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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Foreign sake experts win over hearts, palates

Kyodo News

When Philip Harper came to Japan as an English teacher from Britain in 1988, he had no inkling he would be working as the first and only foreign "toji" (head brewer) of a Japanese sake maker in Kyoto 20 years later.

Arriving in Japan around the same year as Harper was John Gauntner, 48, an American electrical engineer who is now a director at the Sake Export Association, a Tokyo-based trade group formed by brewers and retailers of the rice-based alcoholic beverage.

Their reasons for coming to Japan were entirely different, yet what they share in common is the way they fell in love with sake and became experts versed in everything from production techniques to sake's cultural milieu.

Sake has carved out a niche for itself in bars and restaurants around the world and is winning an increasing number of fans. Japanese exports of the beverage hit a record high of 13,770 kiloliters worth ¥8.50 billion in 2010, topping the all-time high of 12,151 kiloliters and ¥7.18 billion in 2008, according to Finance Ministry trade statistics.

Partly contributing to the encouraging figures are the efforts being made by foreign sake experts like Harper and Gauntner, who passionately promote Japan's quintessential alcoholic drink from inside the traditional and conservative Japanese sake industry.

"I probably would never have taken this path were it not for my two friends," Harper, the 44-year-old toji at Kinoshita Shuzo brewery in Kyoto, said, recalling his time with his sake-loving friends two decades ago.

The trio, then in their mid-20s, would often hang out together, go to concerts and drink sake. Their enthusiasm for the beverage deepened as they drank more of it and their palates developed. "Then I visited breweries, took part in rice-planting and so on."

The traditional toji system was "a peculiar subculture" but it fascinated him. He passed the toji test in 2001. "We all gave up our jobs to become sake brewers," he said of his friends.

Throughout the year, Harper spends most of his time in the brewery, especially over the winter months, when he usually starts his day steaming rice at 8 a.m. as the master of a team of brewers.

Harper sees no letup in his passion for sake.

"I'm always keen to talk to people about sake and write and speak about it . . . and I'm willing to continue that," he said.

Meanwhile, Gauntner says he still remembers vividly that New Year's Day in 1989 when he took his first sip of sake in Japan.

He immediately fell in love with the "depth of the drink," he said. "It was completely different from what I had before," he said, comparing sake with wine, beer and the sake he had drunk before coming to Japan.

Known as the "Sake Guy" among his friends and colleagues, Gauntner has become the first and only non-Japanese certified "sake expert assessor," a qualification bestowed by the government-backed National Research Institute of Brewing, and also the only foreigner to obtain the certification of "master of sake tasting" from the Brewing Society of Japan.

"I never thought it would become my work . . . it was fate," he said as he recalled the past 20 years. "Things just kept working out well for me whenever I did any work in the sake world."

He now works as a writer and sake consultant and educator, running seminars in Tokyo and around the world, with many restaurant owners and importers taking part.

"When I convert wine specialists (into sake fans) . . . when they take a sip and say 'wow,' it is the most enjoyable moment for me," Gauntner said.

Shunsuke Kohiyama, an export adviser to the Japan Sake Brewers Association, attributed the buoyancy of sake exports to steady distribution and to a recovery in the U.S., the world's top importer. The United States logged 3,705 kiloliters of sake imports worth ¥3.2 billion in 2010, followed by South Korea at 2,590 kiloliters (¥1.17 billion) and Taiwan at 1,639 kiloliters (¥501.91 million).

Those in the industry have also been making tireless efforts to promote the beverage.

Koichi Hasegawa, the president of the Tokyo-based Hasegawa Saketen chain, is one example. His company has been offering free sake tastings in New York, Milan, Amsterdam, Shanghai and other major cities since 2006 to cultivate overseas markets. He even held a sake-tasting event in South Africa on the sidelines of the 2010 soccer World Cup.

"We want to sell more genuine sake in overseas markets," Hasegawa said.

The Dewazakura brewery in Yamagata Prefecture, which exports 5 percent of its production to around 20 countries, is also keen on enhancing the appreciation of sake overseas.



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