As you know, I complain all the time about the limited choices for sake in Zurich (I just found another place that stocks small brewery sake!) even compared to Geneva. For a really good choice, I thought I had to go to London... but there's another contender, one that has been in a love affair with all things Japanese for a very long time - Paris. And what better time to go than when the new Kura Master competition is opening up its doors for a post-judging tasting?

We really didn't see or do much of the classic Paris-related tourist things (I used to live there so it doesn't feel all that exotic) and instead spent almost all our time in the Japan town area near Opéra and Pyramides, especially the three branches of the Aki bakery and restaurant/cafe where I had all things yuzu (tea, melon pan, marshmallows...). We really did go there every day, to either the bakery, restaurant or café. The donburi at the café were enormous and almost too much to finish. The Hokkaidō restaurant was also fantastic, with a super tasty buta shōga-yaki (pork cooked in ginger). Will definitely be going there again!

Supersize donburi at the Aki cafe

Yuzu tea, yuzu marshmallows and yuzu melon pan, all from the Aki cafe/bakery.

Prawns with shiso sauce on lotus root from the teppan at the Aki restaurant.

We had less luck with sake. We tried to get a few to taste at Isse et Cie. on our last day, but the waitress said they were serving food only until 2:00 pm so we came back then... to find they were closing. We couldn't see any opening times in the window or online that suggested they were closed after lunch, but after having rebooked on an earlier train as our was cancelled due to strikes, we didn't hang around to see when they reopened. One for next time, I was looking forward to trying the 10 year old koshu advertised in the window but who knows if it will still be on the menu.

We also had a great time poking around the Japanese food stores, especially Kioko which had a rice polishing machine! Never thought I would see one outside of Japan, but there you go. Also picked up some kome-kōji (rice with the kōji mold growing on it) to try to make my own amazake. (A test batch of yoghurt is in the steamer oven being kept at constant temperature as I type this. I want to see how long the water reservoir will last without a refill, as I think the amazake will need to stay in overnight.) Both Kioko and the Japanese/Korean K-Mart had a healthy selection of sake, and I picked up one as a gift for a friend who invited us to lunch. (I'll have to follow up with her and see if she tried it.)

Rice polishing machine at Kioko.

My haul: shio-koji, kome-koji, powdered yuzu and goma-shio.

Sake cabinet at K-Mart.

The Kura Master judging, as far as I could make out, took place on the morning of Monday 28 May, with the tasting open to members of the public starting at 4:30 pm. It was held in the function rooms of the Paris Aquarium, which is just across the Pont d'Iena from the Eiffel Tower. We were among the first to arrive and after joking with the security guard about getting drunk enough to jump in the shark tank (he declined any responsibility for fishing us out) we headed in.

We had our tickets checked by a trio of fearsomely stylish ladies, were issued with wrist bands and ushered inside. There were three tables to the left, one promoting Hokkaido sake, one showcasing a small range of sake, liqueurs, shōchū and sake-kasu products, and one promoting a small range of sake, and we stopped to chat with them before moving on to the tasting. I had never had sake from Hokkaidō before, and when I mentioned that it was the only area of Japan I hadn't been to yet the guys manning the stand whipped out some tourist information in English and said their pick was the island's hot springs. I love me a hot spring, but I'm not sure I'd survive Hokkaidō in January, which is the next time I'm planning to go to Japan. We had some shōchū with a truffle cheese at the middle stand and it was very nice indeed. The French guy at the third stand was enthusiastic but not quite accurate in his description of the different types of sake. (There were lots of conversations with one person trying to educate or impress others with their knowledge of sake, but not everyone really knew the details. There was a comedy moment when one person, after convincing their partner that junmai was the type with alcohol added during brewing, took a step back and saw the sign clearly stating the opposite.)

I was expecting to post a lot of photos from the tasting. I even bought a roaming data package and brought my digital camera. I asked at the front desk if it was okay to take pictures. The answer was yes, of course. As soon as we went in to the main hall, the first things I noticed were big signs saying no photography of the bottle labels and no disclosing the location of the event on social media. I was a bit confused by this, as Kura Master were advertising the tasting themselves on social media so it wasn't exactly a secret location. I checked with one of the staff. She went to check with the front desk. Answer: if they told me it was okay, it was okay, but only for me. People were taking photos everywhere, so I assumed the signs were left over from the judging and went ahead and kept taking photos with my phone. I got David to take a shot of me holding up a bottle from the brewery in the minuscule village in Gifu where I lived when I was on JET... only to be told off by another member of staff. I explained that I'd checked, twice... her answer was that we could take photos of the function room, but not the bottle labels.

It was too late for one photo, as I'd promised Andy (a.k.a. Origin Sake) that I'd find an entry from his brewery, Jūhachi Zakari, and that was already on Instagram. But in keeping with the rules, I'll restrict myself to posting some shots of the venue and not the labels (although I have plenty of photos of those).

The venue just before 6:00 pm.

The venue coming up to 8:00 pm

The tasting was scheduled for a generous four hours, 4:30 pm - 8:30 pm, but most people didn't stay that long - they actually started closing down around the time the second photo was taken. It was probably too long for casual visitors, and as the event was very reasonably priced (EUR 16 per ticket) it was accessible to people who might not have "try 700 sake at once" on their bucket list.

The competition only covers junmai sake, with platinum and gold medals given in three categories: junmai, junmai ginjō/daiginjō and nigori. That was also how they were arranged at the venue. All the non-ginjō junmai sake were crowded on a bar at the back, all the nigori were on a small table tucked behind a pillar, and the ginjō/daiginjō, which made up the vast majority, were piled on long tables in the centre. They were roughly organised by groups of prefectures, but people moved bottles around during the event which made it hard to find anything. Every bottle had a sticker on the neck with the prefecture, name of the brewery and name of the sake in French (albeit mostly transcribed Japanese).

I found myself at a bit of a loss as to how to approach the whole thing, and started off by looking for breweries I knew. I found Jūhachi Zakari from Okayama among the junmai on the bar, and Dewazakura, Sanran and Onna-joshu on the tables for Yamagata, Tochigi and Gifu. I had my tasting notebook with me, but I find it hard to concentrate with a lot of noise and bustle and there was no room to put the notebook down and write, so I decided to let that go. (David later suggested taking photos and recording a voice memo, although that didn't get around the problem of not being allowed to take the photos in the first place.) After that, I wandered from table to table, occasionally chatting to people, eavesdropping and trying any bottles that I liked the labels of.

The celebratory speeches and dinner for the judges was going on in the room downstairs, which we could see and hear from the floor where the tasting was happening, and a few judges were mingling with the tasting crowd at the beginning (they were called down for the dinner during the event). I thought it was a shame there was no welcome from the organisers, or introduction or guidance for the people who had come for the tasting - quite a few people obviously knew a little but others did not, and it would have been a great opportunity to connect with sake lovers and get more engagement for the competition than just letting people drink the entries.

The biggest problem, though, was the air conditioning - or lack of it. The Kura Master site explicitly states that the sake are tasted at 14°C but the room was easily in the low to mid 20s, with coats and jackets being thrown off and people sitting down to rest or going up to the staff for water.

The staff were lovely, mostly young Japanese with fluent French, and one I got talking to said he was training to be a sommelier and planned to stay in Paris. They were always alert for anyone looking for water, or needing their glass washed after tasting nigori. The future sommelier told me that the plan is to hold the event every year, but at different venues. (I suggested one with air conditioning, and he laughed uncomfortably.)

Layout of tables in the function room.

The Eiffel Tower just across the river.

Attendees gathered around one of the ginjo/daiginjo tables.

The evening had a bit of a brutal finish - we started hearing the sound of breaking glass, and realised the staff were pouring the remaining sake down the sink - many of the bottles were still mostly full - and dropping the bottles into recycling bins. The staff started herding us towards the entrance, but we stopped by the stands again and wished them good luck. The group in the middle said their main barrier was finding an importer, but they seemed touched by the good wishes and gave me a half-full bottle of yuzu-shu! There was a surreal moment outside the function room when one the impossibly stylish ladies ran up to me and asked me if I was a judge. (Confused, I replied "no", only to have David elbow me in the ribs and tell me I should have said "yes" and winged it. I'm not good at that kind of thing.) Then we went out... into a thunderstorm a Parisian we got talking to during the event described as "the apocalypse". It showed no signs of slowing down, so we grabbed our tiny umbrella and made a run for the nearest bus stop, jumping over miniature torrential rivers at the kerbs, and were lucky enough to get back to our hotel with just one change and minimal soaking.

Would we go again? Absolutely. I'll just need to have a plan for next time. There's also the Salon du Saké being held 6-8 October in Paris, although there's nothing for 2018 on their site yet.

 


 

Highlights in no particular order:

  • Finding Andy's brewery's sake, Jūhachi Zakari Takaji junmai Omachi
  • Finding sake from Dewazakura and Tonoike/Sanran, breweries we visited last year
  • Finding Onna-joshu, the sake brewed at the tiny village in Gifu where I lived the first time I went to Japan
  • Tasting Mute-Mukan (無手無冠), which was amazing
  • Finding and tasting the sake with a label by legendary manga artist Leiji Matsumoto (covered back in Jan 2018: Fighting spirit) and it was excellent!
  • Trying a super-sweet nigori made from mochi rice
  • Chatting to the staff

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