Day 1, dinner at Sasagin
Photo: Day 1, dinner at Sasagin, my tasting notes on the evening’s five featured sakes.

The John Gauntner Sake Professional Course experience: 70 sakes to taste over three days in the classroom, about 20 more to drink at dinners over four nights, and another 10 or so to try at four breweries and at the fifth and final dinner of the course. I tasted about 100 sakes in five days in Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto.

Day 3, classroom tasting, regionality in sake
Photo: Day 3, classroom tasting, regionality in sake.

In a hot room that was almost silent, I watched a brewer sprinkle mold over rice and toss it gently by hand to begin the process of converting starch to sugar. At another brewery, a deafeningly noisy machine steamed rice and then quickly cooled it on a conveyor belt. I watched a brewery worker with beet-red hands (from the cold water) wash 10 kilograms of rice, drain it, soak it in fresh water, and remove it—all completed with precision in exactly 6 minutes and 30 seconds. I learned about every step, every ingredient, and almost every exception to every rule about making sake. I met a great group of fellow sake lovers. It was a damn fine week.

Day 5, Daimon Shuzo
Photo: Day 5, Daimon-san of Daimon Shuzo takes the temperature of the rice and breaks up the clumps before applying the koji-kin (mold spores).

If you’ve read either Real Food by Nina Planck or The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, you are familiar with the grass-fed beef industry in the U.S. In both books, one reads that the grass-fed beef ranchers say they are “grass farmers” rather than beef ranchers—pointing out that keeping the environment of the pasture is their main challenge. The cows want to eat the grass; their bodies naturally know how to process it into flavorful and omega-3 rich beef. The point is to keep the cows happy and let them do the rest.

I was reminded of the ranchers last week when we visited four breweries in Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe on the last two days of the course. We talked with the brewers and had access to the intimate details of their work. Over and over it was impressed on us that the sake brewing process depends on the action of a mold (Aspergillus Oryzae) and a strain of yeast (depending on the brewery).

Day 4, Matsumoto Shuzo
Photo: Day 4, one tank of moromi (the fermenting mold, yeast, rice, and water) at Matsumoto Shuzo.

The two living entities know what to do with the rice and water provided to them. The brewer (part microbiologist, part Shinto priest) concentrates his or her energy on maintaining the proper environment for the mold and yeast to do the work of making sake. The mold starts the process by breaking down rice starch into sugars, then the yeast cells convert the sugars to alcohol. After the mold-covered rice is added to the tanks with the yeast, both organisms do their work in parallel, and after 18 to 30 days, the sake is ready to press.

Of course, the above is a gross oversimplification of sake brewing, and John’s course covers the intricacies and problems of: rice, what kinds and how to mill it, water, which is best for making sake, the many strains of molds and yeasts, the maintenance of the fermentation environment, and the pressing and pasteurization (or lack thereof). All of these steps are performed with endless variations among the approximately 1400 sake brewers in Japan.

Day 3, classroom lecture
Photo: Day 3, classroom lecture. John describes the sakes we will try in various tasting vessels.

We tasted a lot of sake. We learned about the state of the industry and the export market. But there’s something intangible that John’s course conveys: culture.

At the Matsumoto brewery in Kyoto, one of our group asked Matsumoto-san what distinguishes his sake from others. Perhaps the questioner wanted a technical answer: what kind of rice, what strain of yeast, dryness/sweetness, pasteurized/unpasteurized. Matsumoto-san gazed out on the gorgeous Japanese garden that his grandfather had created at the brewery, the same one that Matsumoto-san and his wife maintain in pristine condition as a way of showing the workers the health and cleanliness of spirit required of them as they work in the brewery. As he looked at the garden, he said (as translated by John), “I don’t consider myself a sake seller, but someone who conveys culture through sake.”

Day 2, dinner at Shinbashi Kohju
Photo: Day 2, dinner at Shinbashi Kohju, the nabe course.

John conveyed Japanese culture at the dinners each night at four izakaya and the last night at the restaurant at the Daimon brewery. We ate well from a range of Japanese food, including the memorable octopus dinner featuring moving tentacles and ink sacs that burst open in the mouth. We drank well, moving beyond the classroom into what is ultimately the great pleasure of sake, drinking it while eating and enjoying the company of fellow sake lovers.

Watching John transform himself during these dinners was a reflection of our own journey, the sake getting into our blood. Our teacher left behind the lecturer with an engineer’s precision and joined the epicure’s world of pleasure and delight in the drink. We all had a very, very good time.

If you are wondering whether to go to John’s course next year, if you wonder if it’s worth the price, the answer is yes. Go. As John says, “Ninety percent of sake gives excellent value for money.” In this case, John gives 100% value for money.