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Perfect blend

When this Brit first sipped saké in the late 1980s it was the start of a journey that led to him becoming Japan’s first foreign master brewer, refreshing the fortunes of the Kyotango region in the process.

PHILIP HARPER
  • Location: Kyotango, Kyoto Prefecture
  • Hometown: Birmingham, UK
  • Job: Master brewer, Kinoshita Brewery

Arriving in Japan in the late 1980s, Philip Harper’s journey towards his position as Japan’s first and only foreign toji (master brewer) grew from a passion born from his first encounter with saké. Working his way through the ranks, Harper refined his skills in breweries in Ibaraki, Osaka and Nara before being invited to the Kinoshita Brewery in 2007. His decision to take on the master brewer position not only helped save the 177-year-old business but laid the foundations for Kyotango – a remote region on the Sea of Japan – and its saké to become more widely known on the global stage.

“When I joined it was very traditional and our most distant customer was 20 minutes away by car,” says Harper. “My brief was to come up with new ideas.” The brewery’s focus shifted to premium saké; exports commenced and a wave of new products followed. These included the Tamagawa Time Machine range of aged saké, based on an ancient recipe. “Spontaneous fermentation” was also introduced for the first time, utilising the wild yeast growing in the brewery’s historic buildings to trigger the fermentation process and create unique products.

As well as authoring a number of guides to the drink, Harper shares his knowledge through events and workshops. “We always say that our job is to make people happy. It’s such a pleasure to see people drink our saké and smile,” he says.

Through his efforts at the Kinoshita Brewery, Harper hopes to promote the Kyotango region, which not only yields the high-quality rice and spring water used in the production process but also delivers gourmet produce and picturesque coastal scenery. “In Japan, some people seem embarrassed about coming from rural areas but these places are such an amazing resource.”