Philip Harper: Getting a Taste for Sake

There cannot be many people (with the possible exception of Father Christmas) who can say that their job has prevented them spending Christmas Day with their wife for the past two decades, but sake brewer Philip Harper is one. Eat-Japan caught up with him during a visit to the UK.

While many people in the UK and elsewhere outside Japan are only just beginning to discover the charms of Japan’s national drink, and the majority of people have never tried it, UK born Philip Harper has worked in the industry for two decades, and was the first non-Japanese to pass the rigorous Nanbu Brewers’ Union examination to qualify as a toji or sake master brewer.

Harper shovelling steamed rice.

In 2007, Philip visited the UK to take part in an event called Umami: The Science of Taste, held at the Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation in London. Chaired by renowned sensory expert Professor Tim Jacob of the University of Cardiff, and also featuring Ichiro Kubota of London’s Michelin starred Umu Japanese restaurant, the event aimed to explain the importance of the savoury taste umami in Japanese food and drink. Harper’s role was to discuss the role of umami in sake, and on this point he was unequivocal about its importance, stating that, “umami is the heart and soul of sake flavour.”

Philip first arrived in Japan in 1988 as an English teacher with the JET Programme and, like many visitors from overseas, was soon introduced to the delights of sake by his friends and colleagues. But how did he go from enjoying the odd tipple after work to becoming Japan’s first foreign sake brewer? Harper himself explains it away by saying, “I became an enthusiastic consumer, joined a sake tasting club, and got sucked in.”
While working in a sake bar in tandem with his teaching job, Harper was able to take advantage of his Japanese friend’s recent move to work in a sake brewery to gain an insight into how sake is made. Then, in 1991, he too decided to work at the brewery full time. The brewery in question, in the historic brewing region of Nara, was a small, very traditional establishment, and in fact Harper says that, “it would have been hard to find a more extreme place than the first brewery I worked in.”

Harper operating an extremely rare hand powered sake pressing machine at his first brewery.

Whereas in large-scale breweries, modern production methods are used to allow brewing all year round, historically sake is brewed only during the colder months from October to March. The traditional method of brewing, moreover, is extremely time and labour intensive, involving mentally and physically draining work and long hours. Thus, Harper says, “I joined that brewery in 1991, and I found it an interesting job, although hard work.” He adds that one of the consequences of the tough schedule, concentrated into the winter months, is that, “I’ve never got to spend Christmas or New Year with my wife in two decades of marriage.”

Harper himself has come to terms with the high levels of commitment required to make sake - “I know that from October to March I will have no days off. To a certain extent, you get used to it” - and has continued to brew every year since, but he recognizes that this can be a factor that is discouraging young Japanese people from deciding to follow a career in brewing. “The traditional manpower systems are in their last gasp,” he says. “A fair proportion of sake breweries still have to solve those manpower issues. It doesn’t help the industry, and has to be finished really. It’s not good for the company to be relying on one person being there for such a long period of time.”

Although many people believe that the quality and variety of sake currently being made is the best there has ever been, the domestic market has been squeezed by competition from other beverages. As Harper explains, “the number of breweries peaked in Japan in the 1970s, and has been going downhill ever since. One of the great hopes is that more impact is being made overseas.”

A lecture given by Philip at the London Sake Fair on 24 September

Indeed, interest in and appreciation of sake is undeniably increasing around the world, and this is reflected in sales of sake, particularly premium sake, outside Japan. Despite this, however, the array of sake on offer can be quite bewildering to the uninitiated. With this in mind, what advice does Harper offer to the sake novice? “Drink lots of different stuff, and see what works at different temperatures. You can have more fun that way. You miss out if you just drink sake at one temperature. You can find out what works for each sake and what works for you.”

Attendees enjoy sake tasting at the London Sake Fair

In 2008, Philip took up a new position as Master Brewer at the Kinoshita Shuzo brewery in Kyoto, Japan, where he still remains today.

The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation:
The Umami Information Center: