August 2011

Sake Truths - I'm Guilty of Being a Hypocrite at Philip Harper's Expense

Posted by Beau Timken in 2011, August, Newsletter
Last month my buddy Philip Harper paid a visit to the US and the Bay Area specifically to introduce his new Tokubetsu Junmai from Tamagawa Shuzo, which will soon be available at True Sake. I have mentioned Philip many times over the years in this Newsletter, and quite frankly I am a big fan of his. He is a really good chap!

Who is he? Well, again I have written a great deal about him, because he is sort of the Godfather of white folks in the sake industry. Philip was one of the first foreigners to work at a sake brewery and to this day he is the first "outsider" head brewer (Toji) making sake in Japan. He has always been an inspiration to me, as a guy who must work twice as hard to be accepted in a very closed-knit community. He is a pioneer, and I am lucky to consider him a friend.

And as friends I offered to drive him around San Francisco to show him some of the many sights that he has missed on his several trips here. I wisely included my two daughters, who did an exceptional job of narrating the trip. Amongst various points of interest Philip and I had a very good conversation about his new place of employment. And he listed off some of the many advancements that he had made for Tamagawa Shuzo in his brief tenure thus far. Trust me when I tell you that many breweries of similar size would be drooling at how well the kura has done under his watch. They basically have doubled production and sales in two plus years. That rocks!

I forgot to mention that Señior Harper is quite a humble sort. And when he spoke about his achievements he only did so because I kept grilling him. And I did pepper him with many questions, which he basically had to answer or he would have to get out and walk up Hyde Street on foot. Yes, in a word, he was pleased with his performance in terms of quantity, but he was more pleased with the quality of his brewing. I didn't absorb this fact as well as I should have. And you will soon read why.

Like all conversations that I have with influential folks in the sake game, I then got Philip to speak about the big picture. Where are we going as an industry? Why aren't we getting there faster? What are we doing to market sake? What are we doing to advertise and promote this wonderful product? "Damn Philip! You have to wear two hats - one as a brewer and the other as significant sake celebrity to bring more folks to the sake table." He processed this statement. He was quiet for a moment. And right there I knew that I had made a mistake in asking him to use his "whiteness" his "unique advantage of being a great story" to promote the entire sake industry. As this was sort of a private part of the discussion I will not say how Philip answered, but I knew by his reply that I was guilty of being a hypocrite.

For years now I have battled in the industry to get recognized as a guy who knows his sake. I have had to beat back the "white guy" perception. I have had to work harder at understanding sake and communicating sake to others - harder than let's say a Japanese guy. I have had to excel at sake judging events to "prove" my abilities. And I simply want to be known as a guy who gets sake. Not as the first guy to open a dedicated sake store outside of Japan or a "Sake Samurai" or an author etc.

So when I asked Philip to capitalize on his "whiteness" to help promote sake across the board I immediately realized that I had done what I don't like others doing with me. Philip is a brewer. Philip Harper makes great sake as a great brewer. He is not white. He is not a British subject. He is not a gaijin. He is a brewer, and I felt and saw that, when he replied. It was sort of awesome. If I may be so bold as to paraphrase, Philip essentially said that he wanted people to taste his sake and not know that white hands helped to create it. And he does not use his "white angle" as a selling point. He said that perhaps he could, but he said that in the same tone that I just mentioned. He is a brewer. He is not a white brewer.

As many of you know me, I would do whatever it takes to promote and market sake. If I had a million bucks I would make a sake Super Bowl commercial. If I had a plane trailed by a rippling sign, I would fly over every city flying my "Drink More Sake" announcement. And in a word I have used my "white angle" to promote sake. But I am not a craftsman. I am a retailer. I am not a time tested and trained artisan of fermentation. I am a credit card swiper. So I was totally impressed by Philip's words and non-words. And yes as I say, "hell's hottest fires burn for hypocrites." Ouch!

So you go Philip! You go keep making excellent sake! You go being a brewer! And leave the white stuff to me.

And for those of you who have not tried the wares of this brewer, I highly recommend that you grab a bottle of his Tamagawa Daiginjo and soon look for his very tasty Tokubetsu Junmai. We also sell Philip's latest book at True Sake, and I also forgot to mention that he is extremely witty and dry in the humor department and this shows in his writing.

Here is this whiteboy's review of Philip Harper's Tamagawa Daiginjo:

Tamagawa "Gold Medal"
From Kyoto Prefecture. Daiginjo SMV: +4 Acidity: 1.6

The nose on this competition-style Daiginjo is plump with strawberry, melon, Concord grape, peach, sweet rice, and powder sugar aromas. This is a wonderful "wine drinkers" Daiginjo with fruit and acidity pushed by a gentle flintiness that melds minerality with apple and white peach hues. Round and soft with layers of flavors that are extremely well balanced on a solid body that becomes slightly crisper as the temperature warms in the glass. Look for honeydew licks and a very unique mineral personality that emerges in a larger glass, which sets this brew apart. The best part - this tremendous sake is made by my friend Philip Harper - the first gaijin head brewer! WORD: Deep WINE: Flinty reds/ crisp whites BEER: Ales FOODS: Shellfish, sushi/sashimi, lightly seared white fish, cold chicken. $57/720ml

OH GOD!!! Even in the review I push the white angle. I shall remove the line: "the first gaijin head brewer." Perhaps I will replace it with "who has the best hairdo in the sake game."

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