Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Quality of Life Improvement 22: The Joy of Sake

Hawaiʻi's King David Laʻamea Kamanakapuʻu Mahinulani Nalaiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua-a-Kapaʻakea, the endearingly dissolute Merrie Monarch and last reigning king of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, was a true sybarite generally and, in particular, a famous appreciator of sake. In fact, when King Kalākaua arranged a dockside sumō tournament to honor the arrival of Hawaiʻi's first Japanese contract laborers on 8 February, 1885, the tournament prize was a cache of sake barrels.

We assume that the rikishi were pleased with their liquid purse, but the next day's edition of The Honolulu Advertiser wasn't particularly impressed; the article's author generously described sake as, "[a] fine beverage … not 'catlap' at least."

Sake had to be imported to Hawaiʻi until December, 1908, when Hiroshima-born Tajiro Sumida delivered the first products from his newly established Honolulu Sake Brewery. The brewery's first vintage was a disaster; Hawaiʻi's heat, humidity and sun conspired to spoil the newly-brewed sake.

But Sumida's brewery gleaned priceless lessons from their initial frustrations. The brewery introduced a major innovation to the sake industry when they refrigerated the fermentation area of their brewery—a necessity in Hawaiʻi—and the practice that was soon adopted in Japan. Hawaiʻi sake brewers introduced stainless steel equipment to the brewing-process, and were the first to use California rice in the manufacture of sake. Maybe most significantly, in 1958 Honolulu brewmaster Takao Nihei identified a mutant strain of yeast, used today throughout the sake-brewing industry, that produced far less froth in the brewing vat during fermentation, thereby increasing production yields per-vat by about one third.

With Hawaiʻi's contributions to the world of sake in mind, it is appropriate that Honolulu is home to the largest sake tasting event in the Americas: The Joy of Sake.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the event, and for the second year it will be held at the Honolulu Academy of Arts this August 19. We're told that over 300 sakes will be offered to participants, which will be paired with tasting plates from "some of Honolulu's best restaurants."

We at The Hawaiian Sybarite especially like the detail that sake vessels made by local ceramicists from the Linekona Art Center will on offer. A classy move.

In a vulgar tone, the organizers of the event inform us gleefully that "As a special perk for Academy members, Joy of Sake will again have premium tables," before continuing to explain, in bold, that "This year, the premium tables will be cordoned off in an exclusive VIP area. This members-only benefit was a hit last year—they sold out in days."

The phrases "cordoned off in an exclusive VIP area" and "members-only" turn us off immediately and the foregoing quotations demonstrate our suspicions: that the likable concept of the event—the appreciation of an ancient cultural institution with our fellow citizens—is, to many of the event's participants, reduced to little more than an excuse for tawdry pretensions and obvious displays of wealth. Sake is mostly incidental to the affair.

What: The Joy of Sake: America's Largest Sake Celebration
When: Thursday, August 19, 2010, 6-8:30pm
Where: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 South Beretania Street, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, 96814-1429 (808) 532-8700
Price: Individual: $80 per person. VIP reserved seating: $150 per person.

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