January 15, 2004


Okinawan Awamori Looks One Hundred Years To the Future

* This article is under copyright protection.

Manabu Akaike
Universal Design Intelligence Inc.

Distillation Method Brought to Ryukyu Kingdom in the 15th Century

Okinawa is visited by many tourists and diving enthusiasts. I have visited Okinawa many times myself, first the main islands and then the outlying islands too, entranced by the fish in its beautiful seas. But there is something else that entrances me about Okinawa. And that is "kuusu,'' the specially aged awamori liquor. Awamori is a type of shochu, or locally distilled Japanese white liquor, made with long-grained Indica rice from Thailand fermented with black aspergillus yeast using unique Okinawan brewing and distilling methods. Kuusu is awamori that has been left to age for many years, with every year making the brew more flavorful and smooth. True kuusu type awamori is a very mellow liquor. Prewar records show the existence of kuusu that has been aged for 100 or 150 years, and even some that was close to 300 years old.

The first official recording of the word "awamori'' shows up in the mid 17th century. But ancient records also exist showing that rice brewing techniques had already been brought to Okinawa by the 15th century, when the Kingdom of the Ryukyus was very active in trading with China and other southeast Asian principalities. Awamori has a 500-year-old history in Okinawa. It was highly valued by the ruling Satsuma clan as a means of paying tribute to the Tokugawa Shogunate, and by that time in history its status as a famed local product was firmly cemented. Around that time, awamori distilling techniques took root in Satsuma, giving rise to the imo (sweet potato) shochu and mugi (barley) shochu that are made there today.

The awamori shochu that is cradled in the landscape of Okinawa has very different characteristics from mainland shochu because of the varieties of rice and yeast peculiar to the region and the distinctive brewing and storage techniques practiced there. In particular, the black aspergillus yeast that is used to ferment the rice has a strong alcohol-producing capacity, and also produces citric acid that helps protect the smoothness of awamori against bacteria. Over the years the Ryukyuans selected the type of yeast culture that is best suited to their sub-tropical climate.

Though kuusu is the specially aged version of this venerable brew known as awamori, oddly enough kuusu is not widely appreciated, especially among people of the mainland. Though inadequate distribution networks are partially at fault, the main reason is that most of Okinawa's awamori distilleries as well as its entire store of high quality aged kuusu awamori were reduced to ashes in World War II. Under the Occupation, distilleries were permitted to reopen on a ratio of one per town or hamlet. Today there are 46 awamori brewery/distilleries in Okinawa, each making its own distinctive variety of awamori. But sadly they are unable to make enough money to cover the overhead costs of aging their liquor, so that "young" awamori has to become the mainstay awamori product. This means that consumers can't be sufficiently educated as to the superiority of kuusu, and it can't be brought to a wider market. But one family-owned and operated brewery has found a way to bring these goals to fruition. The hopes of the Kin Shuzo Brewery rest on its masterpiece product, known as ''Ryugyoku'' brand kuusu.

Storage Cellars Created by the Earth's History: Limestone Caverns

Kuusu awamori takes many, many years to produce. How to overcome the built-in problem of making enough money to support the distillery during those many years? A local awamori distillery with just six employees located in the town of Kin next to a US military base has found one solution. The Kin Shuzo Brewing Corporation offers kuusu by members only advance sale. This local brewery took a hint from the old story that awamori ages best when stored in the caverns formed by the traditional Okinawan tomb mounds, and realized it could make use of the limestone caverns that surround Kin Town as cellars to store awamori for aging, away from direct sunlight and in a constant year-round temperature of 17-18 degrees centigrade. It developed a bottle-keep system wherein members can reserve a bottle of kuusu for aging, paying 10,000 yen to keep a bottle for five years, and 20,000 yen to keep it for twelve years. Publicity about this innovative new system has helped Kin Brewery succeed in capturing a bottle-keep membership comprised of over 8,000 bottles today.

Kin Town had been no more than a shopping and amusement quarter for the neighboring US base and its military personnel, with few Okinawan visitors or outside tourists. But now Kin Town has become known as the place where the kuusu cavern cellars are located, and on weekends the town is full of curious visitors and prospective bottle-keep customers. Kin Brewery is riding on the positive response from its revitalization of the local economy, and now also stores "tofu-yo," the traditional local dish made with tofu fermented with red rice yeast and its own kuusu, and has developed for commercial sale a dressing made of the tofu-yo fermenting liquor, and is also working to develop other new regional products. "Tofu-yo" is known among connoisseurs and is beginning to take hold as a high quality Okinawan dish among gourmets.

In this region with its many limestone caverns, the earth's depths provide a plentiful supply of high quality water, an important element in brewing and distilling. The inspiration to use these caverns in another way, as a superior storage cellar facility, has its origin in an important new way of looking at things that seeks to leverage local resources to heighten added value. Another key to the success of this venture is the ingredient of ''time.'' Kin Brewery has captured the element of imagination that is missing from mass-produced goods that do not require a major investment of time and realized the potential value of such "dreams,'' appealing to the desire of the new "conscious consumer" to somehow participate in the production process by allowing them to share in some of that invested time.

JAPAN CLOSE-UP, June 2002, published by PHP

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