōzo", a Japanese term that roughly translates to "disputes" and the uproar that evolves from them. To get a feel for the atmosphere of the era, one must grasp this gōzo, and perhaps one can through reading this excerpt from "The Tale of the Heike", an epic account compiled prior to 1330 of the struggle for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century in the Genpei War (1180–1185).

From Volume 1: The flow of the Kamo River, dice at backgammon, and the monks of Mount Hiei-these are things beyond my control* makes reference to the advance against the Imperial Court by the warrior monks of Enryaki temple, where they famously carried palanquins of their gods and I think that one could definitely imagine the feeling of gōzo in such dramatic scenes that this depicts. Why would a temple possess palanquins though? Aren't palanquins the cultural property of Shinto shrines and their festivals? It remains mysterious to this day, though remembering that up until the Meiji period**, the Buddhist and Shinto religions were syncretized (simultaneously practiced and believed in) providing a likely context for this. The attachment of temples and shrines was the norm at that time, with the Buddhist institution being considered/revered above the Shinto one. It is thought that this fact further motivated the rejection of Buddhism in the Meiji era. Another significant motivation was that the temples held the costly belief that palanquins moved outside temple grounds (e.g. for religious ceremonies) would become corrupted and unusable, necessitating the Imperial Court to foot an approximate 1000 kanmon bill for rebuilding them each time! This equated to about 1000 koku (ancient Japanese measurement unit) of rice. To get an idea of how expensive the rebuilding was in more understandable terms, 1000 koku of rice equated to the amount of rice that 1000 grown men would eat in a year! Kyōto was home to a "vigilance corps" (effectively police), the Imperial Court and shogunate had the bushi samurai warriors, the Shinto institution had the jinin, a subset of priests and kōji trader shrine affiliates, and the Buddhist institution had their warrior monks. While these 3 squabbled over power and influence, Japan made achievements in trade with China (particularly during China's Song/Sung dynasty; 960-1279) which would push the economy forward.


*Quoted directly from Royall Tyler's translation (The Tale of the Heike, Penguin Classics). Please note that for simplicity's sake, "backgammon" has been used here as a localization of the Japanese dice game called suguroku.

** Note that with the start of the Meiji period came a movement to abolish Buddhism in Japan.


17. The "Diary of Sake", thought to be Japan's first technical manual on sake brewing produced by a private entity, was composed by the Satake samurai clan. There are 2 volumes, with the more recent and influential one being composed in 1489. It opens with the passage "yoku yoku kuden, hisubeshi hisubeshi", essentially meaning, "passing knowledge down through oral instruction is vital".

(i) Making the fermentation mash consists of two processes. Its preparation contains 1 to (一斗; approx. 18 liters) of polished rice, 6 shō (六升; approx. 11 liters) of kōjimai (rice used to make kōji), and 1 to of water.

(ii) Amano sake (a famous sake brewed on Mount Amano) uses the 2-stage preparation method with an extended application of kumimizu (water used for the mash). For the second mash preparation step, the batch is to be split into 2 kame (a type of earthenware pot).

(iii) The following 3 points are theorized to come from production notes for Bodaisen (菩提泉; Bodhi/Buddha + spring/fountain), a renowned brand of sake from Nara prefecture:

a) From the soaking rice of your mash preparation, take a portion of otai (the name given to the rice taken from the mash). After cooling and straining the otai, add it back to the batch and stimulate lactic acid fermentation.

b) Mix it into the kōji mash and wrap the vessel with a woven mat to insulate the batch.

c) Distinguishing the difference between moto (fermentation starter) and moromi (fermentation mash) processing is a little difficult to comprehend.


18. The "Diary of Tamonin": originally penned by a monk prodigy of Nara prefecture's Kōfuku temple in 1478, and continuously contributed to over 3 generations and 140 years until 1618. Amongst records of the socio-economics of the Kinki region during the warring states period, can be found some very valuable notes regarding sake making of the time.

From these notes, we understand that:

(i) In 1568, sake preparation was performed in the 9th month (of the old calendar) of the year, and then in the 2nd month of the following year. They named the sake "summer sake" and "new year sake" respectively.

(ii) The soe-naka-tome three-stage mash preparation method was developed.

(iii) A period of a theorized 10 days or so (odori) separated the soe and naka stages.

(iv) A process resembling pasteurization was performed

(v) A transition from earthenware vessels to wooden tubs and casks occurred, theoretically influenced by one or more factors including advances in woodcutting and woodworking techniques, general technological advances, trends, development of weaponry during the warring states period, the necessity to build castles, etc.


19. From the sakes of the Kyōto capital to those crafted in Nara, and then, of course, the famed Itamimorohaku brew, according to author Hitsudai Hirano in the herbology publication, "Honchō shokkan" (1695), the honor of best sake at the time was the nantomorohaku (南都の諸白) style of Nara. Runners up were the sakes from Osaka's Ikeda and Setsu areas, whereas sakes from the capital, while using fine quality rice and water, tended to be too sweet Hirano notes.


20. Notable production notes for the famous Nantomorohaku sake:

(i) Careful selection of the raw ingredients (rice, water, etc.) for optimal quality occurred from start to finish.

(ii) The fermentation starter uses 1 to (一斗; approx. 18 liters) of steamed rice, 7 shō (七升; approx. 12.5 liters) of kōji, and 1 to 4 shō (一斗四升; approx. 25 liters) of water. The preparation methods involved a unique "raising" step.

(iii) The soe-naka-tome three-stage mash preparation method was developed and utilized.

The kakemai (steamed sake rice to be added to the main mash) preparation was to be repeated 3 times and was composed of 1 to of steamed rice, 6 shō (六升; approx. 11 liters) of kōji and 8 shō (八升; approx. 14.5 liters) of water. The moromi (main mash) was 1 koku 1 to 5 shō (一石一斗五升) 60% kōji mizukumi, 1 koku rice, 5 to 8 shō water (五斗八升; approx. 104.5 liters).

(iv) Fermentation vessels used were wooden rather than earthenware.


21. Itamimorohaku sake would be developed inheriting the brewing techniques of Nantomorohaku sake. Another sake production development would come with the cold season/cold brewing technique made popular with the Nadagogo sake, arguably the final notable brewing technique development before the end of the Edo period, persisting through to modern times.


Visitor “A”: Thank you for your explanation, I now have a better grasp of the development of sake and its mashing techniques. A few historical names and terms I've retained from my high school history classes helped connect a few dots! This has inspired me to try learning more about this fascinating topic.


Brewery Staff “N”: I've never given any thought to the history of the fermentation starter I routinely work with, but I found it interesting to learn that it was developed in Shichijō here in Kyōto!


Tour Guide “K": While Kyōto's Fushimi is famous for its bars, when you look further into the history of the region, you learn it was one of the stages for the development of the kōji trade and activities of the Kōji Za in the Muromachi period. I would be delighted to hear if your interest is deepened through learning these interesting parts of history.


Just like the philosophy of mastery expressed by "Shu-Ha-Ri" (守破離), I am very fond of the words of the tea ceremony master, Sen no Rikyū: "If you've truly the heart to walk the path, you've also the heart to master yourself". These words have reverberated throughout time, shaping the spirit of craftsmanship in Japan.



Buildings at a brewery
Buildings at a brewery

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