By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

With the global pandemic reaching its first (and hopefully last) birthday this month, we take a look at the growing interest in homebrewing, one of the popular new hobbies taken up since restrictions curtailed many previous regular pastimes.

 In subsequent pieces in this mini-series, we’ll go on to see just how passionately the alchemy has been embraced within the homebrewing movement, as well as how homebrewing inspired some to take the leap from domestic to commercial brewing ventures.

For now, in this the first article on homebrewing and fermentation, we take a look at the innovative MiCURA brand, speaking with business owner and Tokyo resident Euka Isawa.

There are a number of often unspoken, but widely recognised, aromas that tend to lift the spirits and bring an uncontrollable beaming smile. Grilled onions on a hotdog stand wafting down the sidewalk from a block away is likely one of them. Sorry, veggies, but the humble allium never smelled so good, or so wrong.

Golf nuts will nod in quiet agreement that the freshly cut fairway smell on a crisp summer morning, the dew evaporating off the grass is also right up there. Better still if the rough has been cut down too.

For many sake fans spending far too much mandated time at home recently, there’s no doubt that the aroma of our happy place, a sake brewery, will always bring an overdose of excitement. Those unmistakeable aromas steeped into the walls from decades of fermentation are truly life enhancing.

Well, relief is on its way, a sake vaccine if you like, thanks to the enterprising efforts of Euka Isawa and her boutique business enterprise, MiCURA, that is producing an all you need sake brewing kit, for homebrewing.

I say boutique but that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. MiCURA has over 5,000 active members – complimentary membership is offered with purchase – in the US, Europe and Asia, 23 countries in all. A great following in less than three years.

Being able to interact with sake lovers from all over the world through MiCURA is one of the great joys of this project”.

That’s a pretty significant following. MiCURA retains a personal feel to it with Euka-san herself just an email or online video away from helping guide you through any brewing questions. Not that you would really need much support, which is a big part of the MiCURA appeal, in that pretty much every brewing issue or eventuality has been identified, addressed and ironed out within the ‘How To Brew’ guide. In some instances, recurrent pitfalls have been alleviated entirely from the brewing process.

The vision behind MiCURA is really rather special. In essence, with every box of MiCURA that gets shipped out of Tokyo, Euka-san hopes to convert the passion of each budding home Toji into a step forward for the potential of the sake industry outside of Japan. She believes that by delivering a good brewing experience, MiCURA can only cement consumer appreciation and understanding, growing further international acceptance and demand for sake.

Allow me to break it down for you a little.

Euka-san recognised an important dichotomy within the sake industry in that Japanese seishu 清酒 brewers are confined by age old regulations and restrictions, some due to stuffy bureaucracy (not least Japan’s Liquor Tax laws), others attributable to cultural or historical restraints. That isn’t necessarily a criticism. For centuries such confines have kept the industry alive, thriving in fact, at least until about 50 years ago. But let’s not go there.

The difference lies with the absence of the majority of these shackles outside of Japan, something Euka-san noted during a stint in the US:

“I noticed whilst I was in New York that there was a lot of energy and potential around homebrewing. I decided I wanted to find a way of bringing the sake brewing industry out of Japan”.

The unique design – and it is unique, there is no other one-stop-shop kit in the world – allows any budding home Toji to produce close to three 720ml yongobin of Ginjo level sake. MiCURA’s emphasis is on maximising the experience of brewing, ensuring a full sensory journey for the brewer as the sake evolves. For example, you’re encouraged to taste the moromi at different stages of its development to gauge what is happening below the bubbles.

This is achieved by having all the fermentation ingredients pre-weighed and hermetically sealed, ready to go. The equipment, not that there’s a lot of it, has been carefully selected for ease and smoothness during the processes. So, the bag used for separating the lees from your sake is not only made from the same material used within the industry itself for pressing, it also conveniently fits perfectly the containers provided by MiCURA for carrying out this process.

Euka-san wants pressing to be enjoyable, visual (the containers are transparent) and simple, rather than have the brewer frustrated over spillage, mess and less than perfect results.

Equipment sourcing is something Euka-san takes personal pride in and as MiCURA has developed, additional resources have been identified to elevate the homebrewing result even closer to the real deal. This includes a tabletop fune-shibori type pressing tool which can be used instead of the shizuku ‘by bag’ pressing option provided within the kit.

Requiring more time than scouring around for equipment, and certainly more knowledge, has been the enormous task of putting together the MiCURA “recipe” for brewers to follow. The recipe book, it’s more of a manual I suppose, is just twenty or so pages which belies the time, patience and commitment to getting this project off the ground in the first place.

The very name, MiCURA, is a hint at the efforts required in creating the kit and the science behind it all. ‘Mi’ relates to everyone’s favourite microorganisms, koji-kin and brewing yeasts.  It’s also a clever play on words with ‘My Kura’ (kura is Japanese for brewery) being darn close to MiCURA!

Euka-san had two pretty good headstarts when it came to putting together the formulae for a sake brewing kit. Firstly, her aptitude for sciences at High School enabled her to read and comprehend a number of brewing papers and articles which would have been beyond the abilities of many.

Secondly, Euka-san is the daughter of the Kuramoto at Katsuyama Shuzo in Miyagi Prefecture, which has been making top class sake since 1688, quenching the thirsts of Sendai’s feudal lords in the early decades. Although not officially inducted as a Katsuyama brewer, it’s in the blood, and spring break would be spent working in the brewery.

Like many of her generation, Euka-san left home for the big city life, enrolling at the University of Tokyo where the cityslicker students’ attitude towards sake painted a very different picture.

They stereotyped sake drinking as something for boozy nights out, something that would lead to hangovers. It got me asking ‘Why do they think that?’”.

Quickly, Euka-san created the Sake Student Association, open to all University students to join, to begin her crusade to change this perception and would later go on to win a place on a joint public-private scholarship programme which would address the ‘Study of the Sake Market Overseas’, with a view to contribute to the Japanese industry in the future.

Seemingly the MiCURA concept began bubbling away as an idea almost a decade ago. To bolster thing further, Euka-san, now 21 years old, would spend significant periods of the year in New York, facilitating the growth of Katsuyama’s sakes within the restaurant community, and growing a trusted network of beverage professionals. She would also take the Sake Sommelier Course, run by the Sake School of America.

Effectively becoming a student again, Euka-san spent three months immersed in self-study of how to translate factory scale brewing into a homebrewing capacity. At the end of it the first MiCURA prototype was ready for her inquisitive, yet cynical, New York restaurant guinea pigs to try, including Cagen restaurant’s respected Tomita-sensei.

His understanding of the importance of temperature control and hygiene as a Michelin starred sushi chef were skills that facilitated a very tasty first effort at sake brewing. Cagen staff also became engaged in the restaurant’s sake production, taking time to check on the sake and enjoy the evolution of the moromi.

It made me think: ‘Well, it’s not impossible to make high quality sake from homebrewing if you have good temperature control and hygiene’”.

With the prototypes turning out to be rather good, the floodgates had opened.

Things started to pick up. The sake kasu my testing was making showed potential with Chefs. I started giving prototype kits to Sommeliers, mixologists and restaurateurs. They seemed to really like it, the kits were a nice change to the usual sake tastings and seminars, they’d done all that before but hadn’t made their own sake.

In a way it became a learning tool for them, it opened their eyes too to the regulations and laws involved in sake making in the US and Japan, as well as the differences. More importantly perhaps, it got them experimenting and enjoying the process. We had one guy innovating with a lemon’s citric acid instead of lactic acid, for example”.

The rest is MiCURA history in a way. These industry contacts helped mould the kit into the current version and Euka-san is keen to sprinkle into its presentation the learnings, fun and games to be had, that they had, for each new member to enjoy.

The manual is a mix of education and information, clearly laid out but with suggestions all through to take a listen or have a taste to get the full immersive and multisensory benefits derived from brewing sake. It’s one of the most captivating science experiments out there, and it yields sake, what’s not to like!

I have a lot of Members who are sake educators, they really find this takes their knowledge to a new level, and in a different direction. Live streamers love it too for the visuals they can share and promote and it’s really satisfying the inquisitive minds of the sake geeks out there too!”.

So much has been crammed into these last three years. What’s next for MiCURA? The kit continues to evolve and has just been finessed for the international markets, taking on board recent feedback, such as some regions don’t tend to respond well to written instructions.

The intention is for MiCURA always to be failsafe wherever possible to guarantee the enjoyment factor. Plus I’m always trying to innovate, so for example the newest kit, ‘Nana’, has no need for any lactic acid to be added. It uses two kinds of koji-kin, yellow and white, the white introduces citric acid into the moromi which controls unwanted bacteria and creates a really juicy fresh sake, not unlike white wine”.

Let’s finish with a final look at how MiCURA has by chance slotted in so well into the current global situation living under virus restrictions. Japan’s domestic sake market is struggling like never before and is turning to the international industry to spread the good word of nihonshu.

People in Japan can only drink so much sake, and they tend not to drink so much at home compared to when eating at restaurants and social drinking after work which is not possible just now. Consumption and sales peaks come from all the events across the country which are constantly being cancelled. More importantly though, these events allow consumers to try new brands of sake and talk with the brewers which is something that is right now really missing in the industry with things being as they are”.

Brewing your own sake really is a great way, a practical way, to augment any sake education. There are plenty of options for theory learning out there from a handful of recognised education providers but you can’t beat the hands on experience, taking on the responsibility of a living, bubbling batch of the stuff. MiCURA is one of many solutions to any brew-curious sake fans, and with stay at home orders still in place for many of us, now’s really not a bad time to have a go.

Let’s face it, we all know there’s nothing quite like tasting namazake from the tank, and MiCURA’s is as fresh as it gets, and you don’t even need to leave your front door to have a cup. Or four.



A certified sake sommelier, Will Jarvis is the owner and founder of Sake Matters, consulting for a variety of clients in Hong Kong and around the world. He has over 20 years’ experience working in the F&B industry in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, is a trained chef and holds a diploma in hospitality.