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.

Posted in Sake.