Sunday, July 4, 2010

John Gauntner's Saké Professional Course

Two weeks ago, I flew across country, to San Francisco, to take an educational class. It may seem a bit strange to spend much of a vacation locked in a class room but I have no regrets. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, learned plenty and got to taste a fascinating array of Saké. And in the end, after passing the exam, I became a Certified Saké Professional.

I attended a three-day Saké Professional Course taught by John Gauntner, the famed Saké expert and "Saké Dendoushi" ("Saké Evangelist"). The purpose of the course was to cover almost every relevant Saké topic that exists, to ensure that "no Saké stone remains unturned." During those three days, there were also several tastings, to showcase a wide variety of different Sakés. It was an intensive but fun course.

This was the sixth course that John has taught in the U.S., and the twelfth course overall. The classes generally consist of 50-60 students and less than 300 people worldwide have received a certification. There were about 53 attendees in my course, a large number who either worked in the restaurant industry or for a distributor. Mixed in were some home brewers, enthusiasts and one woman who worked for Wine Enthusiast. About 25% of the attendees were female.

Overall, it was an interesting mix of people and they were generally very friendly and personable. Getting to network with the other attendees was an added bonus to attending the class. Groups of us ate lunch together during the class, and some even had dinner and drinks after class, especially on the first night of class. I do hope to maintain connections with some of these people now, to continue discussions and networking about Saké.

Though I had not previously met John Gauntner, I had corresponded with him on several occasions, finding him personable and generous with his time and knowledge. So, I had certain preconceptions about him and the course. I expected much from the course, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it even exceeded my expectations.

John was a superb instructor and the course was wonderful, refining and expanding my existing Saké knowledge. The class was comprehensive, detailed and John added plenty of interesting anecdotes. The tastings were especially compelling, with intriguing comparison tastings that truly assisted you in understanding the complexities and differences within Saké brewing. For anyone seeking a solid and firm knowledge base of Saké, this course receives my strongest recommendation.

John has a very easy lecture style and permitted questions at any point during the class. He specifically wanted to make it low key, to ensure that it was both fun and educational, and he succeeded in his goal. He stated the class would be a "Saké Boot Camp" and that at the conclusion of the glass, the attendees would be able to answer most questions about Saké. And everyone would also be able to give a quick, three second answer to a Saké question, or a more detailed explanation if necessary. Once again, he succeeded well in his efforts. If you didn't understand Saké at the end of this course, then you must have slept through class.

I think it is especially important to be able to provide two types of answers to a question, a quick one when that is all that is needed, and a more involved answer for someone seeking that level of detail. For many people, especially those new to Saké, they only want the short answer. They might be bored with too much detail. But there will always be a smaller, more curious number who will want a greater answer. Thus, you can establish a rapport with both groups, providing both with what they desire.

We received an invaluable text for the course, which included photos, diagrams and charts, and was further supplemented with lectures and videos. That text will be an excellent resource which I'll be able to revisit whenever I wish. The text, and course, began with a general overview and then dealt with each aspect in much greater detail. It might help if you already possessed some knowledge of Saké, but it was not necessary.

Over the course of three days, in five separate tastings, we experienced about 90 different Sakés. This was one of my favorite parts of the class and I thought one of the most valuable for truly understanding the diversity and intricacies of Saké. Most of the Sakés we tasted are available in the U.S., specifically chosen to be representative of whatever style John was trying to show us. There was only a small number John had to bring to Japan, as they were necessary to demonstrate some typicity.

The tastings were often comparison tastings, to show the differences due to numerous factors in the brewing process. For example, we would taste Sakés that were similar in all ways except the yeast, rice type or amount of polishing. Such comparison tastings are some of the best ways to understand, and more wine tastings should integrate such comparisons. We even tasted some more unusual Sakés, such as Zen-koji and Taru-zake, though John noted he is a fairly orthodox imbiber who appreciates the funkier types but does not usually drink them.

Near the start of the course, John said that he might sound like a lawyer throughout the course, because there are so many exceptions in the Saké world. Vagary rules and John stated that there would be some people who would disagree with some of what he was teaching us. There may not always be a single answer or consensus on any Saké question. An absolutist should stay away.

For example, the Dassai brewery produces Saké year round, freezing some rice after it has been milled. They claim the rice must be milled first to ensure the Saké remains at a high quality. But another brewery claims the opposite, that the proper way to freeze rice is before it is milled. As another example, Toji Noguchi, a master brewer, is extremely precise, down to the minute, in his brewing. But the Toji at Yuki no Bosha is not precise at all, carrying little for timing. Yet both make excellent Saké.

Criticisms? As I pondered how this class might be improved, there was little that came to mind. There might be a few minor Saké topics that could have been added to the course, but the course did not suffer for their exclusion. Overall, John has well-honed this course, presenting plenty of material in the short three days, keeping it paced well and ensuring the students enjoyed their time.

At the end of the course, there was an exam, 75 multiple choice questions, to assess our retention and knowledge. I passed the exam and was awarded the Certified Sake Professional (CSP) designation by the Saké Education Council. The intent of the Sake Education Council is to promote Saké education outside of Japan, through certification training and seminars. There is a second level of certification, the Advanced Sake Professional (ASP), but that course is only given in Japan. The next course is scheduled for February 2011, and I am very tempted to travel there to take it.

So what will I do with my new knowledge and certification? First, I will continue to teach introductory Saké classes, sharing my knowledge and passion. I already have upcoming classes at the BCAE and Boston Wine School. If any wine store, school or other organization would like to hire me to teach a Saké class, please contact me. Second, I would like to set up some Saké dinners, pairing delicious food with different Sakés. Saké is a very versatile beverage and can pair with a wide variety of cuisines, and not just Japanese food and sushi. If any restaurant is interested in holding such a dinner, please contact me as well. Third, I want to continue writing about Saké, hopefully getting some articles published in magazines and other venues.

I desire that more people come to embrace the wonders of Saké and I endeavor to do my best to spread my passion for this brew.



Sunday Cook said...

This is great - I always knew you were a saké pro! I'd love to work with you on a saké dinner - find me a kitchen/location (yours? mine?) and I'd be totally into cooking it. :-)

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Mary, and we should talk soon about doing a saké-paired dinner.