Sake, 10 Thousand Ways

Zenkuro 全黒, which translates to All Black, is New Zealand’s first and only sake brewery, founded by the head brewer David Joll, along with his wife and three friends.

Joll grew up in Whanganui as a “typical Kiwi boy,” but he has always been fascinated by all things Japanese since spending a year there during high school. 

It wasn’t until his time in Japan that Joll’s interest in sake and its culture really developed. 

“The idea of making sake popped up around seven years ago and came about through my love for Japan and its craft culture. 

“I wanted to try something completely Japanese and share the experience with Kiwis.” 

Joll pitched the idea to his close friends/business partners, long-time Japanese friend and wife, who all gave him the green light. 

“At that point, I began studying the way of sake, including immersion style brewing courses and work experiences in Japan and Canada. 

“I obtained the Advanced Sake Professional qualification from The Sake Education Council in Japan in 2017, and in 2020 I received Sake Sommelier and Sake Educator certification from The Sake Sommelier Association in London.”

Joll and his partners founded New Zealand Sake Brewers Ltd in 2015. 

NZSB uses sake rice and sake yeast imported from Japan, but it was difficult to acquire those ingredients at first. 

“It was difficult to secure the rice and yeast from Japan because sake rice is planted and grown by farmers only after they have received confirmed orders from the 1200 odd sake breweries around Japan.

“Home-brewing is illegal in Japan, so there is no surplus of sake rice, unlike table rice, but eventually we found partners happy to work with us.

“To secure sake yeast, we needed to join the Japan Sake Brewers Association, and with a lot of help from people with the right connections, we became the first non-Japanese sake brewery to be a member of the association.”

Six years on, Zenkuo produces 5000L a year, ten times the original 500L it produced in its first year. 

Tanoshi, Queenstown’s first Osaka-style Japanese restaurant, around the same time as Zenkuro, and the two establishments have “become close mates growing up in the same neighbourhood.”

Tanoshi became the first Queenstown restaurant to try pairing Zenkuro’s locally produced Junmai style sake with their Osaka back-alley izakaya-style food.

“Just as we were eager to learn more about food pairing, the Tanoshi team were keen to improve their knowledge and understanding of sake. 

“The Tanoshi team made the effort to visit our brewery for sake education. This gave them the confidence they needed to explain and successfully sell a wide range of sake on the front lines of their two downtown restaurants.”

Tanoshi and Zenkuro’s collaboration for the new restaurant was a natural progression, said Joll, and they thought about what they could do to provide a totally unique Japanese/Kiwi experience. 

“We came up with the idea of offering premium grade Junmai Ginjo Zenkurao Sake on tap - a first for New Zealand - and will be a unique blend only available at Tanoshi, with a flavour and aroma profile to support Tanoshi’s Osaka style Japanese cuisine.”

The collaboration will be offered as Zenraku Junmai Ginjo. Zenraku 全楽 combines the Japanese characters from Zenkuro and Tanoshi, and simply means All 全, Fun楽. The idea is that this is what diners will experience at Tanoshi.

Zenkuro’s sake is brewed using very time-consuming, traditional methods that most breweries don’t use anymore. 

“By producing small hand-crafted batches, focusing on fine detail continuously throughout the year and listening to the needs of our customers, we believe we can offer a unique, premium-grade style of sake that will be accepted and appreciated not only in New Zealand but also in Japan and around the world.”

The brewery also uses brewing tools made from New Zealand manuka timber and local river rocks to press the sake, both of which are unique in the sake brewing world. 

Remaining authentic and transparent are two pillars that drive Zenkuro, but so is sustainability. 

“Sustainability is a huge part of our everyday brewing life. 

“This starts with our water filtering system called Kangen Water, which was invented in Okinawa, Japan.

“This allows us to filter out all unwanted chemicals from the local water supply for our brewing, and we are also able to control the pH level of the water to use it for cleaning and sterilising, in line with our no-chemical policy.”

The by-product from sake brewing is called sake kasu. This is what is left after the mash has been pressed and the liquid has been separated from the solids, which are still active and full of vitamins. 

Zenkuro uses the sake kasu for a cosmetics range that includes soap, body lotion and skin packs, and to fertilise the plum trees used to make their plum sake, but there are other uses.

“Mt Cook Salmon uses the sake kasu to cure their smoke salmon, and we are collaborating with two award-winning local beer breweries to produce New Zealand’s first sake kasu beer.”

The sake kasu is also supplied to a growing number of chefs around the country and Japanese customers who use it in their home cooking. 

When asked what he thought makes a great sake, Joll quoted the saying “sake, ten thousand ways.” 

“This refers to the many ways sake can be made and to the many regional differences in sake that go hand in hand with Japan’s incredible variety of local cuisine. 

“So, with this saying in mind, in my opinion, great sake is first and foremost crafted with care and passion. 

“It will have well-balanced flavours, aromas and body that will support and enhance the flavours of the food it is enjoyed with. 

“The character of the sake will be a reflection of the story and history behind the kura (sake brewery) and the kurabito (people of the brewery).”

You can read our story on Tanoshi here.