Master brewer Naohiko Noguchi is a living legend in the sake world. A native of the town of Noto, Ishikawa Prefecture, he hails from a family of brewers, and began learning the trade when he was only 16.
He rose to fame during his tenure as head brewer at Ishikawa’s Kikuhime Brewing Company, where he became known for making elegant yet robust brews that helped propel a boom in ginjō (premium grade) sake in the 1980s. The popularity of his trademark style also led to the revival of the time-consuming “yamahai” method — a traditional brewing technique that typically results in earthy, umami-rich flavors — which had practically disappeared following World War II.
After retiring from Kikuhime at 65, Noguchi went on to make sake at two more breweries for more than a decade before becoming the tōji (master brewer) of the company that bears his name, Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute. Established in 2017, the brewery is a stunning piece of modern architecture set in the mountains of Komatsu, on the western coast of Ishikawa. There, he leads a team of young brewers in their 20s and 30s to foster the next generation of sake makers.
Weeks before his 89th birthday on Dec. 24, this spry octogenarian with inquisitive eyes shows no sign of stopping. Last spring, the brewery embarked on a new series of events to connect the worlds of sake and cuisine while supporting local farmers and artisans in the Komatsu area. A collaboration with organic growers Gokokuji Farm and Nishida Nouen, the program, called Saketronomy, invites chefs from Japan and around the world to create special menus with regional products, paired with a range of Noguchi brews. The series is part of a larger development project: Future plans include the launch of an upscale hotel and restaurant, housed in a renovated former elementary school nearby.
The two-fold aim of the project is to showcase Komatsu as a “city of gastronomy” and to gather feedback on how to create more food-friendly sake.
“There is still a lot of potential for sake to become a part of global dining culture,” Noguchi says.
To prepare for the fifth edition if Saketronomy in mid-November, Shiro Yamazaki, of Tokyo’s cultishly popular kaiseki restaurant Yamazaki, had traveled to Ishikawa in October to explore the terrain and visit farmers and fishers. In keeping with the themes of sake and terroir, the chef incorporated elements such as sake lees and kōji (steamed rice treated with Aspergillus oryzae, which turns starch into sugar in sake production) into the menu. A dashi broth was made with the underground water used to brew sake at the Noguchi Institute.
Served in the brewery’s sleek tasting room, the meal opens with a soothing bowl of rice porridge flavored with conger eel stock and topped with a slice of deep-fried bottarga, still rare in the center. Paired with marvelously complex Noguchi Naohiko 01.2017 Vintage — a rare bottle from the brewery’s first year of operation — the briny notes of the bottarga highlight mineral and saline undertones in the sake that balance the mildly sweet and citrus flavors in the brew.
A trained sommelier, Yamazaki devised the pairings himself. Umami-forward, fruity Noguchi Daiginjo 2018 is a match for a dish of female snow crab — a local seasonal delicacy — perfumed with ginger vinegar. A different variety of snow crab, crowned with a pillowy mousse of tomalley, harmonizes with the mild bitter and sweet notes in Noguchi Honjozo 2019. Yamazaki’s pairings highlight the versatility of Noguchi Yamahai Aiyama 2018, a sake with superb tensile strength: Served warm, its luxurious texture matches an autumnal dish of chestnut three ways; at room temperature, the sake’s gentle sweetness complements a bowl of crab rice porridge.
“I’ll be 89 soon, but I’m working hard this winter to make the best sake of my life,” Noguchi says. “This experience with chef Yamazaki has given me a lot of good ideas and motivation going forward.”
For more information on Saketronomy, visit komatsu-bishoku.jp.
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