'People of Sake' - Keith Norum
Keith Norum is in charge of overseas operations at Miyasaka Brewing Company in Nagano – they are the makers of the famous Masuimi Sake. We have a chat with Keith to learn a little bit more about what he does and what is happening in his world of sake.
Keith thanks so much for this interview – could you start off with telling us a bit about Masumi and your role there?
Sure thing! Glad to talk with you.
About Masumi, I always start with where we are, because our location has a lot to do with the kind if sake we make. Masumi is up in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture. You may recall we had the Winter Olympics here in 1998.
So, we make sake in a cold, clean environment surrounded by snowy mountains. The mountains provide us with pure, relatively soft water, and it gives our sake a soft, flavorful, yet clean character.
The Miyasaka family founded the brewery in 1662, and they've been running it ever since. I've known the family ever since I moved to this area about twenty years ago, and I joined the company as overseas sales manager ten years ago.
Tell us about your background and how you got into the world of sake – did you find it ... or did it find you?
I think we found each other! I came to this place, called Suwa, to work at the headquarters of the Seiko Epson Corporation. But after ten years I got a bit tired of corporate life and started a small consulting company. Masumi was one of my first clients; they asked me to make an English website, and I asked them to teach me more about sake!
The more I learned, the more I loved it, and in 2005, I joined them full-time to handle overseas sales and marketing.
What advice would you give to a non-Japanese person who is looking for a job in the sake industry in Japan?
Talk to all the sake industry people you can to find out about their part of the business. You will find that they are happy to talk to a non-Japanese person with genuine interest in what they do. Doing that will give you a broader perspective on the goals and concerns that industry people have. Then, when you go after a job, use that perspective to explain how you are going to help a potential employer, to contribute to and to strengthen what they are trying to accomplish.
Masumi have a great Sparkling Sake – probably one of the best I have ever had – obviously you guys think Sparkling sake is a market worth pursuing – tell us more about this.
Glad you you liked it so much! The sparkling project started nearly ten years ago, certainly because we felt eventually there would be a market for it, but also because the young master brewer in charge of it, Atsushi Nakano, dedicated himself to making a sparkling sake using many of the same methods as champagne and with a character that shares the best aspects of good sake and good sparkling wine. He has come to love the challenge of it as much as the results.
Our sparkling is a clear style, like cava or champagne, and in-bottle fermentation is allowed to go on for nearly two years. What you get is something that looks and feels like sparkling wine, fine mousse, tangy effervescence, combined with the fermented aromas and umami of a mature junmai.
Check out Masumi's sparkling sake here http://www.masumi.co.jp/english/sparkling/
What is your most memorable sake experience?
In the early days before I joined Masumi, the Miyasaka family would have these big barbecues in their garden during the summer. They'd invite all sorts of interesting people from around the town and around the world, and have food from American barbecue to Korean samugetan to Japanese, and they'd have all this sake and it just went so well with everything. Didn't overbear, didn't leave you heavy the next day. That's when sake became my drink of choice.
Apart from Masumi – what is one sake brand that you really like and why?
Souhomare, from Tochigi Prefecture. They make some of the best kimoto I've ever had. Finely etched acidity on a creamy backdrop, real works of art.
I usually ask people if they have a bottle of sake at home in their fridge – but for you I will change this question … do you have a little collection at home? And if so what do you have?
Ha ha. You'd think it, eh? Actually, I rarely have a bunch of bottles at home. There are always a few, of course, but usually not enough to call a collection. That's because with my work being what it is, my wife and I try to stick to the "all things in moderation" path at home. Sake changes over time enough that I'd feel guilty if I had a sake museum there at the house.
While I don't have a collection, here's a snap of the latest selection when we had master brewer Nakano and some other friends over for dinner. (See attached photo, right to left)
1 junmai ginjo "Itteki Nyukon" from Kamotsuru in Hiroshima
2 honjozo "Taichi" from Honkin in Suwa
3 junmai daiginjo "Sanka" from Masumi
4 junmai ginjo yamahai "Hiyaoroshi" from Masumi
And, yes, the Hiyaoroshi does contradict my sake museum comment. That autumn seasonal item sold out in January, but we had some left in the company's walk-in fridge. It's a once pasteurized yamahai and storing it for eight months in a dark refrigerator actually deepened it's delightful play of acidity sweetness and umami.
Sake is in trend now in Japan and is also increasing in popularity around the globe. What do you think Sake Breweries (companies) in Japan can do to keep sake in the spotlight and keep the “boom” rolling?
Both high quality and massive exposure is really important. If the quality isn't there, doesn't matter how many people get to try it, but you have to create as many opportunities as possible for that quality to be appreciated.
That means taking some risks on unorthodox venues, non-traditional food settings, and unexpected associations. Making things happen outside the box often means presenting sake in outside the box ways, too. Be Simple and Clear about how good the stuff is and let people enjoy it first and think about it later.
Keith – thank-you very much for this interview and your thoughts and insights into the wonderful world of the drink we have all come to love so much! Keep spreading the sake love and we will all keep our eyes out for a bottle of Masumi!
For more info on Masumi you can visit their listing here