As my friend and I sidled up to the Fukuoka Kokusai Center on Saturday (May 25th) morning, we both knew we were in for a treat. Basking in the warmth of late spring’s gentle heat was row upon row of patient customers, young and old, families, friends and singletons, all waiting with baited breath for the same event we were, & Sake Fukuoka 2019.
Since their introduction to Kyushu in the 16th century, sake and shochu have served as a rich part of Fukuoka’s culinary culture and as one of the prefecture’s premier sake and shochu events, & Sake has quickly established itself in liquor lovers’ calendars across the region. Set up last year in a collaboration between several local breweries and the prefectural government, the event aims to show the best of Fukuoka’s rich brewery and culinary industries. This year the stakes and the quality have only gotten higher with 56 breweries across the prefecture pairing with 31 of the best of Fukuoka’s gourmet scene to deliver an unforgettable two days. Armed with only the knowledge of this short legacy and a minor self-awareness of how much we didn’t know about sake, we joined the back of the queue.
Stuck in the heaving throng for twenty minutes (another testament to how popular the event actually was), we finally managed to cross the threshold into the center. Upon entering we were given a tasting glass and 20 plastic tokens which we were later to learn was the currency for the event – each food item or drink costing a certain amount of them as outlined in the handy map we were both given. Glasses in hand, we then shuffled into the main hall where lights studding the walls shone down upon the four main sake stalls which dominated the first floor, each serving a mix of sake, amazake (sweet fermented rice wine) and umeshu (plum wine). Ringing these four great booths was the series of food stalls which made up the culinary offerings of the festival. Among their number were some of Fukuoka’s heaviest hitters including Sushi Sakai, Toriden and Ippudo. The prices for food varied quite widely but seeing that Michelin star restaurants feature among their number, you could pick up some real bargains!
What struck us the most about this whole scene was how eminently classy the whole thing was. Being from a rural county in the UK, I was well aware of the uneasy marriage between municipal funds and booze, the last “beer festival” I had been to being set in a cramped village hall fobbing off Heineken as an import craft beer. But today the screaming kids and drunk dads in polo shirts had been replaced by a clear and conscientious sense of order. The drinking and eating spaces were split between the first and second floors, the first floor being a standing space and the second floor being a seating space. Waste bins and water fountains to clean your tasting glass were conveniently placed around the hall, often alongside tables were you could exchange some tokens for a much needed bottle of water. There were of course signs of a good time littered around the place, the odd broken glass or spilled drink, but it was all in good spirits (pardon the pun).
Of course the real highlight of the event were the drinks and I’ll get to those now. Gingerly, dazed a little by the lights, I made my way towards the stand with the largest line behind it, placing my trust in the crowd. After a few minutes wait I was then greeted by an incredibly helpful brewer dressed in a happi (a traditional Japanese short sleeved jacket) and bowtie who recommended a particularly potent concoction with a fairly crisp, dry texture and a very clean finish that cut through the karaage (fried chicken) I had just bought from Toriden.
Drink number two was a glass of goma (sesame) shochu from the second floor shochu bar, a well lit bar several meters long and adorned with a backboard menu of staggering variety (40 kinds of shochu to be exact). Shochu differs from its perhaps more well known counterpart, sake, in a number of ways. While sake, or nihonshu if we are to refer specifically to rice wine as opposed to alcohol as an entity which is called sake (酒), is a fermented beverage made using rice, shochu is distilled and can be made from a variety of different grains and base ingredients including sweet potato, rice and barley. Shochu also differentiates itself from sake by a considerably increased alcohol content, with an average percentage coming somewhere between the 25% ~ 37% mark. Sake on the other hand is more akin to wine, the average sake containing 13% ~ 16% alcohol. Needless to say, it hit me like a truck. While shochu may not be my particular tastes, as someone who dabbles in drink mixing from time to time, I could recognize its quality of craft immediately in its ferocious strength of flavour. That being said, I did find myself running to Mihara Tofuten to get some of their agedashi tofu very quickly after the first few sips.
However, the real treasure of the event was the chance to talk to the people involved in this world of local and exceptional craft, courtesy of one of the brewers of Wakatakeya Shuzojo. Wakatakeya Shuzojo is one of the oldest in the region, established in Tanushimaru-machi in 1699, it’s second only Oga Shuzo in Chikushino City and it’s current President is the 14th of his line to hold that position. With a great history comes a great responsibility to hold onto tradition, but also a dynamic tension with it. The bottle that I was lucky enough to try was called ‘Debut’ and was a fairly wild junmai sake, unpasteurized and unfiltered, these being some of the techniques that had drawn sake away from its more riotous, less controllable roots. As the sake ages it gives off aromas of lychees and comes into a deeper and more complex flavour, the result of which is a drink with a silky texture and refreshing unpredictability to its taste.
That was to be the last drink of the day and, picking up mouth-watering gelatos on the way, we made our way to the exit. To the right, just by the door, were several shelves of the sake that we had just seen and tasted all for sale. Jostling through the sizeable crowd I managed to pick up a token for a bottle of ‘Debut’ for my students and stepped through into cool evening air of Hakata.
With sake becoming more and more popular abroad, there could not be a more perfect time for & Sake Fukuoka 2019. At Wakatakeya, an increasing number of tourists from overseas have come to learn more about the art of making sake, one English guy even using his experience there in his efforts to start producing sake in the UK. While I was nowhere near to producing my own sake, I did get a better insight into what makes the business of making it so skillful and rewarding – and that wasn’t just the alcohol talking. With all the happy faces in attendance next year is set to be a riot too, hopefully we’ll see you there!
Report and Photos by Kenji Newton for Fukuoka Now
If you’re interested in a deeper look at sake in Fukuoka, check out our earlier article!