This post is based on my personal notes about Zenkuro, taken during an interview with David Joll and Matt Shaw from Melbourne Sake, together with the Sake On Air team in January 2020. I completed these notes with publicly available information. Watch out for the relevant Sake On Air episode and get inspired!!
For those who do not speak Japanese, let’s translate straight away: “Zenkuro” ”全黒”means “All Black”. Could we really expect any other name from a Kiwi, rugby lover, big fan of Japan?
The Zenkuro brewery is based Queenstown, in the southern part of South Island, New Zealand. At the same latitude in the Northern hemisphere, one finds places such as Montreal, Bordeaux, Venice or Shiretoko, the North Eastern tip of Hokkaido, Japan.
Surrounded by mountains and great nature, the city is a very popular tourist destination “down under”. Pristine soft water and a cool to cold climate make the place truly appropriate for sake brewing, although this was not the driver for the brewery’s location.
Zenkuro was created by David Joll, together with a local community of japanophiles and outdoor specialists, running tours for Japanese visitors. Craig McLachlan and Richard Ryall are contributors to the Japan Lonely Planet guidebook, and authors of the Hiking in Japan guidebook (Lonely Planet as well), one of my favorite books J! Another key stakeholder is originally from Japan: Yoshi Kawamura, co-owner of the small YK3 sake brewery in Canada (with Yoshiaki Kasugai, the Toji – master brewer – there; they have launched in Richmond near Vancouver in 2013).
David is managing the brewery and is the Toji. He came to Japan as high school student for the first time, then university exchange student, before getting married and working locally. Soon the years added up to 25 and David chose to get back to his home country with his wife and 4 children.
There was no plan to get involved in sake brewing initially, however the desire to offer a bit of the Japanese culture to visitors in Queenstown and the support of family gave birth to the the project.
What do you do from there when you decide to start a Kura overseas ?
David & team constructed the brewery in the shade to keep it cool, then designed a fermentation room with temperature control.
To learn about the sake brewing process, David made an internship at a friendly Kura (Yoshikubo Shuzou in Mito city, Ibaragi; sake branded Ippin) and perfected his knowledge of sake culture with John Gauntner (my own Sensei).
One has to have David’s DIY spirit and skills to succeed without spending precious capital in equipment from Japan: beside some of the tools available for beer or wine brewers locally, the Kura started with bedsheets as linen for the rice steaming unit, and a locally made metal Fune (press) in the shape of a bathtub. Pillow covers played the role of filter for the Moromi fermentation mash in such Fune.
Administratively, creating a new alcoholic beverage category for tax and license purposes seems to have been a bit of a challenge. Matt from Melbourne Sake was still dealing with the issue in his own context!
Sourcing good ingredients and agents was a challenge in New Zealand as well, and David recalls they would buy table rice from supermarkets and experience with wine and beer yeast.
A key business partner, Urban Hippie supplied rice Koji to Zenkuro at their beginning. The company is owned by Takehito (and Mie) Maeda, former chef, and seems to be the only commercial miso maker in NZ.
Very hard work and passion then made the magic happen.
Trial and error cannot be avoided as a process at the beginning, but David surprised us when he shared he received thumbs up to market batch number 3 only!! There have been 49 other batches since, in about 4 plus years, including some brewed with Marie Nagata, one of our Sake On Air regular hosts.
On recording day for Sake On Air we enjoyed a bottle named “Untouched”, an appropriate translation for Muroka Nama Genshu, i.e. unpasteurized, unfiltered, undiluted sake. Thanks to David, we paired it with a NZ smoked cheddar. The acidity in the sake, its rich flavor on the palate made the pairing truly successful, and very savoury. The sake itself reveals grassy aromas, cucumber as well as green melon … a Zenkuro trademark.
In the process to get there, i.e. a consistent, high quality product, some improvements from the original process have been introduced. From friendly Kura, David received Japanese specialized linen with a looser mesh to replace sheets. The Kura is now able to source Kyokai Kobo yeast #701, the foamless version of #7, the most widely used yeast in Japan. Iida Group, a Kansai based trading company involved in the sake industry (owner of the Nakano brand of rice polishing machines as well), is now supplying dried frozen Koji from Japan, arguably more suitable for sake brewing than the one sourced in NZ (would the Koji produced by Urban Hippie be too rich in protease and not enough in amylase?). Last but not least the company reinforced its rice supply.
This ”Untouched” sake was not my first sip of sake branded Zenkuro. For the recent 2019 Rugby World Cup, a sport dear to David’s heart, Kanhokuto Shuzou (Fukuoka; sake branded Kiku Tamanoi) and Kumazawa Shuzou (Chigasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture; sake branded Tensei) “co-released” a Zenkuro special edition made together with David and distributed in Japan during the World Cup. The fragrant green notes were there!
Whereas the initial goal of a brewery starting business is make the best of what they have, Zenkuro is now able to offer product variation. In about 5 years, the results are impressive, and the industry says it: Zenkuro received gold and silver medals at the International Wine Challenge in London for some of their batches (Umeshu, drip press Shizuku, White Cloud Nigori).
Interestingly enough, Zenkuro’s main market today is not Japanese restaurants but chefs serving New Zealand or Western gastronomy. The pairing with the smoked cheddar was convincing enough. Of course the Zenkuro team still needs to invest a lot of time in sake education, to explain the product and culture to professionals as well as the general public. The brewery is open for visits.
Zenkuro will not be able to call their sake “Nihonshu” (a beverage made in Japan from Japanese rice and Japanese water) and will have to stick to “Sake” as a product type (“Sake” means “alcohol” generically). In their part of the world, David and Matt do not seem to be too worried that other producers release under a similar category an alcoholic beverage far from the fermented drink made from rice and water that they have been educating the market about. By contrast in Europe, certain stakeholders in the nascent sake industry are already working toward defining an “appellation” to protect their product, a direct inspiration from what Japanese brewers have been releasing for centuries, from the rest.
You have heard me praise the generosity and humility of the Sake Brewers’ big family. David fits in that category so well. He has been sharing his experience with other aspiring brewers, and invites them into his brewery. Matt from Melbourne Sake who brewed with David for a few months was our witness. David is the Father of sake brewing down under.