WABI 和美 A Taste of Japan Trade day Friday 7 July 2017

This was another rather fortuitous event. After I decided to go to the International Wine Challenge (IWC) sake trophy winners tasting at the Japanese Embassy in London, I followed IWC on Twitter... and they were promoting WABI! As it turned out, I had booked to fly back to Zurich on Friday evening, so I had time to attend the trade day on Friday. I applied and seemed to get a positive response, but hadn't received anything by the time I left for the UK so I got in touch with WABI's team and they kindly resent the ticket to my hotel in London and I got it at the beginning of the week. 

Held in a Royal Horticultural Society hall close to Victoria Station, there was already a respectable queue forming by the time I arrived at what should have been the start time. (I'll remember that, turn up early for the next one...) The staff kept the lines moving and I had a chance to thank the woman who had sorted out my tickets in person. I collected my badge, dropped off my case at the cloakroom, and went inside to pick up brochure, free tasting glass and wrist band for Kenichi Ohashi's tasting session! I was really excited about the latter as I've come across him before and he's also the author of the foreword for the WSET textbook.

The rectangular hall had the glass collection/workshop area just inside the door on the right, then the right-hand wall was lined with small booths. There was a JNTO "networking zone" in the far corner, more larger booths at the back and down the left hand wall, and an IWC tasting area in the middle. I went in without much of a plan and ended up spending all my time just going up the right hand side of the hall!

First was Nihon Shurui Hanbai Co., Ltd., who had a selection of unusual beers (including rice and wasabi) and Daina sake from the Kikunosato brewery. I got talking to the woman behind the desk, who had the WSET Level 3 Award in Sake textbook out on the desk! When I told her I was a translator, she joked about being a "mickey mouse" interpreter but as I generally don't interpret at all I'm still impressed. 

There was a familiar face at the next stand - the Dewazakura brewery! They had brought their wonderful sparkling sake, Tobiroku, winner of the 2017 IWC trophy. Bubbling softly and wonderfully flavourful, it was far too easy to drink for something that was 15%. I thought it might go well as a summer party aperitif or in a cocktail, and Shotaro Nakano (pictured left) said they often recommend it for barbecues. I'm hoping to visit them in Japan later this year.

Their neighbour was Tonoike Shuzoten, based in the beautiful town of Mashiko - famous for another interest of mine, pottery. Company president Shigeki Tonoike is also the chairman of the Mashiko Town Tourist Association and was a great spokesman! It's also on my list to visit. 

As an aside, while looking through the brewery sites I realise how many of them have sidelines in cosmetics made from sake lees. I've seen reservatrol-based products in Jerez, Spain before, and there is a (tenuous!) connection to anti-ageing there, but not sure about sake lees. Making a note for future research.

Next was another familiar face from the IWC event at the Japanese embassy, Iimori Naoki of Fukuchiyo Shuzo Co., Ltd. based in Saga Prefecture in Kyushu, with his sake Nabeshima

His neighbour was yet another IWC trophy winner, this time Kan Otsuka of Nabedana, Inc., a brewery located not far from Tokyo in the green garden belt of Chiba, close to Narita airport.

Yet another embassy attendee was next door, this time Jun Ito of Ito Shuzou Co., Ltd., who make the wonderful Uzume - I managed to get some good shots of the gorgeous labels this time!

The following stand was the Japan Prestige Sake Association, represented by Masamitsu Takatsu. He was serving Ichinokura's sparkling sake Suzune and Tsukasabotan's delicious yuzu sake Yama Yuzu Shibori. (I admit it, I'm all over anything with unusual Japanese citrus fruit.)

Katsumi Tanaka of Daishinsyu Breweries Inc. was at the next stand, offering not only his sake but also a menu of tasty bites developed by Yamao to complement them. 

Interestingly, one comment I've heard from a few people is that the Sake Service Institute (SSI) sake course spends a lot more time on food pairing, which is only given cursory treatment in the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust (WSET) course. So it was interesting to see the food pairing here, and it was the only stand that I visited that was offering it. Mind you, that could have been a question of the additional logistics of providing matched food over and above bringing sake from Japan.

The "Tsumami menu":

  • Lily root, prawn and pork shumai dumpling
  • Fresh crab, apricot, pea and pomegranate salad with yuzu dressing
  • Avocado roll with sansho and yama-wasabi (from Hokkaido)

Mikihito Ibaraki of Ibaraki Shuzo had brought his sake Rairaku, and in a format I'd never seen before - an iced keg of unpasteurised sake with a beer-style tap, which kept the sake safely isolated from the air. It was wonderfully fresh and chilled!

Uzume had a strong contender for labels in the gorgeous woodblock print-style images of cranes on bottles of Konotori, from the Tajime General Partnership which also brews Chikuzen sake. President Hirotaka Tajime was on hand to serve both types, and he later told me about Sake Seven, a group of small breweries who have partnered with a logistics company to make it easier to export.

One of the last stands I visited on the right hand side of the hall had one of my favourite sakes! The Tanaka Saketen stand had the amazing, punchy Jabara sake, flavoured with yet another Japanese citrus fruit you've probably never heard of. I had a great chat with Shuji Furui of Yoshimura-Hideo Shoten Co., Ltd. about the availability of sake in Europe, particularly Switzerland. 

The final stand I visited was Maruki - apparently "Marquis" - Winery, based in the traditional Japanese wine region of Koshu. Yes, there is a small but definite tradition of wine in Japan! Their rose was incredible, tasting just like strawberries.

The "networking zone" was mostly Japanese officials talking amongst themselves, among the posters and mounds of leaflets.

At the back of the hall, Bibendum had a wide range of sake on offer, including Richie Hawtin's Enter Sake brand. And Natsuki Kikuya was there!

Cellar Trends next door had mostly Japanese whiskey but also one rum from Shikoku, Ryoma, which my brother and his other half bought after being disappointed with the Okinawan rum available at Japan Centre.

The one thing I was most looking forward to was a chance to hear and maybe even meet Kenichi Ohashi MW (Master of Wine) - I'd come across him before and credit him with my becoming interested in sake! His tasting session was scheduled for 3:00 pm, which should have allowed me time to attend and try to have a word afterwards before running for the airport... unfortunately the event running before his, the Hyogo Prefecture tasting, ran over, and then Kenichi ran over as well, so I actually had to leave just as he finished his presentation and was starting the tasting. At least I got to hear him speak live.

And that was it for me! I scurried out of the tasting as quietly as I could, grabbed my case and speed-walked to Victoria to get the train to Gatwick. I didn't see half of what was there, the sushi areas, IWC discovery tasting, Choya, Hyogo Prefecture, Clearspring, Japan Airlines (JAL), Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), Japan Centre, Aizu Homare, Kamoizumi, Kayashima/Nishinoseki, Marussia/Akashi-Tai, Sake Experience Japan, Urakasumi/Saura or The Kyoto Distillery.

There are currently plans to run the event again next year, and if so I'll have to give myself more time and go to the trade day plus one of the public sessions. But it was another wonderful opportunity to meet and talk to brewers and see Kenichi Ohashi live! Looking forward to WABI 2018.

IWC Trophy winning sake tasting at Japanese Embassy London July 2017

This was a classic case of a good deed coming back to reward you in expected ways. I gave my brother a ticket to a Sake Service Institute (SSI) tasting for his birthday last year, as a result of which he was put on a mailing list advertising this event. He forwarded the email to me and I asked to attend even through I hadn't been on the original list, and the Japanese Embassy kindly allowed me to come along and take photos.

I arrived early at 5:30 pm on Wednesday 5 July 2017 to go through security and attend a press briefing (and spent the rest of the evening explaining that I'm not a reporter) before being ushered upstairs to the embassy reception rooms where the hosts and International Wine Challenge sake category trophy winners were waiting to give their presentations before the tasting.

We were addressed by Hiroshige Seko, Japanese Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry, Andrew Reed of the International Wine Challenge, Rie Yoshitake, Sake Samurai, and Chris Ashton of the International Wine Challenge.

Minister Seko commented that sake exports were up by 10%, and that over 1,200 sakes from 300 brewers had been tasted in Hyogo in the run up to the IWC awards. He referred to London as the vanguard of sake in Europe.

Andrew Reed of the IWC reminded everyone that the grand prize for the sake category would be announced at their gala dinner the following evening, and also offered free tickets to the WABI Japanese food and drink event to all attendees. (I went to the trade day on Friday 7 July 2017, which I'll write up soon.)

Rie Yoshitake introduced the Sake Samurai Association, founded in 2006 with the aim of protecting sake culture and promoting sake internationally. 

The brewers and their trophies were:

  • Seitoku Meijo Co., Ltd. with Seitoku Bessen (Futsushu Trophy and Great Value Trophy) and Seitoku Ginjo
  • Ichinokura Co., Ltd. with Ichinokura Muroka Honjozo Amaguchi [non-fined honjozo sweet] (Honjozo Trophy and Great Value Trophy) and Ichinokura Madena (Miyakgi Koshu Trophy)
  • Nanbu Bijin Co., Ltd. with Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai (Junmai Trophy) and Nanbu Bijin Honjozo (IWC 2016 Honjozo Trophy and IWC 2017 Commended)
  • Homare Sake Brewery Co., Ltd. with Junmai Ginjo Karahashi Yamadanishiki (Junmai Ginjo Trophy) and Aizu Homare Junmai Daiginjo (IWC 2015 Champion Sake and IWC 2017 Silver)
  • Horie Brewing Co., Ltd. with Kinsuzume (Junmai Daiginjo Trophy) and Kinsuzume Hisho (IWC 2016 Gold and IWC 2017 Silver)
  • Doishuzojo Co., Ltd. with Kaiun Ginjo Yamadanishiki (Ginjo Trophy) and Kaiun Junmai Ginjo Yamadanishiki (IWC 2017 Siver)
  • Goto Shuzoten Limited Partnership with Benten Gokujyo Daiginjo Genshu Yamadanishiki (Daiginjo Trophy) and Benten Junmai Daiginjo Genshu Kame-no-O (IWC 2017 Silver)
  • Nishiuchi Shuzo with Tanzan Kijyoushu Ruijyoushu (Koshu Trophy) and Tanzan Kijyoshu (IWC 2017 Silver)
  • Dewazakura Sake Brewery Co., Ltd. with Tobiroku (Sparkling Trophy) and Ichiro (IWC 2008 Champion Sake and IWC 2017 Silver)
  • Nabedana, Inc. with Fudoh Keikai Karakuchi (Chiba Futsushu Trophy and Great Value Trophy) and Fudoh Junmai Daiginjo (IWC 2017 Commended)
  • Endo Brewery Co., Ltd. with Keiryu Kuragoki (Nagano Futsushu Trophy and Great Value Trophy) Naotora Junmai Ginjo
  • Ito Shuzou Co., Ltd. with Uzume Houjou no Mai Tokubetsu Junmai (Mie Junmai Trophy) and Uzume Junmai Daiginjo Hizoushu
  • Fukuchiyo Shuzou Co., Ltd. with Nabeshima Tokubetsu Honjozo (Saga Honjozo Trophy) and Nabeshima Daiginjo (IWC 2011 Champion Sake and IWC 2017 Bronze)
  • Kamoizumi Shuzo Co., Ltd. with Junmaiginjo Shusen and Nigori Ginjo "Summer Snow"
  • Kobe Shu-Shin-Kan Breweries, Ltd. with Fukuju Daiginjo and Fukuju Junmai Ginjo
  • Saura Co., Ltd. with Urakasumi Junmai Daiginjo "M" (IWC 2017 Gold) and Junmai Ginjo Urakasumi Zen
  • Sake of Hyogo (regional association) with Honda Shoten Co., Ltd. Tatsuriki Junmaiginjo Dragon Black and Tatsuriki Junmaiginjo Yamadanishiki, Yasufuku Matashirou Co., Ltd. Daikoku Masamune Junmai Ginjo Hyogo Nishiki, and Shimomura Shuzoten Co., Ltd. Okuharima Junmai Ginjo Hyogo Nishiki

Sake of Hyogo, a regional association dedicated to promoting (evidently) sake from Hyogo, also gave a presentation. As well as introducing a new variety of sake rice, Hyogo Nishiki, the representative (whose name I didn't catch) spoke extensively on the Hyogo "terroir".

This was a bit mystifying, as Natsuki Kikuya (the tutor on the WSET Level 3 Award in Sake course) had been clear that there was virtually no "terroir" from the rice variety used to produce a sake. Other factors in the production process, such as yeast and starter method (kimoto, yamahai, sokujo) could be detected in the final aroma and taste, but not the rice. This particularly makes sense for daiginjo and ginjo styles, where the rice is intensively milled before brewing starts, leaving only the starch core. It could be that the "terroir" here was the traditional, distinctive Hyogo brewing practices that produce a specific type of sake, but as both the WSET course and John Gauntner point out (in Regionality in sake), there is no causal connection to the region where the raw materials were produced in the same way as there is with grapes, coffee beans or cacao. Regional differences in the mineral content of local water do have an effect, but rice is frequently shipped to different regions for sake production. The same area - even the same brewery - can produce completely different styles from the same raw materials. So I wasn't entirely sure what this "terroir" was about.

One very nice touch was that the IWC judges had been invited to transplant rice seedlings during their visit to Hyogo and the Sake of Hyogo team had brought sake made from that rice. 

Although the event ran from 6:00  to 8:15 pm, after the greetings and presentations I didn't have time to get around both rooms and talk to everyone, let alone try all the sake. My tasting skills aren't developed enough to get much out of such a hit-and-run approach to so many sakes. In the end I made it all the way around one room and half way around the other, with a quick dash right as time was being called to sample the Nara Tanzan kijoshu ruijoshu, a style I hadn't tried before. 

It was a fantastic opportunity to meet so many brewers and taste so many sakes, and I'm very grateful to both the IWC and the Embassy of Japan in the UK for hosting the event along with Sake Samurai. It was a wonderful evening where I had a chance to briefly catch up with a few people, like Oliver Hilton-Johnson of Tengu Sake and Tom and Lucy from Kanpai London (a sake microbrewery in Peckham). Natsuki Kikuya was there as well, although I didn't realise it at the time! 

The event was very crowded - I arrived early and didn't notice how many other people were there until one speaker referred to "people standing at the back" and I realised how full the room had become. There were small crowds of people around each table and you had to patiently wait to make your way to the front to taste the sake, let alone speak to the brewers or their representatives. This wasn't great for me, as I wanted to talk to the people behind the stands and take my time tasting the sake. As it was, there was no room to put the event booklet down and take notes (even though there was space for your own notes in the booklet, underneath the official tasting notes) or to jot down any interesting observations or ideas to follow up on. But it wasn't my event and maybe the aim was to introduce as many people as possible to as much sake as possible in two hours or less.

Based on my brother's experience at the event two years ago we started in the second room. Previous events had been held after the IWC awards dinner, when the Champion trophy had already been awarded, so there had been an issue with everyone heading for the Champion sake first and the brewer running out. However, as this event was held the night before the final IWC award for the Champion in the sake category there was no such pressure. 

The first table we went to was Nabedana, where the interpreter offered us their excellent Fudoh Keikai Karakuchi. She introduced it as a "lower" type, probably referring to the sake milling ratio pyramid which lists the different recognised styles (tokutei meisho) in order of how much of the rice is milled away - daiginjo/junmai daiginjo are at the top with their minimum milling ratio of 50%, followed by ginjo/junmai ginjo with 60% of the grain remaining, and honjozo/tokubetsu honjozo/junmai/tokubetsu junmai at at the base with a minimum milling ratio of 70%. 

This pyramid gives a certain amount of information about the style of the sake, as daiginjo and ginjo tend to be light and floral, and honjozo and non-ginjo junmai are generally more full-bodied and savoury. (Image on the right taken from Tengu Sake.) However, not only is this a rule with plenty of exceptions, there's an unfortunate tendency to assume that the top of the pyramid means higher quality, when this isn't necessarily the case. (Mathieu and Emi at MAME, where I do my coffee tasting, are very keen to avoid this automatic ranking that the mind performs in the absence of other information, diligently hiding packaging and identifying coffees only by three-digit numbers to avoid preconceptions. It's an interesting case of "system 1" as described in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.)

I much prefer the SSI's "four types", based on two axes of aroma and flavour, which gives similar information about style without suggesting any innate level of quality. It can also accommodate styles that don't fit in the pyramid, such as new, unpasteurised sake (nama) and aged sake (koshu). I haven't been able to find an English version of their chart, but the one on the right from the Japanese Sake and Shochu Makers Association has a great summary. (Click on the images to go to the pages they're originally used on.)

Sake milling rate pyramid (Tengu Sake)

"Four types" diagram, which I think comes from the SSI (image from Japanese Sake)

I met Oliver Hilton-Johnson again at WABI and suggested a short introduction to sake might be useful for the next event - I don't know what the target audience was and therefore if everyone would be familiar with sake terminology. Not all the brewers tried to explain the styles they had brought for tasting, and Nabedana may have focused on explaining the futsushu style as that was the IWC trophy they won, but if some attendees didn't know much about sake then a bit of information might have been useful. There was no explanation of styles in the event booklet.

I would have loved to have more time, and more space. This was more like my idea of speed dating than a tasting. At least I was able to greet most of the brewers and exchange cards and follow up with them later, and I've put a few more pins in my map of places I want to go in Japan. (It's getting to the point where a month won't be long enough to go everywhere.)

A lot of my photos didn't come out well. I'm not a professional photographer and couldn't get good shots in the indoor lighting (let alone when the brewers were standing in the projected images during their presentations) but I'll post the few good ones.

Favourite moments:

  • Sitting in the audience waiting for the presentations to start and seeing all the brewers' happi jackets emblazoned with the brewery and sake names. The Dewazakura ones really stood out in their light blue.
  • Listening to the brewers introducing their sake, most with the aid of an interpreter. An early presenter used the English word "Wow!" in his greeting, and that became the meme for the evening with lots of following presenters incorporating it into their speeches! So much passion and enthusiasm.
  • The warm welcome at each stand, and starting off with the delicious Fudoh futsushu from Nabedana. I'm not really a top-of-the-pyramid person.
  • Spotting the My Neighbour Totoro tie worn by the Kamoizumi brewer and founder of the Sake Samurai Association, Maegaki Kazuhiro.
  • The care and attention of Iimori Naoki, the Nabeshima brewer, who washed our glasses out after we tasted the cloudy nigori sake at the previous table.
  • The beautiful retro styling and unusual Western-style drawings on the Ito Shuzo Uzume labels.
  • Laughing with the two ladies on the Homare stand as I identified myself as a "ginjo girl" and my brother's partner as "daiginjo girl".
  • Tasting the extraordinary Ichinokura Madena aged sake.
  • Tasting the equally wonderful Nara Tanzan kijoushu ruijoshu, which I had never encountered before.

I'm aware that there's a lot of specialist terminology in here, and I need to work on producing a glossary! That will be next on the list after I post photos from the embassy and write up the trade day at WABI from Friday 7 July 2017.

One coffee six ways: coffee tasting at MAME April 2017

April was busy for MAME, with not one but two tastings! (They held a fruit tasting earlier in the month.)

This tasting was much more focused than the ones I'd been to previously. One coffee variety from one farm, processed three ways and sent to four roasters. Although Emi and Mathieu had ordered from three of the four, one shipment didn't arrive in time so they held the tasting with three coffees each from two roasters, Australians Proud Mary and and UK-based Assembly (who list details of the pack on their site, although it's sold out).  The other roasters were New Zealanders Flight Coffee and Australian neighbours Grace & Taylor (who have some great details of the farm producing the coffee for the sold-out pack). 

The first point of interest was the variety, Wush Wush. This heirloom variety fell out of favour as it has low yields and isn't disease-resistant. Originally from Ethiopia, it was grown on a family farm in Columbia as part of a project to revisit old varieties to see if they would make good speciality coffee. The entire crop came to just 300 kg, which was processed three ways - washed, honey and natural - and sold to four roasters. (Here are some good explanations of washed, honey and natural processing from Perfect Daily Grind -Washed, Natural, Honey: Coffee Processing 101, and from The Roasters Pack - What is: Processing?)

Mathieu and Emi followed their usual procedure of giving the coffees three-digit numbers to disguise their identity and stop people unconsciously ranking them based on external factors, but they did tell us which process was used (with one column of natural, one honey and one washed, and the coffees from each roaster in a row). It would have been helpful to label the columns in writing as well, as it easy to lose track of which was which (honey was in the middle, with washed and natural on each side).

We first smelled the ground coffee, and Mathieu asked us what we noticed about it. I was struck by the intensity of the aroma, which was strongest for the natural process, less so for the honey and washed but still very prominent. 

  • 332 (natural): earthy, cocoa, spice, intense aroma. 
  • 876 (natural): more muted than 332, more chocolately. 
  • 321 (honey): biscuit, oat, cocoa, medium intensity aroma. 
  • 845 (honey): fruity, cocoa, medium intensity aroma. 
  • 301 (washed): cocoa, biscuit, spice. 
  • 843 (washed): acidic notes, cocoa, spice.

The coffees were then brewed, and Mathieu commented on the good crust that developed - a sign of freshly roasted coffee. The packs had shipped straight after roasting, so they were still fresh even after arriving from Australia. He also complained that the water was too soft - he had noticed before that the Zürich water went soft for a day or two after it snowed, and it had snowed twice that week! His measurements put the water at 85 ppm hardness and pH 6.5.

  • 332 (natural): sharp acidity, citrus notes.
  • 876 (natural): not as acidic as 332 but acidity still overpowered other elements.
  • 321 (honey): smoother and more balanced, not as acidic, subtle notes of cocoa and roasting/burning but pleasant.
  • 845 (honey): more acidic than 321, bitter, not as complex.
  • 301 (washed): less intense, less acidic, hint of peach.
  • 843 (washed): more balanced, flavours more blended, strong but a bit murky.

I tasted the coffees brewed by process without taking notes, trying to taste the differences, then tasted again going around in a circle and working through one roaster washed - honey - natural and the other washed - honey - natural. Although the coffees were prepared as per the standardised SCAA/SCAE protocols, within narrow windows for time, temperature, etc. to enable comparison, my first impression was how intense the flavours were compared to other coffees I'd tasted. As with the aroma, the flavour was strongest in the natural processed coffees, slightly less so in the honey and least so in the washed, but still strong overall. Although I've discovered I'm a fan of natural process, I found that the washed let some of the flavours come through more clearly.

The most curious thing for me in this tasting was that a lot of my notes were elements that I found to be negative in other tastings - acidity, roasted/burned notes - but in the Wush Wush they were positives. It was everything I didn't like in coffee, but in a coffee I liked. There was plenty of coffee to go round, with two glasses of each of the six variations, and not too many people, so I could go back and taste again and compare across processes and roasters, making it a focused, and for a beginner like me, really informative tasting. 

After we'd had plenty of time to taste the coffees, Mathieu revealed the roasters: 843/845/876 were from Proud Mary and 301/321/332 were from Assembly. He asked us again what we felt was most distinctive and everyone said the process - except Mathieu and André, another professional taster, who said they thought the roaster made the biggest difference. (Like with the fruit tasting, seeing the difference in opinion between the untrained attendees and the trained baristas was very interesting.) When talking about recognising aromas, André mentioned the Le Nez du Café sensory training kit, but Mathieu had a different set from a Korean manufacturer, Scentone.

Although I though that the Wush Wush coffee was excellent, particularly in how it combined strength with a positive spin on elements I usually don't enjoy, the professionals weren't impressed. They both noted that the variety was sweet and not acidic, and relatively delicate, but they didn't rate it for mouthfeel or complexity. Their conclusion was that it was't distinctive and therefore was no good for competition. 

When the tasting was over, Mathieu decided to use up the packets by playing around with the brewing, such as over-extracting and serving with milk. The attendees stood around chatting, particularly asking questions about processing. Mathieu and André talked about honey processing and how it generated lactic acid, smoothness and a round mouthfeel, to the point where it was described in one competition as like banana milk. They also agreed the coffee had notes of lemongrass (which was accused of being a glass of plain water in the fruit tasting). André talked about how he was unusual in liking bright acidity in coffee, most people prefer less acidity. They also discussed the roasts, speculating that Proud Mary had put more energy in at the beginning, producing more complexity, and Assembly had started off with less energy to allow longer development of the flavours with a more "bakey" result. (André's technical term for the dry, roasted, peanut-like taste/sensation at the back of the mouth.)

Wush Wush is originally from Ethiopia and like Gesha keeps its characteristics even when transplanted to a new environment. Mathieu wondered if the aim of growing it in Columbia was to add some of the region's characteristic citrus profile, but if so he wasn't sure they got it. 

Mathieu served the Proud Mary coffees as espresso:

  • Washed: incredible - very aggressive aroma of lemongrass, acidic and a bit dry at the end. 
  • Honey: very strong, acidic but without as much lemongrass, richer, more body, murky and creamy
  • Natural: still strong and acidic, better balance, rich with a positive burned note (Mathieu still detected lemongrass, André found stone fruit, strawberry, plum, lemon)

André commented that it was hard to get espresso right the first time - it should be coarse but the processing already made it so, and this was Mathieu's first attempt whereas a barista would normally spend 15 minutes or so to find the right "recipe" for a particular coffee.

Next up was the Proud Mary natural process as a cappucino, which Mathieu pronounced to be "sweet as hell" and a "sweet bomb". I really couldn't taste much with all the milk, but maybe it was the lack of other elements that made it blend with the milk for me.

Emi then prepared the three Proud Mary variations as filter:

  • Washed: thinnest of the three, acidity more noticeable, clean taste (Mathieu found it to be the most floral)
  • Honey: less one-note, a bit more complex
  • Natural: more balanced and rounded, acidity less pronounced

In another interesting exchange, André approached Emi as she was preparing the filter coffee to say that her technique could be a bit more even - Mathieu interrupted to say that his filter brewing technique was completely consistent, but resulted in a flat, uninteresting coffee. Emi's wasn't consistent, sometimes a little under-extracted, sometimes a little over-extracted, but brought out the characteristics of the coffee and produced a better result. (Very wabi-sabi.) 

I asked André about Japanese involvement in the world of coffee. He said that the Japanese were at a very high level, and had won many recent competitions. He put this down in part to them taking time off to train - up to six months - whereas most people like himself, Mathieu and Emi had to practice in the evenings and weekends around a full time job.

Although I didn't remember taking as many notes as I did, I think the smaller number of closely-related coffees (and fewer people, it was the May bank holiday weekend) made this the best tasting session I've been to yet. Emi and Mathieu are planning another one in a few weeks, but depending on when they hold it I may be in Cardiff for the Institute of Translation and Interpreting conference, but I'm also there for the Cardiff Coffee Festival!

Fruit tasting at MAME

We weren't organised enough to go anywhere over Easter, so we stayed local, enjoying some long walks with friends and doing a few things around the house. Plus I went to a tasting at MAME and we had a chocolate tasting at home!

Although I'd been to coffee cupping events at MAME before, this time they did something slightly different - a fruit tasting! Emi and Mathieu prepared 29 fruits and herbs and diluted them so that we could experience the flavours that they look for when tasting coffee. They mixed 10 ml of fruit or herb with 150 ml of water, except for strong citrus fruit like lemon and lime where they only added 4 ml of fruit to 150 ml of water (and even that was too strong). They then labelled each glass with a three-digit code and we used spoons to taste each one, writing our notes down on a sheet of paper. Mathieu demonstrating the tasting "slurp" and emphasised that if your mother wouldn't be embarrassed, you're not doing it right!

Mathieu and Emi also use the three-digit codes for coffee cuppings to disguise the identity of the coffee and stop people trying to "rank" coffees by numbers or letters instead of concentrating on the taste. (It's something people unconsciously do to try to evaluate before they have other information. They also hide the packaging as it has a powerful influence on whether people think they like a coffee or not.) In this case as there were so many glasses, some of the numbers were similar and they weren't in order on the sheet, it was hard to find the right row to write comments in - one number was duplicated on the sheet and one was missing, plus one of numbers was duplicated on the glasses, so there was some confusion. I've said to them before that they offer too much choice and I think they were too generous here too! Most of the fruit and herbs were on the table, although some had to be brought out from the kitchen afterwards.

Mathieu did best with only eight wrong. I was in last place with only eight right - I only managed some of the citrus fruit, the herbs, black and green tea, and banana. Other fruit that I was certain I would recognise, like green and red apples and grapes, berries and dried fruit, were so different in dilution that I mistook them for something else. (There were accusations that one of the glasses had plain water, but it turned out to be a dilution of lemongrass.) 

It goes some way towards explaining why as an amateur I pick up different tastes in food and drink - I'm looking for a layman's idea of a certain taste, not the diluted version that a professional taster looks for. But it also raises the question of education and giving the right information to the right audience. As an amateur I don't pick up the same flavours, so is it useful to list them on packets aimed at the general public rather than trained baristas? That's one to add to my list of questions when translating and writing!

Chicago coffee tasting at MAME

Mathieu and Emi held a special tasting session at MAME on Sunday 9 April to share some coffees that Mathieu had brought back from a trip to the US, specifically to Chicago.

A friend insisted that he visit famous roasters Intelligentsia, and he ended up spending four enjoyable hours at their roastery. He also visited Ellipsis (serving coffee roasted by Counter Culture), IpsentoHalfwit and Gaslight, returning to Zürich with 15 different coffees to taste. 

There was some discussion of where people are from affecting their idea of what certain fruit flavours are like - Europeans who only get imported tropical fruit (such as papaya) may not have the same idea of what they taste like as people who grew up enjoying them where they are grown. The differences can be even more local, as Mathieu (who is French) admitted he had no idea what golden syrup was. He and Emi had obviously been thinking about this for a while, as they held their fruit tasting session the following week!

There were copies of the usual SCAA coffee tasting wheel, and also an alternative one from The New Black. Mathieu pointed out that the SCAA is an international standard, based on calibrated and reproducible definitions of various aromas and flavours (as set out in the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon). For this tasting, he suggested that we concentrate on identifying one sweet, one fruity and one acidic flavour as we went through the coffees. 

We started off by smelling the dry ground coffees and making short notes on what we could smell - it's always interesting to compare them to flavours in the brewed coffee and to see if the ones you liked dry are also the ones you like when brewed. I was happy to find that I was picking up more in the way of aromas than I did at the last tasting, although whether that was practice, better vocabulary, or more variety in this group of coffees I don't know.

Mathieu and Emi then brewed the coffees and brought our attention to the crust that formed on top of the glasses - a thick brown crust indicates a freshly roasted coffee, whereas a think yellow crust is characteristic of an older coffee. As usual, I found that the coffee aromas I liked in the dry coffee didn't tell me anything about what coffees I liked when brewed. I don't know if there were too many or if I wasn't on form that day, but I wasn't able to pick a favourite out of all of them. We had fun comparing our own notes to the tasting notes on the packs (not all packs had them) and I found it hard to match my impressions up with the hype, except for one case where the advertised "praline" went well with my notes of "caramel and chocolate".

There were enough glasses and not so many people this time, so Mathieu and Emi brewed another round and we tasted again with knowledge of the roasters, varieties, processing, tasting notes and packaging. Mathieu also pointed out up-and-coming countries for coffee growing, including places like Rwanda, Congo and Burundi. Rwanda is close to Kenya and he thought their flavour profiles were similar. 

Coffees tasted:

Chicago's finest ready to taste

After the session, I enjoyed the Intelligentsia Anjilanaka as a latte along with a chocolate chip cookie.

Sake tasting at Shinwazen, March 2017

The very generous Markus Baumgartner is one half of the couple who run the charming Japanese food, drink and gift shop Shinwazen near Zürich Hauptbahnhof. He and his wife Yuko are retired, but active in the Slow Food movement and as ambassadors for Japanese food, drink and traditional crafts. They know the makers of most of the products in their shop personally and focus on stocking a small number of high-quality items including ceramics, lacquerware, knives and Hario glassware.

Markus kindly organised a tasting ahead of my WSET sake course (see review of the WSET Level 3 Award in Sake), and I managed to gather a small group of sake enthusiasts at short notice. We met at the shop on the afternoon of 15 March 2017 to sample an incredible 14 sakes, working our way up from the lowest level of the special designations (tokutei meishō), starting with honjōzō and junmai, and working up through the ginjo level to the daiginjo sakes.

The Rojō Hana Ari Kurobotan and Aoi junmai daiginjo were clear winners, with several bottles bought at the end of the tasting. However, the Hana Fubuki junmai ginjo had the most mixed reactions, with one person not liking it at all but unable to say why. 

My personal favourites were the Rojō Hana Ari Kurobotan junmai daiginjo and the Kukusui organic junmai ginjo.

Markus Baumgartner at Shinwazen