WABI 和美 A Taste of Japan Trade day Friday 7 July 2017

This was another rather fortuitous event. After I decided to go to the International Wine Challenge (IWC) sake trophy winners tasting at the Japanese Embassy in London, I followed IWC on Twitter... and they were promoting WABI! As it turned out, I had booked to fly back to Zurich on Friday evening, so I had time to attend the trade day on Friday. I applied and seemed to get a positive response, but hadn't received anything by the time I left for the UK so I got in touch with WABI's team and they kindly resent the ticket to my hotel in London and I got it at the beginning of the week. 

Held in a Royal Horticultural Society hall close to Victoria Station, there was already a respectable queue forming by the time I arrived at what should have been the start time. (I'll remember that, turn up early for the next one...) The staff kept the lines moving and I had a chance to thank the woman who had sorted out my tickets in person. I collected my badge, dropped off my case at the cloakroom, and went inside to pick up brochure, free tasting glass and wrist band for Kenichi Ohashi's tasting session! I was really excited about the latter as I've come across him before and he's also the author of the foreword for the WSET textbook.

The rectangular hall had the glass collection/workshop area just inside the door on the right, then the right-hand wall was lined with small booths. There was a JNTO "networking zone" in the far corner, more larger booths at the back and down the left hand wall, and an IWC tasting area in the middle. I went in without much of a plan and ended up spending all my time just going up the right hand side of the hall!

First was Nihon Shurui Hanbai Co., Ltd., who had a selection of unusual beers (including rice and wasabi) and Daina sake from the Kikunosato brewery. I got talking to the woman behind the desk, who had the WSET Level 3 Award in Sake textbook out on the desk! When I told her I was a translator, she joked about being a "mickey mouse" interpreter but as I generally don't interpret at all I'm still impressed. 

There was a familiar face at the next stand - the Dewazakura brewery! They had brought their wonderful sparkling sake, Tobiroku, winner of the 2017 IWC trophy. Bubbling softly and wonderfully flavourful, it was far too easy to drink for something that was 15%. I thought it might go well as a summer party aperitif or in a cocktail, and Shotaro Nakano (pictured left) said they often recommend it for barbecues. I'm hoping to visit them in Japan later this year.

Their neighbour was Tonoike Shuzoten, based in the beautiful town of Mashiko - famous for another interest of mine, pottery. Company president Shigeki Tonoike is also the chairman of the Mashiko Town Tourist Association and was a great spokesman! It's also on my list to visit. 

As an aside, while looking through the brewery sites I realise how many of them have sidelines in cosmetics made from sake lees. I've seen reservatrol-based products in Jerez, Spain before, and there is a (tenuous!) connection to anti-ageing there, but not sure about sake lees. Making a note for future research.

Next was another familiar face from the IWC event at the Japanese embassy, Iimori Naoki of Fukuchiyo Shuzo Co., Ltd. based in Saga Prefecture in Kyushu, with his sake Nabeshima

His neighbour was yet another IWC trophy winner, this time Kan Otsuka of Nabedana, Inc., a brewery located not far from Tokyo in the green garden belt of Chiba, close to Narita airport.

Yet another embassy attendee was next door, this time Jun Ito of Ito Shuzou Co., Ltd., who make the wonderful Uzume - I managed to get some good shots of the gorgeous labels this time!

The following stand was the Japan Prestige Sake Association, represented by Masamitsu Takatsu. He was serving Ichinokura's sparkling sake Suzune and Tsukasabotan's delicious yuzu sake Yama Yuzu Shibori. (I admit it, I'm all over anything with unusual Japanese citrus fruit.)

Katsumi Tanaka of Daishinsyu Breweries Inc. was at the next stand, offering not only his sake but also a menu of tasty bites developed by Yamao to complement them. 

Interestingly, one comment I've heard from a few people is that the Sake Service Institute (SSI) sake course spends a lot more time on food pairing, which is only given cursory treatment in the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust (WSET) course. So it was interesting to see the food pairing here, and it was the only stand that I visited that was offering it. Mind you, that could have been a question of the additional logistics of providing matched food over and above bringing sake from Japan.

The "Tsumami menu":

  • Lily root, prawn and pork shumai dumpling
  • Fresh crab, apricot, pea and pomegranate salad with yuzu dressing
  • Avocado roll with sansho and yama-wasabi (from Hokkaido)

Mikihito Ibaraki of Ibaraki Shuzo had brought his sake Rairaku, and in a format I'd never seen before - an iced keg of unpasteurised sake with a beer-style tap, which kept the sake safely isolated from the air. It was wonderfully fresh and chilled!

Uzume had a strong contender for labels in the gorgeous woodblock print-style images of cranes on bottles of Konotori, from the Tajime General Partnership which also brews Chikuzen sake. President Hirotaka Tajime was on hand to serve both types, and he later told me about Sake Seven, a group of small breweries who have partnered with a logistics company to make it easier to export.

One of the last stands I visited on the right hand side of the hall had one of my favourite sakes! The Tanaka Saketen stand had the amazing, punchy Jabara sake, flavoured with yet another Japanese citrus fruit you've probably never heard of. I had a great chat with Shuji Furui of Yoshimura-Hideo Shoten Co., Ltd. about the availability of sake in Europe, particularly Switzerland. 

The final stand I visited was Maruki - apparently "Marquis" - Winery, based in the traditional Japanese wine region of Koshu. Yes, there is a small but definite tradition of wine in Japan! Their rose was incredible, tasting just like strawberries.

The "networking zone" was mostly Japanese officials talking amongst themselves, among the posters and mounds of leaflets.

At the back of the hall, Bibendum had a wide range of sake on offer, including Richie Hawtin's Enter Sake brand. And Natsuki Kikuya was there!

Cellar Trends next door had mostly Japanese whiskey but also one rum from Shikoku, Ryoma, which my brother and his other half bought after being disappointed with the Okinawan rum available at Japan Centre.

The one thing I was most looking forward to was a chance to hear and maybe even meet Kenichi Ohashi MW (Master of Wine) - I'd come across him before and credit him with my becoming interested in sake! His tasting session was scheduled for 3:00 pm, which should have allowed me time to attend and try to have a word afterwards before running for the airport... unfortunately the event running before his, the Hyogo Prefecture tasting, ran over, and then Kenichi ran over as well, so I actually had to leave just as he finished his presentation and was starting the tasting. At least I got to hear him speak live.

And that was it for me! I scurried out of the tasting as quietly as I could, grabbed my case and speed-walked to Victoria to get the train to Gatwick. I didn't see half of what was there, the sushi areas, IWC discovery tasting, Choya, Hyogo Prefecture, Clearspring, Japan Airlines (JAL), Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), Japan Centre, Aizu Homare, Kamoizumi, Kayashima/Nishinoseki, Marussia/Akashi-Tai, Sake Experience Japan, Urakasumi/Saura or The Kyoto Distillery.

There are currently plans to run the event again next year, and if so I'll have to give myself more time and go to the trade day plus one of the public sessions. But it was another wonderful opportunity to meet and talk to brewers and see Kenichi Ohashi live! Looking forward to WABI 2018.

IWC Trophy winning sake tasting at Japanese Embassy London July 2017

This was a classic case of a good deed coming back to reward you in expected ways. I gave my brother a ticket to a Sake Service Institute (SSI) tasting for his birthday last year, as a result of which he was put on a mailing list advertising this event. He forwarded the email to me and I asked to attend even through I hadn't been on the original list, and the Japanese Embassy kindly allowed me to come along and take photos.

I arrived early at 5:30 pm on Wednesday 5 July 2017 to go through security and attend a press briefing (and spent the rest of the evening explaining that I'm not a reporter) before being ushered upstairs to the embassy reception rooms where the hosts and International Wine Challenge sake category trophy winners were waiting to give their presentations before the tasting.

We were addressed by Hiroshige Seko, Japanese Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry, Andrew Reed of the International Wine Challenge, Rie Yoshitake, Sake Samurai, and Chris Ashton of the International Wine Challenge.

Minister Seko commented that sake exports were up by 10%, and that over 1,200 sakes from 300 brewers had been tasted in Hyogo in the run up to the IWC awards. He referred to London as the vanguard of sake in Europe.

Andrew Reed of the IWC reminded everyone that the grand prize for the sake category would be announced at their gala dinner the following evening, and also offered free tickets to the WABI Japanese food and drink event to all attendees. (I went to the trade day on Friday 7 July 2017, which I'll write up soon.)

Rie Yoshitake introduced the Sake Samurai Association, founded in 2006 with the aim of protecting sake culture and promoting sake internationally. 

The brewers and their trophies were:

  • Seitoku Meijo Co., Ltd. with Seitoku Bessen (Futsushu Trophy and Great Value Trophy) and Seitoku Ginjo
  • Ichinokura Co., Ltd. with Ichinokura Muroka Honjozo Amaguchi [non-fined honjozo sweet] (Honjozo Trophy and Great Value Trophy) and Ichinokura Madena (Miyakgi Koshu Trophy)
  • Nanbu Bijin Co., Ltd. with Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai (Junmai Trophy) and Nanbu Bijin Honjozo (IWC 2016 Honjozo Trophy and IWC 2017 Commended)
  • Homare Sake Brewery Co., Ltd. with Junmai Ginjo Karahashi Yamadanishiki (Junmai Ginjo Trophy) and Aizu Homare Junmai Daiginjo (IWC 2015 Champion Sake and IWC 2017 Silver)
  • Horie Brewing Co., Ltd. with Kinsuzume (Junmai Daiginjo Trophy) and Kinsuzume Hisho (IWC 2016 Gold and IWC 2017 Silver)
  • Doishuzojo Co., Ltd. with Kaiun Ginjo Yamadanishiki (Ginjo Trophy) and Kaiun Junmai Ginjo Yamadanishiki (IWC 2017 Siver)
  • Goto Shuzoten Limited Partnership with Benten Gokujyo Daiginjo Genshu Yamadanishiki (Daiginjo Trophy) and Benten Junmai Daiginjo Genshu Kame-no-O (IWC 2017 Silver)
  • Nishiuchi Shuzo with Tanzan Kijyoushu Ruijyoushu (Koshu Trophy) and Tanzan Kijyoshu (IWC 2017 Silver)
  • Dewazakura Sake Brewery Co., Ltd. with Tobiroku (Sparkling Trophy) and Ichiro (IWC 2008 Champion Sake and IWC 2017 Silver)
  • Nabedana, Inc. with Fudoh Keikai Karakuchi (Chiba Futsushu Trophy and Great Value Trophy) and Fudoh Junmai Daiginjo (IWC 2017 Commended)
  • Endo Brewery Co., Ltd. with Keiryu Kuragoki (Nagano Futsushu Trophy and Great Value Trophy) Naotora Junmai Ginjo
  • Ito Shuzou Co., Ltd. with Uzume Houjou no Mai Tokubetsu Junmai (Mie Junmai Trophy) and Uzume Junmai Daiginjo Hizoushu
  • Fukuchiyo Shuzou Co., Ltd. with Nabeshima Tokubetsu Honjozo (Saga Honjozo Trophy) and Nabeshima Daiginjo (IWC 2011 Champion Sake and IWC 2017 Bronze)
  • Kamoizumi Shuzo Co., Ltd. with Junmaiginjo Shusen and Nigori Ginjo "Summer Snow"
  • Kobe Shu-Shin-Kan Breweries, Ltd. with Fukuju Daiginjo and Fukuju Junmai Ginjo
  • Saura Co., Ltd. with Urakasumi Junmai Daiginjo "M" (IWC 2017 Gold) and Junmai Ginjo Urakasumi Zen
  • Sake of Hyogo (regional association) with Honda Shoten Co., Ltd. Tatsuriki Junmaiginjo Dragon Black and Tatsuriki Junmaiginjo Yamadanishiki, Yasufuku Matashirou Co., Ltd. Daikoku Masamune Junmai Ginjo Hyogo Nishiki, and Shimomura Shuzoten Co., Ltd. Okuharima Junmai Ginjo Hyogo Nishiki

Sake of Hyogo, a regional association dedicated to promoting (evidently) sake from Hyogo, also gave a presentation. As well as introducing a new variety of sake rice, Hyogo Nishiki, the representative (whose name I didn't catch) spoke extensively on the Hyogo "terroir".

This was a bit mystifying, as Natsuki Kikuya (the tutor on the WSET Level 3 Award in Sake course) had been clear that there was virtually no "terroir" from the rice variety used to produce a sake. Other factors in the production process, such as yeast and starter method (kimoto, yamahai, sokujo) could be detected in the final aroma and taste, but not the rice. This particularly makes sense for daiginjo and ginjo styles, where the rice is intensively milled before brewing starts, leaving only the starch core. It could be that the "terroir" here was the traditional, distinctive Hyogo brewing practices that produce a specific type of sake, but as both the WSET course and John Gauntner point out (in Regionality in sake), there is no causal connection to the region where the raw materials were produced in the same way as there is with grapes, coffee beans or cacao. Regional differences in the mineral content of local water do have an effect, but rice is frequently shipped to different regions for sake production. The same area - even the same brewery - can produce completely different styles from the same raw materials. So I wasn't entirely sure what this "terroir" was about.

One very nice touch was that the IWC judges had been invited to transplant rice seedlings during their visit to Hyogo and the Sake of Hyogo team had brought sake made from that rice. 

Although the event ran from 6:00  to 8:15 pm, after the greetings and presentations I didn't have time to get around both rooms and talk to everyone, let alone try all the sake. My tasting skills aren't developed enough to get much out of such a hit-and-run approach to so many sakes. In the end I made it all the way around one room and half way around the other, with a quick dash right as time was being called to sample the Nara Tanzan kijoshu ruijoshu, a style I hadn't tried before. 

It was a fantastic opportunity to meet so many brewers and taste so many sakes, and I'm very grateful to both the IWC and the Embassy of Japan in the UK for hosting the event along with Sake Samurai. It was a wonderful evening where I had a chance to briefly catch up with a few people, like Oliver Hilton-Johnson of Tengu Sake and Tom and Lucy from Kanpai London (a sake microbrewery in Peckham). Natsuki Kikuya was there as well, although I didn't realise it at the time! 

The event was very crowded - I arrived early and didn't notice how many other people were there until one speaker referred to "people standing at the back" and I realised how full the room had become. There were small crowds of people around each table and you had to patiently wait to make your way to the front to taste the sake, let alone speak to the brewers or their representatives. This wasn't great for me, as I wanted to talk to the people behind the stands and take my time tasting the sake. As it was, there was no room to put the event booklet down and take notes (even though there was space for your own notes in the booklet, underneath the official tasting notes) or to jot down any interesting observations or ideas to follow up on. But it wasn't my event and maybe the aim was to introduce as many people as possible to as much sake as possible in two hours or less.

Based on my brother's experience at the event two years ago we started in the second room. Previous events had been held after the IWC awards dinner, when the Champion trophy had already been awarded, so there had been an issue with everyone heading for the Champion sake first and the brewer running out. However, as this event was held the night before the final IWC award for the Champion in the sake category there was no such pressure. 

The first table we went to was Nabedana, where the interpreter offered us their excellent Fudoh Keikai Karakuchi. She introduced it as a "lower" type, probably referring to the sake milling ratio pyramid which lists the different recognised styles (tokutei meisho) in order of how much of the rice is milled away - daiginjo/junmai daiginjo are at the top with their minimum milling ratio of 50%, followed by ginjo/junmai ginjo with 60% of the grain remaining, and honjozo/tokubetsu honjozo/junmai/tokubetsu junmai at at the base with a minimum milling ratio of 70%. 

This pyramid gives a certain amount of information about the style of the sake, as daiginjo and ginjo tend to be light and floral, and honjozo and non-ginjo junmai are generally more full-bodied and savoury. (Image on the right taken from Tengu Sake.) However, not only is this a rule with plenty of exceptions, there's an unfortunate tendency to assume that the top of the pyramid means higher quality, when this isn't necessarily the case. (Mathieu and Emi at MAME, where I do my coffee tasting, are very keen to avoid this automatic ranking that the mind performs in the absence of other information, diligently hiding packaging and identifying coffees only by three-digit numbers to avoid preconceptions. It's an interesting case of "system 1" as described in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.)

I much prefer the SSI's "four types", based on two axes of aroma and flavour, which gives similar information about style without suggesting any innate level of quality. It can also accommodate styles that don't fit in the pyramid, such as new, unpasteurised sake (nama) and aged sake (koshu). I haven't been able to find an English version of their chart, but the one on the right from the Japanese Sake and Shochu Makers Association has a great summary. (Click on the images to go to the pages they're originally used on.)

Sake milling rate pyramid (Tengu Sake)

"Four types" diagram, which I think comes from the SSI (image from Japanese Sake)

I met Oliver Hilton-Johnson again at WABI and suggested a short introduction to sake might be useful for the next event - I don't know what the target audience was and therefore if everyone would be familiar with sake terminology. Not all the brewers tried to explain the styles they had brought for tasting, and Nabedana may have focused on explaining the futsushu style as that was the IWC trophy they won, but if some attendees didn't know much about sake then a bit of information might have been useful. There was no explanation of styles in the event booklet.

I would have loved to have more time, and more space. This was more like my idea of speed dating than a tasting. At least I was able to greet most of the brewers and exchange cards and follow up with them later, and I've put a few more pins in my map of places I want to go in Japan. (It's getting to the point where a month won't be long enough to go everywhere.)

A lot of my photos didn't come out well. I'm not a professional photographer and couldn't get good shots in the indoor lighting (let alone when the brewers were standing in the projected images during their presentations) but I'll post the few good ones.

Favourite moments:

  • Sitting in the audience waiting for the presentations to start and seeing all the brewers' happi jackets emblazoned with the brewery and sake names. The Dewazakura ones really stood out in their light blue.
  • Listening to the brewers introducing their sake, most with the aid of an interpreter. An early presenter used the English word "Wow!" in his greeting, and that became the meme for the evening with lots of following presenters incorporating it into their speeches! So much passion and enthusiasm.
  • The warm welcome at each stand, and starting off with the delicious Fudoh futsushu from Nabedana. I'm not really a top-of-the-pyramid person.
  • Spotting the My Neighbour Totoro tie worn by the Kamoizumi brewer and founder of the Sake Samurai Association, Maegaki Kazuhiro.
  • The care and attention of Iimori Naoki, the Nabeshima brewer, who washed our glasses out after we tasted the cloudy nigori sake at the previous table.
  • The beautiful retro styling and unusual Western-style drawings on the Ito Shuzo Uzume labels.
  • Laughing with the two ladies on the Homare stand as I identified myself as a "ginjo girl" and my brother's partner as "daiginjo girl".
  • Tasting the extraordinary Ichinokura Madena aged sake.
  • Tasting the equally wonderful Nara Tanzan kijoushu ruijoshu, which I had never encountered before.

I'm aware that there's a lot of specialist terminology in here, and I need to work on producing a glossary! That will be next on the list after I post photos from the embassy and write up the trade day at WABI from Friday 7 July 2017.

With distinction!

There was a pleasant surprise waiting for me in the post when I got back from Cardiff - the results of my WSET Level 3 Award in Sake!

As I mentioned in the write-up of the course, I was very worried about the tasting component of the exam as I didn't have a lot of experience in tasting (sake or otherwise) and wasn't sure how much I would be required to do for a blind tasting in order to even pass... but thanks to the wonderful Natsuki Kikuya I not only passed but got a distinction!

Absolutely delighted and will be using the official logo with pride on my next set of business cards. ^___^

Sake and chocolate tasting April 2017

I had only heard about pairing aged sake (koshu, 古酒) with chocolate, so I was surprised when Matthew Headland (@connectniigata) suggested pairing non-aged sakes. I had plenty of chocolate left over from our Easter chocolate tasting, so I decided to give it a try! The two Dolphin bars were gone by now, although I still had a bit of the 40% and half the 35% Labooko bar and most of the 80% and 100% single origin bars. 

With no idea how to go about it, I searched for some ideas on how to taste chocolate with wine, and came across a guide to chocolate and wine tasting from Lindt. I went with the suggestion of allowing the chocolate to partially melt in your mouth and then drinking, although I'll look around again and see if there are other suggestions. In the end I tasted each combination twice, once with the chocolate and sake in the mouth together and once drinking the sake after eating the chocolate, while the aftertaste was still there.

I took the chocolate out of the fridge to let it come up to room temperature, then took the sake out just before I started so it was chilled but not too cold - I only had one bottle left in the fridge, the lovely Kotsuizumi Rojo-hana-ari Kurobotan junmai daiginjo.

Labooko Panama 35%

  • With sake: No. The Panama 35% is very mild and sweet, with a creamy, slightly spicy coconut flavour, and drinking the sake with it in my mouth turned the combination acidic, sharp and sour.
  • Sake after chocolate: Still no, the lingering sweetness of the chocolate aftertaste made the sake taste sour.

Labooko Santo Domingo 40%

  • With sake: Better, but still not a good match. There was none of the sourness that came with the Panama 35%.
  • Sake after chocolate: Against the aftertaste of the chocolate, the sake was sharp and bitter. Not a good match.

Migros Selection Trinidad 80%

  • With sake: I was starting to think the sake and chocolate combination wasn't going to work at all at this point, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was a much better match! The chocolate was strong enough to complement the sake, and the flavours blended together well to give a liqueur chocolate taste with a lovely finish. The sake really brought out the cocoa notes in the chocolate. 
  • Sake after chocolate: Really nice, the sake worked well against the rich aftertaste, providing lighter notes which complemented the lingering flavours.

Migros Selection Madagascar 100%

  • With sake: No sourness, but the flavours didn't mix at all and stayed separate in the mouth.
  • Sake after chocolate: The 100% bar didn't have much of an aftertaste, so there wasn't much for the sake to work with. The sake was pleasant after the chocolate, but there was no mingling of flavour like there was with the 80%.

So, all in all, a bit of a mixed result although the 80% was promising. I'll have to try again, maybe with a 60% or 70% bar, and also try different styles of sake. Needless to say, after good experiences with nigori and dessert, that's top of my list!

One sake, two ways: drinking vessels

I had read about the effect of drinking vessels during the WSET Level 3 course, but all the tasting during the classroom sessions was from their ISO glasses so although we experienced a lot of variety (including the sake sakes warm and cold) we never tested the effect of what you were drinking from. I got into conversation on Twitter with sake enthusiast and fledgling kurabito Origin Sake (Origin Sake, @originsakeblog) and interpreter, translator and promoter Matthew Headland of Connect Niigata (@connectniigata) about how the drinking vessel affects the sake, after which Origin Sake did a test with four vessels: a wine glass, a Bizen-yaki earthenware cup, a cedar masu box and a sake glass.

It was a relief when he pronounced the wine glass and earthenware cup as the best, as I don't have either a masu box or a sake glass at the moment! (They are on the list...) I tried first with Kikusui Junmai, a refreshing, not-too-delicate sake stocked by Shinwazen. I took it out of the fridge, let it warm up a little so it was still chilled but not so cold, and then poured into both the WSET ISO glass and my glazed cup.

Kikusui Junmai

ISO glass: The sake made quite a strong impression out of the wine glass, with a definite creamy edge. There was umami and alcohol, some rice/koji flavours, and also a hint of lemon. Overall it was fairly light, delicate and mild.

Glazed cup: The same sake certainly felt different from the glazed cup. It was smoother, and the rice/koji flavour was more dominant. The alcohol and creaminess were still there, but not nearly as noticeable. The overall impression was milder and to be honest, I preferred it to the glass at least for this sake.

One thing I really noticed was how the glass and glazed cup brought the sake onto the tongue - the glass is slightly tulip-shaped (all the better to catch those aromas) and has a thin lip which brings the sake onto the front and centre of the tongue. The cup had a broader lip and larger aperture, and distributed the sake over the centre and sides of the tongue, which will affect the taste.

Looking back at Origin Sake's post, I didn't stop to smell the aromas! I'll keep that in mind for next time. I also seem to have had the opposite impression than he did - I felt the flavours were more intense from the wine glass and mellower from the cup. 

Kotsuizumi Rojo-hana-ari Kurobotan junmai daiginjo

The second sake I tried this experiment with was a lovely junmai daiginjo that Markus at Shinwazen served during the impromptu sake tasting he held for me just before the WSET course - Kotsuizumi Rojo-hana-ari Kurobotan. I adore the bottle and the design, although the smaller 300 ml bottle is transparent glass with a sticker and actually quite hard to see. I decided to taste in the opposite order this time, cup then glass.

Glazed cup: The sake was juicy, dry and fruity with some lactic and rice notes, and again I noticed how the cup directed the sake to wash all over the tongue, hitting the centre, sides and back. Like the junmai, I felt that the sake was a little more savoury from the cup. It had a slight bitterness (which we had noticed before when it was chilled), and a gentle but lingering finish with a hint of umami.

ISO glass: From the glass, the sake was fruity and sharp, but still relatively dry. There were less of the lactic and rice notes, and again the glass directed the liquid onto the front and centre of the tongue, not onto the sides. The sake tasted a bit more delicate, less bitter, and with a more juicy finish that didn't linger as long as it did from the cup.

So that was it for that experiment - I need to go shopping again as that was the last bottle of sake I had in the fridge! But while I had it there, and there was still some chocolate left over from our Easter tasting session... it was sake and chocolate time!

 

By Yulianna.x (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Koji

Like wine and beer, sake uses yeast to turn sugar into alcohol. But where does the sugar come from? 

Grapes already contain sugar in the form of glucose and fructose, but rice and the grains used for beer store their energy as long-chain carbohydrates that yeast enzymes can't process. Grains are malted, or sprouted, to make beer. Enzymes released as the grain sprouts breaks the carbohydrate stores down into sugar needed for growth.

This isn't an option for sake, as the part of the rice grain needed for germination is removed when the rice is polished. So where does the sugar come from? The answer is from a mould, Aspergillus oryzae.

A. oryzae feeds on the rice, releasing enzymes that break down the long-chain carbohydrates into sugar, supplying the yeast that produces alcohol. Beer brewing is a two-stage process where sugars are first produced through malting, followed by fermentation where sugar is converted to alcohol. Sake brewing is slightly different, as both processes happen at the same time - koji continuously breaks carbohydrates down into sugar, and the sugar is simultaneously converted into alcohol by yeast. This process is called multiple parallel fermentation.

You can read more about A. oryzae genetics here: Genomics of Aspergillus oryzae: Learning from the History of Koji Mold and Exploration of its Future (Machida et al., 2008)

By Yulianna.x (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

WSET Level 3 Award in Sake Review

Why a sake course? 

Although I had known about sake for years, I developed a keener interest when a Japanese viniculture student whose academic work I had translated starting promoting his national drink - sake. His marketing material for breweries combined historical, geographical, geological, agricultural, and tourist information with descriptions of the range of sake produced, and I found that I enjoy tackling this multifaceted view of one place and activity.

Just as for any translation project, I research the subject so I can produce a coherent, well-written English version. There is quite a bit of information about sake online, although no one site had everything I was looking for so it took time, effort, and more than a little ingenuity at times. There was good coverage of sake styles and the basics of the production process but not a lot of detail, which is only to be expected if the subject doesn't (yet) have a large following in English-speaking countries.

There was also the issue of translating tasting notes. I found little in the way of terminology online beyond the very basics (there was a reason for this, as I would discover later). Even if I could find good resources, aroma and flavour terms are unlikely to have neat one-to-one equivalence across languages. It takes a deeper understanding to be able to decide when to follow established terminology, if it even exists, and when to deviate from it.

And then there’s the translator's eternal dilemma - remain faithful to the source language or adapt to the target language? There is educational value in introducing and explaining Japanese terminology as it familiarises English-speaking readers with the original concepts. On the other hand, foreign terminology (especially lots of it) can make text harder to read and less immersive, which can be an issue for marketing material that aims to be engaging and persuasive. Knowing more about a subject - including how familiar the audience for your translation is likely to be with it - helps in striking the right balance.

Why the WSET?

A number of organisations run sake courses in English. The ones I considered were:

I was already familiar with the SSI as I knew people with their qualifications (including Yuko Baumgartner at Shinwazen). I had come across the WSET while working on wine translations, but only found the SEC through one of its founder members, sake expert John Gauntner. (I later found out that Markus Baumgartner of Shinwazen had taken both SEC courses, Certified Sake Professional and Advanced Sake Professional, and recommended them highly.) The Sake Sommelier Academy came up later when I searched for more sake courses to see if I had missed any.

I evaluated the courses I found based on their content, in-person teaching time, location (I'm based in Zürich, Switzerland), and price. I only discovered the SSI correspondence option after I'd booked my course, but included it here for reference.

My aim was to take the most intensive, highest-level course possible without prior qualifications. I ruled out the Sake Sommelier Academy as they only had one or two-day courses running in the UK with the more advanced three-day course held in Japan. I also couldn't find any prices on their site and it wasn’t clear if you had to do the courses in sequence. The SSI and WSET courses were almost identical in content and teaching time, with the SEC course covering similar ground but apparently more focused on tasting.

Course Location Days Exam Cost (GBP) Reviews
SSI Master of Sake (taught by Master of Sake/Enshu) London, UK 3? Written + tasting, a few weeks after the course £463 £463  
SSI Master of Sake correspondence course N/A None Submit assignments, organise own tasting JPY 53,650 (incl. postage to Europe) £385  
WSET Level 3 Award in Sake London, UK 2.5 2.5 hours, multiple choice + written questions + blind tasting, on fourth day £493 £493 Anna Greenhaus, Harpers
WSET Level 3 Award in Sake (taught by l'école du vin) Biel, Switzerland 2.5? 2.5 hours, multiple choice + written questions + blind tasting, on fourth day? CHF 1,980 £1,580  
SEC Certified Sake Professional (CSP) Tokyo, San Francisco, other? 2.5 (plus brewery visits when held in Japan) Multiple choice, on third day (timing may differ when held in Japan) USD $899 £720 Slava Beliakova (blog)

(Information as of beginning of April 2017, cost in GBP added for comparison.)

Even after living in Switzerland for several years, the cost of the WSET course in Biel was a shock. The SEC site only listed one upcoming course, in the USA, which left me with the SSI and WSET courses. Taking a course in London would add travel and accommodation costs, but I was prepared for that as I wanted to do the course in English. And, as often happens, the decision came down to something I hadn't even considered - how the course was structured. The SSI course had a gap of a few weeks between the classroom teaching and the exam, but the WSET held their exam the day after the course finished. I would have to travel to London twice for the SSI qualification, but only once for WSET.

WSET Level 3 Award in Sake course

Once I had decided on a course, I looked for dates. I needed to be in London for my BSc graduation ceremony on Saturday 26 March 2017, and there was a WSET Level 3 Award in Sake course running Monday 20 - Thursday 23 March. I couldn't have asked for better timing!

I registered and paid for the course easily through the WSET site. There were no requirements beyond paying the fee, although the course specifications give recommended levels of English ability to take the course. Students have to complete the online module Introduction to Sake in the two weeks before the classroom dates, which I later found out covered the content of the one-day WSET Level 1 course. I received my account details soon after paying and was able to access the module from January onwards. It provides a solid overview of the legal requirements, raw ingredients, brewing process, and styles and also features entertaining short videos starring Master of Wine Sam Harrop being guided around Japanese rice fields, breweries, and restaurants by fellow MW Kenichi OhashiThe courseware system was the same one used by the Open University for its computer-marked tests, so I nostalgically cycled through the end of section quizzes until I'd seen all of the multiple-choice questions. I didn't know at the time that the online module was the Level 1 course so I assumed the multiple-choice questions were those that would appear on the exam - they weren't.

The online module text needs serious editing. Content was heavily duplicated across sections later on in the course, and some sentences were so poorly written as to be incomprehensible. I reported this to the WSET office in advance of the recommended date for starting the module, and was assured that they were aware of the problem and the material was scheduled to be reviewed, but no changes had been made when the course started in March 2017.

The Level 3 textbook Understanding sake: Explaining style and quality shipped soon after registration and the WSET office kindly provided me with tracking details. The venerable National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB) is credited with a technical edit of most chapters, which lends it a great deal of authority. This slim volume goes into a lot more detail on the legal definition of sake, raw materials and preparation, the brewing process, finishing, storage, serving, tasting, and the global sake industry. It was heavy going and I took it one chapter at at a time, making notes as I went. I also read John Gauntner’s Sake Confidential before the course, which is split into nice bite-size chapters and gives an alternative take on a range of sake concerns.

The course specifications recommend allocating a minimum of 28 hours for the course, a combination of private study and taught classroom time, and says that teaching should be at least 14 hours (it was more like 16). That implies 14 hours of private study time before/during the course, but I think that’s an underestimate. Even though I already speak and read Japanese, I spent over 30 hours on the online course and textbook before the classroom sessions and also used the whole of the Wednesday afternoon during the course for exam revision.

The WSET School is centrally located next to London Bridge rail and underground station, within easy reach of shops, cafes, restaurants, and a popular market. I walked there from where I was staying to avoid the London morning rush hour. Despite the location the rooms were quiet and there was no distracting outside noise.

There were a few discrepancies when it came to communication and organisation. It wasn't clear from the information provided if the course ran for a full day on the Wednesday or not. The course description said 9:00 am - 5:00 pm Monday to Wednesday with the exam on Thursday morning, but a sample timetable showed Wednesday as a half day with classes in the morning only. I emailed the WSET office the week before the course to ask for confirmation, but I was told that they didn't know and I should assume that Wednesday would be a full day. It wasn't, and it was clear from the schedule we were given on Monday morning that there was nothing planned for Wednesday afternoon. The WSET office repeatedly warned students that there was no facility for overnight storage and we would have to carry our box of six tasting glasses to and from the classroom every day - the tutor encouraged us to store them on tables in the classroom overnight and members of WSET staff coming in and out of the classroom with printouts and tasting samples didn't seem to have any problem with it.

There was no question that we had great instruction - our tutor was Natsuki Kikuya, one of the specialists who developed the course. Natsuki's family operate a sake brewery, so she has first-hand experience of the brewing process. She also runs the Museum of Sake in the UK and has been appointed a Sake Samurai by the Junior Council of the Japan Sake Brewers Association for her ongoing efforts in promoting the drink as part of Japan's cultural heritage.

She was happy to answer questions and expand on information in the online course and textbook, and picked up on problems quickly. For example, when the two halves of the room disagreed when tasting she checked the two bottles that had been supplied and found that one was older than the other, which explained the difference. (The more perfumed ginjo/daiginjo styles lose their aromas over time.) We also heard about her concept of a sake renaissance at the beginning of the 20th century, coinciding with the founding of the NRIB and the Brewing Society of Japan, disastrous mistakes in the storage and shipping of sake around the world, and entertaining anecdotes about the “smell of death” (dimethyl trisulfide, or DMTS).

There were 24 students in the course, and more on a waiting list. (The SSI site says they cap their classes at 20 students, and John Gauntner tweeted that the April 2017 CSP class had 60 attendees.) Some worked in restaurants and bars or wine shops, others were just there out of personal interest, and one had a day job but moonlighted as London’s first sake brewer! The classroom setup was good, with slides projected onto a screen clearly visible from all seats, a bank of sinks available to wash glasses and one tap for drinking water. However, there were issues with too much artificial and not enough natural light, which interfered with evaluating colour during the tasting exercises.

The two and a half days of classroom time covered:

  • Sake labels (including 20 Japanese characters needed to read and understand them, 10 of which were introduced in the Level 1 course)
  • Tasting and evaluation
  • Rice varieties, milling and preparation
  • Water
  • Koji (the mould Aspergillus oryzae that breaks carbohydrates in rice down into sugar)
  • Yeast
  • Shubo/moto (fermentation starter)
  • Moromi (main fermentation)
  • Pressing
  • Finishing
  • Storage and serving
  • Styles and special designation
  • Service temperature (which styles benefit from being heated)
  • Speciality categories (sparkling, cloudy, undiluted, aged, unpasteurised)
  • Region/terroir (or lack of same)
  • Global sake industry
  • Sake outside Japan
  • Sake in restaurants/bars (creating sake lists, profit margins)
  • Mock blind tastings and short written answer questions (but no mock multiple choice questions)

As you can imagine from the long list of subjects, very little time was spent on each one. Many included tastings as well. Anyone who had not completed the online module and gone through the textbook in detail would have struggled, and I found myself wishing I’d set aside more time to go through the textbook at least once more and consolidate my notes. Natsuki was clear that we were expected to know not just the basics but also the details and terminology for the exam.

The course specifications set out the information needed for the exam clearly, and we were encouraged to base our revision on the specifications rather than on the textbook, which provided more information than we needed. We had two mock short written questions, one on Monday and one on Tuesday, which gave us an idea of the level of detail required. 

As the theory was Unit 1 and tasting was Unit 2, I was expecting the exam to be in that order, but the half-hour blind tasting of two sakes was done first. The theory part of the exam was one and a half hours. The multiple-choice questions were straightforward, and the short written questions were challenging but a good way to show the extent of your understanding.

Tasting

The part of the course I was most worried about was tasting. I had absolutely no experience in this area and had only been to a few coffee cupping sessions at Mame at the beginning of the year plus a hastily arranged two-hour session at Shinwazen the week before the course. Markus pulled out all the stops and we tasted fourteen bottles (see Sake tasting at Shinwazen, March 2017 for all the details).

My aim from that session was to be able to taste the difference between ginjo/daiginjo and non-ginjo/daiginjo styles but Markus' selection leans heavily towards junmai ginjo/daiginjo so I didn't have a chance to taste many honjōzō, non-ginjo/daiginjo junmai or non-junmai ginjo/daiginjo. I got the one honjōzō and non-ginjo/daiginjo junmai he stocks and tried tasting them myself using the WSET approach, and at least I was able to match up the basic characteristics of the different styles that I’d read about with what I could see, smell and taste.

The allocation of points for the tasting exam was spelled out very clearly on the morning of day one (although the slides were out of date and didn't always match the current testing requirements). The tastings were well organised, with a selection of relevant sake presented at the end of each session, for example sake made from different varieties of rice at the end of the session on rice as a raw material. We tasted a total of 37 sakes during the course, all chosen to illustrate a specific point about raw materials, brewing process, or specialist varieties.

But you can only retain so much over two and a half days and all the tastings tended to blur together. There’s no hope of developing the ability to discriminate flavours and aromas in such a short time, and although Natsuki said it was possible to taste for starter fermentation method and yeast variety I knew I had no hope of detecting anything so subtle.

There were issues with the bottles chosen for tasting, such as the out-of-date bottles mentioned above, and more seriously with the selections for mock blind tastings at the end of the day on Monday and Tuesday. They were chosen by a member of WSET staff, not by Natsuki. She didn’t mark the first blind tasting at all, as it was something that would never come up on an exam. And even though she did mark the second one, she also commented that it was not a sake that would be given for the exam and wasn’t suitable for practice. So, we lost both chances at getting feedback on blind tasting. I ended up stopping at Japan Centre on Wednesday afternoon to pick up a small bottle of junmai daiginjo (Shirataki Shuzo Jozen Mizu no Gotoshi, not listed individually on the site but it's the one with the blue label in this set) and another sake advertised as a honjōzō (Gekkeikan Ponshu Dry) but that seemed to be a futsu-shu (sake that doesn't meet the special designation requirements). I tasted them with a friend, and we could definitely tell the difference. The junmai daiginjo ended up in her fridge, and the Ponshu went down the sink.

 

Conclusion

I had lingering regrets about the SSI course, as I suspected it was more widely recognised than WSET for sake. The Japanese student sitting next to me had come over from Tokyo just to do the WSET course despite already holding the SSI qualification. He said that although the WSET textbook was smaller than SSI's, it was much more sophisticated and he preferred WSET’s more analytical, objective approach to tasting. He and Natsuki had a very interesting conversation about the lack of education and limited terminology in Japanese for describing sake (which explained why I couldn’t find much when researching for translation). 

Was going straight for the Level 3 course a good idea? I haven’t received the results yet so I can’t say for sure, but it was certainly the intensive course I was looking for, with lots of information packed into a short period of time. I might have been better off taking the Level 1 course first, practicing tasting, and then going for Level 3 but that would have taken a lot more time (as well as going to London twice).

Despite some unfortunate issues, the course was excellent value considering the breadth of scope and level of detail involved and I highly recommend it. Having the online module before the classroom dates is good preparation for absorbing the detailed information, and lets you study when and where suits you. The delivery by Natsuki was fantastic, location in central London very convenient, and the WSET school well equipped to run the sessions. Extending the classroom time to three days would make it a little less intensive (but also deprives you of time to cram before the exam). I don’t think there’s anything that can be done about developing the ability to taste in such a short time, and I don't think it's possible to be at a level where you can be confident of doing well on the tasting exam by the end of the course if you have no prior experience. But with those reservations in mind, if you want a short, sharp, thorough introduction to Japan's national drink, I think you'll get it here.

Sake tasting at Shinwazen, March 2017

The very generous Markus Baumgartner is one half of the couple who run the charming Japanese food, drink and gift shop Shinwazen near Zürich Hauptbahnhof. He and his wife Yuko are retired, but active in the Slow Food movement and as ambassadors for Japanese food, drink and traditional crafts. They know the makers of most of the products in their shop personally and focus on stocking a small number of high-quality items including ceramics, lacquerware, knives and Hario glassware.

Markus kindly organised a tasting ahead of my WSET sake course (see review of the WSET Level 3 Award in Sake), and I managed to gather a small group of sake enthusiasts at short notice. We met at the shop on the afternoon of 15 March 2017 to sample an incredible 14 sakes, working our way up from the lowest level of the special designations (tokutei meishō), starting with honjōzō and junmai, and working up through the ginjo level to the daiginjo sakes.

The Rojō Hana Ari Kurobotan and Aoi junmai daiginjo were clear winners, with several bottles bought at the end of the tasting. However, the Hana Fubuki junmai ginjo had the most mixed reactions, with one person not liking it at all but unable to say why. 

My personal favourites were the Rojō Hana Ari Kurobotan junmai daiginjo and the Kukusui organic junmai ginjo.

Markus Baumgartner at Shinwazen

Sake rice

As it's also called "rice wine", it's not hard to guess that sake is made from rice. But what kind of rice?

Rice grown in Japan is usually short-grained Japonica rice, both glutinous (e.g. mochi rice) and non-glutinous (table rice) varieties.

It's entirely possible to make sake from the standard short-grain rice sold and consumed as Japan's staple carbohydrate, and many futsu-shu table sakes do just that.

However, there are also special varieties of rice known as shuzō kōtekimai (酒造好適米, rice suitable for brewing sake) or sakamai (酒米, sake rice) which are grown specifically for making sake. These varieties have certain characteristics that make them more suited to the brewing process.

  • More starch: Sake rice varieties have less protein and fat than table rice. Their bounty of starch (心拍, shinpaku) is concentrated in the centre which means that other components, which influence aroma and flavour, can be removed by milling away the outside of the grain.
  • Larger grains: Big grains contain plenty of starch and stay a reasonable size after milling.
  • Water absorbance: Rice must be moist in order to grow koji mold. Water retention is crucial to good koji growth and to the production of enzymes that break carbohydrates down into fermentable sugars.
  • Water solubility: Rice breaks up and dissolves during the brewing process, increasing the liquid component and reducing the proportion remaining as solid lees (酒かす, sake-kasu).
  • Milling resistance: Tough grains stand up to milling without cracking. Cracked rice is unsuitable for growing koji as the outer layers cannot be reliably removed.

There are around 100 varieties of sake rice, the most popular are listed below.

  • Yamada Nishiki
  • Gohyakumangoku
  • Miyama Nishiki
  • Dewa San San
  • Omachi
https://hyogo-tourism-en.blogspot.ch/2011/07/japanese-sake-of-nada.html

Yamada Nishiki rice (Hyogo Tourism Blog)

What is sake?

Made from a simple set of raw ingredients, sake gains depth and complexity through the preparation of rice, choice of brewing yeast, and variations in the the brewing process.

The term sake (酒) in Japanese has a much wider meaning than in English, and indicates alcoholic drinks in general. 酒飲みますか?(sake nomimasu ka?) means "Do you drink [alcohol]?", not "Do you drink sake?"

In Japanese, the drink is called nihonshu (日本酒, Japanese alcoholic drink) or seishu (清酒, clear alcoholic drink). Seishu is a tax classification, so although it appears on sake labels it's not used in conversation.

Sake is defined under the Japanese Liquor Tax Law (Shuzeihou, 酒税法), which limits the raw ingredients that can be used for any alcoholic drink with that name. (Not unlike the "German Beer Purity Law".) The law also defines "special designations" (tokutei meishō, 特定名称), often referred to in English as "premium sake", based on what rice is used, how much is milled away, and the specifics of the brewing process. Any sake that does not meet the requirements for a special designation is "ordinary", non-premium or table sake (futsu-shu, 普通酒).

Click on an ingredient below to find out more:

  • Rice
  • Water
  • Aspergillus oryzae, called koji or koji-kin (麹 or 麹菌) in Japanese, a filamentous fungus or mold that grows on rice
  • Brewing yeast
  • Optional: distilled alcohol (jōzō arukōru, 醸造アルコール)
  • Allowed for sake without special designation: shochu, sugars, organic acids, amino acids

Sake barrels at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo