I first encountered John Gauntner over a decade ago at a saké tasting seminar at a local university. Fresh out of college, I knew little about saké beyond the boozy, factory-produced liquid my family sipped ritually each New Year’s Day and for other traditional Japanese celebrations. John, despite his Cleveland bred, all-American roots, was an engineer turned saké dendoushi (or saké evangelist, as he’s commonly referred to in Japan) who could lecture about saké in fluent Japanese and with uncanny Japanese mannerisms. At a time when premium saké was still a rarity in the United States, his seminar and tasting selections were a revelation.
As the years went by, my saké education continued sip-by-sip, mostly via bottles of saké cradled preciously in my suitcases from Japan. I devoted a lot of time to learning about saké, but encountered barriers when it came to understanding what distinguished the truly great stuff–intricacies of the manufacturing process, evolutions in modern brewing, and the idiosyncrasies with which saké is marketed. With limited resources available in either Japanese or English, I decided to seek out a higher source, and wasn’t surprised when saké insiders both in Japan and abroad recommended John Gauntner.
Which is the long version of how I, along with 52 other saké enthusiasts, ended up at John’s three-day saké boot camp this past month in San Francisco. The Sake Professional Course, held for the sixth time this year in the United States (and soon to be on it’s eighth run in Japan), is a complete immersion in everything and anything saké–intensive lectures, marathon tasting sessions, and a comprehensive exam to qualify as a Certified Sake Professional under the auspices of the newly formed Sake Education Council.
Here’s a look at my diary:
Over a decade after my first encounter with him, John (who has now lived in Japan for over 22 years), seems to have become even more Japanese than I remembered. As for my classmates, I’m not surprised to discover that most of them are already fairly experienced saké professionals– restaurant managers, sommeliers, saké bar owners, importers, distributors, and retail purveyors –from all across the country. A handful of non-industry but die-hard saké devotees, as well as a contingent of home saké brewers round out the class.
The first day’s lectures span seemingly basic topics–saké grades, the manufacturing process and ingredients–stuff I think I know pretty well. Yet my knowledge is quickly overshadowed as John delves deeply into the intricate science of saké production–water quality, rice varieties, yeast strains, and myriad methods of brewing, pressing and finishing.
A comprehensive saké tasting follows each lecture. My colleagues and I clamor into a second conference room filled with table after table of saké organized into flights. It’s a slightly chaotic self-pour format allowing you to taste and re-taste freely. One flight compares saké of increasingly fine grades, and another showcases increasing percentages of rice milling. A third flight contrasts eight different rice varieties, and a fourth presents one saké created exactly the same, but using six different rice combinations. A fifth flight compares eight different yeast types. I’m amazed by the distinctions created by subtle variations in production technique, and rush to taste everything, going back and forth through flights like a kid in a candy store.
Day 2 is all about saké chemistry – the mechanics of sweetness, acid types, and yeast starter methods–then a primer on every saké variation known to man – pasteurized, unpasteurized, aged, fortified, undiluted, cloudy, red, sparkling, and so forth. The marathon tastings continue with a flight of unpasteurized and pasteurized versions of the same saké, then a comparison of three different yeast starter methods and three different pressing styles. We taste through flights of really good saké, really bizarre saké, and intentionally, saké gone bad to identify flaws and storage issues.
By 5 pm, my palate and brain are fried from experimentation overload, and my hair is sticky after an unfortunate spittoon incident. I convince myself that saké’s 15% plus alcohol content is tough enough to have killed any nasty spittoon bugs and drag myself back to my hotel to shower, recoup and continue studying.
I can’t believe it’s already the last day of class. The remaining lectures are all about saké’s place within Japanese society – its history, the people, the development of regional styles, and the state of the saké industry in Japan and abroad. We discuss saké service rituals (or the lack thereof), saké and food pairings, and other odds and ends. A vibrant classroom discussion on saké pairings leaves me itching to try new pairing recommendations–saké with crispy fried sweetbreads, Latin American roasted pork, or spicy, fish-sauce laden Thai food.
Our tastings take us through 16 regionally expressive saké from north to south, and east to west. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about saké regionality, but physically tasting through Japan from top to bottom in one setting is an eye-opener. There’s a clear progression of density, sweetness, and acidity levels as our palates shift from region to region. A separate flight lets us tinker with saké at different temperatures and saké in different drinking vessels – everything from traditional wooden boxes (called masu) to fancy Riedel saké glasses.
For those flying out that night, the exam is scheduled for the late afternoon. I opt to spend another night reading through the manual, reviewing my notes, and getting a good night’s sleep before taking the exam the next morning.
I wake up a bit sad knowing my three days of saké geek paradise have come to an end, but I’ve learned so much, I’m pumped to tackle the final exam. My head feels physically full and I imagine saké facts leaking uncontrollably from my brain and spilling onto the sidewalk as I walk to the testing site. The 75-question multiple choice exam is as comprehensive as it’s intended to be, but fair. I finish my exam, express my gratitude to John and rush off to the airport to catch my flight out of San Francisco. I feel like my saké journey is starting anew, and I’m excited to have a new, stronger set of wings to test out.
All photos courtesy of Tyler LeBrun.