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Sunday, Dec. 10, 2006

Guidance from a master brewer


THE BOOK OF SAKE: A Connoisseur's Guide, by Philip Harper. Kodansha International, 2006, 96 pp., 2,940 yen (cloth)

How the global culinary pendulum does swing. It was not so long ago that drinking sake was considered as exotic, or even as ill advised, as eating raw fish seasoned with green horseradish. Now, with sushi an international fad, Japan's traditional tipple is also starting to make serious inroads onto dining tables around the world.

However, even as misperceptions about sake are cleared up -- that it is not a spirit akin to vodka; that it is not always drunk hot out of thimble-size cups; that it does not necessarily cause hangovers that feel like being thumped by a sumo wrestler -- there are still many barriers holding it back from gaining more widespread acceptance.

As with wine -- with which, fairly or otherwise, it must be compared -- sake comes in a daunting array of labels and with a bewildering vocabulary. Unlike wine, though, there are fewer clues to help break through the ignorance barrier. Sake does not come in two readily identifiable colors (red or white), with clearly defined varietals (such as Chardonnay or Merlot) that give clues about its flavor and character.

But the biggest hindrance to understanding sake is that there is still not enough written (in English, at any rate) on the subject. Sake is a foreign country and we need good guidebooks to help us to find our way, pointing out both the highlights and the areas to avoid, with clear, concise translations of essential phrases.

Few people are better qualified to show us around than Philip Harper. Not only was he the first Westerner to join the workforce of a kura (sake brewery), he is the only foreigner ever to reach the exalted rank of toji (brewmaster). But it is not just his accomplishment in breaking into such an arcane world that makes Harper such a good guide. After 15 years in the business, he is just as enthusiastic about his calling as when he started. Not only does he still remember his first sips of sake, he understands that to appreciate this heady brew we do not need to know the history and jargon. We just need to open a bottle (or two) and start drinking.

That is why his lavishly illustrated new book, most aptly subtitled "A Connoisseur's Guide," starts out with fundamentals. Which kinds of sake should be chilled before being served? Which are better heated? As Harper writes, "there are persuasive reasons to enjoy sake at all temperatures [but] finding the sweet spot for the particular sake you are drinking will double your pleasure."

He also tackles the question of pairing sake with food. Obviously, sake goes brilliantly with Japanese cuisine -- indeed premium ginjo sake served with fine sashimi is one of those sublime matches made in culinary heaven. More robust brews are called for when sitting down to sukiyaki or nibbling on yakitori. Tempura, he suggests, is well suited to a juicy junmai or a flavorful yamahai.

We must acquaint ourselves with terminology of this kind if we are to become connoisseurs (just as a wine drinker needs to know the difference between Sauvignon and Shiraz). Harper introduces the various styles of sake early on, describing the wide spectrum of flavors they offer, but without getting too technical too fast.

He tells us what makes the best aperitif (perhaps a deluxe dai-ginjo) or post-prandial snifter (a rich, well-aged koshu, which he compares to brandy, although it is far closer in nature to amontillado or Pedro Ximenes sherry). He also encourages us to try sake with Chinese or Western cuisine, and even with curries.

Having whetted our appetites -- quite literally, as it is hard to dip into this book without wanting to open a bottle and sip as we read -- Harper draws us into the more rarefied world of sake tasting, introducing an English version of the Sake Flavor Chart developed by sake authority Haruo Matsuzaki. He also explains that the label on your bottle is more than just beautiful (but so inscrutable) calligraphy. It gives useful information that can help you select your brew, and even without knowledge of kanji there are plenty of clues to be deciphered.

But for the would-be connoisseur, it is the second half of the book that is most useful. The differences in the taste of sake derive from regional variations in climate and culture, the various types of rice used in the brewing process and the influence of the brewing guilds. Harper describes these in language that is always clear to the lay reader.

He makes this information practical by including reviews (translated from Matsuzaki's original Japanese) of some 50 different brews from all over Japan. We are given specific names and labels to look out for, along with a run-down of the flavor profiles and brief descriptions of each brewery. Further historical and cultural snippets are inserted via sidebars and boxes dealing with arcana such as the meanings of sake names or how a strain of sake yeast was developed.

This is not just one of the most informative guides to sake published to date in English, it is also the most handsomely packaged. Photographs of the drinking and brewing process are complemented by evocative shots of food and the Japanese countryside. Much more than just a coffee-table book, this is one to keep by your side as you drink your way to connoisseurship.

Robbie Swinnerton is the restaurant critic for The Japan Times.


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