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 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,ã€€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!
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.
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.
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.
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!