Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sake Confidential: John Gauntner's New Book

"For starters, one need to know very little about sake to begin to appreciate it." (p.5)

There are approximately a dozen or so books, available in English, about Sake and many of them are very similar. They provide basic information about Sake and also give some Sake recommendations. Sake articles in magazines are uncommon, and most provide only basic knowledge about Sake, introductory primers to educate consumers. It is more difficult to find advanced information about Sake, information that goes beyond the basics and generalities. Fortunately, a new book has just been published which addresses this omission.

"While simply drinking sake may be pleasurable enough, getting under the hood and learning more about sake— including some of the more controversial and otherwise fascinating aspects of the sake world—makes the experience even more enjoyable." (p.6)

If you have any interest in Sake, then you should check out Sake Confidential: A Beyond-the-Basics Guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection, and Enjoyment (Stone Bridge Press, May 2014, $11.95) by John Gauntnerthe famed Sake expert and Sake Dendoushi ("Evangelist"). This is a trade paperback book of 184 pages, divided into three parts: Sake SecretsHow The Industry Really Works, and The Brewer's Art Revealed. The book begins with a 14 page Introduction, which is a basic education about Sake, relying on numerous generalities to get across the message. After the Introduction, you will find over 24 chapters, covering a broad array of more advanced Sake topics.

"Let’s face it: there is almost no bad sake out there anymore. Nothing properly cared for will make you cringe. There are, of course, factors that make one sake good but another great." (p.11-12)

Though this book deals with more advanced Sake topics, it is well written in an easily understood manner so that it will appeal to readers of any knowledge level. You do not even need to possess a foundation in Sake to appreciate this book as the Introduction provides you all you need to progress to the more advanced topics. I previously attended John's Sake Professional Course and found him to be an excellent and engaging instructor, and that comes out in this new book. John shares his extensive knowledge of Sake, going beyond the generalities many know and breaking down some of the myths and misconceptions about Sake.

"Ask about a sake, take a chance, taste and smell it for yourself, and note your observations. Not only is this the best way, it is surely the only dependable way to assess a sake." (p.44)

In the first section, Sake Secrets, John goes into greater detail about Sake types and styles such as Junmai, Namazake, Ginjo, Kimoto, and Tokubetsu. Instead of providing one line definitions of these terms, he devotes a few pages to each term, explaining in detail some of their nuances. He then does the same for Sake ingredients such as water and yeast, as well as touching on warmed Sake and regionality. Within each fascinating chapter, you may find something about the history of the topic, as well as insider information about the current status of the Sake industry. In addition, in each chapter, John recommends a specific Sake which he feels well illustrates the topic of that chapter. These Sakes should mostly be available in the U.S.

"If it tastes good to you to you, it is good. The one that tastes the best to you is the best." (p.48)

In the next section, How The Industry Really Works, John discusses some specifics about the Sake industry, such as the role of women in breweries, Sake pricing, rice milling and Sake awards. These are generally issues which are rarely written about, so this is an especially compelling section. You'll learn compelling facts such as less than half the Sake breweries are reasonably profitable, and almost 90% of those breweries are family owned. These are some of the most interesting chapters in the book as give people a closer look into the Japanese Sake industry. In addition, this section has chapters on what glassware to use with Sake, as well as pairing Sake with food, and both chapters are informative and enlightening.

"On a more practical level, sake truly does go well with a wide range of food." (p.139)

The final section,The Brewer's Art Revealed, is the briefest of the three, with only three chapters on the art of Sake brewing. They discuss koji making (basically a mold which turns starch into yeast), the Toji (the master Sake brewer) and brewing different grades of Sake. These are also intriguing chapters, giving you a better idea of the difficulties and complexities of Sake brewing. The importance of koji, the duties of a toji, brewing guilds, and the seasonal aspect of brewing. So many cool and geeky topics.

"By far the most important thing you can do is keep close to sake and continue tasting." (p.172)

There are actually a few brief and informative chapters at the end of the book, separate from the three main sections. First, there is Developing Your Sake-Tasting Ability, with advice on how to taste Sake in a more professional manner, honing your tasting ability, which is known as kikizake-noryoku. It isn't necessary to go this far in your Sake tasting, but it is good that the information is there if you want it. It might lead you to a deeper appreciation of this wondrous brew. Next, there is Expanding Your Knowledge, some advice on gaining more Sake knowledge. Finally, there is a Glossary with definitions of many Sake terms.

"It can and should be said that sake embodies the culture of Japan itself." (p.174)

Readers will appreciate that though John has plenty of Sake opinions and preferences, he doesn't try to impose them on anyone else. There is no pretension here. He simply wants people to taste Sake and develop their own preferences. Overall, this is an informative and fascinating Sake book which I highly recommend. It fills a needed niche for a Sake book that goes beyond the basics, but still is approachable by even the casual reader or newbie to Sake. Even those knowledgeable to Sake are likely to learn at least a few things from this book. Buy this book and read it while sipping a glass of Sake. Kanpai!

"Enjoy sake sensibly and responsibly!" (p.2)


Unknown said...

Just a note - making koji does not turn starch into yeast. What it does is converts the starch into sugars that can be used by the yeast to produce alcohol.

Basically that's why amazake, the very low alcohol sludge produced from koji (drunk at shrines on New Years Eve, can be used to make smoothies and desserts etc) is so sweet.

Otherwise, nice write up!

Richard Auffrey said...

Sorry, that was a sloppy error on my part. I know better thn that. Thanks for catching it.