Mike and Chao Become Sake Snobs

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And now, onto the final step of our west coast journey: a sake certification program, because the only logical step after a few days wandering, eating, and drinking is higher educations and, yes, more drinking. Think summer camp with booze, then let the jealousy wash over you.

The Sake Evangelist

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Sake and summer camp aside, the real highlight of the class is the instructor: John Gauntner. Besides being the one of the foremost authorities on sake in the world, he is also the only non-Japanese certified Master of Sake Tasting (in the world) and a Sake Expert Assessor, certified by Japan’s National Research Institute of Brewing.

Basically, if you’re serious about sake, chances are you’ll turn to this guy. And if you aren’t about to fly across the country for a three-day seminar (which isn’t weird, by the way), you can also pick up one of his books or peruse his incredibly informational website.

Sake School

The program is condensed into three days, which might be daunting if John wasn’t able to bounce so eloquently from topic to topic so fluidly. It truly takes someone talented to present that kind of material, in such detail and at that speed–and have us understand it.

Each day was composed of ten hours of class, lectures, tastings, tours, and everything we’ve ever or could ever want to know about sake, beginning with the overall process and breaking down into individual steps, subtleties, regions, and so on. When it comes to sake: John. Knows. Everything.

Lesson 1: Sake vs. Wine

Some wine-related knowledge definitely came in handy when learning about the process that goes into sake, at least as far as broad comparisons. There are “varietals” when it comes to the type of rice, grain, growing conditions, and from those varietals very specific differences in the production.

And yet, sake is, in many ways, more similar to beer than wine. After all, it’s made from rice, a starch, not a juice-bearing fruit beverage as with wine. Here’s where it gets scientific: in sake production, they use double parallel fermentation, meaning they can convert the starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol all in the same tank.

Another stark difference between wine and sake is in the growing conditions: yearly variations in wine are a part of the experience. With sake, consistency is the name of the game.

Lesson 2: Warm Sake

Another popular misconceptions of sake tells us that sake must be warmed to cover up flaws; anyone who has enjoyed a really good, cold bottle of sake knows how blatantly untrue this is. According to John, “Most premium sake today is delicate, fragrant, and elegant. To heat such sake would be to destroy precisely the flavors and fragrances the brewer worked so hard to have you enjoy!”

Lesson 3: Categorizing Sake

John’s site has an excellent page/table about types of sake that explains more of this, but the gist of it is this: There’s a hierarchy of sake that is categorized by the quality of the rice and the degree to which it as been milled down.

The highest “quality” of sake in this hierarchy is milled down to 50% or less of its original level, which essentially mills out some of the fats and proteins, getting the rice down to a pure starch. This can mean a much more flavorful profile of sake, but that’s not to say a sake made with rice milled down to just 70% is any less enjoyable–it’s merely a matter of preference.

Lesson 4: For Every Rule, There Is An Exception

If we had to boil it all down to one recurring theme, it’d be this: For every rule, there’s an exception.

There’s no set way how sake is supposed to be made and no certain way it’s supposed to taste (although there are standards). Every step of the brewing process can have its slight alteration, which can change the flavor of the sake altogether.

The Sake Mecca

If you’re ready to learn about sake stateside, you’ll have to wait another year for John’s next class. Or, take a tour of our “campus,” the extensive sake mecca that is SakeOne. Located in Forest Grove, Oregon, on the east slope of the Coast Range, SakeOne is one of the largest brewers in the U.S. It was great to be able to pair a real-world look at the facilities and process with our daily lectures and tastings.

On the very slight off-chance that the photos below don’t explain everything, check out our little link collection at the bottom of the post, and more importantly, take a look through SakeOne’s step-by-step set of videos on their site. Definitely worth watching if you’re interested: SakeOne-01 Videos (Get it? Ha.)

 

This machine programs the percentage to which the rice is milled down (discussed above).

 

And here are some bags of rice that have already been milled down. Now that, friends, will be a lot of sake.

 

Here they are measuring the temperature of the rices to make sure it is juuust right.

 

Chao double-checking his work. As a chef, he can just go on look and feel – he doesn’t need a thermometer.

 

Rice that has been cooked and is now being transferred into the koji to make the mold.

 

Spreading the rice out and making sure it doesn’t crumble; here they add the yeast to create the koji mold.

And our final (and favorite) photo: Peter sniffing some ultra-fresh, gag-inducing carbon dioxide and taking in the crackle of the rice.

The Sake

We don’t even want to think about doing the math on this one, but it was two or so tastings a day for three days, and then around 15 sakes per tasting. Factor in going balls to the wall every night with our “class” and you’ve got one hell of a weekend trip. Here are the highlights:

 

Eiko Fuji Junmai Ginjo (Yamagata) This one was a mild, fruity sake; apple flavors and a lower acidity. (More information)
 

Tentaka Tokubetsu Junmai Daijingo (Tochigi) This one had a cleaner flavor for that varietal of sake. (More information)
 

Kikuhime Yamahai Junmai (Ishikawa) This one was excellent served warm, and pairs really well with fish. (More information)
 

Kamoizumi Shusen Junmai Ginjo (Hiroshima) John’s all-time favorite (worth a mention). (More information)

And now, back to that whole booze-y summer camp experience we were talking about in the beginning. The picture of Chao drinking sake in the street is from our final night with our graduating class (seen above).

Keep in mind, this is the last of THREE nights doing this kind of drinking, held each night at a different izakaya, generally the establishment of one of our classmates. The third and final evening was held at the nicest of them all, and can we just say, it was phenomenal. There really was no better way to put our fresh knowledge to the test.

Additional Sake Resources

4 thoughts on “Mike and Chao Become Sake Snobs”

  1. Kampai! Great peice written by two fine sake students. Did that whole 1.8 ever get finished. So glad you had a chance to take John’s class and visit our Oregon Kura. Even happier that we had a chance to meet and enjoy a little sake.

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