Philip Harper fell in love with sake the first time he drank a sip.  A graduate of Oxford University, he moved to Japan to teach English. That move would change his life forever.

He eventually took a job at Ume no Yado brewery in 1991. And in 2001, he became the first and only non-Japanese person to pass the exam to become a toji, or master brewer.

Harper has now headed up the Kinoshita brewery in Kyoto prefecture for over two years.   The brewery makes Tamagawa sake.  He is finishing a three-stop tour of the Bay Area on Wednesday night at Ozumo in Oakland.

His first stop was at Ozumo in San Francisco, where I was able to spend a few minutes talking to him about the sake industry.

“Sake has advantages over many other drinks. For example, you can drink sake that’s great on the rocks, sake at room temperature or sake that’s great warm. You don’t get that range of sensory present with other drinks,” Harper said. “And the other thing that is amazing is food. Sake goes so easily with an amazing range of foods. Sake is really, really food friendly.”

At the gathering, Harper was on hand to not only serve his sake, but also talk about each bottle being served. He said while America has come a long way, the sake industry is still in its infancy stages in terms of expanding to international markets. “In the last 10-15 years, sake has had a stronger presence in the U.S.,” he said. “But even so, there’s still only about 2 percent of the sake made in Japan going overseas.”

Harper said that many breweries in Japan have been devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that hit the country in March. For some, they have grown up knowing nothing but their family’s sake brewery and are trying to rebuild in whatever way possible.

Overall, Harper said the sake industry is showing slow growth and hopes that market’s overseas will start to garner the same passion as he has for the drink.



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