Dive headfirst into the world of nihonshu with a sake education course

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Sake has come a long way from the days when it was internationally — and crudely — known as “rice wine.” In recent years, sake has been the star of two documentaries, as well as a TV series on Amazon. Sommeliers and chefs around the world are making room for nihonshu — as it is called in Japanese — on their menus, and everyone from noted wine enthusiasts to DJs and soccer stars want a piece of the sake buzz.

While the glamour helps raise the profile of sake both in Japan and around the world, perhaps more significant is the educational infrastructure that has grown up around the drink. While it’s been ad hoc in its development, at least in foreign languages, the emergence of several different schools has enabled sake enthusiasts to learn more about sake culture and allowed them to establish networks that are as intimate as a “kanpai,” but also span the globe.

There is no universally recognized course or qualification in sake education, rather there are competing schools offering different paths to learning more about sake.

Since 2010, Sake Services Institute International, an NPO based in Tokyo, has accredited nearly 1,900 international kikisake-shi — or sake sommeliers — who have taken its course in Korean, Chinese, English and French. Through partnerships, SSI International offers the course in various countries, including China, Korea, the U.K, the U.S. and Japan, and also as a correspondence course.

“It’s a comprehensive course aimed primarily at how to sell and serve sake, giving you a good grounding in sake knowledge,” says Julian Houseman, a sake tour guide and certified Master of Sake from Australia, now living in Osaka.

The courses are short and intense — usually three days — with the final day given over to an exam. Along the way students, many of whom work in bars or restaurants, are schooled on the history and ingredients of sake, the basics in sake labelling, as well as sake tasting and serving.

Besides SSI, the other big player in sake education is The Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), a British-based charity that has been training professionals in wine and spirits for close on 50 years. WSET developed its own sake curriculum in 2014, mirroring the well-established courses they have been offering on beverages such as whiskey and wine.

WSET offers two levels: Level 1, a one-day introduction course for enthusiasts and for people starting out working with sake; and Level 3, a deeper delve into sake, covering everything from regional varieties of the drink, to the different ways rice is washed and steamed, as well as the different guilds that comprise the sake industry. There is no Level 2.

“The course is designed for those who want to be connoisseurs of sake,” says Hanna Takemoto, an international kikisake-shi and a founding member of Sake Works, a Tokyo-based sake consultancy. Takemoto, currently enrolled on WSET’s Level 3 course, says the focus on tasting is based on many of the criteria used in wine tasting.

“I would say that WSET are really focusing on how to be able to tell the difference between the different types of sake and their individual characteristics,” Takemoto says, referring to a chart students are given to help them describe, for example, a sake’s level of acidity.

For sake enthusiasts more inclined toward field trips, John Gauntner’s Sake Professional Course and Etsuko Nakamura’s Sake Brewery Tours go well beyond the books. Gauntner, a former Japan Times columnist and author of several books on sake, begins his course in the classroom and ends it in the brewery. As with the aforementioned courses, Gauntner’s Sake Professional Course is open to those with a burgeoning interest in sake, as well as people with a more professional interest. Takemoto, a former alumni of the Sake Professional Course, says it’s a nice combination of theory and practice.

Houseman, also a former pupil of Gauntner, says it helps being able to drink with your teacher at the end of a long day.

“The course includes evenings out at local izakaya (Japanese pubs) where plenty of sake can be sampled in an authentic environment. It also gives you time to pick John’s brains with any extra questions you have that aren’t answered during the day’s lessons.”

As the name implies, Sake Brewery Tours goes to the source: sake breweries, or kura. While Nakamura’s five-day tours don’t offer any form of certification, attendees get their hands on the rice grains and meet the kura’s tōji (master sake brewers).

Nakamura says that when she started Sake Brewery Tours back in 2008, very few breweries were interested in receiving visitors, explaining that time and infrastructure were, and still are, constraints for many of the hundreds of breweries scattered across Japan. Jump forward nearly 10 years and Nakamura has developed a roster of breweries, and demand for her tours — run in the brewing season — has greatly increased.

“These tours involve not only visits to small, intimate sake breweries all around Japan but hands-on experiences with other local craftsmen and tradespeople such as chefs, fishermen and tea producers,” says Houseman.

But as Houseman points out, as with any other beverage, sake invites you to learn by yourself — by imbibing. He recommends rooting out a sake bar and starting with a few of the sake mentioned in sake brewer Philip Harper’s “Insider’s Guide To Sake,” or peruse a copy of Sake Today as you make your way through a selection of the drink.