The Kokoro Files

The Kokoro Files: Justin Potts

Justin Potts is a co-host of Sake on Air.

The Kokoro Files shares the stories of people and their connection to Japan. This connection takes many forms, and in the case of Justin Potts, it set him off on a life-long quest to learn all there is about nihonshu. A co-host of the amazing Sake on Air podcast, food and beverage entrepreneur and Master of Sake, Justin has plenty of stories to share about his love affair with sake.

Read on to learn about how his journey started, the genesis of Sake on Air and where he feels the industry is going.

 Thanks so much for taking the time to chat about your work with sake Justin. It’s been great to listen to your thoughts though the Sake on Air podcast. How did you first step into the world of sake?

I wish I had a really concise answer or concrete life-altering event that I could point to, but that really wasn’t the case. For me, it was more of a slow burn over a period of probably 6-7 years.

The opportunity that “pushed me over the edge” was when I made a major career change and began spending time with small producers scattered throughout Japan. Not sake breweries specifically, although they were part of the equation, but mostly farmers, as well as producers of all sorts of food and related products.

The first big shockwave probably came when, shortly upon starting that job, one of my very first projects sent me on a trip to Toyoama Prefecture, where one of the first stops was a tane koji (koji spore) maker by the name of Ishiguro. At the time, I didn’t even have the basic context for processing what I was hearing or seeing, but the tingling sensation that resonated after that visit was significant. 

From there, a succession of opportunities to spend time, as well as work with, several incredibly inspiring rice farmers dedicated to sustainable and regenerative forms of agriculture (Miyao Nouen in Niigata, and Doyuno in Toyama, to name a few) gave me the opportunity to connect food (and rice, in particular) with the livelihoods of the people, as well as the other staples derived (at least partially) from rice, including koji, miso, and of course, sake.

My fascination with this relationship motivated me to visit breweries and start exploring sake, however throughout my “education”, while I found more than a few tasty brews, I wasn’t encountering a lot of producers that were able to communicate to me the appeal that I was experiencing on a personal level. The vocabulary driving the sake-specific communication somehow felt isolated from the beverage’s more inherent and fundamental appeal.

It wasn’t until I visited Niida Honke (in Fukushima) for a day in the rice fields and Terada Honke (in Chiba) for an exploration into the principles of fermentation that it really clicked. After that, there was no turning back. 

With the Sake on Air podcast being supported by the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association (JSS), it must feel satisfying to have the backing of such a well-respected institution. How did the podcast get started?

I had actually been toying with the idea while looking for some partners-in-crime to start a sake-centric podcast for a number of years prior to officially launching Sake On Air. Having been an avid podcast listener for many years, I was confident in the format. When I started poking around and noticing the vast number of podcasts dedicated to wine, beer, spirits, culinary, drinking and dining – yet not a single podcast dedicated to sake – I became hell-bent on making it happen. 

However, with podcasts not being a very prolific media platform in Japan, I had a tough time getting people excited about the concept. I began gathering heaps of data about podcast listening trends and demographics in attempt to further establish credibility for the mission, but still struggled to get people on board.

I had been working with JSS on a few different projects, and while doing so, in a rather off-hand sort of way I told Shuso Imada that I was going to start a podcast because it had to be done. He wasn’t  familiar with the format, but expressed interest in the idea.

 I started sending him links to a bunch of shows similar to what I envisioned a podcast about sake could or should look like, as well as just some shows I thought he might enjoy, and a few weeks later when we got together he was like, “These podcasts are really great!” And I was like, “I know!” 

He started asking more about the potential of the platform, so I started sending all kinds of data and figures his way. After a couple of weeks he said, “This is really the type of thing that, if done right, JSS should really get behind.” 

The next issue was who would host and create the content. It was incredibly convenient that Imada-san was also spearheading a separate initiative called SAKE 2020, which John, Sebastien, Rebekah, Big Chris, Little Chris and myself were also all supporting in various capacities. When the opportunity suddenly arose to make a show happen, getting that crew together as the core team just made perfect sense. 

There have been some great guests on the podcast so far and I’ve found listening to sake maestro John Gauntner and shochu pro Christopher Pellegrini to be very enlightening. Did you know them before you became a part of the sake world or did your paths naturally cross as you got more involved with the industry?

So, John and Christopher are actually mainstay hosts on the show, as opposed to “guests”. We’re up to a core team of 7 co-hosts sharing the role, but as everyone has different professional and personal obligations outside of the show that allow for different degrees of flexibility, some make more regular appearances than others. 

In an ideal world, we’d have everyone rotating in and out with more balance and frequency, but alas… Basically, we do our best to get everyone as much airtime as possible when they’re able.

With regards to meeting those two gentlemen, in the case of John, I used to teach at the Japan Campus of Temple University, where I also managed one of the dormitories for the international exchange students, as well as helped out with different university-sponsored events organised by the Student Services department.

I can’t remember if it was every year or every semester, but on a relatively regular basis, the university would host a sake night where John would come and bring a few different sake to try and give a quick spiel, usually at some sort of café for bar-type venue. He may not remember me from then, but I think that would have been where we first met and I first got to hear John preach the good word.

Being part of the organisational staff, I got to bring home whatever leftover sake that I wanted. I recall vividly cruising my mamachari home through the city with a bunch of half-filled 1.8 litre bottles with makeshift saran wrap or tin foil caps clanking around in the front-mounted wireframe basket. I imagine that in the course of polishing those off over the following weeks, they probably served some subtle function in propelling me down this path.

I’ve used meetup.com only once in my entire life. When I did, I met Christopher Pellegrini. Just the nature of my work and life had me almost completely entrenched in Japanese communities and work environments. Not a bad thing, but I had just become significantly separated from any sort of native English-speaking community for so long that I felt I was beginning to lose a sense of what it was like to interact in a completely casual English setting.

Poking around I found a meetup event where people got together and sipped shochu. I had been thinking that I needed to dig into the category a bit, as I did have an interest, so it seemed like a decent enough gathering. It just so happened to have been organised and hosted by Christopher. 

This was years before he ever published his book, but I still remember sipping shochu with him that night and him saying that he was working on a book and pursuing his shochu certification. We hit it off, and while we didn’t get together often, we kept in touch and would get together for drinks probably once every year or two just to catch up.

I hadn’t actually seen him in probably 2-3 years when the opportunity arose to start Sake On Air, but when it did, I rang him up. I remember I was on the road for work in Mie Prefecture and he was in New York, and I needed to get an OK from him super quick. The stars aligned, and here we are!

In addition to the podcast, you’re involved with several other sake related projects through Potts K. Productions. Did you have any specific goals when setting up the business?

The overarching goal is to help cultivate more spaces where I can take my kids and have some delicious food and stellar beverages without having to feel apologetic about it. 

Prior to my first daughter being born, my wife (who happens to be a chef) and I found so much joy in the experience of food, having worked together in the same restaurant and on other food-related events and projects that were an extension of that, as well. We really enjoyed finding places that felt good that served delicious and heartwarming food and drink, as well as sharing those experiences with others.

Being a parent, I can most certainly appreciate the need for “quiet” spaces where “adults” can unwind. That being said, it was disappointing (and frustrating) how many places we had, up until having kids, regularly enjoyed and had great relationships with, which all of a sudden, along with the prospect of introducing a child into the scene, abruptly became off-limits.  

Japan complains about the abandonment of its wonderful “food culture” by the more recent generations, often spending absurd amounts of money on all kinds of misdirected and short-sighted initiatives promising to make it “cool” again, either for the younger generation or for a non-Japanese audience that isn’t burdened with the preconceptions stacked upon the domestic population.

Through my work over the past decade, what’s become very apparent is that, within Japan, a culture has been created that keeps most people outside of specific demographics sheltered from the most delicious, thoughtful and enjoyable food and beverages experiences that the country has to offer, with children being the ones, albeit unknowingly to themselves, suffering the most in the long run.

A lot of really amazing and thoughtful work is being done in order to try to reconnect great food, places and the people deeply invested in them with new demographics that will properly value and appreciate them, in attempt to put a stop to the  real possibility that a great deal of the craft central to what makes Japan’s food and beverages special could very likely disappear from existence.

 That being said, while focusing on a “product” or a specific “demographic,” many of these initiatives are guilty of the critical oversight that so many demographics in Japan – children and young people being hit the hardest – just aren’t being provided with opportunities to engage with the inherently interesting, universal and joyful experiences around food in any meaningful way, here in a place that has so many special things to offer. 

I’m convinced that it’s this increased social isolation from the world of food and beverage here over decades that has driven the most incredible elements of Japan’s food culture (sake included) to the brink of extinction. 

Long story short, I guess that the central ethos to what Potts.K is all about is a constant attempt at trying to find ways to create small but significant opportunities for sharing and discovery around food and sake that, over time, will hopefully have an impact on the livelihoods of families and communities that want to invest a part of themselves in sharing the experience of food, both personally and professionally. 

Two other projects that sound intriguing are the Udon House and Peace Kitchen collaborations. How did you got involved with them and what would you like to achieve with both?

Both of these projects came about as an extension of my work at my previous place of employment, umari Inc. For Udon House, I helped with the communication and marketing, as well as developed the educational curriculum and visitor experiences.

There’s a pretty great write-up on Udon House here, so I’ll keep it brief, but basically, it just made so much sense.  

Kagawa is the birthplace of udon in Japan, and Sanuki Udon isn’t only exemplary of the craft of making delicious noodles, it’s also engrained into the livelihoods of the people and communities throughout the region in a way that you really don’t see any similar examples of anyplace else in Japan for just about anything.

The wonderful thing about udon – in Kagawa specifically – is that it’s not only an amazing entry point to all kinds of local dining experiences and points of interaction with the local community, but it’s also a delicious and approachable platform for introducing the lesser-known yet equally-important elements of the local food culture and agriculture that it’s associated with, whether it be iriko and it’s relationship to dashi, and hence umami, or shoyu-based flavourings and ties to the incredible Shodoshima Island and the awe-inspiring producers there, or the local agricultural products that serve as staple toppings and flavourings. 

Crafting an entire package around Sanuki Udon was, in a way, the easiest thing ever, because not only is the quality incredibly high, but everything associated with it is as real and as honest as you could hope for. 

Peace Kitchen started in Italy to coincide with Expo Milano 2015, however instead of focusing most of our energy on the actual pavilion, we utilised the fervour around the Expo to work with local restaurantsfood education and culinary establishments to introduce experiences around Japanese food and sake to the people actually dining and learning in the city, as opposed to those traveling to the Expo as a one-day destination. 

From there, the project expanded to food education efforts around Japanese cuisine in Spain, as well as localised projects in Japan, such as in Niigata, as well as an experimental test kitchen in the heart of Tokyo

When really attempting to drill down what was inherently special and worth celebrating with regards to Japanese cuisine, we kept on returning to the word, “Peace”. In Japanese, the cuisine is referred to as “washoku” (和食), which is literally, Peace Food. All of the tradition and craftmanship are incredible, but at the core, the shared experiences around food and beverages in Japan are, I think, something that resonate with people on both a universal and personal level, communicating the beauty of the craftmanship and dedication, as well as the powerful ties to people’s livelihoods that make true Japanese dining experiences so special. 

And honestly, that’s true about deeply engrained food cultures anywhere. If experiences around Japanese food could help to inspire and reinvigorate those discoveries around food in other regions and countries, leading to more shared experiences with that sense of “peace” at the core, all the better.

At the end of the day, the end goal was never to create just a “Japanese experience,” but a “Japanese-inspired experience” that brought people together and the world’s together celebrated food cultures. 

While I’m no longer directly involved in the same way and the project isn’t nearly as active as it once was, it certainly still exists in various forms across different regions.

Right now, given all that the world is up against, I think that the inherent goal of the project is just as, if not more relevant than ever. While the degree to which people will be able to physically gather and share in these sorts of experiences for the foreseeable future is certainly a question, that doesn’t change the fundamental mission or message.

I’ve heard you’re only the second non-Japanese to hold the sakasho (master of sake) certification. What was involved in that process and are there any other certifications you’re planning to aim for in the future? 

That was true at one point in time, but I imagine there are probably a dozen or so at this point. It’s essentially and advanced “kikizakeshi” certification, however the focus much more on tasting, as opposed to knowledge. 

At the time, there were less than 300 people in total (Japanese included) that held the certification from SSI (Sake Service Institute), however with the increased interest in sake over the past several years – both in Japan and abroad – there are now close to 500 as of April of this year. 

While certainly a very thorough and reasonably intense program, despite it being considered a relatively high-level exam amongst the sake-related certifications available to the general public, it still doesn’t represent anywhere near the level of rigor that you would find in, say, a high-level wine programme. 

That’s not to say it isn’t a quality program or a legitimate certification – it’s very much both of those things! All of the programs SSI offers are incredibly thorough, professionally and thoughtfully structured, and well put-together. There’s a reason that they’re one of the few pillars of sake education. 

It’s important that people understand that there still doesn’t exist anything that’s anywhere near something along the lines of an MW or Master Cicerone program. A lot of the basic-level education programmes for sake use a lot of terminology such as, “Master of Sake” to communicate the nature of the course (it says it right on the front of the International Kikizakeshi textbook!), and while they’re great programmes in and of themselves, they’re nowhere near the level of their other beverage brethren. 

If I had all the time and money in the world, I’d take all of the courses! As much as I love learning about sake, I also love learning together with cohorts of different people from different backgrounds. I also love experiencing how different people teach. I imagine I’ll run the whole gauntlet of certifications at some point, it’s just a matter of time.

For the time being – and this is kind of my own personal policy and where I find my inspiration in general – is that given my unique position, I try to get out and access the information that isn’t readily available to the broader international population, in most cases directly from the source. 

By doing so, I hope that I can then empower those that are studying in all of the fantastic sake education programmes available across the globe, as well as those that might come to discover the joy of sake from an angle outside of formal education.

Something I find highly fascinating about the sake industry is the debate between junmai and non-junmai beverages. Which do you feel consumers prefer and are there any specific markets that show one variety outselling the other?

The trouble with non-junmai sake is that, while it’s entirely valid from a production standpoint, it’s really challenging to explain and justify the need for adding brewer’s alcohol (i.e. non-junmai styles) in terms that are easy to understand and that resonate with your average consumer on a personal level.

I think that on just a human level, junmai feels like it makes sense. As a result, once you know the difference and are then tasting with that preconception, the result is that junmai is often perceived as the “better” experience. 

There’s also the sheer logistical barrier to entry, seeing as how a lot of countries, states or territories will have different taxes or sales restrictions for beverages with distilled alcohol.

 In order to avoid the extra costs on an already expensive product (outside of Japan) and to maintain the freedom to make the sake available through different retail channels, most breweries, along with importers or distributors, will stick to junmai styles in order to make their lives a bit easier. The choice has nothing to do with flavour or preference but is solely motivated by costs and restrictions.

As a result, the sake that most people enjoying the beverage outside of Japan have encountered has, more likely than not, been limited to junmai styles. 

If you were to do a really thorough, rigorous blind tasting across different demographics in different regions in order to gauge people’s preference for junmai vs. non-junmai styles, I honestly don’t know what the outcome would be. 

That being said, irrespective of the results, due to the challenges and restrictions mentioned above, I don’t think that it would drastically change the types of product (junmai or non-junmai) being brought to market. 

Innovation can be one of the best ways of introducing new consumers to sake. Do you feel that brewers should experiment with non-traditional formats or should tradition remain the most important part? 

At what point does something become “traditional”? Does a style that took hold roughly 30 years ago qualify as “traditional”? How about 50 years ago? Maybe 100 years ago? 300 years ago? Also, the term “innovation” doesn’t specifically have to apply to something “new”. 

Being able to look at something that has been considered to be a “given” for years or decades and be able to recognise that it’s no longer justified, deciding to then remove it from the equation, is as bold and innovative a move as attempting to integrate something “new”. 

I don’t think of “tradition” and “innovation” as being mutually exclusive. It’s that sort of symbiotic relationship that has made sake the beautiful and inspiring beverage that we have today. 

New consumers, or potentially new consumers, are everywhere. In the case of the sake industry, there’s a surplus – which we should be thankful for! We have so much opportunity to grow and evolve. Both “tradition” and “innovation” are going to be equally crucial in capturing new demographics. 

Which brewers do you feel are leading the way in creating craft/non-traditional forms of sake?

Both “craft,” as well as “non-traditional,” are incredibly vague terms, and in no way are they mutually exclusive. I’d say that the brewers pioneering in “craft” are the ones that are honest with themselves about, not only “what” sake they’re producing, but also “why” they’re making it.

The sake that a brewer extols has to be justified from a place of honesty. When those things align, chances are you’ve tapped into “craft,” or something along those lines.

Nowadays what’s being pushed as “non-traditional” styles of sake are, in many cases, actually deeply rooted in forgotten or overlooked tradition. In many ways, a lot of the “new” sake is actually more traditional (in some ways) than a majority of what’s on the market. 

The motivation(s) for creating either an entirely “new” style of sake, as well as something that is currently viewed as being non-tradition, can be multi-faceted. With regards to how that brewer or brewery justifies the “why” part of the question posed above will probably tell you a lot about the “craft” element, or lack thereof. 

What are your favourite types of nihonshuand is there any type of food you’d recommend pairing them with?

I know it isn’t a very satisfying answer, but, “it depends”. 

When I’m selecting sake for myself, whether it’s at home or out drinking/dining, I’d say I probably choose something warm (kanzake) around 80% of the time. Not exclusively, but often kimoto or yamahai, and also not exclusively, but most often junmai. 

I tend to prefer something complex, yet subtle. I love both nama and pasteurised styles, however I tend to enjoy nama that has had a bit of time to evolve and develop. But there are always exceptions for an exceptional sake!

My favourite thing to pair sake with is whatever it is I’m eating. 

 Where do you see the future of the Sake on Air podcast going?

We’re actually working on something I’m super excited about right now, which ought to give you and our listeners an idea as to what sort of role I hope Sake On Air will be able to play in the grand scheme of contributing thoughtful dialogue in and around the world of sake. Stay tuned!

If there was one thing you could change about the sake industry, what would it be and why? 

One thing would be to make the act of brewing sake more accessible from a legal standpoint. Right now, it’s incredibly challenging in order to get licensed to operate as a producer of sake in Japan. 

At the same time, you have new wineries and beer breweries popping up left and right. I’d like to see opportunities for new entries into the market to be made feasible in the same way as these other beverages. 

Along with that, I think that Japan should once again make homebrewing legal. That, combined with more formal entries into the industry, would likely have a greater impact on the long-term sustainability and appreciation for the beverage than just about anything. 

While a much larger, more complex conversation, a lot of things need to be done in order to help make rice farming a more valued and viable profession. There are far too many factors and layers to this conversation to summarise succinctly here and present a simple solution, but I also think that this is one of the most pressing issues, not just for the sake industry, but for the sustainability of Japan’s cultural landscape. That’s a topic for another day.

Be sure to look out for more of Justin’s nihonshu insight on Sake on Air. And if you’d like to know more about shochu, check out Yamato Magazine’s interview with the brilliant Christopher Pellegrini!

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