Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Lesson 3: What is kōji?

A microscopic photo of a kōji spore.

Basically, this is the stuff that gets the party started. Here is the Japanese character for kōji:

Alternatively, you might see the hiragana for kōji being used instead:

I am going to keep it simple because I am a bit. Here is the really stripped down technical explanation of what kōji is:
Kōjikin (麹菌) are a type of mould spore that are cultivated onto an ingredient like rice or barley to make a kōji () mould. This in turn turns starches in the ingredient into sugars. These sugars can be fermented. And we all know what that means! Alcohol!

Of course many of you will have knocked back gallons of beer or wine in your time without having the first clue about how they are made. So why is Kōji the third lesson in my introductory course? Because there are different types of kōji and they make a difference to the taste of shōchū.

Different types of kōjikin

There are three broad categories of kōjikin (the mould spores used to make kōji):
White (白麹菌 - shirokōjikin): Easy for the distillers to use and is therefore the most widely used shōchū kōjikin today. It was invented as recently as 1923 as a more easily used refinement of black kōjikin.

Black (黒麹菌 - kurokōjikin): Is supposed to be good at extracting the characteristics of the base ingredients and imparts much more acidity than the yellow kōjikin used in sake making (see below). It is difficult to use and at one time was almost completely dropped by the shōchū industry (although it has always been used in the Okinawan awamori distilling tradition). However, it has come back into vogue and several makers advertise their use of it. I think beginners who are reading this are already probably suffering from character overload so, not wishing to overcomplicate things, the Japanese character for black is:

If you see that character near the characters for kōji above, you have an evens chance of it being black koujikin. On the other hand, it might just be made near black mountain or by a black bottomed monk or something.

Yellow (黄麹 - ki-kōjikin): Is used in sake making. Because it reacts to high temperatures very easily, it is difficult to use in the southern parts of Japan which are shōchū's stronghold. At one time it had been very widely used by honkaku shōchū makers but it fell out of favour. It has had a resurgence because it is supposed to promote a relatively light taste. The Japanese character for yellow is:

Different kōji ingredients

Many bottles of shōchū do not state clearly what kind of kōjikin they are using. However, they all state what ingredient the spores have been cultured on to to make the kōji. There are two ingredients in common use, rice and "mugi", and the choice between the two effects the flavour. It is sometimes but not always the case that the main ingredient of the shōchū is the same ingredient used to make the kōji. You will find the characters for rice and "mugi" in the list of ingredients in lesson two (or in the vocab crib sheet). Look for them in conjunction with the kōji characters.

So, for instance, here is a label of mugi shōchū (blue underline) using mugi as the base of its kōji (red underline):

Whereas here is a label of a mugi shōchū (blue underline) with a rice kōji (red underline):

See this entry if your browser can't read the Japanese characters in brackets.

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