Interview with Philip Harper October 2005
I met Philip Harper in person for the first time three years ago in Osaka. He was working in a brewery that I was visiting. I spent the day speaking with him about brewing, watching him apply his trade, and then went drinking with him that night. It was a great day for me on two counts, one more vain than the other. On the one hand I got to spend time with "THE Philip Harper – author, first western brewer of note, and all around sake pioneer," and secondly I got to meet a fellow sake soul, who has devoted their life to the pursuit of all things sake.
A month ago, Philip Harper became a toji or "head brewer" of Daimon Shuzo in Osaka. This is a monumental occasion in the sake universe and represents the first time that a Westerner has become a toji in the brewing industry. In the roughly 1000 year-old documented history of sake this represents the first time that a "non Japanese" person has elevated to such heights within such a nationality protected industry. What follows is a brief interview that I conducted with Philip, who made time between milling batches of this season's Gohyakumangoku brewing rice.
Beau - Will you please list a brief dated timeline of your sake endeavors to date including your personal greatest accomplishment and largest snafu (mistake).
- 1988 arrives in Japan as participant in JET Programme
- 1988 first encounter with sake
- Sometime early 1989 – dragged off by Japanese friend to drink "real sake"
- Three hours later: hooked on sake
- 1989 Joins sake appreciation group. Brewery visits, rice planting, copious sake appreciation...
- New Year 1990 Spends five days "working" (read: "getting in the way") in Shiga brewery
- 1990 – 1991 Spends days working in language school for visa purposes: evenings spent working in sake bar. Most winter holidays spent "working" (read: "still getting in the way") in Nara brewery. Articles on sake published in Kansai Time Out magazine.
- Autumn 1991: enters Ume no Yado brewery (Nara) as full time kurabito, working a full decade. Subsequently works one season at Sudo Honke (Ibaragi Prefecture) and four at Daimon Shuzo (Osaka) to date.
- 1998 – Publishes The Insider's Guide to Sake (Kodansha International)
- 2001 – Passes test for toji qualification of Nanbu Brewers' Union
- Greatest accomplishment: not dying of overwork
- Greatest mistake: falling asleep while riding to work and cycling into a river
Beau - How does a toji make his mark? (Meaning - I know the goal is to be true to the past, whilst maintaining the "flavor" of the sake that a kura is known for, but how does a new toji go about leaving a thumb print on the history of a kura?
Philip - I think whether or not a new toji starts out to "leave a thumb print" on the style of a particular brewery depends on the personality of the toji, the owner, and on how settled the style of the brewery in question is. The best things happen when the kuramoto and toji (and team) reach a good mutual understanding of what they're aiming for, and can express it consistently.
Beau - How important is the relationship between an owner and his kurabito (brewery workers)? As kurabito have always historically been "temporary employees" and as kurabito come and go in the lifespan of a brewery, how important is it for an owner to be involved with the kurabito rather than keeping them at arm's length? (I personally have met three kuramotos who are making their sons work with the kurabito to foster a better relationship between owners and workers!)
Philip - Traditionally, the "kurabito" were hired by the toji, not by the owner directly, so the relationship between them was the big one. In the past, it was rare for kuramoto to be involved actively in the hands on business of brewing. Some kuramoto liked to keep a close eye on things: others left everything entirely to the toji. There are ups and downs to both approaches.
Beau - In your storied time in the sake industry, what changes have you witnessed first hand, and what are some changes to come? (I would love a technical production reply as well as a "market view")
Philip - I learned the ropes amongst veteran brewers from Tajima and Nanbu, living and working in the brewery in the way their fathers and grandfathers had done. There are now far fewer active teams comprised entirely of veterans from the traditional guilds, and there will be still more changing of the guard as currently active veterans retire. There has been a lot of experimentation and diversification, partly because of the market pressure on sake.
Beau - How does the industry look at Daimon-san (owner of the brewery where PH works) now that he has entrusted his family's biz to a whitey! What do you think his great great grandfather would say if he were told that his great great grandson would put a Westerner at the helm?
Philip - Not sure. These issues vanish with the people I work with directly, and I long since gave up worrying about what the others think. I don't think Great-great Grandad would be able to imagine the idea at all, since he was presumably active before the Meiji restoration, and would probably never have seen a westerner.
Beau - Have you paved the way for more westerners to become a part of this amazing industry?
Philip - I know of four westerners who have worked in breweries apart from me. One is an American woman who manages a brewery in Nagano. Of the three who actually worked on the brewing side, only one is still in Japan. I don't think he plans to do it full time. So far, there doesn't seem to be a rush to join in, but with sake's international profile becoming so much more prominent, who knows?
Philip is as humble in virtual communication as he is in person. From what I observed, he has a calmness that is spearheaded by a concern for his product. He is somewhat pensive, and tries his best to be "one of the guys" in a world where the "guys" are quite different. Nevertheless, the code of sake makers is to work as hard as possible to make THE BEST product, and it doesn't matter if you are male or female, white or even green as long as you can do the job that honors the essence of sake.
I highly recommend reading Philip's "The Insider's Guide to Sake" (Kodansha International 1998), which I sell at True Sake. And in case you are wondering, as I was, Philip is producing a second book, which will be released sometime next year. And for future review of the fruits of Philip's new toji efforts please try the following four sakes available in the US: Mukune – Junmai Ginjo, Mukune "Shadows of Katano"- Nigori, Tozai "Voices in the Mist" - Nigori, and Tozai "Well of Wisdom" – Honjozo.