Enter the Sake Dojo

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by Raul Faria

If you’re familiar with this site then you’ve probably figured out that I’m a bit of a sake nerd. Well get ready to meet the Stephen Hawking of sake, John Gauntner AKA “The Sake Guy”. John has published five books about sake including the definitive “the Sake Handbook”,  he has also written regular columns in Japanese newspapers about sake, is the only non Japanese person to earn the combination of both “Sake Expert Assesor”  from Japan National Research Insititute of Brewing and “Master of Sake Tasting” from the Brewing Society of Japan, he has also been awarded the title “Sake Samurai” (yep it’s a real thing), President of the Sake Education Council, regularly involved with the Japanese government in regards to sake and sake education, three times the winner of the “Accomplished Sake Taster” presented for accuracy in tasting skills by the Japan based Pure Sake Association, mentioned in articles about sake in countless media articles from publications like Forbes, Newsweek, New York Times and Rolling Stone, founded esake.com, he also operates the website sake-world.com which is the gateway to understanding sake plus you get blog updates on all things sake as well, he also holds classes every summer and winter in the US. These classes are three days of sake education, tasting and testing. When complete and upon passing of the final exam students are then Certified Sake Professionals and will have had the experience of tasting or learning about all things sake. From Yamada Nishiki to Gohyakumongoku, Junmai to Honjozo, Muroka to Namazake it’s all covered. In DETAIL. The tag line for the class is “no stone left unturned”. I’ve taken this course and I don’t have words to recommend this enough. It was a fascinating, challenging, fun and ultimately rewarding three days. I got a chance to chat with John about sake and the Sake CSP course. Ready to hear from “The Sake Guy” ?

Word on the street is that you like sake? Why sake? What drew you to it?

What drew me to sake initially was its depth; depth of flavor and aroma, depth of skill in the brewing methods used, depth of history and culture. There is no end to it!

Did your involvement in the world of sake happen gradually over time or did you dive right in? What inspired you to teach and to start sake-world.com

Very gradually. It came to me rather than me seeking it, bit by bit, until I committed about 1998 or so. Everyone came to me and said, write an article! Write a book! Let me set up a web site for you! The seminars began in response to what I thought I might want to have for myself.

What are your thoughts on sake in the States, in terms of its growth but also in regards to importers like Ty Ku and American producers like Sake One in Oregon?

Sake has been growing at about an average of 10% a year for over a decade now and I expect that to continue. Many distributors are taking sake seriously now, like SWS and Young’s, so we can expect to see growth continue. TY KU has good sake (the junmai, junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo), and are marketing it in ways that get sake in the minds and mouths of folks who would otherwise never touch it. That is great too. SakeOne is particularly innovative and improving all the time, and the other brewers are also moving toward different approaches (like better and better rice), and so we can expect them to grow and improve as well.

What are some of your suggestions for successful sake food pairings?

Fish is easy, be it grilled, raw or whatever. But I think playing with the umami of the fish and the amount of oil in the fish is one great idea too. Oiler fish, go for slightly more acidic sake. Richer-flesh fish, go for sake with more umami. On top of that, I like vegetables with a  touch of bitterness, like arugula, Brussels Sprouts and asparagus – with nama  (unpasteurized) sake. And in any event, sake has no real tannin and almost never has extremely high acidity, so it is hard to have a mismatch!

What glassware is appropriate for most sake? Is there a specific way sake should be poured? Is there a specific etiquette for pouring sake as there is in wine?

Glassware was not fully explored by the sake industry, and is more cultural than technical. Wine glasses work well for ginjo. There is no pouring etiquette that is established.

What are some tips that our readers should be on the look out for when shopping for sake, for example how can they tell what will be dry, or sweet or flavorful? What is a good sign of a quality sake?

The three rules that will not let you down if you’re approaching sake for the first time are: (1) remember sake is fairly priced 90% of the time, so make a decision  on price is a good idea for beginners, (2) if the word ginjo is on the label,  you are in the safe zone of the top 10% of all sake and (3) enjoy your ginjo slightly chilled, not warm. These three rules will keep you safe, but soon you will need to start to break them! Remember that.

What can you tell our readers to expect when taking the Sake CSP course?

A lot of information, but a very logical flow and measured pace to make it all easy to digest and remember. Also, structured tastings that are easily connected to the material discussed just previous to the tasting. So, intensity, but fun.

How many people have taken and graduated from the Sake CSP and the Level two Sake ASP?

About 850 (CSP) and about (ASP) 120.

Do you feel this rounds out the resumes and   knowledge base of those who are also pursuing certifications in wine and beer? 

It definitely rounds out knowledge for those that know other beverages!

When and where is the next (after this October in Las Vegas) Sake CSP course going to take place? Have you started planning the next level two Sake ASP course yet?

Next CSP is in Japan in January 2014, next ASP Feb 2014. No plans yet for CSP in US next year, but likely Chicago or San Francisco in the summer or fall.

What is your “Desert Island” sake (one that’s available in the states or through esake.com) and why?

Takatenjin Junmai Daiginjo. It is simple yet elegant, deep and delicate. All I know is that a bottle does not sit near me for very long. It disappears quickly.

This years Sake CSP course is taking place October 28-30th at the MGM Grand Resort Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas Nevada. Seats are limited so if you’re interested in taking the Sake CSP course  click on any of the CSP links in the article or email John Gauntner at mailto:SakeCourseStateside@sake-world.com. For all things sake and more detailed information on the course including the syllabus, be sure to visit John Gautners sake-world.com where you will find info on sake, books and e-books as well. If your having trouble finding a specific sake to purchase head over to esake.com.

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