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U.S. sake lovers spread some joy

America's largest sake-tasting event is celebrating in the home of the rice beverage

by Melinda Joe

For the first time ever, The Joy of Sake, the biggest sake tasting soiree outside of Japan, will bring its American brand of culture-crossing conviviality to Japan. On Nov. 2, the event, which originated in Hawaii, will be celebrating its anniversary in Tokyo.

“It’s the 10th year for us, so we wanted to do something special,” says organizer Chris Pearce, ” and Japan is the place where sake comes from.”

The event will showcase 329 premium brews from 166 producers around the country and feature complementary appetizers from 12 local and U.S.-based restaurants, as well as live music and hula dance performances. Apart from the hula dancers, the most noticeable difference between The Joy of Sake and the sake tastings held regularly in Tokyo has to be the number of guests who will be coming from abroad. In addition to several volunteers from the United States, a group of sake enthusiasts from Hawaii will be flying in specifically to attend the event. Pearce anticipates up to 200 international visitors.

The concept for The Joy of Sake is loosely based on the public tasting events in Hiroshima and Tokyo that follow the Japan National Sake Appraisal, an annual contest held by the National Institute for the Research of Brewing. Consumers are invited to try all of the entries to the competition after evaluation.

The Joy of Sake Tokyo event is the last in a series of roving sake parties that will take place in Honolulu, San Francisco and New York after the U.S. National Sake Appraisal in Honolulu on Aug. 17. The sakes are judged over two days by a team of 10 Japanese and American experts, and this year the top three entries in each category will be announced. In addition, one or more “Citations of Excellence” awards will be announced for labels that have performed consistently at a high level over the last 10 years.

“We follow the same criteria used in the Japan National Sake Appraisal,” Pearce says. “The U.S. National Sake Appraisal is a very serious and professional (evaluation), but The Joy of Sake is a great party where you can eat and drink at the same time for 2 1/2 hours.”

Pearce and a group of eight others affiliated with the International Sake Association (ISA), a small nonprofit organization based in the U.S., produced the first Joy of Sake in Honolulu in 2001. At that time, premium sake was just starting to become popular, and 350 people turned out for the festival. In 2003, the ISA decided to expand The Joy of Sake to the mainland. Since then, the event has gradually grown. Last year’s The Joy of Sake Honolulu drew 1,250 people, a number that Pearce deems unwieldy for a tasting. This year, they are limiting attendance to 950.

While it may seem extravagant to host a popular American sake event in Japan, Pearce says that he’s received nothing but positive feedback so far.

“I’m sure there are people who think that (it’s strange), but, since we’ve been planning this, I’ve been getting a lot of strong support and interest. There’s been a great deal of interest from the media and brewers who want to help out,” he remarks. “We wanted to show people in Japan what our idea of a sake event was — less serious and more fun.”

One thing that sets The Joy of Sake apart is its festive, partylike atmosphere. Unlike many tastings in Japan, where food is either not offered or served as a sit-down dinner, The Joy of Sake will give participants the chance to sample appetizers from popular restaurants such as the Tokyo branches of Nobu and Wakiya, while they drink.

The sake will be displayed on long tables in the middle of the hall, while vendors serving snacks will be at booths around the perimeter. An izakaya (Japanese pub) section serving food from four Tokyo sake pubs will also be adjacent to the main tasting room so that visitors can sip a little sake, grab a bite to eat and mingle.

Another potential draw, particularly for non-Japanese participants, will be the English-speaking “sake guides,” who will be on the floor to fill glasses and answer questions. Of the 40 to 50 volunteers from Japan and the U.S., about a third will be bilingual or native English speakers. Before the tasting, National Research Institute of Brewing representative Hitoshi Utsunomiya will also deliver a talk on sake in English.

“People don’t know a lot about sake,” says sake and wine sommelier Yoshi Kimura, who worked as a guide at The Joy of Sake New York. “It will be helpful for foreigners living in Tokyo to have English-speaking volunteers. Just tasting sake is good, but to have a really great experience you need to know more about it.”

A number of sake-related activities, such as brewery visits, izakaya pub crawls, and a yukata-bune dinner cruise on Tokyo’s Sumida River, are also being planned around the tasting party.

Although it’s still unclear if The Joy of Sake Tokyo will become a regular event, Pearce and the ISA are considering taking the festival to other international destinations.

“We might go to London or Shanghai next,” he says.

Brewers interested in expanding into foreign markets are all for the idea. Naotaka Miyasaka, president of Miyasaka Brewing Company, Ltd., which produces Masumi sake, has been participating in The Joy of Sake tastings every year since they first began. He believes that the event has helped raise sake’s profile abroad.

“I’m sure it’s played a big role in introducing sake to the U.S. market,” he says. “Young producers should join in to see that sake is appreciated in foreign markets.”

For brewers, the event could lead to new business opportunities, but that’s not the only reason to go.

“It’s fun,” Miyasaka laughs. “That’s why they call it the Joy of Sake.”

The Joy of Sake Tokyo will be held on Nov. 2, 2010, in the Tokubetsu Hall of the TOC Building, 7-22-17 Gotanda, Shinagawa-ku; (03) 3494-2200. You can get a shuttle bus to the venue from Gotanda Station (JR, Toei Asakusa and Tokyu Ikegami lines). Tickets (¥8,000 per person) can be purchased in Japanese at t.pia.jp (Ticket Pia) and at eplus.jp/sys/main.jsp (E Plus), or in English on The Joy of Sake Web site, www.joyofsake.com

What — and what not — to expect when tasting sake

For those new to sake, it can be difficult to know what to look for during tasting. Although sake shares some characteristics with wine, it is, of course, a completely different beverage. The tasting process, however, is essentially the same.

First, sniff the sake to take in the aromas. Then, take a small sip and roll it over the surface of your tongue before spitting or swallowing.

In general, sake tends to have slightly more pronounced sweetness and softer acidity than wine. Its higher levels of amino acids make it rich in umami , the meaty, savory taste sensation found in foods such as cheese, mushrooms and tomatoes.

Look for aromas and flavors of white- and yellow-fleshed fruits. You’re more likely to encounter notes of melon, pear and apple than cherry, blackberry and plum. Think in terms of rice and herbs, rather than oak and tannins.

Unlike with wine, a long finish in sake does not indicate higher quality. Most sake is also meant to be drunk within a year of production — only a tiny fraction of sake is aged for more than three or more years — so aging offers little improvement on flavor.

If it’s your first time at a large sake tasting, don’t try to sample everything. Joy of Sake organizer Chris Pearce recommends that people spend no more than 10 minutes at a table of sakes before moving on. The sakes will be divided into five categories, and the sake guides will be there to answer questions and give recommendations.