Melbourne-based sake educator Simone Maynard had been planning to host a series of tasting events with four sake producers from Japan when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Australia to close its borders in late March.

The regular sake workshops that she had scheduled to hold at restaurants around the city were canceled as Melbourne, located in the hard-hit southern state of Victoria, entered a strict lockdown that continued for 111 days and was only lifted on Oct. 28.

Stuck at home, Maynard, who has worked as a sake consultant for more than a decade and goes by the moniker “Sake Mistress” online, began to worry about the effect the pandemic would have on the food and beverage industry in general, and the sake business in particular.

“After a week of feeling sorry for myself, I started looking for ways to help the sake industry and thought of doing online events as a trial,” Maynard says.

She reached out to a few brewers with the idea of creating weekly virtual sake tasting sessions that would give producers a platform to present their breweries and answer questions from drinkers in real time. Miho Imada, the president and tōji (master brewer) of Imada Shuzo in Hiroshima Prefecture, agreed to talk about the company’s Fukucho label sake and its approach to rice polishing, and the Taste with the Toji program was born.

Originally, Maynard had envisioned the event as an intimate gathering of around 15 participants in Australia. But soon after announcing the first event, she received requests from people in Japan, and the number of attendants more than doubled. The audience has grown steadily, with sake fans joining from around the world. She now limits the number of guests per session to 80, and streams video of the most popular sessions on Facebook Live.

Virtual education: 'Sake Mistress' Simone Maynard started Taste with the Toji to give producers a platform to present their breweries and answer questions from drinkers in real time. | COURTESY OF SIMONE MAYNARD
Virtual education: ‘Sake Mistress’ Simone Maynard started Taste with the Toji to give producers a platform to present their breweries and answer questions from drinkers in real time. | COURTESY OF SIMONE MAYNARD

“I was surprised at the response. After a while, brewers started contacting me and wanting to participate,” she says. “It keeps me positive.”

So far, she’s hosted 20 editions, nearly every Monday evening since May. Each has a different focus, and Maynard says that she gives the brewers free rein to “tell their own story.” In June, for example, Kuniko Mukai, tōji of Mukai Shuzo in Kyoto Prefecture, led audiences on a tour of the brewery, which has been located in a scenic fishing town on the Sea of Japan since 1754. Through a translator, Mukai recounted the challenges she encountered in developing the brewery’s signature Ine Mankai, made with an ancient strain of red rice, 20 years ago, and gave tips on ideal serving temperature and food pairing.

The events are scheduled to last roughly two hours, but many revelers stay on for the virtual nijikai (after-party). A recent session with British-born brewer Philip Harper, of Kyoto’s Kinoshita Brewery, stretched to more than five hours.

With international travel restrictions still in place and large sake festivals canceled both in and outside of Japan, many brewers are missing the chance to interact with consumers.

“For the producers, it’s been a way for them to connect with audiences overseas,” Maynard says, noting that many take the opportunity to ask participants questions about the sake markets abroad.

Although it’s not possible for all of the participants to purchase the specific bottles presented in each session, attendees are encouraged to buy brews from the featured producers that are available in their regions. There’s no fee to participate, but guests can leave a virtual tip via PayPal.

The program is set to continue through December, and Maynard is considering adding further sessions in January. Once international travel returns, however, she plans to organize sake brewery tours for groups of visitors from Australia.

“After speaking with these brewers for so long through screens, it will be so great to see them in person,” she says. “The point is to not let COVID draw a line between us.”

For more information about Taste with the Toji, visit sakemistress.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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