Hawai‘i Herald Columist
Editor’s note: With interest in sake culture and consumption continuing to grow in Hawai‘i and around the world, we are happy to announce the revival of Kokusai Sake Kai co-founder Chris Pearce’s thoroughly researched and well-written columns, “Sake no Monogatari,” (“Tales from the Sake World”) on sake history and culture in the Herald. We are especially pleased to relaunch the column with a tribute to one of Hawai‘i’s enduring sake heroes, Takao Nihei.
Earlier this month, friends and family gathered at the Izumo Taishakyo shrine near Honolulu’s Chinatown to honor the memory of Takao Nihei, former brewer and vice president of the Honolulu Sake Brewery, as well as the guiding light for generations of Hawai‘i sake lovers. Bishop Daiya Amano reminded us that when we die, our souls depart for the afterlife. Although we cannot detect those in the other world, they can hear our prayers. Clapping our hands four times and bowing, we paid our respects to the man who not only singlehandedly preserved Hawai‘i’s sake heritage, but also pioneered new techniques that changed the way sake is made in Japan.
Nihei-san’s story has been told many times before, but as the years pass, new information comes to light that gives us a deeper appreciation of his extraordinary life.
He was born in Tökyö in 1925, although both his parents were from Töhöku. After graduating from middle school, he decided to pursue a career in aviation and was accepted at Tohoku Gakuin College of Aeronautical Engineering. When the Occupation authorities shut down Japan’s aviation industry after the war, this career prospect vanished and he settled instead on agricultural science. His first job was at a factory in Töhöku that made tsukemono (pickles), providing an early encounter with fermentation technology. The president of the pickle factory, recognizing his aptitude, took it upon himself to write Nihei a letter of recommendation to the National Research Institute of Brewing.
Founded in 1901, the institute fell under the administration of Japan’s National Tax Agency. (At the time, levies on sake production provided over 20 percent of Japan’s tax revenues, creating a powerful incentive for the mandarins at the Finance Ministry to improve the quality of sake and hence the amount of sake consumed.) In 1946, the year that Nihei-san began his studies there, the institute was entering its golden age, conducting experiments on sachrification, aroma, amino acids and other essential research areas that would lay the foundation for our scientific understanding of how sake is made.
The director at this time was Masakazu Yamada, a towering figure in the sake world of the mid-20th century. A prolific researcher and writer himself — he published over 200 scientific papers — he was also a charismatic figure who inspired all around him. It was a great time to be at the institute, and the young researchers were full of energy and passion for sake-making.
Students taking up their studies would be assigned to a classroom headed by a sensei (teacher). It was Nihei-san’s good fortune to become a student of Yasuyuki Kobuyama, a gifted researcher and bon vivant around Tökyö with contacts in the media and a flair for explaining sake to a popular audience. Kobuyama would take Nihei-san on trips to breweries in the countryside to pass on the latest scientific knowledge. At the same time, they’d learn from the toji (master sake brewers), who had a lifetime of experience making sake under every conceivable condition.
Gradually, Nihei-san began visiting breweries on his own, and it seemed that most of the ones he assisted ended up winning gold awards at the Japan National Sake Appraisal. Meanwhile, the institute itself made sake for educational and research purposes, and Nihei-san was on the team that prepared its appraisal entries, which, likewise, garnered a string of gold awards. In this way, Nihei-san developed a reputation as a hands-on sake virtuoso, equally at home in the laboratory and on the brewery floor.
In 1953, Dr. Yamada was invited to present a paper at a microbiology conference in Italy. On his way back to Japan from Italy, he stopped in Hawai‘i at the invitation of Daizo Sumida, president of the Honolulu Sake Brewery. Things had not been going well since the retirement of Kazuma Hamamura, a nisei graduate of the University of Hawai‘i, who had been at the company before the war and ran the brewing operations. Sumida asked Dr. Yamada if he could send over a research technician to help them improve the quality of the sake in Hawai‘i.
Those of us with a warm spot for Honolulu Sake Brewery tend to think that its sake was always of decent quality. But in looking at the accounts of visitors to Hawai‘i after the war, this does not seem to have been the case. A year before Nihei-san arrived in Hawai‘i, Shigeji Iida, a researcher at the Institute for Physical and Chemical Research, wrote his impressions of Honolulu’s sake at the time: “It’s just not feasible, using California rice, with a shortage of technology and skilled workers, to make good sake in a tropical climate. The first fault you notice is the color of the sake. Then it’s the rough taste. Thirdly, there’s no pleasant aroma. No matter how much you polish the California rice, and how pure the local water, under the strong tropical sun even a light, clean sake turns yellow like horse urine within three days.” When Nihei-san tasted “Takara Masamune” after arriving in Honolulu, he wrote, “It’s hard to call this sake. I don’t have much confidence that we can make good sake here.”
Nihei-san was just 28 years old at the time, and he carried with him the hopes and expectations of the research institute and his friends and family in Japan. It wouldn’t do to just give up and go home. He asked himself what the basic problem was with the Hawai‘i sake. The answer he arrived at was the rice. As Tokyo University of Agriculture professor Dr. Masao Koizumi explained in a 1995 lecture, “It was then that he came up with an ingenious approach. One way to solve the problem would have been to bring in sake-brewing rice varieties from Japan and convince farmers in California to grow them, but this was a huge undertaking that would have taken many years. Instead, he decided to study California rice and figure out what worked best with what he had.”
Focusing first on koji, he obtained samples from the seven companies in Japan that cultivate kojikin, the spores of Aspergillus oryzae mold that brewers use to inoculate steamed rice, kicking off the enzyme action that converts the carbohydrate in the rice kernels into glucose, a form of sugar. It’s been known for centuries that good koji is the indispensable prerequisite for making good sake, and settling on the right variety for California rice was a big step in the right direction.
Next he turned to the steaming itself — what would produce the ideal steamed rice for the propagation of a healthy koji culture? What was the ideal chemical composition of the water? Exactly how long should the rice be soaked before it was steamed? Experimenting constantly and drawing on the knowledge of chemistry he had gained at the institute, he embarked on a relentless research agenda that lasted throughout his first tour in Hawai‘i.
By the end of his two-year tour, Nihei-san felt he could safely entrust the brewery operations to those he had trained. Returning to Japan, he started work as a research technician at Kyowa Hakko, a large pharmaceutical company. But then, in the spring of 1957, distressing news arrived from the brewery in Hawai‘i: Spoilage had set in, and not in the bottled sake, but in the large fermenting vats on the brewery floor. Unless a solution could be found, Honolulu Sake Brewing Co. would likely go bankrupt. Benzaburo Sato, the president of Kyowa Hakko, said they had plenty of fermentation researchers, but Hawai‘i only had one — and told Nihei-san he could pack his bags.
Arriving back in Honolulu in July, he quickly determined that the sake had been contaminated by the dreaded hiochi bacteria (lactic acid bacteria), which brewers seek to avoid at all costs. One of the byproducts of koji-making is melavonic acid. As long as it remains in the steamed koji, all is well, but if any comes into contact with lactic acid bacteria in the air, it acts as a powerful stimulus, and the sour, foul-smelling lactic acid can quickly spread through the fermentation tanks. To prevent this from happening, brewers scrupulously disinfect the brewery area and the tools they work with every day. Apparently, there had been a lapse in hygiene.
Working in the small laboratory adjacent to his office, Nihei-san discovered that melavonic acid could be removed by filtering sake through activated charcoal. And since the lactic acid bacteria needs melavonic acid to thrive, this would prevent spoilage. It’s not clear exactly what Nihei-san did to reactivate the fermentation so that healthy bacteria could overcome the lactic acid-producing bacteria in the vats, but in any event, he succeeded in rescuing the year’s production so that it could be released before Christmas on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Honolulu Sake Brewery. Masayo Nihei, who was back in Japan at the time, remembers her husband telling her that “Takara Masamune” sold out in Hawai‘i before New Year’s.
Hiochi contamination wasn’t just a danger in Hawai‘i — it occurred in Japanese breweries, as well. Nihei-san’s discovery led eventually to the adoption of charcoal filtering by almost every brewery in Japan. Subsequent research revealed that it not only removed melavonic acid, but also various off-flavors that develop during fermentation. This made it easier to produce the light, clean sakes that consumers began to demand starting in the early 1970s, and so had a fundamental impact on the kind of sake we enjoy today.
Next month: Two more Hawai‘i innovations: a mellower sake workweek and a revolutionary non-foaming yeast.