“Bringing the taste of Sake to every corner of the world .” A young Japanese Sommelier in Dubai dreams of Sake attracting more sake connoisseurs in the future .
Dubai is a leading financial and tourist centre in the Middle East where impressive number of millionaires from all the world gather . A young sake sommelier working in a popular Japanese restaurant in this city decided to visit a sake brewery in Nagaoka City , Niigata to pursue his dream of bringing the taste of sake to the world.
While on a sake trail in Nagaoka , 28 years old Ryuji Hamada discovered a sake with distinct and exquisite taste . He was deeply impressed with the sake and decided to bring this Nagaoka sake to Dubai . The dream became a reality when this sake arrived in Dubai this spring .
“I want the world to relish the taste of sake.” And I want to bring best tasting sake to the world.”
While in pursuit of that dream, I met him in February 8 2017 in Nagaoka . He was here to visit sake breweries and I was able to get some update on the market for sake in foreign countries .
What is the job of sake sommelier who are working outside Japan ?
“Taste like a kind of cereals. Taste of the rice is well blended”
“Sake in the cask is fresh .” I want to drink it after its true freshness has settled down …. ( pause a few moments ) the taste is different now . “ It has a lime flavor and bitterness like gin. “
To do a sake tasting , Hamada filled sake in a OCHOKO ( a traditional sake cup for drinking Japanese sake) and then concentrated on smelling the fragrance first before making any remarks .
As a sommelier in a foreign country, I sometimes , describe sake as having lime and gin flavors . Japanese generally do not describe their sake as having lime and gin flavor
Hamada now works for ZUMA a Japanese restaurant which is very popular in Dubai . The head office is in UK and the company has 11 stores in New Yok , Hong Kong , Istanbul and Dubai .
Hamada is a sommelier in charge of sake in the restaurant when he was quite young . It was Hamada’s second visit to Nagaoka city . I interviewed him at the beginning of February 2017 . He was in the city to do sake tasting in local sake breweries such as ONDA and KOSHIMEIJO to check on the quality of sake produced in Nagaoka .
――How popular is sake abroad now?
“Just as in Japan wine is getting popular among Japanese , sake is also getting popular in New York , London and trend is now in Dubai.”
――It’s good that wine is popular in Japan . Is sake order in Zuma of Dubai increasing?
“Wine is 70%, but the sake is over 30%, too. It may go to 40% depending on a month.”
――What type of sake will be popular abroad?
“Most people ask for dry sake as strong fragrance is more popular. A lot of people think sake from highly polished rice ( low rice polishing ratio) is more delicious. Because of this reason, customers ususally order a sake by the rice polishing ratio . But if you drink sake (with low rice polishing ratio) when consuming food , you will not always be able to get a good aroma from it . Therefore, customers will be pleasantly surprised when they drink sake with 88% rice polishing ratio.” . (‘Maizuru drum 88’ is obtained by Onda Brewery)
※’DAIGINJO-shu’ (Top-quality sake brewed from rice grains milled to 50% or less of their weight)
――Foreigners know what’s the rice polishing rate and it is a surprise that they do have knowledge on how to choose their favorite sake based on it.
As a sommelier , how do you recommend a sake to them?
“There are many people who do not understand how to drink sake ,For example, they drink it at a stretch (chugging an entire drink without stopping to take a breath with a small glass) like a strong distilled liquor of the alcohol. Therefore I advise them
” Instead of drinking at a stretch, please taste it” ,and I took out a wineglass and got them to smell the fragrance. And then asked them to taste the charm of the fragrance of rice. Everyone was surprised when I taught them how to drink . After that they changed the way they drank sake .”
“Though I do not want to refer sake as ‘rice wine’ so as to avoid people having misconception of sake . However I will explain to my customers that they should match sake with their food just like they do for wine. Sake is not meant just for drinking on its own .”
“ I often tell my foreign customers that “samurai drink sake” . Guess what those who know the term ‘Samurai’ would usually order sake .” ( Laugh) . As a sommelier I am required to use the manual to make recommendations to customers . However I prefer to work according to individual preference of my customers . “ “
Wish to make sake popular abroad!
Hamada is from Hamamatsu-city, Shizuoka prefecture. The city is famous as the soccer Mecca in Japan . In his teens, he dreamed of being a professional soccer player .
What made him moved to a foreign city like Dubai to become a sake sommelier ?
――I wonder what made you want to learn about sake ?
“I played soccer all the time, and, at the age of 18 years old I was scouted by the soccer company (member of society league aiming at J League in Hamamatsu city). But I declined the offer and instead found a job at the Izakaya (the Japanese style casual restaurant ) . I started working as part-timer and discovered I liked the work in the restaurant . The owner of the restaurant was the chef and I was given the opportunity to recommend sake and shochul ( distilled from sweet potatoes , rice , buckwheat , etc ) to customers.”
“At the age of 20, I qualified as a Shochu adviser and in the following year I qualified as a sommelier. But as I was quite young I found it difficult to get the trust of my customers when I talked about sake to them. So I decided to gain more knowledge of sake, and I went to study every week at a liquor store in Hamamatsu and I was grateful for the opportunity.”
“The owner of the liquor shop was a person with vast knowledge and experience . He taught me to begin my lessons by “learning the Japanese Map” . After that “learn the difference between Japanese miso and soy sauce next”…….” When I asked him about what is JUNMAI-Shu(pure sake with no milling rate specified) or DAIGINJOU-Shu (top quality sake with at least 50% of rice polished away )?” He said to me that “At first,Study the districts and water , because sake comes from the land.” I took a different route of learning sake very different from the conventional learning method . This was far more interesting way of learning about sake. I will not forget his teachings . If I have a chance I want to do a trip based on the theme – “Food of the land and the liquor” here and there.”
――What motivates you to be a sake sommelier abroad?
“While I was watching World Cup of 2010, I had this dream to represent Japan in World Cup Soccer . I had this dream since I was the young . I wanted to go abroad for a challenge and I was looking for something I could do it as ‘a representative from Japan’. I did not think Soccer hold any future for me . How about sake? There was a magazine ‘Discover Japan’ lying in my house at time . It has a special feature on Sake . I read the article and learnt that sake was being consumed in many parts of the world . I thought , It was really great that sake is being consumed all over the world. I decided at that time I want go in a foreign country where sake is consumed . “
――Year 2010 – How old was you at that time ?
“ I was 21 years old.”
――You were at such a young age and you made a big decision! When did you go abroad and what did you do ?
“ I opened my the PC, and googled for ‘sake foreign countries’. ZUMA popped up on the screen . I thought I should look at the Homepage of ZUMA and got the phone number . So I called to a number suddenly someone spoke in Japanese. “MOSHI MOSHI ,hello” and I forced out a laughter because I did not know anything about ZUMA and I wazs not able to speak any English, Thinking back , I thought I was stupid. (laugh)”
” When I first called a Japanese restaurant ( Zuma) I thought I would be able to speak to someone in Japanese. It turned out the people I spoke to were foreigners working in the restaurant. It was by chance, that I was able to speak to the woman who was sake sommelier in Japanese. That telephone call paved the way for my employment in Zuma . From then onwards , I studied English conversation for one year in Japan, and I was officially employed at age 23 . I decided to work at the Dubai branch. ”
Encounter with Sake of Nagaoka
At the age of 21, Hamada had decided to be a representative from Japan who would promote sake to overseas. His determination and action to achieve his goal was admirable.. I would like to ask Hamada to continue his story after going to Dubai
――When you went to Dubai how did you get connected to Nagaoka sake ?
“When I started working for Zuma, I was a bartender, But I was was young it was not easy to get the trust from a foreign customer even if was talking about sake. It was same when I was in Japan. It was frustrating .So I made a decision to go back to Japan to learn more about sake during my vacation . While in Japan I would visit a brewery to study. The staff from Dubai were surprised . They thought I must have like sake a lot to sacrifice my money and vacation for it.”
Once a friend brought along a woman to our restaurant . She was in Dubai for holiday . We had dinner together and found out that she was from Niigata . These words came to my mind ‘ Oh, I want to go. ‘ I had never been to a brewery in Niigata yet. Then, she told me that her father could be my guide if I want to visit a brewery in Nagaoka as her father was active in promoting local sake there . Speaking of Nagaoka, Asahi Shuzo’s ‘ Kubota ‘ is also very popular in overseas . I visited Nagaoka in May 2015. It was really a coincidence.
“I actually had intention to visit Asahi brewery but her father took me to visit other breweries. Incidentally , I fell in love with sake from Hasegawa when I had my first taste . I decided then I wanted to bring this aske to Dubai “.
―Does it take two years to realize your dream to Nagaoka ?
“I wanted to take it to the local area (Dubai) at once, but there were a lot of issues that must be overcome in the export of alcohol. One of the challenges was that there were no companies that could carry them directly from Japan to Dubai. If you are going through another country, you will have to take too much time and worry about the preservation of alcohol. Finally, the Japanese sake was exported as the first sake that the company handled, and it was able to handle sake with the export company of the food material Japan for the Middle East which was indebted. It is time to reach Dubai by sea.”
“If I want to promote sake all over the world … I will hand-picked the sake to promote to the world “.
“Last year I was presented a bottle sake from KOSHIMEIJO brewery . I was impressed by the taste and quality of the sake . This triggered me to go on a tour of sake breweries ( Kurami study) . I was surprised the sake I was presented was from Nagaoka . So I will be visiting Nagaoka again.”
Hamada told me that he was glad to have relationship with Nagaoka and talked about the charm of the sake of Nagaoka
“A person goes to the sake”. The sake of Nagaoka is soft and tender. And the punch of the taste is gentle. I feel the love of the brewery.”
“Wish to promote Sake to consumers all over the world.” Toward the bigger dreams
Hamada said , “At last I am able to promote my favorite sake in my restaurant and I am feeling very gratified . Though the current sake menu has sake divided into
JUNMAI-Shu, GINJO-Shu, DAIGINJO-Shu. It would be interesting to have a menu that divided sake according to the districts like sake of Kochi or sake of Nagaoka . I also want to bring in a sense of season in the sake menu . For example , I would like to introduce sake based on theme like the beginning of spring. I have so many ideas on what I want to do to promote sake . I am overwhelmed with enthusiasm to introduce the taste of sake to the world.”
“In ZUMA, I may want to do a sake seminar for our staff . In this way when the people I have taught leave our restaurant they can promote sake to the countries they go to . Co-workers of former ZUMA have moved to France , Norway or other parts of the world. One of them sent me an e-mail and told me , “Today, I explained the difference between DAIGINJO-Shu and HONJOZO-Shu.”
I was so happy to hear that. He has become an ambassador of the Sake “
Hamada is very happy with what he has done and his dream is getting bigger
“I want to venture into antenna shop an urban store selling remote rural products and sake in the near future . I want to introduce sake not only to Japanese restaurants but also Italian restaurants . I want to be the prime mover for this new initiative .”
As Dubai International Airport has replaced Singapore as the world’s largest transit point (hub), he would like to be the hub to spread sake to the world. Hamada told me with such a great hope
The sale of Sake is booming abroad. Hamada will persevere to strive in a scorching Dubai as a ‘representative of Japanese culture’ that will not be a novelty or not just a novelty or transient fad instead it will be properly rooted in the culinary culture of the world.
Text & Photos : Chiharu Kawauchi / Translated by 8TRIPS