Tasting at the Joy of Sake Kick Off Party

Sake Season is upon us! Things seemed to really get cooking with a recent event at Blue Ribbon izakaya. It was a lovely evening at the event was hosted out on the “kanpai garden” terrace – a really beautiful setting… with the backdrop of the setting sun!

Chris Pearce got things rolling with an introduction to the event, how we would be tasting and of course a mention for the main Joy of Sake event happening on September 20th. But, this event was like an appetizer… a sake amuse bouche, if you will, to get our palates in shape for the main event.

This was my first time to Blue Ribbon Izakaya and I have to say the space impressed. The Joy of Sake kickoff party was in the “kanpai garden” space – a beautiful outdoor terrace… and it was a perfect night to be outside – not to hot, not too humid – just perfect!

The sake selection was perfect, too! There were over 40 sakes in all to try and about 18 of those were not for sale in the U.S. Of the 40 sakes on offer tonight, a full 50% were Daiginjo grade – not bad! One of my favorites was a non-imported “shizuku” or drip sake from Tochigi prefecture called Saran Daiginjo Shizukuzake. It was light, delicate with the slightest hint of minerality on the palate. Imminently drinkable and a smooth operator.

On the Ginjo table, I loved a favorite of mine, the Dewazakura “Omachi” Junmai Ginjo. Wonderful Omachi Rice flavor with that signature Dewazakura fruity-melon component. Like all their sakes this one is an absolute pleasure.

This event left me wanting more and excited for the main Joy of Sake event on Sept 20th. Get your tickets now, if you haven’t already. The Joy of Sake is the big event of the year and you DON’T want to miss it! See you there and check the Urban Sake Events Calendar for all upcoming sake events. Here is to the utter joy of the Joy of Sake! See you in September! Kanpai!

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.

******

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!

Kurosu-san with Tatenokawa

Who doesn’t love a twofer?! You know, a good old fashioned two-for-one deal? I recently enjoyed two times the fun in one night exploring consecutive sake events both dedicated to Yamagata’s fantastic Tatenokawa Brewery.

The evening started at a free tasting of Tatenokawa 33 Junmai Daiginjo at Sakaya. Doling out the goods was Brewery Rep Kurosu-san. It was great to taste this elegant sake again. With an insane milling rate of 33%, this luxurious treatment of the rice ensures a smooth as silk and easy drinking sake experience. Well priced and well received, this is a sake to savor.

Grilled white asparagus

The next stop was just down the block from Sakaya – we’re talking Robataya. Oh, ya ya ya! Robataya was offering a special tasting set on this night – a tasting of Tatenokawa 33 Junmai Daiginjo and Tatenokawa 50 Junmai Daiginjo. Priced at only $10, this tasting set was the steal of the century – incredible sake quality for a song.

At Robataya, I paired my sake with some grilled dishes. The summer white asparagus and purple Japanese imo potato caught my attention and we really enjoyed them with the delicate sake. This left me as one happy sake camper. Made me wish once again, every night could be a sake twofer.

As a frequent traveler to Japan, when it comes to “challenging” food items I’ve come across (think fish eye collagen, fermented squid intestine, slimy natto soybeans) I own up to my limits and know when to wave the white flag and admit defeat. Raised on the standard American diet, sometimes my palate just goes on strike when faced with an exotic Japanese delicacy worthy of Fear Factor.

As I learned on a recent visit to Takashi Yakiniku Restaurant for an outstanding Tedorigawa Sake event, I don’t have to travel all the way to Japan to have my gastronomical limits tested. The event was hosted by World Sake Imports and featured special guest Yasuyuki Yoshida, the 6th Genergation Kuramoto from Yoshida Sake Brewery, makers of Tedorigawa brand sake.

The Sake

Sakes served at this event:

Yasuyuki Yoshida

The event description for this evening promised “four fantastic sakes plus a special surprise sake”. Now, when a sake brewer says he’s bringing a “special surprise sake”, you pretty much have to go. (Spoiler Alert: I kinda fell in love with the special surprise sake.)

Yoshida-san did a sake brewing internship at Dewazakura Sake Brewery, so he included the delicious Dewazakura Tobiroku Sparkling Gingo in his sake selection. It was a genius choice – the clean and dry sparkle and bubble tasted great with the steak!

The highlight of this group of really, really good sake was the surprise Tedorigawa “Kokoshu” Daiginjo. Aged for 3 years at very cold temperatures, this Koshu/aged sake was a dream. The body of this sake was ultra smooth and the palate had a ‘loft’ to it that was truly remarkable… it was akin to drinking clouds, if they were made of sake, of course. Needless to day, I heart Tedorigawa “Kokoshu” Daiginjo! From start to finish, all the sake was flawless and flowed generously!

Shock and Eeeew

I give you Testicargot with a side of lemon

On to the food. I stumbled a bit with a few of the “Horumon” dishes served at Takashi. Horumon literally means “discarded goods” and refers to serving organs, guts and offal. (I PROMISE no offal/awful jokes!!!).

The first dish that caused me pause was Nama-Senmai: Flash boiled cow third stomach with spciy miso sauce. This didn’t get better when I was presented Takashi’s Testicargot: Cow testicles served escargot style. The final stumbling block was the Horumon Moriawase: Chef’s selection of offal including cow first stomach, cow fourth stomach, heart, sweetbreads (thymus gland), and liver, all to be grilled at the table yakiniku style. I didn’t touch any of the above with a ten foot pole. But did I go hungry? Not on your life!

Other Meats
Where Takashi really shines for me is in the standard cuts of beef, dressed in delicious marinades and grilled right in front of you at the table. These cuts included beef belly, kobe short rib, harami skirt steak and thinly sliced beef tongue. Followed by a nori wrapped rice ball and some fantastic salty caramel soft serve, I was set!

Hands Across the River

Hands Across the River

As the event was winding down, Yoshida-san thanked all the guests for coming and said a few parting remarks. He explained the meaning of his brand name “Te-Dori-Gawa” which roughly translates to “Hands bridging across the river”. This is a reference to they way people used to cross the river before a bridge was there – people would join hands and form a human chain to span the water.

Then suddenly, without prompting, all the guests at Takashi spontaneously clasped hands down the length of the restaurant and cheered for Te-dori-gawa! Ladies and Gentlemen, that is sake magic at work!

This was a delightful, really fun and gastronomically adventurous event, even if I skipped the really scary stuff. And, seriously, you can’t beat that delicious Tedorigawa Sake. I’d stare down a whole corral of Testicargot for just one more sip of Kokoshu!

FIsh heads, Fish heads…

Thanks to my friend Chiz over at Sake Discoveries, I was recently able to get a front row seat to something unusual – a bluefin tuna butchering at Inakaya Restaurant. Now, I know the mere mention of bluefin tuna sets off all kinds of eco alarm bells for those of us rightly worried about overfishing and depleted oceans, but this was tuna with a twist. A product of Ten-Qoo Maguro, this tuna was billed as the first farm raised, environmentally friendly and sustainable bluefin tuna production in the world.

When I arrived, we were greeted with a wooden masu full of Sawanotsuru Junmai Genshu as a welcome sake. The 70 lb tuna was laid out on the table and I snagged a front row seat to catch all the Kill Bill action close up. If you’ve ever filleted a whole fish at home, it’s just like that, but just a whole lot bigger.

Sawanotsuru Genshu Junmai

The first step was to remove the head, which was held aloft triumphantly, once it was finally separated from the body. Next the fins and then the top flank were removed to essentially cut the fish horizontally in half and expose the backbone. Next, the other flank was removed and the tail and backbone finally removed.

The big hunks of tuna were then quickly processed down into smaller uniform slabs and removed to the kitchen. Before I knew it, there was very fresh o-toro sushi in front of me ready to eat! Now I know why sushi is considered the original fast food! The taste? it was delicious. And great to enjoy with the Junmai Genshu from Sawanotsuru Brewery.

If you want to see the spectacle of a huge tuna fillet for yourself, Inakaya is offering two more shows on August 17 and 24th, 2012. Check the Urban Sake Event Calendar for details.


Yasunobu Tomita

The good folks at Sakagura have put on another fun and exciting sake brewer event! This time it was Mr. Yasunobu Tomita, executive director of Tomita Shuzo from Shiga. I visited this brewery waaaay back in 2008.

Tomita-san arrived with a trick up his sleeve… he brought with him a new kid on the block: Shichihonyari Junmai Ginjo Nigori sake. I asked him about the profile for this new sake and he told me his goal was to create a nigori with a thick body that was not sweet but more dry and clean. Next, Tomita-san kinda shocked me. He recommended I try his nigori Junmai Ginjo on the rocks. I’d had Nama Genshu sake on the rocks, but not really a nigori.

Chillax! Shichihonyari Nigori on the rocks.

Well, I gave it a try and wowza, was it good. I actually tried on the rocks side by side with the identical nigori with no ice. There really was a difference. I think it effected the temperature, chilling the nigori a bit more and also bringing down the alcohol just a touch with the melting of the ice. Whatever it was, it works! I might have ordered a second carafe of Tomita’s nigori to experiment more with temperature – all in the name of sake science mind you.

Shichihonyari Tasting Set

The Shichihonyari tasting set was rounded out with their elegant but strapping Shichihonyari Shizuku Junmai Daiginjo and the classic, robust and beloved junmai for serving warm, the Shichihonyari Junmai. Everything was delicious and truly indicative of their artisanal nature – hand crafted, solid and elegant.

As a young sake brewer, Tomita-san is part of the new generation of Kuramoto leading us to find unique and fresh ways to enjoy their sake. On the rocks, gently warmed, room temp, chilled in a wine glass – sake can do it all. Now let’s get out there and start experimenting with temperature! I’ll bring the ice.

Yummy Tenryo Sakes

Last night was another fun sake tasting event at Sakagura! This time, we were enjoying the sakes from Tenryo Sake Brewery. On hand to introduce the sakes was Mr. Matasuke Uenoda, marketing director of Tenryo Brewery. Tenryo is in Gifu Prefecture – a place I’ve never been and honestly don’t know much about. Uenoda-san brought some brochures showing the beauty of Gifu Prefecture – beautiful landscapes, Japanese hot springs and cultural heritage sites… it all looked very intriguing. I think I have to make a plan to visit Gifu soon!

The Tenryo tasting consisted of 3 sakes:

Tenryo Tasting Set:

Sakagura’s GM Yukie-san with Uenoda-san from Tenryo

Each sake had it’s own unique character. The Tenryo Tobikiri Tokubetsu Junmai doesn’t appear to be sold in the U.S. and uses the special Hidahomare sake rice from Gifu. The second sake, the Tenryo Hidahomare Junmai Ginjo is a beautiful sake that goes well with izakaya food. this sake was so good, I ordered a carafe for myself after my tasting set was long gone. Last but not least I enjoyed the Tenryo Junmai Daiginjo Koshu. This smooth operator of a sake uses pink nadeshiko flower sake yeast and a three year aging process in the bottle in cold temperatures to deepen and round out the flavors. It’s very easy drinking and just plain delicious.

Well, the Olympics may be going on in London right now, but I feel like I won a gold medal in sake appreciation right here in New York City. All those years of training paid off! Thanks to Tenryo and Sakagura for making my Olympic dream come true!