Jancis Robinson MW introduced the only British master brewer of sake to an eclectic audience in Soho this week.
Announcing Philip Harper, the only non-Japanese to reach the rank of ‘Toji’ or Master Sake Brewer, Robinson admitted her knowledge of sake was slight – but she was ‘dying to learn more’.
Harper, visiting London before the sake brewing season starts in October, was at Japanese restaurant So in Piccadilly, to show members of the British Sake Association 12 sakes of differing strengths and styles.
They ranged from the highest-grade Dai Ginjo to the easy-drinking Honjozo style, including aged sakes and the distinctive cloudy Junmai Ginjo Nigori – made with a wide-mesh filter. All were around 15% alcohol.
Harper pointed out some of the differences and similarities between wine and sake, which is brewed from steamed rice on which a bloom of mold (koji) is grown. Cultivated yeasts are added and contribute to flavour.
Fermentation can take 40 days at temperatures as low as 10°C. Harvest is a vital time, with quality becoming apparent as the rice is gathered in the autumn. ‘So I’m frantically touching wood as I sit here.’
In tasting terms, fruit aromas are a key element. Harper said he wanted to spread the ‘heretical notion’ that sake could go with many non-Japanese foods: ‘I’m still searching for the ideal sake for fish and chips.’
Harper also dispelled some myths – namely that it is only the cheaper sakes that are consumed warm, and the finer styles chilled. ‘Hot sake is not always the cheapest thing on the menu.’
Guests – mostly members of the British Sake Association – included Decanter writer Anthony Rose, Honami Matsumoto, sake and wine buyer for London’s renowned Cocoon restaurant, and about a dozen sake aficionadoes and professionals.
Paul Masters, chair of the BSA, said the aim of the association was to ‘spread the word on sake and to build membership. We are pioneers in teaching people about the culture of Japan.’ Masters is also Corney and Barrow’s group commercial director – but said the wine merchant had no sake on its list so far.
Matsumoto said that knowledge of sake in the UK had grown hugely over the last 10 years. ‘Then, people knew nothing about it – and they thought it was a spirit not a wine. Now, people are more curious, ask more questions and want learn about sake.’
Sales of sake in the UK have more than doubled in the past two years and are now worth well over £2m per annum.
Written by Adam Lechmere