'People of Sake' - Christopher Hughes
Christopher Hughes is the international face at Kurand Sake Market in Tokyo. We caught up with him and had a chat about the beverage that we all have grown to love so very much.
Can you tell us a bit about Kurand and what you do there?
The concept of KURAND is to revolutionize the traditional izakaya experience by offering the opportunity to taste all kinds of different sake without time limits, for the same one price of 3240 yen all made by small craft or boutique breweries that have each poured their heart the soul into making the sake. We currently showcase over 40 different boutique breweries and around 120 different sakes. The format includes free nibbles and a super flexible re-entry policy, so if you need to you can pop out to top up on food. The bar is all standing. You simply go up to our fridge take out a sake that interests you and pour into your chosen sake weapon of choice (glass) of which we currently provide over 7 different styles. Oh, and sometimes we invite brewers down to share a toast with everyone.
You guys have 3240 Yen all you can drink! Do things ever get out of control?
We have various things in place to make sure that doesn’t happen. First of all, there is a 40,000 JPY fine for puking (laughs). More than anything though it is important to drink plenty of water; something that the industry itself is promoting as the healthy way to enjoy the beverage. In Japanese this chase of water is called ‘Yawaragi Mizu’. We recommend to our patrons to follow each sake with a chaser and a half of water. Things do, very rarely, get a little out of control, but we are proud of the professional manner in which we deal with overdrinkers. Regardless of the nuisance they cause, we are never going to abandon people who overdrink and we always make sure they get home safely. If people are just having fun, as long as they don’t cross that line, we don’t intervene.
Are you getting many international visitors and what kind of reaction do you get from tourists who come to Kurand?
When I first started out working for KURAND we were getting about 1 or 2 visitors every other week. Now we are visited by around 200 a month and that number just continues to increase. This increase is thanks to largely to word of mouth marketing that we have invested heavily in. For example, each of our 4 branches currently occupies top spot in the ranking of related things to do on Trip Advisor for its area. We have just increased our yearly target for 1000 foreign visitors to 2000 and I have no doubt that we will have to increase the target again before then.
You also run workshops or events like Sake Exchange Tokyo – tell us a bit more about this.
SAKE EXCHANGE TOKYO or SET for short is run via MEETUP. It currently has over close to 600 members who meet every week and partake in international exchange over a sake or two. The events are really just an extension of our all-you-can-taste setup but with a lecture and games and things thrown in. Sometimes, we switch the venue to the sake brewery and sometimes brewers themselves attend. We are always trying to keep the events fresh and interesting. Please find more information about the SAKE EXCHANGE TOKYO - http://www.meetup.com/東京-Japanese-sake-Meetup - Also Japan Times wrote a great article about these events.
Chris tell us how you first got into sake?
I discovered sake in London. I had gone from university into a Japanese food and drink supplier based in London — not something I had planned but I guess I wanted to stay close to Japanese culture — and it was during my time there that I was gifted with the fated introduction. It was a brewery from Iwate Prefecture that wooed me; and woo me they did. It was the narrative from the CEO of said brewery (Nanbu Bijin) that won me over. I think it was all the different strands of his narrative — each of which held a connection with all the parts of Japanese culture that I had fallen in love with — that hooked me line and sinker.
It is still the narrative of sake that I love the most. Each brewery tells its own version of this story but each is a joy to be told. During my time working for the food supplier in London I would get to go around restaurants together with the breweries. During the commute, I would often be privy to all kinds of interesting nuggets of information. Every visit was like one big lecture. Anyway, during the 4 years I worked in London, I quickly picked up sake knowledge direct from the source.
Going back to what I was saying about the story of sake, I guess that, going forward, I want to take on the role of storyteller. There are plenty of foreigners making sake, there are plenty selling it, but there are very few taking on the role of story teller directly, even though they all tell a part of the story in their vocation in an indirect sense. I am fluent in Japanese so I guess a part of me wants to be able to make the most of the skills I have; a lot of sake storytelling requires a deep understanding of the language because most breweries cannot speak / understand English and rarely translate their stories into English.
Anyway, in 2014, I came to Japan to study more about the beverage and get experience working in the industry. My time here so far has included a journey of exploration that took me around 74 breweries, a year working for a prestigious sake brewery (Tatenokawa Shuzo, Yamagata Prefecture) as their Tokyo based sales rep.
In 2015, I joined KURAND… quite simply because the timing of our meeting was just right and their concept fitted perfectly with my own: KURAND is also focusing on trying to tell the stories of the brewers and we write various articles (also in English) to this effect.
What is one of the most memorable experiences that you have had with sake?
It has to be actually getting a hands-on-experience of making sake. Nothing beats this.
What is one Sake / Kura that you are really into at the moment?
I am a huge fan of Ariga Jozo, Fukushima Prefecture. Their Daiginjo, a popular sake at KURAND, is one of the best examples of its style I have ever tasted. I tend to push it as my first choice to our foreign guests and have yet to fail to impress. Their main brand is JINYA which translates to manor house. It is so-called because the family behind the brewery’s roots start in one. Furthermore, they are one of the only purveyors of a feudal lord which is how their foray into brewing started out. It is a small brewery, but one to watch in my opinion.
What are your future plans in the world of sake?
KURAND is now planning more branches. We already have two in the final stages. One of them is going to be an all-you-can-taste shochu version. Yes, you heard me right. Shochu has been in decline for a while now, but there are signs that the dark days may be behind us. We certainly think there is a demand for the spirit.
We hope eventually to implement some kind of sake-buying system into the brand. People often see the word ‘market’ in our name and assume that they can buy on the premises, but unfortunately we don’t have the license for that. One day, we hope to be able to accommodate them; we probably could have sold over a hundred bottles by now (laughs).
As for me personally, I am just going to see where this adventure / journey takes me and take it from there. I would one day like to return to the U.K. in some capacity and help promote sake there.
Chris thanks so much for chatting with us ! Keep up the great work spreading the sake love!
You are welcome - Kanpai!