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.)
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 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.)
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
- Kura Master (French/Japanese)
- Aki bakery (French)
- Kioko Japanese food shop (French/Japanese)
- Issé et Cie. sake shop/restaurant (French)
- Jūhachi Zakari brewery (Japanese)
- Origin Sake site run by Andy at Jūhachi Zakari
- Dewazakura brewery (Japanese)
- Dewazakura brewery (English)
- Tonoike/Sanran brewery (Japanese)
- Tonoike/Sanran brewery (English)
- Iwamura brewery/Onna-joshu (Japanese)
- Salon du Saké (French/English/Japanese)