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May 11, 2012

"The Book of Sake" by Philip Harper (Book review)

One of the best books on sake in English is Philip Harper's The Book of Sake: A Connoisseurs Guide. Beautifully edited by Kodansha, with lavish illustrations, this book contains all you have to know about sake and is a pleasure to read, also thanks to Harper's lively style. And that all in less than 100 pages.

Philip Harper is the only non-Japanese toji or master brewer, so he knows what he is speaking about. In a more than a 15-year career, he has worked for fine, small breweries as Ume no Yado in Nara, Daimon in Osaka, and now is active at Kinoshita Shuzo in the north of Kyoto Prefecture.

Harper has managed that impossible task, to write a book that is useful for novices and still interesting for those who are on their way to becoming connoisseurs. After all, in contrast to wine, where you can start drinking as long as you select red or white, dry or sweet, sake has a huge vocabulary of specialistic terms, which can be off-putting for novices.

Wisely, Harper does not start out with an avalanche of jargon but first suggests us to open a few bottles and start tasting. In Making the Most of Sake, he discusses the ideal temperature for drinking sake; which sake to combine with which food; describes the official sake tasting process; and gives information on "drinker's parafernalia", cups, bottles, flasks and other equipment.

We learn that certain types of sake can also be enjoyed "on the rocks;" and that drinking sake warm is no sin (as long as it is not a daiginjo) but that you never should overheat it - Harper discusses various ways to gently heat sake. The interesting thing about sake is, that it can be drunk at many different temperatures and changes character and taste accordingly. It is fun to discover the best temperature for your favorite sake.

Next Harper sings the praise of the combination of a Ginjo sake with your sashimi or sushi, while a full-bodied Junmai fits better with sukiyaki or yakitori.

As regards Western foods, a Kimoto or Yamahai with its yoghurty nuances is the perfect companion to a cheese plate, as well as Chinese foods cooked in oil. Harper provides a "taste chart" and suggest alternatives to the omnipresent thimble-sized sake cup, the o-choko, in the form of glasses and other, larger ceramic cups - especially Ginjo and Daiginjo sake needs room to breath in a wider glass.

In the second chapter, Sake for all Seasons: Types and Styles, we get a little bit more technical as Harper explains the differences between the delicious Junmai, Honjozo, Ginjo and Daiginjo, all premium or super-premium sakes.

He teaches us about Namazake (unpasteurized sake, a novelty of the last ten years or so), the traditional Kimoto method of making the yeast in a natural, but time-consuming and labor-intensive way; about Shiboritate or "Sake Nouveau;" and Koshu or Aged sake. He also gives some space to minor genres as sparkling sake (also a modern invention) and Taru-zake, the sake aged in a cask of fragrant cedar wood.

The going would be heavy if this were only a dry enumeration, but Harper "wets" his story by introducing the actual bottles and brands of the types he is discussing.

Chapter Three, On the Road: Breweries and Regions, informs us about regional styles and about brewer's guilds, but dedicates most of its space to introducing famous sake brands for each prefecture. As elsewhere in the book, the taste descriptions are the work of sake journalist and master-taster Haruo Matsuzaki.

In The Brewer's Craft, we are introduced to the mysterious process of sake brewing, from the raw materials of sake-rice and water, to the koji (the mold grown on steamed rice to change the starch of the rice grains into fermentable sugars), the yeast starter and the actual fermentation process (moromi; sake is characteristically brewn by the "multiple parallel fermentation" method, meaning that production of sugars by the koji enzymes takes place in the same vat and at the same time that the yeast converts those sugars into alcohol - this is also what makes brewing sake so difficult: the two elements must be perfectly balanced).

This is of course where Harper is talking about his own craft, which makes it particularly interesting. His explanation of the often difficult to understand brewing process is the most lucid I know. Harper is so much in his element that he runs out of space here and a very important discussion of yeast and yeast types had to be put at the inside backcover of the book - but this has been done very tastefully by the publisher, with silver letters on black paper.

Of course, not everything is covered in this book of only 100 pages, think for example about the history of sake - and I would have liked to hear more about Harper's personal experiences, but that is perhaps something for another book.

What Harper shows in this volume is that today sake is more delicious and variegated than ever in its long history. He also shows that brewing a good sake is a difficult craft, just like making washi paper, lacquerwork, ceramics, textiles, and all those other, great Japanese handmade crafts.

To brew a good handmade sake is not a process in a computer-controlled factory, but still the work of dedicated, even fanatical people who are obsessed with quality. It is good that "handcrafted" sake finally also is becoming popular on dining tables around the world.
The Book of Sake: A Connoisseurs Guide by Philip Harper and Haruo Matsuzaki, Kodansha International, 2006

Another book by Philip Harper is The Insider's Guide to Saké, a small pocket-sized book that contains much of the same practical information as The Book of Sake, but without the illustrations; in addition, it has lists of restaurants and shops both in Japan and the U.S.

Interesting article from the SWET Newsletter about Philip Harper and the process of editing The Book of Sake