John Attends Sake Sommelier Association Certified Course
John was invited to go down to London to attend the Sake Sommelier Association’s Certified Sommelier course. He had some knowledge of the drink having tasted it before, with an idea about how it was made and its history. He soon became fascinated. Sake has a very rich history and is produced in a unique way to other alcoholic beverages. It has an amazing ability to pair with a whole range of foods from different cultures. Here’s what John learned on this intensive course.
Sake bottles come in a wide range of imaginative shapes, sizes and colours. A marketer's dream!
What is Sake?
Sake is an alcoholic drink, made from special varieties of rice fermented with, spring water and ‘Koji’ (a special type of mould).
There are a lot of misconceptions, one of which is that it is fortified or very strong like a spirit. Sake is neither of those. Although it naturally reaches the highest percentage alcohol of any fermented beverage at 20%, the majority sold range between 12 and 18%. This puts it within the strength of many table wines.
Another is that it must be served warm. Although fuller bodied styles can be appreciated warm, Sake can be enjoyed at a whole range of temperatures- warm, room and chilled. In fact, some of the finest and most delicate styles are best served lightly chilled.
It is a very versatile drink and should be served to the guest’s preferences. It is also delightful as a base in a range of cocktails, thanks to its lack of tannin, harsh acidity and bitterness.
Sake related Items. Far left: Serving vessels. Top middle: Rice varieties used. Right: Sake barrel and the various grades of polished rice. The smallest had only 19% of the grains left!
History of Sake
Sake as we know it today, is surprisingly recent compared to wine. It is only in the last 600 years or so that it has been widely produced and consumed by everyone.
Cultivation of rice arrived in Japan around 300AD, imported from China. Up until around the 12th century, it was the preserve of Gods and the Imperial court only. ‘Kuchikami No Sake,’ or ‘Mouth Chewing Sake’ was rather disgustingly produced by first partially chewing the rice and coating it in saliva. It was later discovered that the enzyme, Amylase, began the breakdown of starch in the rice to sugar. This stage is needed before steamed Sake rice can be fermented. The ‘Koji’ mould performs this today, through ‘Multiple, Parallel Fermentation’ with the yeast.
From the 12th Century onwards, monasteries started producing it to raise funds. The Shogunates realised the potential for revenue- permitting its production if taxes were paid.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, more detailed records were kept. Interestingly, this included a reference to gently heating the Sake to prolong its life- a form of Pasteurisation, some 300 years before Pasteur documented it in his scientific papers! They also reveal the practice of polishing and pre-soaking the rice to obtain a higher quality drink.
In the last 120 years, brewing practices became much more consistent, methodical and hygienic, thanks to the work of the National Institute of Brewing Research- who distribute specific cultured yeast strains for Sake fermentation. Unlike in wine making, wild yeasts are generally not relied on by most Sake makers, as they are considered too unreliable and prone to encouraging undesirable organisms and off flavours.
Finally, in 1989, the classification system for Sake underwent a major restructure- culminating in 2012 with a simplification of labelling terms. A few of these have legal obligations to do with the minimum amount of polishing the rice has to undergo.
Sake 'Taste Test.' A few drops of the natural aromas are placed on each spoon
The flavours are best evaluated on the palate, rather than the nose with Sake.
We discovered the wide diversity of flavour groups that can be found in this wonderful drink, through the clever use of the ‘spoon taste test.’ This involved drops of natural flavourings from numbered vials being placed on the spoon sets. We then had to guess what we thought the flavour was. Depending on the style, it is various aromas like flowers, fruits and savoury things like honey, mushroom and grains.
The styles from more polished rice like Ginjo and Daiginjo are more delicate, floral and fruity, while fuller bodied ones like Futsu-shu and Honjozo tend to be more cereal and savoury in character.
Sake and food
Reading Sake labels
Except for a small number of details in English for export markets, the often very beautifully artistic bottle labels featured a whole host of intimidating Japanese characters, or ‘Kanji.’ Where to look for that vital information on style and what to expect from the taste?
The SSA came up with an ingenious solution- ‘Kanji Characters.’ Pictures of humorous fictitious people doing various activities were made up around the shape of each of the Kanji. This was an effective way of remembering! For example, ‘baby Jun plays with string,’ ‘Mai favourite is rice!’ Jun-Mai.
Sake on ice
Serving from the Sake Barrel
Proper storage, service and Sake advice for newcomers
Sake is one of the most versatile drinks when it comes to how to serve it as well. It is a very forgiving beverage, and its nuances can be enjoyed warm or chilled. However, we discovered it was important not to serve it too hot. Once above sixty degrees Celsius, the alcohol vapours begin to dominate. Ginjos, Daiginjos and sparkling Sakes are best enjoyed lightly chilled like a white wine, as this brings out their aromas.
However, all the Sakes we tasted were enjoyable at room temperature- so it is important to not worry too much and take note of your guests’ preferences. When introducing interested guests to Sake, we learned the simplest way, was to establish their preferences when it came to wines or spirits they were familiar with. Then we compared their preferences to the characteristics of each style of Sake. This avoided complicated explanations and ‘pushing’ our own likes and dislikes (or even worse, sales targets!) on guests. Potentially, this could put them off choosing it in future!
Sake with a Meal- The drink is served by the person to your right. The bottle is meant to always be in contact with the glass when pouring. It is apparently bad luck not to touch the two!
Food and Sake matching
Sake is very amenable to a wide range of foods, thanks to its desirable characteristics of being low in bitterness and harsh acidity like many wines and spirits. The key to matching with food is the different styles. Fuller bodied ones like Honjozo and Futsu-shu are higher in amino acids and pair very well with ‘Umami’ rich savoury, full flavoured dishes. The lighter, more delicate and fruity Ginjo and Daiginjo Sakes make excellent aperitifs and accompaniments to more delicate foods.
Most importantly of all, we experienced and described a whole host of culinary pairings from many cultures. Sake is great with Japanese and Asian cuisine but does not have to be confined to it! There were examples that went well with everything from French stews, to steak and fish and chips. (The sparkling Sake, with its bubbles and slightly higher acidity, was not dissimilar to a good bottle of fizz!).
John Callow of Northern Wine School, Certified Sake Sommelier
The exam and graduation ceremony
The exam was 45 minutes long, and involved multiple choice, short answer questions and a blind tasting of one Sake. It was quite a scary and daunting prospect, having had such a packed week and learning many terms in an unfamiliar language.
The coffee break after while they marked the papers was very tense. Fortunately, everyone passed, and we could enjoy the ceremony afterwards. The person with the highest score had the honour of ‘breaking’ the sake barrel and serving everyone from it. The seal apparently symbolised a mirror, which far from bad luck, was meant to signify an new beginning or chapter in something. It is brought out for weddings, birthday and business milestones. Afterwards we all enjoyed a selection of special Sakes and even got to try some plum wine, Japanese Whisky and Baiju!
Kanpai - Cheers!