Naohiko Noguchi has been devoted to brewing his ideal sake for over 70 years. Still active as a master brewer, he has made it his mission now to pass on his carefully honed brewing techniques to the next generation. This living legend has watched over the ever-evolving sake industry for decades. We asked him for his thoughts on the art of sake brewing.
Born in 1932 in Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture. Noguchi’s father and grandfather before him had also been master sake brewers. Aged 16, after apprenticing at the brewery of Shokichi Yamanaka, he moved to Mie Prefecture to gain further experience at sake breweries there. He went on to spend decades working as a head brewer at locations all over the country. In 2013, Noguchi took on the position of head brewer at Noguchi Shuzo. Then, after a brief retirement, he established the Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute, taking the helm there in 2017.
The Aim of Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute
I established the Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute as a means to pass on the brewing techniques and spirit I’ve honed over the course of my life to the next generation. I want to work with passionate young brewers who have the ambition to elevate sake brewing to new heights... That was my motivation.
One thing I was very particular about was having a dedicated room for the kōji mould in which the humidity could be finely controlled.
In recent years, many breweries have been choosing to use less and less kōji mould in favour of relying on enzyme titer. However, it’s my belief that kōji is the key to sake’s flavour. Good-quality kōji is absolutely crucial, and I wanted the institute’s facilities to reflect that.
The umami and astringent notes in sake can’t be drawn out with enzymes alone. In my preferred yamahai method of brewing, kōji is essential. The mould is extremely susceptible to changes in humidity, so I thought that being able to control that would be a prudent first step. The humidity-controlled room is set up in such a way to allow for adjustments in the water content of the rice at each stage.
Another unique feature we added to the institute was a tasting room for our customers. We named it Tōan; it’s very much like a teahouse. There, our customers can enjoy our sake in a relaxed space. We place notebooks in it for customers to write down their impressions, and use that feedback to make adjustments to the brewing process. I hope this room expresses our ethos and our feelings towards sake brewing. Alongside all the passionate young up-and-comers, I want to keep giving everything I’ve got to my brewing.
Returning to the Front Lines
After Three Retirements I started brewing sake at 16, and had intended to retire at the age of 65. But there were people encouraging me to come back, and I still felt that desire to bring my sake to as many people as I could, and so I began brewing again. It’s thanks to the techniques and skills that I’ve honed over my long years, and the relationships of trust I have with those I work with, that I’ve been able to do this. People say it must get tiring, keeping up this hard work year after year, but for me, hearing a customer say they really love my sake never gets old. That’s what keeps me going every day.
Passing on the Old Yamahai-Shikomi Method to Young Brewers
Currently, at the institute, we make sake with both the sokujo (sokujo *1) method, adding lactic acid, and the yamahai (yamahai *2) method, using natural actic acid bacteria. I’m very keen for the young brewers to learn the traditional yamahai method. It produces sake with a strong, characterful flavour and refined aroma. Those that really know their sake all agree that yamahai produces the best flavour.
In comparison with other methods, yamahai is both more time-consuming and labour-intensive. However, the careful work needed at each stage is precisely what gives this sake such excellent flavour. I want the youngsters to fully understand the process needed to create beautiful sake, and I want them to learn to put love into their brewing. These young brewers are full of passion and have dreams that will push the boundaries of sake brewing. I want to teach them not just the traditions and techniques, but also what a joy this work can be.
Perfecting the Brewing Process with Technological Advancements
There are all kinds of technologies and machines being developed these days that take some of the hard graft out of sake brewing. While I’m passionate about passing on the traditional yamahai technique, I’m also keen to take advantage of any new technology that will improve the brewing process.
Thanks to long years of research, there’s a lot we’ve learned about sake brewing. The role of kōji mould and the enzymes from yeast creating sake’s flavour, for example, has been explained by science. We are also able to brew in much better environments these days, thanks to advances in technology. Going forward, I want to continue to take advantage of the latest developments. When I established the Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute in 2017, I made sure we had brand new machines that would give us accurate measurements throughout the brewing process. This is how I intend to keep pursuing my ideal sake
Sake to Suit the Times
These days, farmers in every region of Japan are constantly endeavouring to improve the quality of the rice varieties grown for sake production. At the same time, sake consumers’ tastes are constantly changing. In the days when many people were employed in outdoor manual labour, sakes with deep, strong flavours were preferred. Now, however, most people work indoors in air-conditioned rooms, and this seems to have given rise to a preference for softer flavours. Drinks with a gentle flavour and mouthfeel like wine have become much more popular. These imported drinks are also far more accessible than they used to be. Naturally, this has had an effect on what today’s consumers demand is.
However, I don’t think it necessarily caused the popularity of sake to wane. It simply means a more competitive drink industry. My plans for the near future are to look more to overseas markets and increase exports of my sake. I’ll need to do some thorough market research so as to understand exactly what customers overseas are looking for. I hope to brew sake that will make people proud of Japanese culture.
Message to Readers
Even at my age, I’m still giving my all to bring beautiful sake to as many customers as I can reach. I’d be delighted if you would enjoy one of my sakes.
Noguchi is said to be one of Japan’s greatest brewers ever. He always has an ear to the ground to keep up with changes in customers’ demands, and readily embraces new technology. Rather than sticking rigidly to tradition, he is constantly absorbing new techniques and information. Countless people have been won over by the elegant, refined flavours of Noguchi’s sake. His skills and experience are second to none, and he always keeps his beloved customers foremost in mind. These are the reasons some call Noguchi a god of sake brewing.
※ 1 This method involves the addition of lactic acid in order to control harmful microorganisms. The extra acidity does not impede the growth of the yeast starter. This is the most modern method of brewing, and is employed by the majority of sake producers these days. It has become so ubiquitous that it is not generally written on the bottle.
※ 2 Derived from the traditional kimoto style of brewing. This method is closely associated with brewer Naohiko Noguchi. Unlike in the kimoto style, the steamed rice and kōji mould are not mashed together. Instead, this method makes use of water impregnated with kōji enzymes. Creating the yeast starter takes around four weeks, and is a labour-intensive process.