Akashi-tai sake

Meet the Brewery: Akashi-Tai

One of the most tragic occurrences in Sake history is the decline in breweries over the years.

In between 1940 and 2014, an astonishing 4,500 breweries shut their doors to the public, leaving just a fraction –  c. 1,500 – in operation. Today the trend continues its downward march (Japan’s National Tax Agency).

Nevertheless, to get to know every single one of the remaining breweries would still require some work, and a substantially deep purse. But isn’t that one of the joys of being a little obsessed by something? The prospect of so much terrain still yet to discover.

There is a bit of method to the madness of exploration though. Faced with a sea of choice, one is drawn towards those breweries with a story, an element of soft emotionality that can be latched onto.

“That is the brewery with the Cornish toji (master brewer),” for example, or “that is the one which polishes its rice grains into diamond shapes…” (allegedly there is one).

And yet, it is not always easy to find this kind of information about Sake breweries. I think this has a lot to do with an Asian cultural bent towards modesty, and a fundamentally different way of appreciating alcoholic beverages in comparison to the West.

Perhaps another contributory factor to the lack of information is the lack of translated material. Sake labels are notoriously indecipherable and what marketing information there is is often written in Japanese. In time this too will change, as Sake exports continue to pick up pace.

Anyway, I wanted to introduce some of my own favourite breweries. “Favourite”, not “best”, or “most expensive”, most “cachet”. “Favourite”, because they are breweries with stories that I enjoyed getting to know.

This week, Akashi-Tai.

What does Akashi-Tai mean?

“Tai” is the Japanese word for Red Sea Bream and “Akashi” is the name of one of Western Japan’s major fishing villages. The brewery is therefore named after the red sea bream of Akashi, which are renowned throughout Japan for their taste.

Symbolically, tai in Japan represents good luck, as it rhymes with omedetai, or “Congratulations”.  It is often eaten at “medetai” (congratulatory) occasions, such as weddings and family gatherings.

Akashi-Tai

Akashi-Tai’s logo, a playful sea bream coiled belly up

Date founded: 1886

Production: 73,000l per year, or roughly 400 koku.

Around 73% of Japanese breweries produce annual outputs of <500 koku, which is considered small. Akashi-Tai is therefore firmly at the bijou end of the spectrum.

Sake:

A full range of Sake is produced at Akashi-Tai, including some of the newer Sake styles, such as sparkling Sake and Sake liqueur.

At every event at which I have seen Akashi-Tai served, the unanimous favourite has always been the umeshu, or plum Sake liqueur:

Shiraume (“White Plum”) Umeshu

A plummy liqueur. Akashi-Tai’s umeshu is made by preserving ume in high quality sake (ginjo sake), rather than distilled alcohol (as is the case with lesser umeshu’s).

Ume are soft stone fruit similar to plums and apricots and traditionally used in Chinese medicine for their supposed health benefits. Therefore, umeshu has also traditionally been seen to possess medicinal qualities  – a bit like Mint Julep in the West!

All in all, a rich, velvety drink that could work well with autumn fruit, cheese and certainly with Mince pies.

Why not.

shiraume

The brewery is also known for a second Sake, which I have not yet had the pleasure of trying:

Genmai Aged Sake

Released in 2005. This beverage is special for two reasons:

  1. It is Japan’s first brown rice Sake (usually Sake is made from polished rice i.e. white rice), and
  2. It is aged for a number of years before consumption.

Hard also to not love the bottle design, redolent of a Glenrothes Select Reserve.

genmai aged sake

What’s next?

When Mr Yonezawa, President of Akashi-Tai, was asked about his next big development, he stated that focus is shifting from producing Sake that goes with food, to that which can “shine on its own”.

After attending last Wednesday’s drinks reception at Sake no Hana, I would say that this future vision is already within reaching distance. In the downstairs bar, a crowd of Fintech CEOs performed a very traditional Kagami-biraki with Akashi-Tai Sake. Kagami-biraki (“opening the lid”) is where the lid of a sake barrel is broken with a wooden mallet, and guests are served with the sake stored within. The round lid symbolises harmony , so breaking the lid represents opening the door to harmony and prosperity.

And really, nothing makes me happier than seeing Sake being enjoyed as the drink of choice in the 21st century.

Looking to try some Akashi-Tai? 

Where to drink Akashi-Tai Sake in London:

Sake no Hana

Hakkasan

Yauatcha

The Nightjar

Inamo

Chottomatte

The nightjar

Murakami

 

Where to buy Akashi-tai sake in London:

Selfridges

Odd bin

Whiskey exchange

Nicolas

Hedonism

The Good wine shop

Harvey Nichols

Fortnum & Mason

Amathus

Harrods

Lea and Sandmann

Whole Foods Market

 

Akashi-tai

Akashi-tai

akashi tai

Akashi-tai sake

Philip Harper x Flat 3

Sake, by The Man from The End of the World

Today I have some geographic trivia to share. The End of the World, or Lands’ End, is located in Cornwall.

…Cornwall? Head scratching and puzzled looks follow. Who knew that this benign Southern county, best known for retirees and clotted cream, could lay claim to such a weighty title?

In fact, Cornwall is rather prominent in English folklore. It is believed, for example, that the fabled City of Lions from the Legend of King Arthur once bordered it, but eventually sank beneath the waves off the English coast. It is simultaneously believed that these waves conceal the Lost City of Atlantis. A group of Russian scientists set off to verify this in 1998…and the jury are still out.

Something less well-known, equally as wonderful and 100% more true is the fact that this mysterious place also produced the world’s first and only non-Japanese toji (master sake brewer) in Japan – Philip Harper.

6 Philip Harper Facts:

– He studied English and German Language and Literature at Oxford

– His interest in sake began when he was in Japan as part of the JET programme. Being an English teacher by day and a sake bar tender by night saw casual drinking escalate into serious drinking, and ultimately, turned it into a hobby.

– In 2008 he became toji at Kinoshita brewery, after the previous toji passed away. Kinoshita brewery’s most distinctive (and only) sake range is called “Tamagawa“, or “Treasure River”.

– His Wakuwaku sake was drank by David Cameron during a state visit to Japan in 2012.* Wakuwaku apparently translates to “a state of expectant excitement”…

*Allegedly, Cameron came bearing the gift of a Brompton Bicycle

– He won two gold medals at the New Sake Awards in Japan in his first brewing year. After this experience he stopped being conventional and set his sights on more eccentric things.

– …He is unconventional. Philip’s trademark is sake that pushes the boundaries of what people perceive to be desirable – for example, aged sakes and very alcoholic sakes.

Actually the latter is rather technically difficult as the chemistry of the brewing process makes it difficult to achieve high ABV’s. When asked how he has managed ABV’s of 21.5%, he responds, “My yeasts haven’t read the textbook…”

From the collection of random facts above, you begin to see that Philip is quite remarkable – and not just by dint of being foreign. Philip is a force for innovation in the world of sake and his approach has particularly impacted the aged sake industry, which has been out of favour since the 1970’s. The Tamagawa sake range is a great example of his unconventional style, as it features several examples of rule bending: high alcohol style sakes, aged sakes and even a dessert sake made using a recipe retrieved from 1712.

Luckily for us, Philip was visiting from Japan last week to promote his Tamagawa range. What followed was a series of tastings, public seminars and dinner pairings in collaboration with some of London’s most innovative chefs.

First and foremost, our dinner at Flat 3…

Sake and Flat 3 Pairing Dinner

Down a small and unassuming staircase in a lovely part of town, you will find an enchanting basement restaurant known as Flat 3.

Flat 3 Kitchen

Since the restaurant opened this 1st April, Head Chef Pavel has been crafting dish after dish of creative food combinations, like the Willy Wonka of clean cuisine. Ingredients are totally seasonal and recipes draw upon Japanese, Korean and Scandinavian influences.

Flat 3 Appetisers

Selection of Flat 3 Appetisers. Photo by George Moustakas 2015

Square Meal

 

For a ticketed Philip Harper x Flat 3 dinner, World Sake Imports (Philip Harper’s stockist) collaborated with Flat 3 to create an 8 course menu, where each course was paired with one of Philip’s sakes from the Tamagawa range.

One glance at the menu would lead you to conclude that the guest list was mostly composed of kings, queens and unicorns:

Flat 3 Menu

I never did figure out whether the magnolia leaf was there for nutritional or aesthetic value. Was I supposed to eat it?

Anyway I did.

The food disappeared exceedingly fast, but I managed to gather some photos of some of the dishes from some of the guests (special thanks to Mika Muurinen):

Flat 3 Food

Top Row: Century Egg Appetiser; New Season Turnip (Beurre noisette, apple cider and crunchy milk); Hamachi (Iberico lardo + ponzu); Diver Scallop (Dry anchovy veloute + scented with spring pineapple weed);

Bottom Row: Stone bass (Fermented tomato, sea aster + lacto butter); Matcha pao de lo (First of the season raspberries, olive oil + vanilla ice cream); Asparagus (Baked with sake + wild chamomile, sweet corn, pistachio + soured butter); Carrot Sorbet

 

In particular, I marveled at the way sake was incorporated into the menu. It was used for drinking, cooking, mixing into cocktails, served piping 65 C hot and ice bath cold…throughout the 8 courses, Philip’s sake appeared in as many guises as was conceivably possible, limited only by chef Pavel’s creativity:

1)     In a cocktail – to start, we were each given a cocktail smelling of spring and new grass. Mixed in the right proportions, Zubrovka vodka (Bison grass vodka), homemade apple and cucumber juice and Philip Harper’s Red Label Sake can apparently be conjured into something green and amazing. Like how I would describe the taste of the world’s best cucumber to someone who had never tasted cucumber before.

2)     In the food – for our third course, we were served asparagus which had been baked in the sake that we paired it with for drinking purposes. The dish took on the lingering sweetness of heated sake (see photo panel above).

3)     With the food – to pair with the cheese course – or Miso Chevre in Magnolia Leaf if you’re dining at Flat 3, we had the infamous Time Machine sake (slim amber bottles in the back row).

 

Time Machine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the dessert sake I alluded to earlier. Its coloration suggests a sake that has been matured at least 10 years, but Time Machine is not aged. Rather it is a fresh sake made using an aged recipe. I believe that this is what Time Machine means – drinking the sake transports you back, as you are drinking a similar brew to the sake drinkers of 1712.

The smell is soy saucey and not immediately appealing. The taste, however, is like treacly honey. In combination, these two qualities come together to yield a madeira-esque drink of silky viscosity, which is addictive for all the reasons that salted caramel is.

And you can’t not love the fact that Time Machine was originally created to drizzle over ice cream.

The Philip Harper x Flat 3 dinner once again proved the versatility of sake beyond all doubt. Sake’s affinity with Japanese food is so obvious that we don’t often think of alternative uses, so it is truly encouraging when restaurants like Flat 3 are able to take the initiative.

If any of the above appeals to your culinary inclinations, then you should pop down to Holland Park some time. You might not find these exact items on the menu, but the ethos of the food preparation is the same, and you’ll still get art on your plate. And if you wander over for a chat with Pavel, and you might be invited to try some of his homemade Cola and some other extremely curious house brews.

 

Juliana, Philip, Pavel

Juliana (co-owner), Philip Harper, Chef Pavel. Photo: George Moustakas 2015

 

Next up, Sushi Masterclass at M Restaurant

 

Many thanks to Asami Lewis and World Sake Imports and to Flat 3 and M Restaurants for their creativity and hospitality. Last but not least thank you to Philip, who sacrificed many hours to drinking with us when he could have been spending more time at home with his nephew and niece.

Philip’s “Insider’s Guide to Sake” remains the best introduction to sake available. Purchase your copy here.