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

Sake no Hana

Sake Class at Sake no Hana

I hardly drink (it’s true). And I certainly don’t drink in the morning. However, accepting that great sacrifices are often made in the name of academic research, I bravely set off to the West End one Saturday to face a long alcoholic morning ahead. “Unwise!” I hear you cry, but no ordinary Alcoholics Anonymous was this. Rather, I had heard tell of a sake class that takes place on a mysteriously irregular selection of Saturdays during the year, at one of my favourite establishments in London. This was the Sake Class at Sake no Hana.

Sake Class at Sake no Hana

The class has been running for some time now. According to Christine Parkinson, Head Wine Buyer for the Hakksan Group, it began with the boom in London’s Japanese dining scene. The Hakkasan Group run several Asian fine dining spots across the city (also, the world), and as interest in the cuisine picked up, so did an interest in pairing the food with alcohol of appropriate provenance – sake. With sake being so unfamiliar to Western sommeliers, it soon became evident that some training was needed to help with the curation of more authentic and well informed food-alcohol parings. This was the genesis of the Sake no Hana sake class.

Although initially developed expressly for the group’s sommeliers, the course was eventually extended to the general public. Now the opportunity to receive all the training of the Hakkasan sommeliers – with none of the exams at the end – is open to all who book onto Sake no Hana’s Saturday Sake Class.

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The class takes place in Sake no Hana’s downstairs bar. I was lucky enough to attend while the Sakura at Sake no Hana display was still on. In my experience, frothy boughs of cherry blossom and occasional wafts of Floris’ Cherry Blossom scent are highly conducive to pleasurable sake experiences.

Sakura at Sake no Hana
Square Meal

The Content:

As the instructors take a “blank page” approach, the course is truly suitable for anyone. The breadth is wide, but Christine and Anthony have taken a thoughtful approach to curriculum design. During the class, we learnt about the production, the history, the culture, the physical taste – and fundamentally, the art of sake appreciation.

Sake Students

 

The information was relayed in a conversational, engaging style and crucially, interspersed with regular tasting. The class ended with a five course flourish, which guests were able to order from the Taste of Sake no Hana menu. Each course came paired with more sake, naturally.

 

Sake Glass

 

All in all, we tasted five different sakes over the course of the morning. Lunch came accompanied by another three, one of which was served at two different temperatures. (They say that there are three drinks in every sake bottle: one cold, one hot and one at room temperature). I am amazed to say that I still made it on time to collect my mother for our afternoon engagements afterwards.

 

Lunch

 

From sparkling to cloudy, traditional to modern, in a couple of hours we leapfrogged centuries of sake innovation. Whether you are a veteran or a novice, tasting eight sakes in close proximity will induce awe at the spectrum of flavour that can be coaxed out of such humble raw materials.

 

Two Sakes

 

 

Cloudy and Ginjo

But no more spoilers! You will want to try the course for yourselves. Just make sure you haven’t planned too much for the rest of the day – the sake deserves your full and undivided attention.

A special mention to James, our very diligent and excellent sommelier, who attentively filled everyone’s glasses throughout the day. Eight sakes and a room full of guests…that’s a lot of patient pouring.

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In a nutshell:

Location:

The bar at Sake no Hana, Green Park

Timing and Dates:

Select Saturdays, 10.15am – 3pm

Course content:

Learn to appreciate sake, its production process, history and culture. Try sake alone and paired with food, hot, chilled and room temperature.

Your sake instructors Christine Parkinson (Wine Buyer for the Hakkasan Group) and Anthony Rose (of The Independent and The Wine Gang) will make sure you leave well-watered, and well fed. Students will walk away with the confidence to choose their own sake and a generous goody bag of sake treats.

Price:

£60 per person, including sake class and 5 course lunch from the Taste of Sake no Hana menu.

Future Dates and Bookings:

Class runs around 3-4 times per year. Check on the website or email [email protected]