(Photo by Myleen Hollero/Courtesy of Umami Mart)
Friends and founders of Umami Mart Yoko Kumano and Kayoko Akabori grew up in Cupertino, the California town many people first become acquainted with upon opening their first Apple product. Like Apple, good design--where looks matter as much as utility--reigns in their store.
Situated in Downtown Oakland since 2012, Umami Mart’s roots span the globe. What began as a humble blog during Kumano’s and Akabori’s post-college stints in Tokyo and New York City, respectively, soon had a thriving community of contributors penning restaurant reviews, travel tips, and recipes from around the world.
“At one point we had 30 writers who were submitting for free,” Akabori says. “They were just doing it as a hobby. Of course, we all had the time to then. We were all in our twenties. It was just sort of a fun thing.”
After six years of working in museums in New York Akabori moved back to the Bay Area, where she found work in a Spanish tapas bar. Making what she describes as “bathtub sangria” in buckets, Akabori admired the restaurant’s stunning copper bar and soon took up bartending. Burned out from the nine-to-nine culture of ad agency work in Tokyo, Kumano quit and convinced an izakaya to let her serve coffee, shochu, and sake, confounding her all-male coworkers.
And they kept at the blog. But after doing it as a hobby for three years, they wanted more. “We asked ourselves, ‘“What should we do with Umami Mart?’” says Kumano. “It’s growing a little bit, but what can we do to…” “...to make it our life?” Akabori finishes.
Both back in the Bay Area, they began to set up shop, a gorgeous and bright shop, where splendid Japanese barware like dazzling cut-glass tumblers and elegant bar spoons are displayed like precious museum artifacts. There is a marvelously curated selection of cocktail books and prints designed by one of the blog’s Copenhagen-based contributors. And in the back, an exciting bottle shop with sake, shrubs and bitters, specialty shoyu, and rare Japanese craft beers.
What are some of the most interesting intersections happening right now in Japanese and American drinking cultures.
Yoko Kumano: We’re so into the cocktail thing. We specialize in cocktail ware from Japan, and when we started the online store in 2010 we weren’t quite sure exactly if it was going to work. We brought in about 10 products from Japan. The writer who we worked with was popular on our blog and had told us about how he’d wanted these specific pieces from Japan.
I think that was the first time I was aware that American bartenders were starting to nerd out on Japanese cocktail history and culture. The reason I think they could nerd out on this barware and the culture in Japan, is because, like a lot of things in Japan, they’ll make things over and over for decades and perfect it and tweak it a little bit. But in general, they’ll just keep doing it over and over. I think when the cocktail culture here started looking back into traditional cocktails or Pre-Prohibition style cocktails, Japan was still doing them.
Kayoko Akabori: They just never stopped. And they never stopped making the tools either.
YK: Cocktails in the States started in the same spot that the Japanese cocktails started. Here, they went in all these different directions and came back. In Japan, they just stayed in one spot. It’s the most frustrating and the most admirable thing about Japan. It’s so frustrating to see that Japanese people don’t really go out of the box--in certain ways, yes they do--but it’s one of their strengths. They perfect things and keep at it. Whereas in the States, we are very free to think outside of the box. People accept change. They’re open to many new things, but maybe not perfection. Perfection is something that in Japan people really seem to strive for.
Maybe the negative side of this on the American openness to creativity, is a lack of understanding of what should be the standard, for something like an Old Fashioned or a Martini.
YK: One of the very very big differences between the American and Japanese cocktail cultures is the service. The Japanese not only have made their products over and over, but they really fine tune the service aspect of making a cocktail and serving it to the guests. They’re very aware of that exchange between the guest and the bartender. I think that’s a part of what the American bartenders are looking at as well when they look to Japanese cocktail culture. They’re looking at the drinks and the tools, but they’re also looking at the hospitality.
The beautiful barware that you sell in your shop seems to be a part of that. It’s part of the experience of: “I’m making a drink for you, and this is a special moment.”
Is there a gender divide in Japanese drinking culture?
KA: Yes! Absolutely.
YK: Right now, the big thing is sparkling sake, which is being marketed to women. So you’ll see a lot of the labels are pink, pretty, or kind of elegant. And sparkling sake is lower in alcohol, around 5 percent, whereas sake in general is about 15 percent. The female market is definitely something that Japan is looking at right now especially because there are more women in the workplace, too, so they’re trying to target women who have disposable income.
Also, the craft beer movement is geared toward women in Japan. The Sapporos, the Kirins and the Santoris are very masculine. You get it in the izakaya in the big jockeys. The jockeys are a mug, like a stein. Huge. They just pour it in that. And you chug it. Whereas craft beer, you sip. Japanese craft beer is not as hoppy as American craft beer. It can be a little more fruity. They are definitely targeting women with craft beers.
What’s behind the fairly recent boom in Japanese craft beer?
KA: There was a Japanese law that said you had to produce high volumes of beer in order to be licensed to distribute it. That’s why the big four--Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory, and Asahi--had the major monopoly in beer.
The production of beer is so similar to sake that a lot of sake breweries, small township, were making beer as well, but just for their own towns. It couldn’t become widely distributed. Even now, I wouldn’t say that the microbreweries are widely distributed in Japan. We have Japanese visitors come into Umami Mart and they’re very surprised because they haven’t seen a lot of these labels that we carry in the store.
In the mid-nineties, this law was lifted. So a lot of microbreweries were able to come out and start producing more and distributing. That was a very special moment.
YK: It was really bad for the first years. Even those small brewers who were brewing for their local people. The beer wasn’t that great. And so when this law was lifted, they were trying to brew for a bigger market so they were refining it a little bit. And that probably took about 10 years. When I was living there between 2005 and 2010, it still hadn’t really caught on, again, because Japanese people are obsessed with perfection, and they knew that it wasn’t great. So it didn’t really get a lot of traction or attention or people acknowledging it was any good until around 2008 or 2009.
KA: But it’s really exciting because the craft brewers tend to be a little more revolutionary, or rogue. They’re willing to do this other, new thing. Japanese people have been making whisky since the late 1800s. They’ve perfected that. It’s really exciting for Japanese beer to be so new. These craft brewers will always be refining and making their beers better, but it’s not this 100-year-old tradition. I think it’s just a really exciting time for these brewers.
What’s the general reception to craft beers been like in Japan?
YK: I think that the younger people are definitely into it. There’s a huge craft beer festival in Yokohama every year and a lot of people go there. There are more restaurants carrying kegs of the craft brews, but in general, alcohol consumption is going down in Japan. They’re definitely looking for new markets. People are interested--definitely younger people and women--but it’s still very niche, because of those four very large breweries. They’re like our Budweiser. Most of the country is still drinking those big four beers. In the cities, people are drinking more of the craft beers. But still, whenever we go to Tokyo, you have to search to find it. There are a few pubs that specialize in craft beer, but it’s few.
The large brewers aren’t going after the craft beer movement in advertisements yet, or going out and buying them up, like what’s going on in the States?
KA: No. We’re not there yet. I think those big four will always be the big four. They have the big marketing budgets. They’re always going to be in your face, at all of the major restaurants. Everyone is always going to carry their beers.
YK: And it’s part of the culture. Toasting is kind of an obligatory thing. That’s why they have a lot of non-alcoholic beer too. Because sometimes people can’t drink, but you always want to partake in that first toast.
KA: And I think beer is the No. 1 consumed alcohol in the Japan right now, too.
What are you most excited about that’s coming out of Japan right now?
KA: We visited Niigata Beer Co. in February. Niigata is a prefecture that’s Northwest of Tokyo. The brewery was so DIY. There were no signs. There were cows in the pasture. It turns out the owner was growing his own truffles for his beer. We went inside the brewery, and they were making at least 100 different kinds of beers, not all at once, but in their rotation: blueberry, sakura--which is a Japanese plum--wasabi, yuzu. They make all sorts of flavors. It was very ambitious. I really admired their spirit, and the master brewer was this young guy in this probably early 30s.
Why do you see so many sake breweries also making craft beer in Japan?
YK: Sake is made very similarly to beer. You start with a grain and then you turn that into sugar, and you turn that into alcohol, which is very similar to how beer is made. So a lot of the equipment is similar and so is a lot of the knowledge and technique.
YK: Sake uses yeast and koji, which is a mold and what makes sake unique from beer. The mold and the yeast work together to ferment the sugars into alcohol. In that sense, sake is much closer to beer than it is to wine, because wine just starts with the sugar and you turn that into alcohol. With beer and sake you start with the grain and have to turn that into sugars. So you will see a lot of the Japanese beers being made with rice.
Sake making has a reputation for being very difficult to master. Is it much harder to brew sake than it is to brew beer?
YK: I think that’s because sake is expected to be so refined. You can make sake, but it’s not going to be that great. And the Japanese have been making it for about 500 years, so the expectations are very high. In Japan, people who drink beer maybe have a wider range of what they think it should taste like. With beer that range is wide, but with sake there’s a much slimmer margin of forgiveness.
What should someone interested in drinking sake for the first time think about when selecting a bottle?
YK: Like with anything—beer, wine, or whatever—just buy a few bottles. Try them out side by side. People will tell you what they think is good and bad. But when it comes down to it, it’s really about you tasting at least 3 or 4 back-to-back and making that decision for yourself.
You could choose by the label, you could choose by the type but, again, Person A may like this type of wine, but Person B might like this type of wine. It’s just the same with sake. Tasting and taking notes is the best way to pinpoint what you like.
There is a lot of information out there that cautions you against “this” or “that”: “Don’t drink American sake” or “Don’t drink hot sake” or “Avoid an unfiltered”. There’s some information out there that’s...
KA: It’s biased.
YK: Absolutely, it’s biased. So I say, go out there, and just try it.