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For the goodness of sake: international sommeliers test their senses

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Special To The Japan Times

Early one morning in Japan last month, Taipei sake educator Michael Ou took a deep breath as he prepared to deliver a presentation about the stages of fermentation before a panel of experts from the U.K.’s Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET). It was the last day of an elite sake instructors’ training program that included a six-day tour of Japan and courses at the National Research Institute of Brewing in Hiroshima. Ou’s presentation would determine whether he would be authorized to teach sake courses through the WSET in his native Taiwan.

This was the final stage of a qualification process that included passing a written exam on sake history, production and service. The eight candidates — who had traveled from Europe, North America and Asia to participate in the program — also had to impress the evaluators with their tasting skills and answers on an oral exam.

“There will be some rather mean questions, but these are meant to test the limits of your knowledge,” said WSET Director Antony Moss, who led the training.

The WSET, an institution that provides certification for sommeliers in 66 countries, added sake classes at the end of 2014. According to Moss, the aim was to create a curriculum for sake education that would mirror the organization’s internationally recognized wine and spirits program. Last year, the school launched a high-level sake course geared toward industry professionals (the WSET Level 3 Award in Sake) in five regions and will expand the program, rolling out a new introductory course for enthusiasts (the WSET Level 1 Award in Sake) this summer.

The advanced Level 3 course is currently available only in English, but the basic Level 1 course will be offered in seven languages.

“People want to learn about sake in their own language,” Moss noted.

He also believes that the move will help set sake education standards in emerging global markets such as China, Italy and France as one of the biggest complaints about sake courses overseas is the lack of consistency in the level of instruction. Although the WSET program is still small, with only a handful of authorized providers, the focus has been on ensuring that teachers are “giving out the right information.”

The recent training program was extensive and intense, designed to touch on a wide range of topics related to sake production and service, and the group visited several breweries to study specialized brewing methods. At Kyoto Prefecture’s Gekkeikan Sake Co., the teachers received a tutorial in volatile esters — the compounds responsible for aromas — after a session on food and sake pairing at Kato Kichibee Shoten in Fukui Prefecture. The tour concluded at Hiroshima’s National Research Institute of Brewing, where the instructors explored the finer points of microbiology and chemistry with the institute’s professors, and lastly completed a rigorous sensory-evaluation training course.

All of the new educators will begin teaching Level 1 classes this year; Michael Ou and a few of his colleagues also got the green light to start teaching Level 3.

“That was the hardest test I’ve ever passed,” he said. “But now I’m more confident than ever.”