On Thursday, September 26 The Joy of Sake marks its tenth anniversary in New York with a gala event at The Altman Building in Chelsea, featuring the finest sakes in the world paired with traditional and contemporary Asian cuisine from top New York restaurants.
A non-profit organization dedicated to sake education and enjoyment, The Joy of Sake has witnessed tremendous growth since its beginnings in Honolulu in 2001.
“That was around the time that really good sake first started coming into the United States – you know, the more expensive ginjo and daiginjo sakes,” says Chris Pearce, the Honolulu-based event organizer and the founding president of the International Sake Association. “Nobody really understood how to appreciate them and how to assess them – what are the good ones, what are the bad ones? The International Sake Association, which was founded 25 years ago, had connections with the government agency that regulates sake in Japan. We could invite judges to come in to judge the sake so that there would be some kind of standard of what a gold-medal sake is and what’s one that’s not a gold medal.”
Pearce and his associates realized that since they had access to top quality sake that was being sent to Hawaii for competitions, they should do a public tasting event. Out of this, The Joy of Sake was born.
“We just wanted to get people to understand what sake was all about,” says Pearce of his organization. “It’s all about sake education, and we think the best way to get educated is to drink it.”
The first year of the event saw between 60 and 65 breweries pouring 124 different sakes. This year, the number has blossomed to 192 breweries and 384 entries. The Joy of Sake in Honolulu on August 16 of this year was sold out, with more than 1,500 people attendance.
As the number of breweries and entries in The Joy of Sake has increased, so has the popularity of sake in the US.
“I think it’s the only beverage category in the United States that year, after year, after year it grows,” says Pearce. “It’s not exponential growth, but every year it grows by ten or twelve per cent. That means in seven or eight years, it doubles. And that’s been going on for 20 years. It’s not a revolution or a boon, but slowly, steadily, more and more people are enjoying sake.”
And to what does Pearce attribute that growth?
“I attribute it to the fact that it just tastes so good,” he says, laughing. “The level of sake in the US is good, better than it’s ever been. If you drink it in a restaurant in New York, you might as well be drinking it in Tokyo. It’s just as fresh and just as good.”
Throughout the years Pearce has observed that even though there are a daunting number of entries at his event, guests generally taste the gold-medal sakes or the ones that aren’t available in the United States. No one could possibly try 384 sakes in three hours, but Pearce explains that the serving size allows people to sample 20 to 30 sakes.
“It’s a different kind of tasting than Americans have experienced,” says Pearce. “In Japan the sake is poured into traditional sake tasting cups, and then inside the cup there’s a little pipette – kind of like a mini siphon, like an eyedropper – so with that you take just enough to taste . . . So part of the fun of the event is that you can taste it, experience it, but you don’t have to have a whole glass of it.”
Each year Pearce looks forward to bringing The Joy of Sake to New York because “it’s a really diverse, interesting, eclectic group of people that shows up,” says Pearce.
Not only will that group enjoy high quality sake, but they have the chance to pair it with specially crafted dishes from restaurants such as Brushstroke, En Brasserie, SakaMai, 15 East, and even Keizo Shimamoto’s Ramen Burger. (Click here for a complete list of participating restaurants.) Pearce and companies that import sake cultivated relationships with these restaurants to celebrate sake and to show New Yorkers that the beverage can be enjoyed with a variety of food.
“You’ll see sake more and more paired with other types of dishes,” says Pearce. “Chefs will tell you that sake is easier to pair with food than wine. Sake is such a food-friendly beverage. It supports the food; it never dominates the food.”
Pearce hopes to draw between 600 and 700 thirsty New Yorkers to The Joy of Sake on September 26, and he hopes they gain a better understanding of the many types of sakes and the new styles that brewers are producing.
“Sake really is getting better and better in Japan,” says Pearce. “As a result of the recession and changes in drinking habits in Japan, there are much fewer breweries in Japan than there were even ten years ago . . . There are probably 1,200 active breweries, and that’s not a lot. The ones that remain are really, really focused on making good sake.”
The Joy of Sake takes place on Thursday, September 26 from 6:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. at The Altman Building, located in Chelsea at 135 W. 18th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues). Ticket are $95 in advance and $110 at the door. Readers of JapanCulture•NYC can use the code YASU to receive a $10 discount. To purchase tickets, please visit The Joy of Sake’s website or call 888.799.7242.