Philip Harper in New York, 2012

Interview: Philip Harper – Toji, Kinoshita Brewery

Philip Harper is well known in the world of sake as Japan’s first foreign-born Master Sake Brewer or Toji. He arrived in Japan in 1988 to teach English on the Jet Program and later began working in sake breweries. By 2001 he had passed the test to become a Toji and since 2008 he’s been working at Kinoshita Shuzo crafting the award winning and delicious Tamagawa brand sake.

Philip Harper in New York, 2012

Philip recently visited New York after several years absence and I had the good fortune to see him both at Sakagura Tamagawa Night, and at a Aftertaste event at EN.

It was a rare, rare treat to be able to freely talk to a real Toji from Japan in English, instead of my usual broken down Japanese. Due to this linguistic freedom, I most likely talked his ear off during his time in New York… Kindly overlooking this, Philip allowed me to pepper him with even more questions for an official Urban Sake interview.

Timothy Sullivan: After coming to Japan on the JET program, how did you first get involved in the sake industry? What was it about sake that attracted you?

Philip Harper: In the twenty-five years since I started drinking sake, I have been ever more deeply impressed by sake’s extraordinary facility with food, and the fantastic range of pleasures to be had playing around with drinking temperatures. In the early days, though, mine was a pretty unremarkable, hedonistic debut. I was a fairly unreflective, enthusiastic consumer of alcohol in general, and sake was another drink to enjoy.

I made friends with two Japanese guys, originally more about music than sake. We joined a sake club, and did tastings, brewery visits, rice planting and so on. In my second year in Japan, I went with one of them and stayed and worked in a Shiga brewery for a few days over New Year. By my third year in Japan, we had all given up our previous jobs to become sake brewers. All three of us still make sake for a living, more than twenty years on. I am going tasting (and, I admit it, drinking) with one of them today!

With Philip Harper

Timothy Sullivan: What motivated you to want to become the first foreign-born Toji in Japanese history? What is the process for becoming a Toji?

Philip Harper: Toji in traditional breweries (and I entered a seriously old-school version) were a revered and awe-inspiring presence. I never said to myself, “Right, I’m going to be a toji.” Not everyone who fancies the idea makes it, as there is only one toji to a team. But apart from the hubris it would require for an entry-level bod to say that, I really didn’t have toji in mind as a goal.

I was always occupied with the challenging business of keeping on top of whatever job I was given, without aspirations to the toji crown. But I kept on brewing, and one day (many years into the game) it started to be seen as a possibility

You do not necessarily need a formal qualification to become a toji. In the old days, the various toji guilds would judge the capacities of individual brewers, and make introductions where necessary to brewery owners (who in the traditional system were never involved in the practicalities of brewing). In theory, if you can find a brewery owner to employ you as toji, then that’s all you need. But, as I say, in the old days (in whose twilight I came on board), people followed shop-floor apprenticeships, and those with the skills were promoted through the team hierarchy. Those with the ambition, ability (and possibly also family connections) would eventually become a Master with their own team. The guild I belong to (Nanbu from Iwate Prefecture) actually has a very thorough formal exam to qualify as a toji, which I myself took (and was surprised to pass) in 2001. I didn’t actually take on the role of toji until four years later, when I took over the reins from a departing master, at the previous brewery I worked at. So this winter will be my eighth season as Master Brewer.

Tamagawa Daiginjo

Timothy Sullivan: Do you think some aspect of being a foreign-born Toji expresses itself in any way in your sake? How has your sake been received in Japan?

Philip Harper: We have two products with English names (Ice Breaker and Time Machine), but that’s all. I came to Japan straight out of university, and apart from two years teaching in Japanese schools and another working in a sake bar, my entire working life has been spent in sake breweries, in a 100% Japanese environment. I was a literature student at university, with no background in brewing science or microbiology or anything useful. So I learned brewing from Japanese veterans. Japanese people often think I do whatever I do because of some wine or whiskey or beer influence or philosophy, but it just isn’t so.

In the end, you learn to brew by feeling what microorganisms do (and do not want to do), and there is nothing more blind to race than a microbe.

I can say with confidence that the sake has been well-received, as we have doubled production in the five years I have been at the reins. Though medals have a limited relevance in my view, we have had two Gold Medals in the nationals in that time, if you want to take that as a criterion of technical excellence.

Tamagawa Tokubetsu Junmai

I have heard from a few customers that when they heard of a foreign brewer, they assumed no foreigner could possibly master the subtleties of sake, and avoided Tamagawa. As those same people are now customers, they clearly changed their minds when they actually tried the stuff. So there certainly some people out there who won’t drink the sake if they know it’s made by a foreigner. We could use the rarity value of a foreign toji as a tool, but I am happy that my colleagues are far too bloody-minded for that, and prefer to stress the quality of Tamagawa sake rather than the fact of this odd Brit doing the brewing. Though my name is on the back label of Tamagawa sake sold in the USA, it is not on Japanese labels. Though the cat is rather out of the bag now, for the first three years or so, almost all of our new customers asked to carry Tamagawa after drinking it, and only found out that the brewer was an alien after the fact.

Timothy Sullivan: As a master brewer, what, in your opinion, is the most challenging/difficult part of the sake brewing process?

Philip Harper: Well, each of the many stages has its own complexities, and there are infinite possibilities for dovetailing them into a set. In the end, it all comes down to having a dedicated and enthusiastic team, and keeping everyone focused and motivated through the season (seven months from beginning to end for us) is a challenge for everyone. I am in the process of drawing up the schedule for this winter, which is a very complicated business itself, as our brewery is very small and brewing pretty much at capacity. I only have fourteen fermentation tanks, and we have to do almost five cycles in one season.

Timothy Sullivan: What are you suggestions & ideas to help promote the popularity of sake outside Japan? What do you think needs to happen to make sake a well known and popular beverage in the U.S?

Philip Harper: It’s not rocket science: PR and marketing. There is no problem with sake, only the way it is presented.

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Fascinating! My special thanks go out to Philip Harper for taking the time for an interview. His Tamagawa brand is a delicious sake you should check out if you haven’t tasted it already. They sell both a standout Daiginjo and Tokubetsu Junmai here in the States. The future of sake is very exciting and with folks like Philip Harper in the game, we surely know the best is yet to come!

Interview: Kazuhiro Sakurai, Dassai Sake Brewery

I had the pleasure of visiting the Dassai Brewery in January and February of this year for an extended stay. I learned a ton about sake brewing and life in Japan. The Brewery’s Vice President, Kazuhiro Sakurai, was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about Dassai and all things sake.

Kazuhiro Sakurai

Timothy Sullivan: Tell me a bit about your brewery… how many workers do you have and what’s your production output?

Kauzhiro Sakurai: We have 42 workers total. Last year we produced 4,300 koku. But this year we’re expanding. This year, I think we will make 5,500 Koku.

Timothy Sullivan: How would you describe the style of your sake?

Kazuhiro Sakurai: It’s smooth and clear and but with a very long finish …and very approachable. Most sake out there is difficult to understand, but our character is easy to understand. Not too difficult, but it has elegance and a deep beauty.

Timothy Sullivan: Your Brewery made the decision to produce only Junmai Daiginjo grade sake. Why did your brewery make that decision?

Kauzhiro Sakurai: It’s really quite simple. We want customers who who drink our sake to feel deliciousness and happiness. We found that we were selling 100% of our Junmai Daiginjo style, so it was natural for us to make more of this style. Over time, we realized, selling Junmai Daiginjo was the best style for us. At first, of course we sold a Junmai and a Junmai Ginjo, too, but we noticed customers just wanted to drink the most delicious sake from each brewery, so we focused on that market. For us it was an evolution of what our customers wanted.

Timothy Sullivan: Your brewery was the first to use a high tech centrifuge to separate the lees from the sake. I saw the machine here and it looks very high tech and complex. What role does technology play in sake making? and what role does tradition play?

Kazuhiro Sakurai: For us, it’s just one kind of tool. For example, a good restaurant chef doesn’t use just their hands – they use a food processor or other tools. For me, both technology and tradition are very important. Our goal is simply to make the most delicious sake, so we pay attention to both. Actually, a person’s hand is very sensitive, so for making Koji and making the moto, we need the human touch. But for example rice polishing and sake pressing, the technology is better than the human hand.

Kazuhiro Sakurai

Timothy Sullivan: Sometimes I get food pairing requests for sake. Do you have any food pairing recommendations for your sakes?

Kauzhiro Sakurai: Honestly we think the best pairing is our local specialty, Fugu, or blowfish. The Sparkling Nigori is wonderful with Fugu Kara-age. And of course, I know that it’s very difficult to get fugu in the US, so I recommend that Dassai 23 and Dassai 39 is paired with white raw fish sashimi and roasted vegetables such as roasted asparagus. That is a very good match with my sake. As for Nigori and our sparkling Nigori, they are both good with oily foods such as fried calamari, fried oyster or pork belly. Our Dassai 50 is the most versatile and that goes well with a wide range of foods including Korean food – even the spicy kind.

Timothy Sullivan: What is your message to American consumers of your sake. What would you like them to know about your brewery and your brand.

Kazuhiro Sakurai: For us, the people who live in Yamaguchi, our local town, or who live in Tokyo, New York or France – for us we approach them as a customer in the same way. Our message is simple: “Enjoy our sake and make your life happy!” We want people to enjoy their happiest moments with our sake. That’s why we work hard to make the most delicious sake we can.

Timothy Sullivan: What do you think are the most important steps that should be taken to introduce sake to more people and grow the market?

Kauzhiro Sakurai: This is related to the previous question. People like very simple and very delicious sake – and that is what we are making and we have to work to introduce this to new people. We don’t think we have to brew sake for the American palate, sake for the Japanese palate or sake for the French palate. For us, it’s the same thing. I think beauty is a universal concept and beautiful sake can be recognized by any palate.

Timothy Sullivan: How do see the future of sake in the USA specifically?

Kazuhiro Sakurai: There is a very big opportunity. For those types of people who enjoy many types of food, I feel strongly that they would be open to trying and enjoying sake. I think people’s tastes are evolving – and as their tastes get more broad, there is more room for sake to be successful. I think that trend is happening now in the United States. I think the future is very good for Sake in the U.S.

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My Special thanks to Sakurai-san for talking with me about sake! I learned so much at this brewery! Stay tuned for many more posts on Dassai sake!!

Interview: Junko Igarashi, Sake Sommelier

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Junko Igarashi who is a sake sommelier at Jewel Bako restaurant in New York City’s East Village. I wanted to ask Junko, from her unique perspective as a sake sommelier, regarding her feelings about all things sake.

Junko Igarashi

Timothy Sullivan: how did you first get interested in sake?

Junko Igarashi: My grandfather owned a small sake shop in Japan. It’s not existing anymore but when I was young I visited my grandparents in the countryside and I liked to hang out in his store watching the bottles and the beautiful labels with all their different colors. I also enjoyed the smells of sake when the adults did tastings. I didn’t have any relationship to sake until I started working in restaurants when I moved to the USA. Now, as an adult, when I see some sakes, it is kind of a flashback experience for me. I look at some bottles or labels and I think – Hey, I know this! It takes me back to my childhood.

Timothy Sullivan: Tell me about your sake work at Jewel Bako. What is a typical evening like for you here? What are your duties?

Junko Igarashi: I recommend sake of course! A lot of people here know a little bit about sake, but not much. Other people say, “Oh I’ve tried this and I want something similar”. And let’s say they tried Wakatake at some other place and wanted something similar. I would try to recommend something like that.

Timothy Sullivan: Would you say most of the customers you’re serving have had exposure to sake before?

Junko Igarashi: Most of them are beginners and they have a little bit of knowledge about sake, but they sometimes need some help. More than half of the people don’t know what they want to order so, I try to recommend the sake for them. Sometimes I give them a small taste to make sure what I’m recommending suits their palate. Everybody has different tastes so I think having a taste is the best way to ensure a good recommendation

Jewel Bako

Timothy Sullivan: what are your goals for the sake program at Jewel Bako?

Junko Igarashi: A lot of customers who come into the restaurant know a lot about wine and fish, so they have good palates, but I want to help our customers develop their knowledge of sake. I want those people to understand how wonderful sake can be. If people understand wine, then I think they can understand sake. For example, there are people who know about daiginjo sake, and I want to introduce them to yamahai or to a new style like sparkling sake. I want show people that sake has many different styles and varieties.

Timothy Sullivan: Have you noticed any sake trends with your customers?

Junko Igarashi: Yes. When I started here about six years ago, Niigata style of sake was very popular. Such as Kubota or Hakkaisan. But now seasonal nama sake is very popular. People are asking me – do you have seasonal Nama? Currently we have 95% American clients, and usually 5% Japanese clients. Their tastes are different. American people tend to want to start the meal with something sparkling so more and more they are asking me about sparkling sake.

Timothy Sullivan: What do you do when you get people who come in and say “I’m a total beginner don’t know where to start… what you recommend?”

Junko Igarashi: I will give them two styles of sake to taste; one perhaps a very floral daiginjo and another such as a full-bodied junmai style sake. A lot of people ask me for dry but then they pick a sweeter sake. I think it’s important to taste. I give them a taste of two different styles such as honjozo and daiginjo. I explain the sakes that they are tasting and then let them decide.

Timothy Sullivan: what are some of the core food pairings that you recommend here at Jewel Bako?

Junko Igarashi: We have a fresh octopus sashimi with green tea salt and yuzu. I recommend pairing this with a clean ginjo sake. We also have fatty tuna or a yellowtail belly. Those I pair with a sake with more acidity. For example Kagatobi Junmai Ginjo. When the chef makes Omakase, he always makes seared anago and I want to pair that with a high-quality daiginjo such as Dassai 23. Of course, we aslo have some misoyaki which is very rich and I recommend a pairing with naraman muroka junmai. It’s delicious!

Timothy Sullivan: Thank you very much for taking the time today!

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Interview: Koji Kawakami, Yoshinogawa Sake Brewery

With Yoshinogawa President Koji Kawakami

Founded in 1548, Yoshinogawa Sake Brewery is the oldest in Niigata Prefecture. That is 462 years of sake making in Niigata!

I recently had the distinct honor of sitting down with Yoshinogawa’s 19th generation company President, Mr. Koji Kawakami, to ask him so questions about thoughts on sake, pairing sake with food and this hopes for the future of sake in the USA.

Timothy Sullivan: You have the oldest sake brewery in Niigata. Growing up did you always know it would be your destiny to run a sake brewery?

at the Brewery

Koji Kawakami:
I am an only child and our house was located right next to our sake brewery. Growing up, I never thought about other jobs outside of working at our sake brewery. Some people have asked me if I wanted to get away from the brewery and do something else but, no, I’ve always been very happy to be here. When I was younger, the brewery was my playground and the brewery workers were my friends. So for me, it was only natural that Yoshinogawa Sake Brewery was the place to be.

Timothy Sullivan: When you travel and introduce your sake to people, how do you describe the key points of your style of sake?

Koji Kawakami: I describe it like this: When you have your first sip my of sake, I want people to immediately think about having another cup.

Timothy Sullivan: There are a lot of successful sake breweries in Niigata. What makes that region of Japan so good for sake brewing?

Daiginjo

Koji Kawakami:
Back in the 1970’s all the Brewers in Niigata got together and decided as a group to make a commitment to brew really good sake. My Grandfather was at one point head of the Niigata Prefecture Sake Brewer’s Association and that was one of his goals, too… to focus on making excellent sake.

Niigata is the only prefecture that has a prefectural government run Sake Research Institute that supports research to promote better sake making. I feel this decision by the Niigata sake brewers to work together to make better sake helped establish Niigata as a center for outstanding sake.

Timothy Sullivan: I recently learned that Niigata is one of the largest rice producers – second only after Hokkaido. Do you use a lot of locally grown rice in your sake?

Koji Kawakami: Of the sake we make for retail sale, 100% of it uses local Niigata rice.

Timothy Sullivan: What strains of Niigata sake rice do you use in your sake?

Koji Kawakami: Gohyakumangoku. Also koshi-tanrei which is a relatively new hybrid made from Gohyakumangoku and Yamadanishiki. It’s a hybrid that was originally developed by the Niigata Prefectural Sake Research Institute I mentioned earlier as a new sake rice for Niigata.

Timothy Sullivan: What year was Koshi-tanrei first used in your sake?

Niigata Sake Rice

Koji Kawakami:
We started using Koshi-tanrei in our sake about 8 years ago for the first time.

Timothy Sullivan: I want to ask a little bit about koji and yeast. I heard that you make your own yeast at your brewery?

Koji Kawakami: We have a subsidiary company that makes yeast – one of only 5 in Japan. We provide yeast to bread companies in addition to wine, and of course sake yeast. Having immediate access to the freshest yeast makes for great sake. Beyond being the freshest, our sake yeast is also proprietary.

Timothy Sullivan: I also heard you have 3 different koji rooms at your brewery. Why three koji rooms and how are they different?

Koji Kawakami: We have one Koji making machine which we developed in 1963, so that is in one room. We have another koji making room dedicated to for finest “all hand made” sakes. Lastly, we also have a state of the art koji making room at our new brewery facility that opened three years ago.

Washing Sake Rice

Timothy Sullivan: I get a lot of questions from Americans about pairing sake with food. Do you have any food pairing recommendations specifically for your sake?

Koji Kawakami: It’s a difficult question because there is a lot of food that I think pairs well with Yoshinogawa sake but there is so much variation in styles and types of food and it ends up being a personal experience for each individual. I will say that I believe sake is an ideal beverage for food pairing

Timothy Sullivan: Do you have any message for American consumers of your sake?

Koji Kawakami: Not just for Americans but also for Japanese people as well, my message is that sake should be a product that allows people to enjoy themselves and have fun. Too often in the sake world you might hear “don’t” do this with sake or “never” serve sake this way. In my view people should drink sake the way they like it, enjoy sake for what it is and not be limited by too many rules. It’s good to think outside the box and enjoy sake in your own way and share it with everybody.

Echigo Junmai

Timothy Sullivan: What’s the future of the sake market in the US? what are your thoughts on where we’re headed?

Koji Kawakami: Even though sake has been available in the States for a while now, in my opinion it is still very much the beginning. As I mentioned before, sake is an ideal beverage for pairing with all kinds of food and I know this trend will continue. It’s very exciting and fun for me to see where this will go. As more Americans get to drink it, there are a lot of options out there for sake right now. Before in the States, we were limited to a much smaller sake selection, but now because there is a larger selection of sakes out there, it allows Americans to experience a variety of great flavors and experiment with pairing and, again, to think outside the box when it comes to enjoying sake. We’re still at the start and there is a long way to go, but it will happen. I’m very excited and happy about it!

Timothy Sullivan: I am too! Thank you very much for taking the time today!

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To learn more about Mr. Kawakami’s Yoshinogawa Sakes, please visit my Sake Notebook page for Yoshinogawa. Kanpai!

Interview: Kazuo Matsuura, Honke Matsuura Brewery

With Kazuo Matsuura and Narutotai

Honke Matsuura Brewery makes the famous Narutotai brand sake. When I recently met the brewery President, Dr. Kazuo Matsuura, he kindly agreed to answer some questions about his sake, his brewery and his native Tokushima. Narutotai is wildly popular in the United States and I wanted to learn more…

Timothy Sullivan: What is the significance of red snapper “tai” fish to your brewery?

Kazuo Matsuura: Naruto City, Tokushima Prefecture is famous for its sea of Naruto Strait Whirlpools. And a sea bream (we call it TAI in Japanese) which grow up in strong whirlpools is very popular as a delicious fish. We hope to brew special sake that goes well with sea bream dishes. That is the origin of our brand name NARUTOTAI.

Narutotai Ginjo Nama Genshu

Timothy Sullivan: Your Narutotai Ginjo Nama Genshu is unique in so many ways – and a very popular sake with Americans: Unique bottle, richness, flavor, strength – what are your comments on this sake?

Kazuo Matsuura: I think this sake is clear and strong taste and Americans can enjoy its taste.

Timothy Sullivan: How do you balance tradition VS technology in your brewery? what role does each play in your sake brewing process?

Kazuo Matsuura: I believe that tradition and new technology will never conflict. My father’s policy is “温故知新(Onko-Chishin)” ; that is the Analects of Confucius. It means to adopt advanced technology into old tradition. And my management policy is “抜苦与楽(Bakku-Yoraku)”: it comes from the teachings of Buddhism. It means to eliminate the suffering of the mind and give pleasure. I want to produce sake that makes many people being happy. Therefore, I think if our brewing technology will contribute to customer’s enjoyment, those will never conflict.

Narutotai Junmai Ginjo Yamahai Genshu

Timothy Sullivan: Your Brewery is located in Tokushima prefecture. What is special from Tokushima that influences your sake? Water? Rice? Climate? food?

Kazuo Matsuura: In particular Climate and food I think. Tokushima’s food culture prefers relatively strong and sweet taste from the past. I think Narutotai’s sake has been made to go well with such a food culture.

Timothy Sullivan: What are your hopes for the sake market in the United States? Sake have a happy future here in the USA?

Kazuo Matsuura: I hope American people will understand the enchantment of sake more and enjoy sake. Today, I have just heard that “Umami (Flavor)” of sake goes
better with fish dishes than that of wine physically.

Timothy Sullivan: What is your message to American consumers enjoying your sake? What would you like American drinkers of Narutotai to know about your brewery and Brand?

Kazuo Matsuura: Sake is part of Japanese culture. If you will understand our culture including sake and food, you can enjoy more and more. We appreciate with your patronage NARUTOTAI. We hope American drinker will have a happy time with our sake.

Timothy Sullivan: Mastuura-san, I’m sure American Drinkers will have a happy time with your sake indeed! It’s delicious! thank you!

Interview: Jihei Isawa, Katsuyama Brewery

Meeting Mr. Isawa

I had the distinct honor of meeting the president of Miyagi Prefecture’s Katsuyama Sake Brewery, Mr. Jihei Isawa, earlier this year. I tasted several of his sakes and can report they were a revelation! Isawa-san was kind enough to sit down for an interview and he was enthusiastic to introduce me to his line of “Modern Shudo” sakes. What follows is a discussion on his views of all things sake.

Timothy Sullivan: When you say your sake is “Modern Shudo”, what do you mean by that?

Jihei Isawa:“Modern Shudo” is based on the idea of how the samurai enjoyed sake back in the time when Katsuyama Brewery was founded. At that time, sake was enjoyed with a free spirit and more comfortable, flexible style. Of course, the time after WWII was challenging for price and quality of sake. But for me, our style is representative of the Edo period, so I want to revive that sense of fun and enjoyment of sake. I want to revive Edo style for our time.

Akatsuki

Timothy Sullivan: You mentioned before about the history of your brewery dating back to the famous Date Masamune. What aspects of your sake tie you to Sendai? What is special about your region that is reflected in your sake?

Jihei Isawa: This is a very nice question. Actually Sendai is a very well known city or region which produces good rice. For example, 2/3 of the rice available in Edo was Sendai rice, so the production of Sendai rice determined the price of rice in Edo…

Timothy Sullivan: …and at that time, rice was used as money, right?…

Jihei Isawa: Yes, rice was used as money. so that is why the Date Masamune Family earned a lot. Also, this tradition continues to this day. Sendai is still famous for producing rice. That is why our sake enhances the purity of the sweetness of rice. We eat good rice every day, so we know what good rice tastes like. That is why in Miyagi most of the brewery try to express the pure essence of rice.

Timothy Sullivan: What kind of sake rice is grown in your prefecture?

Jihei Isawa: A popular eating rice is sasanishiki and hitomebore is also popular. And I have a junmai named “EN” and this sake uses hitomebore rice grown in Sendai area. The polishing rate is 55%. Sake rice is bigger that this kind of eating rice, so a 55% milling rate is the maximum we can get from an eating rice. EN Junami won a prize for best Junmai in Miyagi prefecture.

20 years ago, Miyagi announced it was the “Prefecture of Junmaishu”. With this movement, Miyagi became very well known as a prefecture for junmaishu. Our brewery is a leader in making sake that uses eating rice.

Katsuyama Den

Timothy Sullivan: How long have you been exporting sake to the United states?

Jihei Isawa: for about 3 years.

Timothy Sullivan: So you’re just starting export…

Jihei Isawa: Yes, just starting.

Timothy Sullivan: Do you have any special message for American drinkers of your sake?

Jihei Isawa: Please compare sakes with wines. A strong point for sake is the 5th taste: Umami. To fit with the taste of Umami, sake is really the best. Wine is not so easy to pair with Umami because of it’s strong acidity. Sake has acidity, too, but it’s much lower. Acidity in sake is generally 0.4 – 2.0. but in wine it is 4.5 – 15.0. Now, that’s a lot.

I recommend that American drinkers watch for the taste of umami in Sake. At first they may not understand it – it takes time and it takes training – but in my opinion it’s worth it!

Timothy Sullivan: so now you’re in the American market and you’re introducing your sakes in the US. Where do you see the sake industry in 5 years or 10 years ?

Jihei Isawa: Sake has a happy future! Many chefs began to create food that follows the “Umami” flavor, but they don’t have a good alcohol for pairing with Umamai – they only have wines. With wine, we can’t taste the real umamai – so in the future, I believe they must have sake to pair with their foods.

Also, I think with the expansion of sake, customers will have more choice. This is a key point. Actually “shudo” lets people enjoy themselves in their style, in their taste. It will be more exciting on the table. Consumers will have more options.

Katsuyama En

Timothy Sullivan: One last question – I learned today that you are also a wine sommelier in Japan. I don’t know many sake makers who are also wine experts – what inspired you to become a wine sommelier?

Jihei Isawa: I had a restaurant in Paris and Florence. In Paris from 1994 – 2004 and Italy from 2001-2008. So that is why. Also, we have a cooking school in Japan. It’s the biggest cooking school in the Touhoku area and we are a sister school with Burgundy wine school. Sometimes in an effort to explain the sake, I take ideas from the wine world. It’s much easier to explain for consumers. Also now, even in Japan, many people drink more wines and if i talk to them in the vocabulary of wine, it helps them to understand more easily. If I use only sake technical terms, they’ll never understand. If I start to talk with a wine vocabulary, they understand immediately.

Timothy Sullivan: So in your opinion wine is a bridge to explaining and understanding sake?

Jihei Isawa: Yes, but on the other hand, many wine sommelier in Japan, don’t drink sake. But if I explain sake with their wine terms, they will begin to drink it. In this way, I can convert a wine sommelier to a sake sommelier and a sake sommelier to a wine sommelier!

Timothy Sullivan: Isawa-san, thank you for your time!

Interview: Yohei Ito, Akita Seishu Brewery

Mr. Yohei Ito

Late last year, had the opportunity to meet Mr. Yohei Ito of Akita Seishu Sake Brewery. Akita Seishu is well known for many delicious sakes including both the Kariho and Dewatsuru brands. Mr. Ito was kind enough to agree to answer some questions about the sake world from his point of view.

Timothy Sullivan: How do you describe your sake to people drinking it for the first time? What is your message to U.S. consumers of your sakes?

Yohei Ito: The history of Japanese sake overlaps with 2,000 years of Japanese history. Please enjoy the wonderful taste of Japanese sake which has been perfected through this long history. At the same time, Japanese Sake continues to evolve. To this end, new types of Japanese sake are being imported to the US. I hope that you have found your favorite Japanese sake.

Timothy Sullivan: What is special about Akita Prefecture that gives your sake it’s unique character? 
 
Yohei Ito:
AKITA prefecture, similar to other places known for Japanese sake, is blessed with an abundance of natural resources. Amongst those, there are three things that are particularly unique to Akita Prefecture:

1) Abundance of water sources
The west side of Akita prefecture is coastal while the surrounding north, south and east sides are mountainous. Therefore the rain that falls upon Akita seeps into the surrounding mountains and becomes underground water, which then becomes water sources with many characteristics. These different types of water sources, when used in making sake, create unique taste of the Akita sake.

Our brewery uses the water source from the Dewa mountain range which is a very soft type of water. With this water we use a process such as “Kimoto jikomi” which is a long-term low-temperature fermentation to create a very refined tasting junmai shu.
In addition, we also use a water, rich in minerals, that surfaced from the bottom of the ocean 15,000,000 years ago. This water is used for making sake that is stronger and more vibrant in taste.

2) Abundant variety of sake rice
Akita prefecture is not simply known for rice production but also for its abundant rice varieties. Many types of rice are produced for sake . To name a few, akitasakekomach, miyamanishiki, akinosei, misatonishiki gin no sei, kame no o, are produced as sake rice. In addition there are certain rice that are only grown and harvested in Akita. Such rice also provide character and uniqueness to Akita sake.

3) The existence of a Toji group
In Akita prefecture, we have a group/association of Toji called the “San nai Toji.” Such an association is critical to the improvement/enhancement and sustainability of sake brewing techniques. More recently we see more heirs to breweries also become a toji. This unique environment in Akita has facilitated an opportunity for elder toji and younger successors to collectively compete for better techniques.

Timothy Sullivan: What is the most important factor that influences the taste of your sake? rice? water? koji? Brewing Technique? etc…?

Yohei Ito: The key ingredients that influence the outcome of the taste of our brewery’s sake is not surprisingly the quality of water and the way in which the koji is made, the temperature and length of fermentation. By leveraging the humidity and the cold winter climate, we try to achieve refined flavorful sake.

Timothy Sullivan: What role does modern technology play in your sake brewing? What role does tradition play?

Yohei Ito: Today’s technology creates an environment with improved repeatability which allows us to develop a more superior yeast and koji during the brewing processes. While the traditional techniques (such as kimoto or yamahai style) provide the unique characteristics to the sake’s taste.

Timothy Sullivan: What would your advice be for any Americans who want to learn about sake?

Yohei Ito: Given the complexity of Japanese law and regulations, it seems that it would be hard for an American to learn about Japanese sake. The intriguing part of Japanese sake, similarly to wine, is the variety of tastes that are created from the many regions’ unique history, environment and the brewery. Therefore, I believe that in having an interest and learning the background of the Japanese sake will enhance the drinking experience making the sake even more delicious.

Timothy Sullivan: How do you see the future of sake in the USA?

Yohei Ito: In more metropolitan cities like NYC, there is a growing number of people that love Japanese sake. However for the majority of the people in the US sake remains an unknown beverage. For this reason, I believe that we are merely just beginning to see the potential of sake in the US. For my part, with great enthusiasm, I would like to continue to convey the joy and tastiness of sake to those who have yet to discover. My hope is that someday soon, more Americans are able to identify their favorite sake and effortlessly select from the various types; and I hope to contribute to this effort.

*********

Thank you Ito-san! Very interesting, thoughtful and informative answers! I am happy to hear you are enthusiastic about the future of sake in the U.S.! I am too. I hope many more people here in the States will taste your Kariho and Dewatsuru Brands of sake. Kanpai!

Interview: Jouji Sato, Hinomaru Brewery

Mr. Sato President of Hinomaru Brewery

Mr. Sato President of Hinomaru Brewery

I was delighted to get the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Jouji Sato, president of Akita’s Hinomaru Jozo Sake Brewery. Sato-san was in New York promoting his sakes and my friend Linda Noel Kawabata arranged for us to talk. Linda is the USA Brand Manager for Akita Sake Promotion and Export Council (ASPEC) and she translated all my questions and the answers from Sato-san.

This was a really fun and unique opportunity to meet one-on-one with a sake brewer and ask just about anything. I had met Sato-san before at tastings and events, but this was my first opportunity to sit down and talk at length. Needless to say, I learned so much – Sato-san is a charming, engaging personality and his true love for sake and his native Akita Prefecture was easy to feel. He’s dedicated to making the best sake – and I think the career he had in banking, before taking over the family brewery, give him a special vantage point.

Manabita Kimoto Junmai Ginjo

Manabita Kimoto Junmai Ginjo

Timothy Sullivan: Do you have a message for American Drinkers of your sake?

Jouji Sato: The first thing I would say is I want them to try my sake!! Try Manabito Jumai Daiginjo and Manabito Kimoto Junmai Ginjo!

Timothy Sullivan: How difficult was it to choose which of your sakes to import?

Jouji Sato: It was very difficult. It’s complicated because one company, one brand, one importer is the rule. We weren’t thinking so much about that when we first contemplated coming to the United States. In retrospect we may have been naive. I did not want to get behind the times.

When you export to a foreign country it’s a very complicated process. We actually tried our first exports 10 years ago. At that time, we would have never imagined that this New York Market for Sake would expand as it did.

Timothy Sullivan: 10 years ago?

Jouji Sato: Yes. 10 years ago I lost my Father suddenly. I was working as an investment banker and I had to suddenly quit the bank and take over the family brewery. At that time I never would have dreamt there would be any opportunity to travel internationally for sake business. When I left the bank, I thought for sure that was the end of my traveling – I actually put my passport away. So, this interview right here, right now – and what’s happening with the blossoming of the New York / USA sake market – I could never even have imagined this 10 years ago.

Timothy Sullivan: How important is the New York/American market? I hear from Brewers that sake sales are increasing in the US market, but is that just a drop in the bucket in regards to overall sales? or is this emerging American market a true help?

Jouji Sato: I think there are only one or two breweries for whom the tremendous investment to export to America has really paid off. For the most part, most brewers export well under 10% of their production to foreign markets. But I think a handful of brewers export up to 20% of their production. At Hinomaru Brewery we export 3% of our production – I’m aiming for 10%.

Timothy Sullivan: Do you brew your sake differently to be geared towards your local Akita market? …or geared towards the larger Japanese market? …or even geared towards foreign markets?

Manabito Junmai Daiginjo

Manabito Junmai Daiginjo

Jouji Sato:
That’s a great question. Now, the sad thing is we can’t brew only for our local market anymore. We have to approach brewing our sake with a national market in mind, so we’re thinking of Tokyo, which is our primary market. In regards to the sake I sell here in the US and the sake I sell in Akita, Japan – I brew different products. I don’t know about otherbreweries but for me, it’s different products for different markets.

For example, when my sake is tasted in New York, I want it to express and carry with it Japanese culture, so I’m bringing a very sophisticated sake to this market. I don’t have confidence that the sake that is enjoyed by locals in Akita would be successful in the New York or US market because it’s a hard sell in a market like Tokyo. On the other hand, the interesting thing is that the Americans are so open and receptive, that the likelihood of succeeding with even the local Akita style sakes is more of a possibility here than in Japan.

The food in Akita is very salty, so we have to make something for the local Akita market that is slightly sweet to balance with the local cuisine. We bring that sake to Tokyo or other parts of japan – it doesn’t fit their cuisine. But as we’re eating here in New York or other parts of the United States the Japanese restaurants are not serving “regional” food – it’s more “homogenized” in the US. And for us the greatest joy is the abundance of other cuisines in America for which sake is such an ideal match. Cheese dishes, seafood dishes, vegetarian dishes and the wonderful eclectic food here.

Timothy Sullivan: Since you brew a sake targeted to the American market, have you made any changes or adjustments to the profile of the sake so far?

Sato-san at Joy of Sake 2009

Sato-san at Joy of Sake 2009

Jouji Sato:
We’ve only been exporting this sake for a year, so we haven’t done any of that yet. But for me, more than considering changing our recipe is to continue to make our sakes that hold up so well at room temperature . Because I have observed that room temperature is the temperature that most of the sake is going to be stored, like wines. So my observation is that you can’t be 100% successful in this market if you don’t have a sake that stores like wine, and can be served chilled or warmed. The American customer will demand that.

My sake is very unique in that both the Manabito Jumai Daiginjo and the Manabito Kimoto Junmai Ginjo are matured in air tight bottles at very low temperature at the brewery for a full two years. So they have two years to become exquisitely balanced, round, rich, smooth and stable. They hold up beautifully to whatever cuisine they encounter. Whereas a sake that is released young is going to be constantly effected by the variable temperatures. In brewing Manabito sake we aim for the perfect acidity levels that also help the sake remain stable regardless of the storage conditions in wine stores and restaurants. I’m confident that my sakes are incredibly delicious and incredibly stable.

Timothy Sullivan: Since you had years of experience as an investment banker in the business world outside of the brewery before becoming president, is there anything you changed in the production process to modernize things or did you stick with traditional brewing methods only?

Jouji Sato: We have an expression in Japanese… “There are things worth changing and things worth keeping the same.” Regardless of my desire to have my sake be popular in New York or Tokyo, there are things about the production of sake that cannot stray from tradition.

For example, the yeast. In my Grandfather’s day, it was the milling of the rice that allowed them to attain more delicate flavors. Nowadays there are many more types of yeast available. I don’t want to come out with a new sake every year using a different yeast. We use a limited number of yeasts that we traditionally used in the brewery. For me, the more important thing is how we handle the rice. So if you ask me, my joy comes from playing with the rice combinations… Earlier you asked me about regionality – that’s where I want to hold on to regionality because Akita is the Empire of Rice. I love using those rice blends to create elegant, aromatic yet stable sake. Having said that, I still enjoy the challenge of creating new things.

Timothy Sullivan: When was your brewery founded?

Jouji Sato: Hinomaru was founded in 1689. We are commemorating our 320th year. During the War we had to stop production for a little while – we had no rice for brewing.

Timothy Sullivan: How many brewery works do you have?

Jouji Sato: We have ten workers.

Timothy Sullivan: Only ten?!

Jouji Sato: At one time, we had 80 workers. Before the War, we were one of the largest breweries in the Tohoku region. The Second world war brought a lot of destruction to the area and to our brewery. So after the War, my father had to start from zero, or even less than zero, to rebuild.

Hinomaru Kura Building

Hinomaru Kura Building

What was left was a single Kura building and the entitlement to our Brewery Name “Hinomaru”. Hinomaru is also how we Japanese refer to our National Flag.

320 years ago when the name was given our brewery was the pride of the country. But we have suffered the political consequences of the name “Hinomaru” is also what went down with the War. So after the Japanese lost the War, anything to do with the flag was indicative of our defeat. But my father didn’t want to give up the name and continued to brew sake under the name “Hinomaru”. Even within Japan just the Brewery name is part of the pride and the burden we carry. It should be the thing that gives us most pride, but when the name of your business is the name of the National Flag, it has a burden too.

Timothy Sullivan: Do you have any final message for your American consumers?

Jouji Sato: I’ve only been in the American market for just a year, so many people may have not had a chance to know I’m in the market. But I would love to ask the American Public – once you’ve had a chance to try my sake please tell me what you think of it! Because with that in mind, you can be sure that I’ll do my best to make the sake from my brewery that you will always love. When I sell my sake in Japan, inside the box is a little postcard. In America, there is not box, it’s just the bottle… so I can’t put a postcard in. But today we’ve got the internet! You can leave a comment at the ASPEC web-site: info@ aspec-sake.com or even with you Timothy at urban sake. I value every comment!

When you’re a brewery of our size – we’re the 5th smallest sake brewery in Akita – the most valuable thing we offer our customers is ourselves. Some sake may be cheap or new and different, but the most important thing in the long run is the Brewery..the people…. so when they taste Manabito sake, I want them to taste the brewery and the spirit of “manabito” or “true integrity”… and maybe a little bit of my quirky personality, too!

Timothy Sullivan: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions… I feel like i’ve learned so much!

Jouji Sato: I could answer only because you asked. Thanks for asking!

Timothy Sullivan: Thank you, Sato-san!

Timothy with Sato-san

Timothy with Sato-san

Interview: Chizuko Niikawa, Sommelier & Cup Sake Fan

Cup Sake Fan Chizuko Niikawa

Cup Sake Fan Chizuko Niikawa

Our friend Chizuko-Niikawa-Helton of SakeDiscoveries.com is a famous Sake Sommelier and a fan of “cup sake”.

I recently caught up with Chizuko-san at the beautiful Ippudo Ramen Restaurant and asked her some questions about cup sake. She provides us her unique perspective on this fun and fashionable way to drink sake!

Q: Before you studied to be a sake sommelier, did you have any experience drinking one cup sake in Japan? What was your impression?

Chizuko Niikawa: I had cup sake just a couple of times when I was in my early 20s for experience when I was in college. I don’t remember what sake I had, but definitely I hated it! Then I was convinced that One Cup Sake is cheesy, bad sake only meant for men over 50! (sumimasen men over 50 years old!….) because I had seen many drunk old men always drinking One Cup Sake on the train platform in my hometown very often when I was in high school. They smelled so bad! However, at the same time, I was longing to try One Cup Sake in a train someday like them because they seemed to be enjoying freedom as grown-ups, and some One Cup Sake designs were so pretty. In fact, I used the cute One Cup Sake glass as my regular glass at my home. I don’t know where it came from, but I could see so many One Cup Sake everywhere in my hometown Akita when I was a little, and I had imagined having One Cup Sake as a grown-up! What a stupid kid!

Q: Later, when you worked as a sake sommelier did you ever get to serve Cup sake? Are there any you can recommend?

kikusui_funaguchiChizuko Niikawa: I served some samples of One Cup Sake at my work for just few customers. It was frozen sake in One Cup Sake glass. You have to shake the glass before open the lid. It tastes so refreshing like a sorbet. They changed my mind in a good way about One Cup Sake right away. I really liked the cup design, too. It had a cute plum blossom print.

And my first One Cup Sake experience in New York was Kikusui Funaguchi. I heard that Kikusui Funakuchi is the number one “Cup Sake” in Japan. It’s Honjozo, but Nama and Genshu. So fresh and rich! It was my first “wow!” impression of a One Cup Sake.

chiyomusubi_kitaro_cup2Now, I highly recommend “Gegege no Kitarou One Cup Sake” from Chiyomusubi in Tottori prefecture! They are all Junmai Ginjo, and all use a different sake rice. Gegege no Kitarou is super popular and the most classic Japanese cartoon character. Most Japanese grew up with Gegege no Kitarou. I wish the label wasn’t on paper, though. If the characters were printed on the cups directly, I definitely keep the cups!

Q: Sometimes people believe that one cup sake means lower quality sake. What is your opinion?

Chizuko Niikawa:I don’t want to say they are “lower quality”, but the big point of One Cup Sake is to make it easy to find anywhere like in grocery stores and at train stations, regular delis or automatic vending machines on the streets in Japan. So, One Cup Sake is supposed to be a cheaper price, and hold it’s flavor longer than premium sake. That’s why most of One Cup Sake is Honjozo or Junmai class.

Q: Cup sake has many cute designs. do you have any favorite cup designs?

Chizuko Niikawa: Yes. My point is, definitely the print is on the glass directly. Not paper label on the cup. Of course, the paper label cup can be recycled, so I don’t ask them to change the design. I just want to keep the empty cup for using regular glass, if the design is very cute. Panda print of Miyozakura from Gifu prefecture and Bambi print of Akishika from Osake are exactly my taste. Little nostalgic old fashion design is my favorite part of One Cup Sake design! (They are not available in U.S. market)

Cup Sakes with Printed Designs

Cup Sakes with Printed Designs

Q: Right now, one cup sake is relatively hard to find in the USA. Do you think it could become more popular someday?

Chizuko Niikawa: It’s hard to say actually. Many sake breweries have been able to brew premium sake nowadays, and the quality is getting better every year. I wish I can have premium One Cup Sake in NY casually, but I heard the bottling system of One Cup Sake is little different. It costs more than regular one, and One Cup Sake hasn’t been had like 20, 30 years ago in Japan now. Of course, some of them are still very popular, though.
One Cup Sake has a big lid, and is not easy to keep long the first fresh flavor probably, but many breweries have brewed great Honjozo and Junmai class sake in all over Japan. So, I don’t ask breweries which have not made One Cup Sake to try making One Cup Sake for people in the world, but if you already have the system, please please never stop to make One Cup Sake in the future!

One Cup Sake from Akita!

One Cup Sake from Akita!

bq69 collectibles, when I was searching the internet looking for any information I could find about Japanese one cup style sake. You can't imagine my surprise when I wrote to Maki-san and discovered he spoke fluent english! Below is the interview!'>

Interview: Maki Osugi, Cup Sake Blogger

photo © Maki Osugi

photo © Maki Osugi

I first discovered Maki Osugi’s ‘One Cup Sake’ Blog, bq69 collectibles, when I was searching the internet looking for any information I could find about Japanese one cup style sake.

You can’t imagine my surprise when I wrote to Maki-san and discovered he spoke fluent english! Below is the interview!

Q: How did you first discover One Cup Sake and what caught your attention? Do you remember the first one you tried?

Maki Osugi: In Japan, “Cup Sake” is very popular. When you are in Japan, you can find them very easily. So let me tell you why I love it.

Why I like “Cup Sake” is very simple. I love glass. I love that transparent material. In addition, I like Sake of course. Glass plus Sake makes Cup Sake! Roughly speaking, we have two types of “Cup Sake” here in Japan. One is decorated with a sticker. I call it a “sticker type”. As for the other type, a brand name or an illustration is printed directly on a glass cup. I call this “print type”. Some of “print type” cups looked so cute that I felt like keeping it at home. This is the beginning. While researching “Cup Sake”, I found there are more than 1000 cups sold in Japan. There are tons of cups which I’ve never seen or heard of before. As a matter of course, I felt like collecting them all!

I do not remember which my first cup, but “Suwaizumi” must be one of the first cups that turned me on. My favorite cups, in terms of “cup design”, are listed on the following page. -> http://blog.bq69.info/cup/stars/3-stars/

Ofukumasamune

Ofukumasamune

I also love traveling all over Japan. As some of you might know, Japan is consisted of volcanic islands. So I can enjoy “Onsen” (hot spring). I love “Onsen” as much as I love “Cup Sake”. I always go into local Sake shops and super markets wherever I may roam. I feel very happy when I encounter a cup never seen before.

Many “Cup Sake” from microbreweries are not available even in Tokyo or at online sake stores. Some “Cup Sake” illustrations shows their breweries local landmarks, products or sceneries. For example, “Ofukumasamune” from Niigata has “koi” (carp) and bull fight pictures. Its brewery is located near Yamakoshi area where is famous for both. This kind of local features attract me a lot. “Kobe Cup” is also interesting. Kobe has one of the oldest international ports in Japan, which is represented by a ship on the left side of the cup. There used to be a reservation for foreigners. The weathercock at the right side of the cup represents Kobe’s history.

Q: Why did you decide to start a blog devoted to One Cup Sake? Tell us about your website!

Maki Osugi: My site, “bq69 collectibles“, was started as an online storage of my favorite collections. I intended to list all of my favorite things including books, music, photographs and of course “Cup Sake”. My first post based on my collections was “Cup Sake” because I had collected more than twenty cups at that time. Once I posted a “Cup Sake” article, I wanted to post another and another. While doing so, I find and buy other new cups. The following is a typical cycle of my blogging.

Cup Sake Map

Cup Sake Map

1. buy a cup
2. shoot it
3. drink it up
4. blog it

I have so many cups that I made up my mind to let my site concentrate on Sake topics. I post “Cup Sake” and “Non-Cup Sake” articles one after the other. Although my site is featured in “UrbanSake.com”, my site is unfortunately all written in Japanese. Can’t read Japanese? Please look at my cups on Flickr! Are you a map person? Well, see geological distribution of my collection at my “cup-sake map“!

Q: I’ve heard some people say that One Cup Sake is considered lower quality stuff. How do you feel about this?

Maki Osugi: To those guys, I can say “You are right and wrong”. Most of “Cup Sake” contains “Futsushu” (regular sake). “Futsushu” is diluted with alcohol which is not made of rice. This added alcohol makes sake less tasty. “Cup Sake” was created in 1964 by Ozeki, co. ltd. It was a marketing strategic product. They thought it would be effective to change people’s image of drinking Sake in order to boost Ozeki’s market share. “Casual” and “reasonable” were big keywords. On the other hand, some “Cup Sake” contain “Junmaishu” or “Junmai Daiginjo“. They are very tasty. “Cup Sake is not worth drinking” is a bit stereotype opinion.

Regular archive link -> http://blog.bq69.info/cup/type/regular/
Honjozo archive link ->http://blog.bq69.info/cup/type/honjozo/
Ginjo / Daiginjo archive link -> http://blog.bq69.info/cup/type/ginjo-daiginjo/
Junmai archive link -> http://blog.bq69.info/cup/type/junmai/
Junmai Ginjo / Junmai Daiginjo archive link ->http://blog.bq69.info/cup/type/junmai-ginjo-junmai-daiginjo/

Q: Sake in general is becoming quite popular in the USA. You’ve spent some time living here… do you think One Cup Sake has a chance to catch on in the States?

Maki Osugi: It may be difficult for “Cup Sake” to become popular in the States. In my opinion, breweries do not think it’s a good idea to export their “Cup Sake”. The reasons are:
– cups for “Cup Sake” are not suitable for preservation
– cups itself is heavy, which impacts transportation cost
– “Cup Sake” is cheap (about two USD in Japan)

However, it must be good for breweries to give a “Cup Sake” as a sampler to Sake lovers in the States. At Sake conventions or tasting parties, breweries should give “Cup Sake” to the guests as a promotional sampler. Let them taste a bit at the parties and let them bring “Cup Sake” home. Drinking “Cup Sake” at home may be a good promotion.

Q: I notice that some sake cups have cute/funny/kawaii designs on them. Do you think the sake cup designs influence sales and popularity?

Maki Osugi: Absolutely yes! “Cup Sake” was a big (or medium?) hit in Japan two or three years ago. In those days, many young women bought cute cups just because they’re cute. Giant pandas of “Miyozakura” and cute deer of “Akishika” were big stars. Most of young Japanese women prefer wine or cocktails to Sake. It is very interesting to see that those animals attracted them and made them buy “Cup Sake”!

A cup designed by Yoshitomo Nara was a big hit, too. This contemporary artist is so popular among Japanese girls that they bought cups designed by him. Even those who do not drink bought his cups! You can see his paintings at MoMA in NYC.

Yoshitomo Nara’s cup at my site ->http://blog.bq69.info/2009/02/cup171a-to-z-house.html

Q: What are some of your favorite One Cup Sakes?

Maki Osugi: As I mentioned before, my favorite cups in terms of design are listed in “3 Stars” archive. But some of “2 Stars” cups are also pretty good in design.

If I may be asked what would be my best cups, I would say “Akishika“, which I mentioned before, “Kobe Cup” and “Yagibushi“.

As for taste, I recommend some cups on “Favorites” archive page. All the cups here are “Junmai”. Sake contained in these cups are so delicious that no one can argue, yes including those who claims that “Cup Sake isn’t worth drinking”.

Q: What are you hopes and dreams for the future of your One Cup Sake Blog?

Maki Osugi: Almost all the “Print type” cups I can buy online are already in my collection list. I hope I can get all “Print type” cups, but I do not know how many cups we have in Japan (nobody knows exactly, I guess). Until the day comes, I will roam everywhere in tiny island, Japan. And sometimes I drink “Sticker type” for sure. As for the new cups to come, check’em out at “bq69 collectibles“!

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Interview: Sake Social’s Marc Smookler

Well, it’s been the 21st Century for a few years now and while we don’t yet have flying cars in every garage, there has been some pretty cool stuff happening! We’ve elected the first African American President, driven remote controlled rovers on the surface of Mars, and even invented Twitter!

As for me, my thoughts of the future never stray too far from sake, so you can imagine my interest was piqued when I heard about a new futuristic web 2.0 sake site hitting the internet called SakeSocial.com that was aiming to bring sake selling, sake education and sake community 100% online and into the 21st Century. I recently caught up with the web entrepreneur and SakeSocial.com founder Marc Smookler to find out how he discovered sake, what inspired his website and, what has sake breweries knocking down his door to join in.

Q: Tell me how you got interested in sake? Did you have a sake “a-ha moment”? What on earth inspired you to start SakeSocial.com?

Marc Smookler and his wife Marisela

Marc Smookler and his wife Marisela

Marc Smooker: First, let me say that I am not, nor have I ever been, a big drinker. People should not assume that just because I launched a sake community that I am a booze hound. In fact, sake is one of the harder ways to get “tipsy”. If one was looking to zero in on drunkenness, he/she should simply pick up a bottle of vodka or whiskey.

I became interested in sake through a gradual process—I call it my maturation through aperitifs. I started like most mid‐westerners: Milwaukee’s Best while huddled in my parent’s basement at age 16; then my roughshod college years of fraternity life of Jager and the occasional chaser of Coors Light; after college I graduated to the more refined hard alcohols and the various splashes of color; then the tired years of long days and the Red Bull infused Vodka drinks that took me through my 20’s; then the inevitable ulcer that put an end to my hard alcohol days—ugggh…back to beer…

Then it happened. I moved to Los Angeles, found some good sushi restaurants, and was turned onto sake. Never a fan of wine, I quickly became a fan of sake due to its clean taste, subtle dryness, and complementary nature. I was driven to sushi restaurants by my sake cravings. Eventually I found a sake that I preferred but unfortunately the only restaurant that served it was sub‐par. So I ventured online one night and tried to find a site that sold this particular brand. Couldn’t find it anywhere. In fact, I couldn’t find a single site that sold sake. That night SakeSocial was born.

Shortly after I bought the domain name I called one of my best friends, Jason Laskowski, who just happens to love his beer and cozy, and I convinced him to go out and buy a bottle or 2 of good sake. After he downed the bottles, he called me back and was on board. Also along the way, I have added a few key players to the team, including Beau Timken. On a side note, still to this day I have to convince my wife that just because I started SakeSocial, I do *not* want to become a booze shiller. I am here to provide a service—and a badly needed service at that.

Q: What is unique about your website?

Marc Smooker: We are simply the only ecommerce sake site that provides: a place to learn, purchase, find *your* perfect bottle, and interact with your like‐minded community. Our site:

  • Educates;
  • Helps consumers find what sake brew(s) best suit their palate;
  • Provides a community where others can share their thoughts;
  • Offer a Sake of the Month Club where an expert takes consumers on a tasting adventures; and,
  • Presents an easy‐to‐use ecommerce experience with peer reviews and suggestions.

And lastly, we have gone to great lengths to make sure we are doing things legally. Many of our smaller competitors are just simply taking orders and shipping to whomever, wherever. Not only does this create a liability for the company, but for the customers and importers too. Yes this has increased *our* (not your) costs a bit, but, we are looking to both protect ourselves and our customers. Come July 1st, we will still only be able to ship to only 25 states.

Q: Have you had any reaction from Japanese Brewers or Japanese sake peeps to SakeSocial.com? What do they think of your efforts to sell sake online in the USA?

sake_social_websiteMark Smooker: The breweries actually sell a fair amount of sake on‐line in Japan – so naturally the brewers have been curious why Americans don’t sell sake online. We have to explain the insane legal issues of interstate alcohol sales and they can’t believe that the laws are so difficult – so arduous. As we bring on breweries/importers, and we explain the process we had to go through, they start to see why very few companies have braved the waters. I guess I am just a glutton for punishment…

Also, to add to this point, I am proud of the team at SS (SakeSocial) for representing us, and sake for that matter, in a professional manner. This has gone a long way to assure the breweries that we are the horse to bet on. Lastly, I would like to say that now that we have traversed the shark infested waters of prohibition era liquor laws, and we are making sales/waves, the breweries are literally knocking down our door to get on board.

Q: Tell us about the sakes you’ve selected… Any of your personal favorite brews among your sake selection?

Marc Smooker: Beau actually has a really good blog post on this subject that we haven’t posted yet, but, it really comes down to timing and effort. As you can imagine, with our SakeSelector Tool, all our ecommerce widgets, and all the regulation; adding a simple bottle of sake takes a herculean effort. You can’t just upload one in our database and start shipping. It literally takes 2 months to add a brew to our whole ecomm and warehousing system, and, of course getting all the documentation together for the Alcohol Beverage and Tobacco agency…both state and federal :( Did I forget to mention that we have to do lab testing and then submit the finding to the FDA? Goes on and on….I am sweating again just thinking about it.

So, how do we choose which ones to start off the process? In the beginning it was simple, who was willing to work with us :) Now it’s different….we are fighting them back and are able to pick and choose.
And, regarding your last question…well…my latest Sake Selector Tool walk through put me in the following bottle:

OTOKOYAMA “MAN’S MOUNTAIN”

However, now that I look at my Selector Tool answers, I was pairing with BBQ….let’s just say my diet is making my body crave BBQ… What sake does our Selector Tool choose for you?”

Q: Selling/shipping sake to various States sounds to me like a nightmare‐ish tangled web of bureaucracy. What have been the biggest challenges to selling sake online so far?

Sake 2.0Mark Smooker: I touched on this a bit already, but, yes, a nightmare that still gives me fits. After everything that we have done over the past year, after hiring multiple law firms, I can still only ship to 25 states. The local liquor and grocery stores have a much bigger lobbyist war chest than I do 😉 However, what is strange to me is that limiting interstate commerce is illegal according to Federal mandates… but…again, who is going to fight that battle? Other than the above challenge, just starting a company in general is no easy feat….and after 4 startups, it still scares the heck out of me. Ecommerce adds another cog that you have to work through. But, the biggest challenge of all has been to both educate and convince the American consumer that sake simply rocks!!!

Q: What are your thoughts on the future of sake in the USA?

Marc Smooker: I hope its bright :) Japanese culture is becoming more pervasive in America and sake is riding that wave. It will take some time, but, sake *will* become common place—even if I have to brave this fight alone!

In closing Tim, I would like to say that starting SakeSocial has been an absolute blast. Websites like ours are literally creating a market from the ground up, and being there at the beginning, while having its risks, is what makes it so fun. I have met a lot of great people, a lot of great companies, and a lot of really cool brewery owners in Japan that are salivating to enter the US marketplace.

I just hope we can provide them all a home that consumers continually come to to buy some wickedly good brews!

*********

rover_sakeThanks Marc! It’s hard to believe all the hoops the government makes the industry jump through just to get some premium nihonshu to the people!

Well, keep up the good fight and I’m happy to pass on my flying car for now if you promise to someday deliver your sake-of-the-month club to my friends on Mars… once the FDA signs off, of course.

Best of luck and Kanpai!

Interview: Paul Tanguay

Paul Tanguay

Paul Tanguay

Mr. Paul Tanguay is well known as a real sake authority and a go-to guy for sake education in the US. I first met him when he was Corporate Beverage Director for SushiSamba, and developing a special interest in Sake.

Among his many sake achievements, Paul was the winner of the 2006 Eastern U.S. Sake Sommelier Competition and ranked among the top ten at the 2006 World Sake Sommelier Competition, and for years he as been a part of the judging panel for the U.S. National Sake Appraisal. Paul is currently Founding Partner of Tippling Bros., a NYC based Beverage consulting company and is also Vine Connection’s National Sake Educator.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Paul and luckily for me, he agreed to answer some questions I had about his take on all things sake. Here’s the Urban Sake Interview!

Q: How on earth did you get into sake in the first place?

Paul Tanguay: Well, being a sommelier/overall beverage geek, it was just a natural progression to learn about another alcoholic beverage. Also, earlier on I realized that not many wine people were interested in learning about sake. I kind of saw sake as an opportunity to have a niche that other sommelier’s did not have. Looking back, it was a smart move.

Q: I won’t ask you to pick favorites, but what are some sakes you really enjoy and when/under what circumstances do you enjoy them?

Paul Tanguay: My favorite category by far is Ginjo sake, typically with a 50% semai buai. Depending on the sake, this category can work as a simple aperitif or has enough ‘meat’ to hold up to food.

Q: What advice would you give to folks who want to learn more about sake but are not sure where to start?

Paul Tanguay: Well, for starters Urban Sake.com is a great place to start learning. Because of the language barrier, the obvious sources like Gauntner, Sake World, Phillip Harper are great sources. But the one number one advice, try as many different sakes ads you can, from producers, categories and types.

Q: Any favorite food-sake pairings you can share with us?

Paul Tanguay: Sake and Pizza. I’ll leave it at that. I think this could be a whole separate article

Q: The world of sake in the US feels to me to be evolving quickly! Where do you see the sake import industry in five or ten years? Can imported Japanese sake go mainstream?

Paul Tanguay: Though sake has seen unbelievable growth during the past two decades, my feeling is that it has begun to slow down, especially in the large markets like NYC, San Fran, Miami, Chicago. An example of that is five-six years ago, i use to get at least 1 to 4 calls a month from various media sources that were interested in sake. Though, with that said, there are many pockets in this country where people have such an interest in learning more about sake. This week, I had 30 people attend a sake seminar in New Orleans. Still a ton of interest. Personally, I feel there might be too many sake importers to support demand, which might not be good for the industry- too much sake sitting around might lead to some bad sake laying around, potentially turning some new drinkers off the beverage. In terms of going mainstream, unfortunately, I just don’t see that happening any time soon. First, because of the overall price of premium, ginjo sake. Second, the language barrier- look at German wines. And third- right now- the American palate is seeking drier beverages, in wine, beer and spirits. For many, sake appears too sweet to them. They also seek higher acidity than what sake might offer.

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Thanks Paul! That Sake and Pizza comment has me intrigued! I will get some field research in as soon as I can.

Interview: Lannie Ahn at Izakaya Ten

Lannie Ahn, Owner Izakaya Ten

Lannie Ahn, Owner Izakaya Ten

Izakaya Ten is a great Japanese style sake pub in Chelsea. Becoming ever more sake friendly, they recently expanded their sake list and also expanded their hours (Thursday-Saturday ’til 3:00am). Who’s behind all this wonderful sake expansion? It’s Lannie Ahn, Izakaya Ten owner, but also a true sake aficionado. I recently sat down with Lannie to discuss the world of sake.

Q: How did you first discover sake?

Lannie Ahn: I’m a Korean, so traditionally, I’ve known about sake from my childhood. Even though it’s Japanese drink, we knew about sake as we were growing up. Also in our Confucianism ceremony there is a celebration where we bow to our ancestors, and for that we use sake. I rediscovered sake during my college years in Boston. I watched a lot of Japanese dramas in my college years and there are always little izakaya in the stories and I would always think I want to go to a place like that. So I found such a place in Boston and started drinking mostly hot sake at first. But it’s during that time that I started to get into sake more seriously.

Q: What is the appeal of sake for you?

Lannie Ahn: I think it’s about “drinkablilty” and the purity and uniqueness of sake which is very different form other kinds of drinks. To me, there is not another drink that drinks so easily and also brings people together like sake does. Also, it’s not a hard liquor – that’s what I mean by “drinkability” – and the feeling drinking sake gives you is very unique, so that’s the appeal.

Izakaya Ten

Izakaya Ten

Q: You just expanded your sake list at Izakaya Ten. How did you put that expanded sake list together?

Lannie Ahn: This most recent list is ordered by the level of umami in the sake. We started with the very representational sakes in Japan and also here in the U.S., and then began filling the gaps of the different tastes mostly measured by umami and acidity. And, of course, based on the value in terms of the price. For example, I feel that just having the representational sakes wouldn’t fill those gaps in flavor profiles that we really needed for a well rounded sake list. And also, in the US, for a restaurant to have a good sake list, there is a lot of good sake here to choose from, so I had to taste a lot. We then go with what we think is best based on the tasting, thereof, to discover 3-4 kinds of same peers in each different umami and acidity categories. At final, we selected one in the peers factored in what we think gives the best value to the customer.

Q: How has sake been received here by your American customers?

Lannie Ahn: I think the reaction has been absolutely positive. Some customers come in ready to enjoy sake, but we also get some people who are beginners with sake and may be a bit hesitant to try it. So we explain to them about sake and they have a very happy experience. So not only are we promoting sake, but the customer’s reaction is really great after they taste it.

Izakaya Ten Mural

Izakaya Ten Mural

Q: Do you find you have to do a lot of sake education?

Lannie Ahn:Absolutely. Customers always say they have to write down the names of the sakes. They always ask, “What did I try last time? This time I want to try something different!” And when we explain about the technical side of sake, it becomes a lot more interesting for our customers. All the staff here knows about the sake production process, so we can share that too.

Q: Is there a sake on your list that you have a special connection to?
Lannie Ahn: Tamanohikari. It has the yamahai style that for me personally, I think has an interesting taste. At the sake expo, I had the chance to meet the President of the brewery here in New York. He was from Kyoto and a really friendly person and he sent us a lot of sake souvenirs. I got to know about their history, and not just about the Brewery itself but also Kyoto’s traditions. Oh and by the way, it became a number one seller by itself. One of the Tamanohikari sakes we have on the list is a yamahai. It’s been good to enjoy that taste. Customers really seem to enjoy the taste of that sake. Yes, the Tamanohikari Yamahai is the best seller in the 720ml size bottle.

Q: From your perspective what do you think the future of sake is in the US?
Lannie Ahn: I think as long as sake continues being imported to us, I believe sake will have great potential. Not just because the drink itself is so great but also because, with increasing accessibility to sake, more and more people will be able to try it and enjoy it. I think sake really has a great potential!

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Lannie, a very sincere thank you for taking the time to talk to me about sake. I can tell you are passionate about sake and I’m excited for the future of Izakaya Ten! Please keep spreading the good word about sake!

Izakaya Ten
207 Tenth Avenue
between 22nd &23rd St.
New York, NY 10011
Tel 212.627.7777
http://www.izakayaten.com/

Hours
Mon–Wed, 6 pm to 12 am
Thurs–Fri, 6 pm to 3 am
Sat, 5 pm to 3 am
Sun, 5 pm to 10:30 pm

Interview: Dewey Weddington at SakeOne

Dewey Weddington

Dewey Weddington

My recent trip to SakéOne in Forest Grove, Oregon gave me a chance to visit with Dewey Weddington, their Vice President of Marketing. Dewey was kind enough to answer some of my questions about SakéOne and the sake industry.

Q: SakéOne is our country’s only American-owned sake brewery. What are the advantages and disadvantages in producing sake in the US?

Dewey Weddington: The disadvantages to producing saké in the US are simply that we do not have the broader industry infrastructure that is found in Japan. There is no brewer’s education system, no guild, no saké industry associations or the events and systems that support and promote saké. Additionally, the available rice varieties are limited to very few choices which somewhat limits our ability to brew the styles we dream of. But we do have a strong information support system with Momokawa Japan and their master Toji Yoshio Koizumi who is Greg Lorenz’s, our Toji, teacher and on-going guide. It would be far more difficult without their support.

The advantages, oddly enough, are also related to not having the strength of the Japanese saké industry at our disposal. We are not bound to tradition, to regional styles, to the written or unwritten rules of saké. We do not have the cultural limitations imposed on our friends in Japan. Because we are “the Americans” brewing saké we are basically free to roam where our desires take us. It’s much like Oregon’s microbreweries and wine producers who began with a historical base but a fresh vision. While we work hard to keep our hands on the traditions we are not bound by them, so we look to the future and what is good for America. We bottle Genshu, Nigori, fruit infused saké which are not so common or desired in Japan, and were saké styles we were originally advised to not create. Today every importer or producer for the US has a nigori and nine years after we first bottled our Asian Pear infused saké under the Moonstone brand, we watched as another “domestic” producer rolled out their own infused saké and a small importer unveiled a few as well. We hear that today there are several infused saké showing up in Japan. Our ability to take risks, make fast decisions and head into uncharted territory is a real plus for us.

SakeOne in OregonQ: What do you think are the most misunderstood ideas about sake and American-made sake specifically?

Dewey Weddington: The most misunderstood idea about saké is still the simple idea that saké is only the cheap hot stuff. People here in the states have a long way to go in learning what saké is. The reality that hot saké is here to stay is challenging our ability to educate and change perceptions but there are a lot of us working on it including yourself, Beau Timken, Chris Johnson, John Gauntner among others.

The most frustrating challenge is perception that saké brewed in the US is not, and can not be, the quality of what is brewed in Japan. This comes from what most people associate with domestic saké – cheap, doesn’t taste good and always served hot. The brewers who were here before us continue to focus on the hot saké niche but we started out as a Junmai Ginjo producer facing an uphill climb from a domestic producer standpoint. The “can’t make good saké in the states,” also comes from the growing number of saké educated people who assume if it’s not from Japan it can’t be any good. As those people meet us and taste our finest we begin breaking down this myth.

When people taste our saké they are surprised, sometimes shocked that something that tastes so good was brewed in the US by Americans. One of our team loves to do blind tastings because of the surprise found when the saké are unveiled. Our G Joy saké has gained support from the leading saké Sommeliers in the US and our enhanced Momokawa line with the new Organics is getting a lot of attention. Saké brewed in the US doesn’t have to be rough tasting hot liquid and we hope we are proving that every day in every bottle.

Q: When you travel around the US and introduce your sake, what’s the reaction been?

Dewey Weddington: The main reaction is our favorite reaction – big smiles and bright eyes followed by “oh wow” comments. That really sums it up. We pour at major trade shows and consumer events all over the US and people are surprised at three things; Saké tastes so much better than they thought, more like a fine white wine. The saké is brewed in the US and, it is brewed by Americans in Oregon. Oregon? “Isn’t that the home of Pinot Noir and Micro brewed beer?” Yes indeed it is. Oregonians have a penchant for fine beverages and for pioneering new concepts, saké is an ideal fit and it goes so well with NW cuisine.

SakeOne Tasting Room

SakeOne Tasting Room

Q: Are there any specific pairings you recommend with your sakes?

Dewey Weddington: Oh, this is a favorite topic for us as we tend to look or unconventional, unexpected pairings. Here are some of our favorites.

G Joy РTypically big, meaty flavors like rosemary lamb chops, smoked Gouda or Vermont Cheddar. But, we also find that G Joy goes well with spicy foods. A recent Press lunch had us pairing it with Roulade of lamb on a lamb demi glaze served over Oregon chanterelles and cipollini onion sak̩ agro dolce Рit was amazing. We do know a great number of people who swear G pairs incredibly with pepperoni pizza and cheese burgers, simple, everyday American cuisine.

Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo РThis is very food friendly sak̩ but some of our favorites include: Fig Souvlaki: dried figs filled with feta, wrapped in alderwood smoked bacon and sage. Kasuzuke Wild Sockeye Salmon with a Boysenberry Glaze: Rice lees marinade, glazed with a ginger boysenberry reduction & served with a strawberry tomatillo salsa. And two of my personal favorites were discovered with friends at the Side Door in Honolulu; sea clam poke and grilled thick cut pork chops.

Moonstone Coconut Lemongrass (Nigori) – Outstanding with spicy Thai curry dishes, lime infused dark chocolate and simply poured over vanilla ice cream.

Momokawa Pearl (Nigori) – Flourless chocolate torte or anything with dark chocolate. Fresh strawberries and spicy dishes.

Momokawa Silver РKumumoto oysters, really any oyster, mussels and clams. A great seafood sak̩.

Q: You have a USDA certified organic sake for sale which is a rarity. What can you tell us about organic sake?

Dewey Weddington: Organic saké is indeed rare and in fact the Momokawa organic saké are the only saké to carry the USDA organic seal. For us it means even more careful attention to our rice handling and brewing, more hands on and detailed management. It means that every element in our brewing process is certified non GMO, organic or otherwise approved under the USDA standards. Our first brewing efforts were incredible. The organic rice brewed differently than our other rice. It brewed more robustly and was more flavorful in the end. Our Toji, Greg, noted that the organic rice made our yeasts very happy. The result is an
astonishing fruit forward and flavorful saké.

There are some saké from Japan that tout being organic but in the US they are not certified and technically can not even say they are organic. Japanese standards and US standards are different with Japan’s being less rigorous. So, a Japanese certified kura is not recognized as such in the US.

For our customers it means a guarantee that what’s in the bottle is organic and free of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and processing aids.

Tanks at SakeOneQ: The SakéOne facility in Forest Grove Oregon is impressive. Why did you pick this location? What can visitors expect when they visit you?

Dewey Weddington: We selected our Oregon location primarily for the water source. The Oregon coastal mountains, like most of the state, receives a great deal of rain that feeds our rivers and streams. Our water comes from a nearby reservoir which refills constantly so our water is soft with little to no iron or manganese. Its soft and flavorful. We joke that when it rains we simply look up and smile but its true, our core ingredient falls from the sky almost daily.

When people visit they can expect the unexpected. They can expect a detailed, educational tour of our kura and of course saké tasting in
the tasting room. They’ll see a kura that houses very Japanese equipment and approaches like our Satake mill and traditional koji room, as well as American equipment like our water cooled aging tanks borrowed from the local wine industry. Visitors can also expect unconventional food pairing flights, sakétini Saturday on the third Saturday of every month, concerts in the summer, saké 101 classes, sushi classes, and simply a great deal of activities with a focus on
education and tastings. We pride ourselves in a very knowledgeable staff who will change our visitors perception of saké.

Q: Tell us about your Sake Club. What is this program and what should participants expect?

Dewey Weddington: We started the first sak̩ club in the US, it is very much like wine clubs in that as a club member you get a shipment of sak̩ with pairing suggestions, technical notes, etc. every other month. In our case we have three clubs; Sak̩tini Рsix times a year with various sak̩ and mixers with recipes. Kura Рsix times a year focused on what we brew in Oregon and some select imports. Toji Рwhich also ships six times a year and includes specialty, small batch sak̩ from our kura and imports. The small batch sak̩ are typically grand experiments that we approve for club use. They have included nama zume, select genshu and other unique blends or processes. Fees for club memberships vary by the club but all members get discounts on their regular purchases, complimentary tastings and discounted or eliminated event fees.

Q: I feel that sake quality across the board is increasing year over year. What does the future hold for SakéOne?

Dewey Weddington: That’s the great news about saké today. There are more styles imported and produced here, more access and overall more quality. Its been a long 15 yeas of work but we are thrilled to see where we all are and where it looks to be heading.

Our future includes constant evolution of our core saké with diversified yeasts, rices and process. You’ll see new infused saké and some wild experiments. But, you’ll also see us evolve into the more classic styles such as Daiginjo and Tokubetsu Junmai. We dream that one day the US regulators will allow us to do a honjozo but that is far off for now.

We have no plans to sit back and relax any time soon. There is too much we want to brew, too much education to be done, and too much to do in promoting saké as a whole.

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Thanks Dewey! It’s great to get your take on sake and learn more about SakéOne. …and I can’t wait to try some of those pairings!

SakéOne
820 Elm Street, Forest Grove, OR 97116
Tel: 503-357-7056
Fax: 503-357-1014
http://www.sakeone.com

Interview: Chris Pearce and the Joy of Sake

jos.jpgThe annual Joy of Sake tasting event is considered the “not to be missed” sake event of the year. Luckily, there is still time to get a ticket for this veritable sake-palooza, which is happening this year in New York on Sept 25th. I’ve enthusiastically attended the Joy of Sake for the last few years, but I knew little about how this mammoth sake event came into being. I caught up with Joy of Sake founder Chris Pearce to find out more…

Q: Chris, how did you get involved in the sake world?

Chris Pearce: I met Takao Nihei, the brewmaster of the Honolulu Sake Brewery, in 1982. He was a product of the heyday of Japanese brewing research in the 1950s and was one of the great brewers of his day. His most famous accomplishment was the discovery in Honolulu of “awanashi kobo,” a non-frothing yeast that enabled brewers to greatly increase the amount of sake they could make in a given vat. He took pity on the small group of sake enthusiasts in Hawaii who started the International Sake Association in 1986 and acted as their mentor until he passed away in 1994.

2.jpgQ: What is the “Joy of Sake”?

Chris Pearce: The Joy of Sake is often referred to as “the largest sake tasting outside Japan.” It is based on the “ippan kokai” or public tasting event that follows the Japan National Sake Appraisal every year. In the case of the U.S., The Joy of Sake follows the U.S. National Sake Appraisal, which was held in Honolulu on August 26-27. This year 327 entries were submitted, and these are the sakes that can be tasted at
The Joy of Sake this week in New York. The entries were all submitted in peak condition, and as a result the quality is impeccable. And to make the event more fun, as sake-sipping certainly should be, thirteen of New York’s top restaurants prepare complementary sake appetizers. It’s an educational sake event on one level, but on another it’s one of New York’s best parties of the year.

Q: How did the Joy of Sake Event come into being?

Chris Pearce: It started in 2001, when the first event was held in Honolulu. At that time, ginjo and daiginjo sakes were just beginning to become available, and interest in sake was picking up. But there were no accepted criteria on what a good sake should taste like. Various commentators, often inexperienced, expressed their subjective opinions, which were then taken up by the media. The members of the International Sake Association felt that there should be a serious assessment of sakes available in the U.S. by qualified judges, based on criteria that were developed in Japan over the last 100 years. And since the International Sake Association had a lot of experience throwing parties, the idea from the start was to make The Joy of Sake a fun event by bringing in food and entertainment.

3.jpgQ: Any recommendations for the first time visitor to the Joy of Sake?

Chris Pearce: It can be overwhelming the first time. No one can taste all of the sakes, so I’d suggest that people spent no more than ten minutes at one table before heading over to another. There are sections for Daigianjo A (polishing ratio 40% or less), Daiginjo B (polishing ratio 50% or less), Ginjo, Junmai and Kimoto. This year we’ve made a big effort to enlist the help of experienced sake servers in New York. Around thirty of them will be stationed at the tasting tables to answer questions. And there will be roving “sake guides” to share information and steer people into interesting areas. The event is at Webster Hall, and there are three different environments to explore on the three floors.

Q: An event of this size must be a lot to manage! How do you select the sakes that are served?

Chris Pearce: There is no selection involved. All of the sakes were submitted as entries to the 2008 U.S. National Sake Appraisal. All we do is keep them under refrigeration from the time they leave Japan until the time they are delivered to Webster Hall.

1.jpgQ: I’ve noticed several sakes served at the Joy of Sake are designated as gold and sliver award winners. What is the connection of the US National Sake Appraisal and the Joy of Sake?

Chris Pearce: As I mentioned earlier, The Joy of Sake is the public tasting event for the U.S. National Sake Appraisal. Why should the ten judges be the only ones to taste these wonderful sakes? The Joy of Sake gives enthusiasts in New York, Honolulu and San Francisco a chance to spend three delightful hours in their company.

Q: Any new developments for this year’s event? Where can readers learn more and get a ticket for the event?

Chris Pearce: You can get tickets at Sakagura, Sakaya, Union Square Wine and Spirits and several other places around town. But most people buy them on-line at www.joyofsake.com or call the Sake Hotline number at 888-799-7242. The Joy of Sake is different every year. The venue at Webster Hall is amazing. This is the fifth year for The Joy of Sake in New York City and we think this will be the best event yet.

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Wow, thanks Chris! I know you’re incredibly busy with all the details and logistics for this years Joy of Sake tasting, so I really appreciate you taking the time for an Urban Sake interview. I’m so happy to learn more about how this great event come into being. See you at the Joy of Sake! Kanpai!

Event Details:
Joy of Sake New York
Sept 25th, 6-9pm
Webster Hall
125 East 11th Street
$80 per person
www.joyofsake.com

Joy of Sake San Francisco
Oct 23rd, 6-8:30pm
The Galleria Design Center
101 Henry Adams Street
$75 per person
www.joyofsake.com

Interview: Johnnie and Taiko of Sake Nomi

Johnnie_taiko.jpgJohnnie and Taiko Stroud have something really unique in Seattle. I haven’t yet had the chance to visit, but it sounds like a little piece of paradise… they operate a Sake store called Sake Nomi, that also happens to be a sake tasting bar! How cool is that? Johnnie and Taiko were kind enough to answer some Urban Sake interview questions. I was really excited to find out how Seattle’s famous all-sake store came to be and what the future holds…

Q: I’ll ask you the question I get asked all the time: How did you get into sake?
A:
‘Can’t really pinpoint how I (Johnnie) got into sake, though I had never had any sake before I first went to Japan (Iwate prefecture) to teach English in 1988. My first three years of living in Iwate, I spent a great deal of time at nomikai (“drinking parties”), with friends and colleagues, so that’s when I developed a fondness for it. At some point, both Taiko and I realized we preferred good sake to other alcoholic beverages.

Q: was there one sake in particular that pushed you over the edge into sake obsession?
A:
Though I can’t really point to one sake in particular, the most memorable sake I ever had was after a basketball tournament in Japan. My teammates brought a 1.8 liter bottle and some plastic cups into the outdoor tub at a hot spring resort, and we drank sake from the floating bottle as snow fell around us. It probably wasn’t a super premium grade or anything, but I remember it as one of my best sake experiences 20 years later.

Sake_nomi.jpgQ: What motivated your decision to open a sake shop?
A:
Taiko and I met and married in Japan, and relocated to Seattle in August of 1996. We accomplished our goal of finding Japan-related work, eventually establishing a wholesale apparel company to export new and used clothing to Japan. After a few years, we began discussing the possibility of using our company to import Japanese goods for sale in the U.S. It was important to us to find something rare and uniquely Japanese that we could share with U.S. consumers, and somehow we hit upon the idea of premium sake. During our trips to favorite Seattle Japanese restaurants and Asian grocery stores, we often lamented the lack of quality sake choices, knowing there must be thousands of unique and delicious brews being produced throughout Japan, but not yet known in the U.S.

Our personal experience confirmed this intuition; Shiwa-cho, my “second hometown” in Iwate, boasted five breweries (with a population of only 30,000!), and Taiko’s home prefecture, Ibaraki, features over sixty.

The more we discussed the situation, the more we realized that we had found something we were passionate about bringing to U.S. consumers: high-quality, locally produced, premium Japanese sake.

Q: What are some of your favorite sakes right now?
A:
Taiko: Taiheikai (“Pacific Ocean”), Yoinotsuki (“Midnight Moon”), and Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmai Ginjo
A: Johnnie: Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmai Ginjo, Kudoki Jozu Junmai Ginjo, Minenohakubai Junmai, Tsukasabotan Senchu Hassaku
I also have a sweet spot in my heart and palate for all the products from Tsukinowa Brewery (one of which is the Yoinotsuki mentioned above), since the brewery is located in my “second hometown,” and the current toji, Hiroko Yokosawa, is one of my former middle school English students! Hiroko-san will be visiting Sake Nomi in October, and it will be a great thrill for us to have her see our friends enjoying her delicious sake.

at_sake_nomi.jpgQ: You offer a lot of fun activities for your customers such as Sake Cinema, Wii Wednesdays and Sake Nomi Golf Outtings… How has the response been?
A:
The response has been great. It’s always been our goal to make Sake Nomi more than just a sake shop. We want sake enthusiasts to feel like it’s “their” space, and it’s definitely taken on a kind of “social club” atmosphere.

Q: You have a unique situation as you have a tasting bar and sake shop in the same space, which is totally verboten here in New York. what are the advantages or disadvantages to this set up?
A:
The obvious advantage is that people can try a sake — take it for a test drive by the glass — before purchasing. We rotate our glass pour menu every week, so people have a chance to explore different brews all the time.

‘Can’t really think of any disadvantages, aside from the fact that due to quirky state liquor laws, as a “tavern” we are unable to ship sake from our current location. We’re currently in the application process for another license which will allow us to ship sake from a separate location.

Q: How has your “all sake” shop been received in Seattle? do you think the future looks bright for Sake in the U.S.?
A:
The reception has been terrific, and we’re encouraged by all the positive feedback that we made the right decision to “follow our dream.” We think the future for sake in the U.S. is very bright. Based on the response of the folks in Seattle to whom we’ve introduced sake, it feels like it’s just a matter of making more people aware of what good sake’s all about. A couple key points will be getting sake on more restaurant menus, and disseminating information regarding the health benefits of premium sake versus other alcoholic beverages.

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Johnnie and Taiko – thank you both so much for taking the time for an Urban Sake interview! I think what you guys are doing is just fantastic and I wish you the best of luck spreading the Gospel of Sake in the Pacific Northwest. You’ll be seeing me for sure on my next trip to your neck of the woods! Thanks again and Kanpai!

Saké Nomi
Premium Sake Shop and Tasting Bar
76 South Washington Street
Seattle, Washington 98104
Tel: 206-467-SAKE
www.sakenomi.us

Interview: Mr. Yageta of Fukumitsuya Brewery

yageta_with_tim.JPGI recently got the chance to sit down with Mr. Junichi Yageta, who works for the very well regarded Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery.

Fukumitsuya Brewery, founded in 1625 in Kanazawa City in Ishikawa Prefecture, is the producer of the “Kagatobi” brand of sake – an emerging brand in the US market and very much work a look. I enjoy this sake tremendously and was therefore excited to learn more from Yageta-san.


Q: Yageta-san, Thank you for meeting with me today. Tell me, what are your responsibilities at Fukumitsuya Brewery?

Yageta-san: I’m actually a salesman for the company working in the Tokyo office. Recently, our Company opened up to overseas export and I was assigned to work in the Export Sales division.

Kagatobi_junmai_daiginjo.jpgQ: How did you get into the Sake Industry?

Yageta-san: As a student, when I was 22 or 23 years old, I took the Sake Sommelier exam with the SSI (Sake Service Institute). I really enjoyed sake and I thought this would be a good opportunity to learn about it. I then worked for 7 years in the hospitality industry at the Four Seasons hotel in Tokyo. When I was 30, I went to Australia for 1 year to learn English. When I returned to Japan I began looking for a job where I could use both my Sake and English skills. I found a job with the Fukumitsuya Brewery and have been working there for 2 or 3 years.

Q: Is there anything special in the nature or climate of Ishikawa Prefecture that enhances Katatobi sake?

Yageta-san: Ishikawa is really well known for the great water they have there. It’s very famous. This is why many famous breweries are found there.

Q: How long has Kagatobi been available in the US

Yageta-san: Kagatobi has only been available for the last 2 or 3 years. Our Importer, Nishimoto Trading Company, approached us about selling our sake in the United States. Previously, we didn’t have staff in place for export, but after some re-organization, we got our export going. Currently Kagatobi is not so well known, but we are working on becoming well recognized here.

kagatobi_junmai.JPGQ: If you were to have American visitors to your Brewery, what do you think would surprise them most about seeing the Sake making process up close?

Yageta-san: I think the water. We have a special well water at Kagatobi and there is a special bamboo tap at our well. You can actually drink the same water we use to make the sake from the tap. Many American visitors we get to our brewery take a picture of this and enjoy drinking this water. Also, local people come to our brewery with Tanks to fill up on our special water. Water is really important in the sake making process.

Q: How many people work at your brewery? is it big or small?

Yageta-san: It’s big as far as regional sake production is concerned. Some people do say our brewery is big for a “jizake” brewery. We staff about 100 people. To give an idea of the scale, last year Fukumitsuya Brewery was ranked around 30th~40th in production volume for all breweries in Japan. I think that is a big company. Also, our company is the biggest of the “junmai-Gura”, or brewery making only junmai “pure rice” sake. Visitors are usually surprised by the size of our production and storage facility when they come to see us.

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Thank you so much, Yageta-san, for taking the time for an UrbanSake.com Interview! Ganbatte for your work on getting Kagatobi sake well known in the US. I know you will have much success as I find Kagatobi to be delicious. I hope you have a chance to visit us again soon.

Interview: Miho Imada of Imada Brewery

Imada_san.jpgI had the great pleasure of meeting Miho Imada, Master Brewer for the Imada Sake Brewery, for the first time at Sake Hana back in 2006 and again in April 2008. Imada-san’s sake is a splendid example of hand crafted Hiroshima Sake. There are two Imada Sakes available in the U.S. currently: First, Imada Fukucho Junmai Ginjo (aka “Moon on the Water”) which is a direct sake with a full nose and body while retaining it’s hiroshima softness. very enjoyable. Second, Imada Fukucho “Biho” Junmai Ginjo, which I found to be lighter with a long finish and a delightful light fruit flavor on the palate. I was honored when Imada-san agreed to answer some of my questions about her sake.

Q: Hiroshima has a good reputation as an area for good sake. What about Hiroshima is special that makes such good sake? Rice? water? climate?

Imada-san: One of the reasons is that this is where they invented the method to brew sake with soft water (soft water brewing), which laid the base for ginjoshu (quality sake brewed from the finest rice) as it is today. And a group of craftsmen, called Hiroshima Toji, was organized and has carried on this tradition to the present day.

Until then, hard water with high mineral content had been used in sake brewing. But the water in Hiroshima is soft water. It’s susceptible to contamination due to the slow alcoholic fermentation caused by the lack of minerals. In order to overcome this weakness, techniques such as extended fermentation in a cool temperature were invented by a craftsman named Senzaburo Miura of Akitsu Town, the town where Fukucho is located.

imada_san.jpgIt was around the year 1900. The sake made by the soft water brewing method took first place at the First Nation-wide Contest in 1904, and its name became known all over the country. These techniques have contributed to a break-through advancement in Japanese sake brewing, laying the base for ginjoshu as it is today. It’s for this reason that Akitsu Town is called Home of Ginjoshu.

Those who learned this soft water brewing method were called Akitsu-toji (Hiroshima-toji), out of which came many great craftsmen. The successors of the Akitsu-toji have continued their efforts and still maintain their tradition of passion for sake brewing today.

Here is an interesting topic:
Satake, the Japanese enterprise who proudly has a 97% market share of rice mill machines in the U.S., is located in Hiroshima. This company, which is now of a global scale, was one created to mill the ingredient rice to become the sake that was made by using the soft water brewing method.

In the early days when the soft water brewing method was invented, rice was milled by water mills and manpower. Rice milling by water mills did not fill the demand of sake. So Mr. Satake who was a railroad engineer developed the first rice mill machine using mechanical power. This is the how the Satake company became the business as it is today. This story also attests to the prosperity of Hiroshima as Home of Ginjoshu.

Q: I understand it is not common for a woman to work in sake brewing as a Master Brewer. How did you become a master brewer? Are people
sometimes surprised to learn you are the master sake brewer?

imada_shuzo.jpgImada-san: I took a training in theory and practice (of sake brewing) for 4 months at the trainee program with the National Tax Administration Agency Research Institute of Brewing (currently the independent company Integral Research Institute of Alcoholic Beverages).
Then I worked with the previous toji for 10 years before I took over. About 15 years ago when I went back to the brewery there were few women working there, but there are more now. I think it’s largely because now with better facilities and conditions there is less physical labor and we have workers’ systems instead of migrant labor. But still, they are few.

Q: Do you think sake has a strong future in the US? Do you find Americans to be enthusiastic about sake in general?

Imada-san: Sake is as indispensable as wine for Japanese food. I believe the future is bright if they can enjoy the authentic Japanese food and if we don’t lose our passion for making good sakes.

Q: What is one thing that you think would surprise Americans if they saw sake brewing process in person?

Imada-san: The beauty and the texture of the brewer’s rice that’s 40% or 50% polished, and the fragrance of it when it’s beginning to steam. The fragrance and the sweetness of rice malt… The fragrance of choice draft fermenting.

Q: What do you look for in a good sake? Which Imada sake is your favorite and why?

Imada-san: To provide a delicious and happy moment that you can share and enjoy life with your family, your friends, and your loved ones. The sakes I’ve made myself are all so dear to me that I cannot choose just one!

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Imada-san, I can’t thank you enough for all your insight into Hiroshima and the life of a Master Brewer! I know I speak for many fans of your sake when we say “Thank You, and keep up the good work!!” in your efforts to make your wonderful sake.

Interview: Rick and Hiroko of SAKAYA

rick_hiroko.JPGSAKAYA is already a New York City landmark for the emerging Sake community in the City. Owners and my dear friends Rick Smith and Hiroko Furukawa have been running the shop now for over 6 months with great success, working 7 days a week to keep New Yorkers supplied with top quality nihonshu.

Their schedule keeps them busy, but Rick and Hiroko were very gracious when I asked them to take the time to answer a few questions about their take on the sake biz in the Big Apple.

Q: What on earth inspired you both to open a sake shop in Manhatttan?

A: We love sake and couldn’t find a place that offered both a large selection and the expertise to answer questions. We were shocked that NYC had no such shop and given the success of True Sake in SF, a much smaller market, we thought that there was an opportunity to do something unique to further the enjoyment of premium sake in a city that embraces Japanese food and culture in so many other ways.

Q: Was there any one sake for each of you that pushed you over the edge into sake-mania?
A:
Like so many of our customers, I can’t honestly remember one in particular…although, Kikusui “Chrysanthemum Mist” Junmai Ginjo and Gokyo Junmai were two of my early favorites (after the initial discovery of Wakatake “Onigoroshi” Daiginjo). But it may have been Tsukasabotan Senchu Hassaku which we found to be our first true favorite together that actually pushed us over the “edge…”

Q: Since you’ve opened SAKAYA, you’re surrounded by sake all day. Are there any new sakes that you’ve each discovered that have really caught your attention? (and why?)
A:
Unfortunately, we fall in love with new sakes all the time. We probably have a new favorite every month…our latest discoveries are Tsukasabotan “Fu-in” Junmai Ginjo (Kochi) and Naraman Muroka Junmai (Fukushima). Fu-in has a lovely nose with notes of grapefruit and banana but is light as a feather with a clean, dry finish. Naraman is just a bit richer with a touch of peachy sweetness. Both sake have enough acidity to make them great matches for food too.

Q: Since you opened in December ’07, what has been the most pleasant surprise of running your own sake shop?
A:
Without a doubt it is the overwhelming enthusiasm for sake that we’ve experienced from virtually everyone who has walked into the store. We knew from doing our research that all the data suggested a growing interest in sake but there’s nothing like seeing and hearing it directly from customers.

display.JPGQ: What has been the biggest unexpected challenge?
A:
It’s funny but the challenge that we didn’t anticipate was the need to keep our own enthusiasm in check. We’d love to carry so many different sake but practically, we have to rein ourselves in. We don’t want to overwhelm customers with too many choices. As it is, we’ve increased from the 85 sake that we started with to around 110. That number varies somewhat as there are some seasonal namazake that we only stock for the first month of their existence to ensure product freshness.

Q: There are several hundred sakes imported into the U.S… how do you decide which sakes to carry at SAKAYA?
A:
It is very difficult. We taste and discuss everything before making a decision on each sake. And, we don’t always agree. We constantly strive for balance among a number of factors; the number of Junmai v. Ginjo v. Daiginjo (and price points within each), representation from the various regions/prefectures of Japan, and popularity among both American and Japanese consumers to name several.

Q: What do you predict for the future of Sake in the US? are we headed mainstream?
A:
We are at a critical point in sake’s brief life in the U.S. After many years of having only limited (if any) exposure to premium sake, Americans’ awareness of it has begun to take root and as a result, we have now gotten the full attention of the sake brewing community in Japan. Since sake consumption has declined in Japan over the last 30 years, the U.S. represents a tremendous opportunity for brewers. If we in the U.S.sake community (importers, distributors, writers, restaurateurs, retailers) work closely together with them to create more opportunities for consumers to taste and learn about this exquisite beverage, we will see it become a beverage of choice for many Americans.

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Thank you both so much for taking the time today for an UrbanSake interview. SAKAYA is a real gem and we’re lucky to have you two at the helm of the first all-sake shop in New York. Your hard work is appreciated and I know many new sake fans are being born each week on East 9th Street. Ganbatte and keep up the fantastic work!

SAKAYA is located at:
324 East 9th Street
New York, NY 10003
212.505.7253 (SAKE)

Monday – Saturday / Sunday
12 PM – 8 PM / 12 PM – 6 PM

Interview: Akiko Ito of Akita Seishu Brewery

ito2.JPGI have had the pleasure of enjoying many Akita Sakes, and recently caught up with Akiko Ito, Overseas Sales and PR Executive for Akita Seishu Brewery, makers of the well-regarded Kariho Brand of sake. Ito-san was kind enough to be interviewed and answered some questions about Akita and Kariho Sake.

Q: How did you get involved in the sake industry and what is your job in the brewery?

Ito-san: My great-grand father, my grand father and my father worked in this company, Akita Seishu. I was born next to the brewery, so Sake making is very familiar for me.
Now I’m in charge of overseas PR & Sales.

Q: I have noticed some people feel Akita sake is very special. What do you think Makes Akita Sake special in general? Climate? people? ingredients?

Ito-san: Climate, it is very important. Akita prefecture is renowned as a source of high quality water and fine rice, both natural prerequisites for production of fine sake.

And we have the special Toji group which is called “Sannai Toji”. The character of their style is”low temperature and long-term fermentation “which means they do the fermentation lower temperature than general Japanese method.

KarihoJunmaiGinjoRokusyu.jpgQ: For you, what makes a sake good? do you have a favorite kariho sake?

Ito-san:This is my opinion, the most important point if the matching with foods.
My favorite Kariho sake is Junmai ginjo “Rokusyu” and Junmai “Namahage”.

Kariho Junmai Ginjo “Rokusyu” is very delicate sake which is match with light dishes, of course Sashimi, Tomato and mozallera cheese salad and Tofu-base dishes.

Kariho Junmai Yamahai “Namahage” is made “Yamahai shikomi”. Dray and full body. I recommend this type of sake with main-dish. For example, Yakitori, Salmon with cream sauce…

Q: What do you think would surprise American people the most if they saw Sake brewing in person?

Ito-san: The Sake’s flavor and taste are influenced by koji. Koji plays a part similar to malts in beer brewing.
Koji making is the heart of Sake brewing and hardest working process, because the brewers often have to wake up over night to control the temperature.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future of sake in the United States?

Ito-san: Yes, Sake will accept as same as wine for general public in near future.

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Thank you so much, Ito-san, for taking the time for an UrbanSake.com Interview! I am glad to hear about your optimism in regards to the popularity of Sake in the US. I’m with you! Thanks also for the tips on pairing! I’ll give it a try and let you know. Ito-san, I hope you have a chance to visit the U.S. again soon!

Brewer Interview: Tsushima Kitahara

kitahara_tim.jpgI recently had the chance to try Shichiken Junmai Ginjo Sake (SMV +4, ALC 14.5%) once again. It’s really an amazing brew. The one thing I hear again and again about this sake is that it’s versatile and can be easily enjoyed both chilled and gently warmed. Few sakes can make this claim, so I wanted to learn more about this sake and where it came from. Who better to ask then Tsushima Kitahara, the 13th generation of the Kitahara Family making Shichiken Sake in Yamanashi Prefecture at the Yamanashi Meijo Co. Brewery. I asked Kitahara-san if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions to help us understand his views on Sake, Shichiken and life at the Brewery – and he graciously agreed.

Q: After having lived in America for some time, what is your impression of the sake market in the USA? Do you think interest in sake is growing among American Consumers?

Kitahara-san: I feel that American market has a strong potential for SAKE. Currently, we are focusing our attention on the Asian market, but we will shift it from Asia to America in the near future. Sake is ranked 10th of all the alcoholic beverages consumed in the United States, but I am sure that it will be #7 in the next 10 years.

shichiken.jpgQ: Does Shichiken use modern or traditional brewing technology? or both?

Kitahara-san: We use traditional methods. We make KOJI by hand. Also, we mix the tanks by hand. We brew sake only in the winter time because we try to maintain our family and company history and philosophy. If we use technology or use artificial materials, we might brew the same quality every year,but it is not fun… so we try to maintain our quality using traditional methods. I feel that makes us more serious.

Q: Did you grow up at the sake brewery? If yes, do you have any interesting or funny stories from your childhood or family life at the brewery?

Kitahara-san: Yes, I did. When I was child, our brewery had more than 40 employees. They really took care of me, and they usually helped me with my homework. They called me the ‘next president!’ so sometimes, I felt like ‘I am the King’ So, why do I need to do my homework…hahaha. And my father asked me to start tasting Sake since I was five years old. So I had a lot of experience drinking Sake.

Q: Is there anything special about the culture or landscape of Yamanashi Prefecture that contributes to your sake?

Kitahara-san: Our Prefecture has only mountains and no oceans. Yamanashi is surrounded by Mt. Fuji, Mt. Komagatake, Mt. Yatsugatake and Mt. South Alps. Actually these mountains are very famous in Japan. So we use thaw water from these mountains which is so pure and clean. That is why Shichiken is so smooth with such a clean aftertaste. Unfortunately, Yamanashi is not good for growing crops because it is a basin. Therefore, we buy sake rice from other Prefectures. We are very proud of our clean water.

Yamanashi_pre2.gifQ: What is your personal favorite Shichiken sake and why?

Kitahara-san: Actually I like Shichiken Junmai-Ginjo that we have been selling in the U.S for 7 years. It is that rare type of Sake which is good for serving both chilled or warmed. Back when I started to promote it, I didn’t like it so much because it was really difficult to promote this kind of Sake. People mostly liked flavorful and smooth Sake at that time, so it took time to get the word out about our Shichiken kind of Sake. But now, thanks to good sake education, people can understand and appreciate this kind of Sake, too. Shichiken Junmai-Ginjo is very easy to pair with any kind of food, so I can recommend it to every Sake lover.

Q: What do you think would surprise American people the most if they saw Sake brewing up close and in person?

Kitahara-san: I think the process of making KOJI would be the most surprising to Americans, because we don’t sleep during that process. We mix koji by hand every 2 hours and check the temperature every minute. That is also one of the most important and difficult steps in that process.

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Thank you so much, Kitahara-san, for taking the time for an UrbanSake.com Interview! Thanks for that info on Yamanashi and Shichiken. I hope you get a chance to visit us in the States again soon.