For the past few years, I’ve harbored a secret dream — an extremely nerdy ambition unlikely to be shared by anyone other than the hardest of hard-core sake and wine geeks. That dream is to become a master taster.
I’ve always envied those who could take a sip and comment with insouciance on the amount of ethyl caproate in sake or diacetyl in wine. I’ve always wanted to take the sensory evaluation course offered by the National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB), a month-long series of classes that cover the physical and chemical mechanisms behind the aromas and flavors in sake. There’s just one minor glitch: The course is only available in Japanese and the highly technical lectures and readings would test in the worst possible way.
Last month, however, my wish came true. While traveling around Japan with an international group of educators who were preparing to become teachers for a new sake course launched by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), I visited the NRIB headquarters in Hiroshima Prefecture to participate in an intensive one-day seminar led by Genki Ono, director of the institute’s technology division. This lecture included simultaneous English-language interpretation provided as part of the teacher training.
The course began with an overview of the receptors that respond to various taste and olfactory stimuli. The complex interplay of molecular reactions in the sensory neurons gives rise to the richness of sensation we experience when tasting. For example, the receptor that responds to wasabi also functions as a pain receptor sensitive to cold temperatures.
“The wasabi receptor tricks your body into thinking it’s cool, in the same way that the peppermint receptor does,” Ono explained. Capsaicin, the fiery component found in hot peppers, has the opposite effect.
All of this served as a foundation for the more difficult portion of the seminar: the tasting practice. The first test was a blind tasting in which we were asked to identify five kinds of organic acids — malic acid (closely associated with white wine), citric acid (lemon), succinic acid (clams), lactic acid (yogurt) and acetic acid (vinegar). In the next series of exercises, we had to rank each sample according to sugar and acid concentration (a task easier said than done). We then moved on to a flight that highlighted key aroma compounds in sake — the primary being isoamyl acetate (banana), ethyl caproate (apple) and sotolon (the caramel-like aroma often found in aged sake) — before finishing with two more flights of blind tasting.
In the end, the NRIB course didn’t turn me into a master taster, but it did motivate me to keep working on my sake- and wine-tasting skills. In addition to paying a little more attention to everything I eat and drink from now on, I’ve decided to invest in an aroma kit — a tool that comes with dozens of scented vials to train your nose — and form a regular tasting group with friends. In fact, I’ve made it my New Year’s resolution. Fortunately, drinking is more fun than going to the gym.