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The Bar Man - Oh, for Sake’s sake

Japan. It’s slightly larger than the UK, but has a much bigger population, and add in the fact that 73 per cent of the land surface is unsuitable for agriculture or habitation, the area that is left is amongst the most crowded in the world.

I think that this explains much about the Japanese character and culture. To live in such close proximity with so many people demands strong social conventions and adherence to rules.

On my brief visit some years ago, I noticed no litter at all for over a week. Many dwellings are too small to have kitchens or much storage space, so purchases can be made at 24-hour shops or from coin operated machines, which dispense items restricted over here, alcohol, tobacco, naughty magazines included.

I asked why children didn’t access them and was told that there is a sign that bans under 21s from using them, which is apparently sufficient.

So why the attack of the Vapors? (Turning Japanese by the Vapors reached No 3 in 1980. Sorry.)

Well, the Japanese like their drink. I wasn’t over impressed by their beer, despite the Phillipe Starck designed Asahi Brewery Head Offices being one of the most recognisable buildings in Tokyo, but if there is one drink that they can claim as their own, it is sake.

This is a rice wine which is often served ceremonially, gently warmed in a small earthenware or porcelain bottle called a tokkuri, and sipped from a small porcelain cup called a sakazuki.

The process by which it is made resembles brewing beer more than fermenting wine. The alcohol comes from the conversion of starch found in the rice into sugar and then alcohol, rather than the sugar which is naturally present in grapes. However, this conversion takes place simultaneously, unlike in beer.

The resulting product contains 16-20 per cent alcohol, rather stronger than most wine, and substantially stronger than beer, though it is often diluted slightly before being consumed.

It sounds simple, but the care taken and skill involved in brewing top quality sake is considerable, and in Japanese society the brewer or Toji are regarded with the respect given to musicians or painters.

In the past, the secrets would be handed down from father to son, but in the modern world, university degrees or brewery apprenticeships are an alternate route. It was a brave call then, for Tom Wilson and Lucy Holmes, ‘craft’ brewers from Peckham to open Kanpai, the UK’s first sake brewery in 2017.

Can a couple of westerners teach themselves to brew sake like the natives? They had better hope so, because there is stiff competition on the horizon. Later this year the Dojima Sake brewery is due to open at Fordham Abbey, between Ely and Newmarket.

Owned by the Hashimoto family from Osaka, test brewing is due to start in April, but for those who wish something a little less strong, there will be a Japanese tearoom on site as well.

Perhaps cocktail week next year will feature Samurai Rock, Shiba Dog or Pretty Princess made with Sake brewed at Fordham brewed from, if we have another wet year, rice grown on the Walks.

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