Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
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Sake Samurai/Owner of Japanese restaurants & bars
The 2nd Kyoto interview is with Andre Bishop, “Sake Samurai” from Australia. His attachment to Japanese food and sake developed into owning his own Japanese restaurants and bars in his country. He has much knowledge of sake, but he wanted to learn how to make sake.
In March 2015, Andre met Maho Otsuka, a toji (杜氏, Chief Sake Brewer) who worked for “Japan Brand Public Diplomacy Program” as a sake expert, in Australia. She held a seminar on climate, culture and brewing technology of sake there and Andre was impressed with her skills as a brewer.
They soon discovered they shared a similar “sake philosophy” and a plan was made to experience making sake at the brewery in Japan. So he flew to the midwinter Kyoto from the midsummer Melbourne last December.
We met him 1 week after his training started. He seemed to be really happy to take sake training even though it was an ice cold early morning.
*Interview at Shotoku Shuzo (Fushimi-ku, Kyoto)
*Photos by Tazu Yamada & Isao Tokuhashi (My Eyes Tokyo)
*Click here to read the stories of his “boss”, Maho Otsuka, a chief sake brewer.
Working at a Sake Brewery – An amazing experience
This is my 28th trip to Japan. I’ve been coming here since 1996. I’ve been to many sake breweries, but I’ve actually never been involved in the crafting process. When I have visited, I’ve seen little snapshots of the brewing process however the visits are usually for an hour or two. Seeing an overview of the process and then a tasting session. These are valuable insights but it doesn’t give you a real deep understanding of the intricacies of sake brewing.
So this is the first time for me to physically work at a kura (蔵, sake brewery) and be a part of the magic. This is the first time to work hands on with rice. I’m really enjoying it. It’s an amazing experience.
I’ve been thinking about doing this kind of thing for many years. I was looking for the right opportunity.
When I met Ms. Maho Otsuka in Australia last March. I was impressed with her skill as a sake brewer but we also shared a common sake philosophy, we both believed that “Making good sake that can be enjoyed with good food is one of the cornerstones of sake’s enjoyment.” There is some superb sake out there that is real sipping sake, you can savor its taste on it’s own but when sake meets food, that’s a special moment.
To start with, I wanted to be in a kura that was small. To begin my training, I wanted to be on a small team. Otsuka san’s kura, Shotoku Shuzo, is the perfect size where, you can be actively involved in each part of the process. I will also spend some time at Dassai (獺祭, Sake brand hailing from Yamaguchi Pref) in April. It will be really interesting to see how each brewer crafts great sake on two different size scales.
So here I am in Fushimi, Kyoto, to get a firsthand experience of making sake and using that experience to tell people about my story – that was a goal that I set.
Fell in love with Japanese pop-culture and sake
I’m a sake samurai, which is an official ambassador of sake. I’m always doing many things in Australia to help promote sake.
I’ve been professionally involved with sake for over 16 years in Australia. I took a course and studied sake in Japan in 2007 under John Gauntner after I decided to expand my Japanese restaurant operations.
I fell in love with Japan when I was a young kid because I started watching manga and anime. As I grew older, I played computer games. I was building Gundam robots… my childhood was pretty much the same as Japanese boys.
Then I fell in love with sake when I got older. I started to go to Japanese restaurants to eat and drink. I learned about Japanese food. Since I was in my early 20s, I wanted to do some job or make some business with some connection to Japan.
I’m really happy to be part of the process
Now I’m obviously in the Japanese sake industry. My boss, Otsuka-san, is the toji (杜氏, a chief sake brewer), sadly, women tojis are rare (a situation that will hopefully improve in the future). That was also really interesting for me. I wanted to support her choice to dedicate her life to crafting sake. I don’t want to disappoint Otsuka-san! I have to make sure that I keep her happy. She’s my boss and I have to keep my boss happy.
I like the team because everybody is super-friendly and I am very lucky that most of my colleagues understand English.
I feel like I am an important part of the process. What I’m doing is making some difference to the sake.
I think it’s a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity and it’s very rare for people outside Japan to have this kind of involvement. I’m very lucky to have this “in-depth” experience, be a part of a family.
My goal of the work experience at the kura is to expand my knowledge of not only the sake making process but also to know what it’s like to have that daily connection with the rice, watching fermentation develop, to see moment by moment, the evolution of rice to nihon-shu (日本酒, sake in Japanese).
The experience also extends to living day-to-day in a Japanese neighborhood, and to soak up what that environment has to offer. To briefly be part of the local community. I always wanted to live in Japan, so this was like a small window I could look through and sample what it’s like.
This experience is for my own personal development as a sake professional, but also enables me to excite other people about sake as I’m able to give a personal account. That makes it real and more engaging. Being here, making connections, meeting other people in the sake industry, learning more about the people who craft sake, hearing their stories – these are the reasons I’m enjoying my time in Kyoto.
Don’t change your identity
I obviously want to help Shotoku Shuzo any way I can whilst I am here. I want to offer my skills as a native English speaker to improve any material they need help translating.
I’ve also have done some consulting for the Japanese government concerning the sake market overseas. I am often asked by brewers for advice concerning the export market. It’s a hard question because each market has it’s own expectations and nuances.
There are also many opinions on how to achieve the best result and there is no “perfect” way.
However, one view I personally have is that I like brewers to be proud of their heritage and how that is portrayed on the bottle. I know that sometimes when sake goes overseas, an importer tells a sake company, “You have to change the label.” They want to see a more Western style label. I believe this is not the right direction. To me, the beauty of Japanese design and the heritage of Japanese writing is part of what Japanese sake is.
My preference is that brewers don’t change their labels for export, HOWEVER, what is essential is that there is a great supporting label on the back of the bottle written by a native of the country of its final destination that tells the story of the sake.
Who made it? What are its special qualities? What food does the brewer imagine it is best enjoyed with? Brewers must take up the challenge to supply informative, grammatically correct information that helps them sell the product when it lands in a foreign country.
Don’t change your identity – that’s my philosophy.
I want to get more people to drink sake through my story
In the future, I would like to live for longer in Japan to expand this small window I’ve had into life in Japan. One day I would like the opportunity to write about my own personal journey with sake and Japan and about how I became involved with sake, experiences that I have had in Japan, my journey as a sake professional… That’s a long-term dream.
My other end-goal has always been to get more Australians to drink sake and through an enjoyment of sake and Japanese cuisine, hopefully gain a greater understanding of Japan and it’s contribution to the world’s food and beverage stage.
With this small insight into brewing sake I can offer people a more personal story, I can describe that kind of day-to-day life and talk about different processes when they taste sake and give them a real feel for the drink that is in their hands in-depth and in doing so hopefully people will appreciate sake more.
What is sake to you?
It’s an important door into Japan. It is an entry into a great experience in Japan.
Sake is called “Nihon-shu” (日本酒) in Japan. “Nihon” is Japan, “Shu” is drink. So nihon-shu means “Drink of Japan”. It’s Japan’s special national alcoholic beverage because nihon-shu is not just something that we enjoy with food or enjoy with friends, but it has a long history for the temple, for the religious ceremony, birth, death. So nihon-shu is quite unique and special.
If I came to Japan as a tourist as I have done in the past, it only gives you a surface level of experience of Japan. But I’m happy that I have had something that has allowed me to enjoy going deeper. So I’m very thankful to sake for that because it’s been my secret code to open up the door into deeper Japan and to meet really amazing people and to have amazing experiences, to enjoy the country that I love very much.
I’m very thankful to sake to giving me that opportunity!
Click here and see the interview article of Maho Otsuka, Andre’s “boss” who is pictured right.
Sake Master – Japanese Beverage Consultant: www.sakemaster.com.au/
Shotoku Shuzo: www.shoutoku.co.jp/en/
Japan Brand Public Diplomacy Program (The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan): www.mofa.go.jp/p_pd/pds/page22e_000759.html
⭐Andre’s restaurants & bars in Melbourne⭐