No labels: A conversation with master saké brewer Philip Harper

INTERVIEW: MASTER SAKE BREWER

No labels: A conversation with master saké brewer Philip Harper

Words: Kimberly Hughes / Photos: Solveig Boergen

When he first arrived in Japan in 1988 to teach English on the JET program in Osaka, Philip Harper was a novice to Japan’s food and drink culture. He went on, however, to become the first non-Japanese individual in the country to earn the title of tōji (master saké brewer). “The first Japanese meal of my life was on the plane over from the UK,” he recalls.

An enthusiastic drinker by nature, Harper was first introduced to saké by fellow work colleagues. “We were all into British blues music, and we joined a saké tasting club together. Actually, all three of us went on to quit our jobs to become saké brewers.”

Initially unable to secure a visa to work in the industry, Harper taught English by day and worked at a bar at night. On weekends, he would help at the saké brewery in Nara where one of his friends had begun working. He went on to work there himself, learning the trade during the brewing season for ten years, from 1991 to 2001.

“I did my training the old-fashioned way, where there wasn’t a proactive teaching culture; it was more like, watch and learn,” Harper recalls. He explains that in the tōji system, saké was not crafted by the owner of a kura (brewery), but by farmers working seasonally as tōji who were dispatched by local craftsperson guilds to spend the winter season there making the next year’s batch along with their team of kurabito (brewers).

Harper notes that the tōji system, dominant for around 300 years, began to decline after WWII. Working conditions in the industry were historically characterized by the “3Ks” (kitanai, kiken and kitsui, or dirty, dangerous and difficult), and the long hours, low pay and exhausting work triggered a dwindling labor force as local youth opted for better opportunities. While larger breweries solved the problem by going corporate, he said, smaller and mid-sized breweries have faced a manpower crisis for decades.

“While in training, I was a 25-year-old surrounded by men in their 50s and 60s,” Harper recalls. “Workers were treated like Martians even just being from another region, so in my case, they had no idea what to do with me on numerous levels. I had also studied English literature, so I was completely useless when it came to brewing,” he laughs.

What Harper did have on his side, however, was experience growing up in a rural setting and working on farms. “The heavy labor aspect was not new for me,” he says.

Naturally, working 200 consecutive days with no holidays was exhausting. “I was incapable of conversation by mid-season that first year,” Harper recalls. He is quick to emphasize the considerable benefits of the trade, however. “I had previously admired the sense of responsibility and professionalism within the saké industry, and after entering it myself, these feelings only deepened.”

Harper has found a way to merge his academic talents together with his passion for saké, having authored two books on the topic—with a third one forthcoming—along with numerous articles. Since 2007, he has been the tōji at Kinoshita Brewery in the Kyotango region of rural Kyoto prefecture, which produces saké under the Tamagawa brand name.

We recently toured the brewery’s fascinating operation in action, where Harper and his team oversee saké’s signature process of multiple parallel fermentation (wherein kōji mold spores convert rice starches into sugar, while yeast simultaneously transform them into alcohol). Also onsite is a lab for analysis, along with storage tanks for pasteurized sake, although Tamagawa makes all products available in a “3U” (unpasteurized, unfiltered, undiluted) version.

After the tour, we sat down with the incredibly humble, soft-spoken Harper to hear more of his backstory, discuss brewing methods, and get his insider’s take on regional differences in saké culture throughout Japan.

- You’ve made some daring moves in the industry, such as using spontaneous fermentation instead of the conventional industry-approved yeast starters. Can you tell us more?

Actually, spontaneous fermentation is a term we created because no existing English word described this process of using kuratsuki kōbō, which basically means using the wild yeast living inside the brewery as a natural fermenting agent. This is how it was done back in the Edo era, before people knew about yeast. I decided to try it when I saw the funky old buildings here, and it worked. We now brew nearly half of our lineup via this method, although it is viewed as so risky that few breweries try it. Most breweries who make kimoto or yamahai-style sake still use pure yeast cultures.

- So, you are basically just inviting in whichever yeast happens to be lying around?

That’s right. There is ample ambient yeast living on the brewery’s tsuchikabe (earthen walls), for example. We use hot water for raising temperature; that’s the extent of our interventions when brewing in this style. We use only kōji, rice and water, and absolutely nothing else. We don’t choose the yeast; it chooses us. If someone were to time-travel here from the Edo period, they’d understand exactly what we were doing. We’d probably have to show them how to operate the light switches, though!

- There’s been a recent social trend to revert back to more natural, environmentally-conscious lifestyles. Does this describe what you are doing here already?

I’d say so. Besides our low-intervention production methods, we go against the industry trend toward refrigeration, which we feel causes an enormously heavy environmental impact. We do refrigerate some of our saké, but this is more about style than quality control, as we simply believe most of our sake ages best at room temperature.

We also do most of our bottle washing, capping and labeling by hand, which are quite labor-intensive processes. And I am also now re-thinking the mainstream view toward rice polishing, which also has a significant environmental impact. Actually, my forthcoming book will detail how my views have changed in many ways throughout my career.

- If someone comes to you as a complete sake newcomer, how would you walk them through?

I’d suggest trying saké from geographically contrasting regions of production, which have clear climate-driven differences. Roughly speaking, these are the northeastern Tōhoku region, and western Japan (which includes our brewery). The former tends to produce lighter, more floral saké, which is partly due to a colder climate; while the latter tends toward more deep, earthy, rice-driven flavors.

In my opinion, saké lovers’ palates tend to evolve and mature from the more flowery, fragrant tastes toward the richer, more funky-toned ones. But if you asked someone from Tōhoku, they might say the opposite. The conversation isn’t about which is better; it’s simply different.
And I would definitely recommend trying sake at lots of different temperatures, which is one of its great pleasures.

- Where are your own personal favorite regions to visit saké breweries?

Japan is blessed with excellent water almost everywhere, which is key to the process, so you can find quality saké pretty much everywhere. Saijo in Hiroshima may be home to the most lovely and accessible group of sake breweries.

People tend to think I only drink the earthy styles from western Japan that we make here, but actually, I enjoy well-made saké in all styles. Kōchi tends to produce nice dry, umami-rich saké, while Niigata is famous for a dry, crisp and crystalline version without the earthier umami factor. In Tottori, they tend to saké which is great hot, and a strong preference for brewing in a dry, rice-driven style, often with an extra kick of umami flavor from the yamahai and kimoto brewing methods.

Regarding the more fragrant eastern-type saké, I find it nice for a glass at the beginning of the evening, but not necessarily throughout a meal. Most have a limited temperature range where they are meant to be enjoyed cold, and they go downhill fast and so must be refrigerated. Personally, however, I enjoy drinking saké at a range of temperatures.

Places with a clear regional style are fun to think about, but once you start playing the generalization game, of course you have to start thinking about the exceptions.

- Are there any interesting trends happening now, particularly with things slowing down during the pandemic?

Even before the pandemic slowed everything down, increasing focus on overseas sales meant that producers needed to think more about shelf-life and sake that lasts better.

A huge conversation taking place now at our brewery is around the aging of saké. With vintage wines, there is a considerable mystique surrounding the genre that has worked really well for that industry, and I have felt for years we should be doing more of it with saké as well.
Overall, I think there is a growing feeling in the industry that the trend for fruity and flowery is reaching its limitations—including from the environmental standpoint of refrigeration. Robuster styles, including kimoto and yamahai, are being reappraised.

- Which amongst your saké lineup would you send us home with?

Well, there’s Time Machine, an aged saké from a 300-year-old recipe, which pairs well with things like ice cream, salted pickled mackerel, bleu cheese, foie gras and chocolate. Then there is our top seller in the U.S., tokubetsu junmai, which is best consumed hot. In my view, this saké is 100% more interesting when heated, as it unlocks different aromatics and flavors.

- Being a Briton who is into music, I imagine you must have worked at some point with broadcaster Peter Barakan.

He came here with NHK. And I have to say that he is a saké fan in the best way. He is not interested in the geeky bits; he just drinks what he likes. It’s just a really sane approach to enjoying what saké has to offer.

- If you could put a label on what you do, what would it be? Craft saké? Natural saké?

I find these words over-used and under defined. All I can say is that we like to make what tastes good, and that comes in a lot of different flavours.