On Saturday, May 19th I took a three hour course for “Sake Navigator” certification from the Sake Service Institute (Japanese Link)( (SSI). It was a really interesting day, and worth discussing.
First, some background. SSI is a Japan-based international organization dedicated to promoting Sake and offering education on the topic. It is also Japan’s leading Sake Sommelier (kikisake-shi) certification body, and part of the lead up to that is Sake Navigator certification.
Sake Navigator is basically a certification that you’ve had training in the basics of sake making, classification, and tasting. It’s a three hour course covering topics like the types of rice and water used for sake, the different labeling standards and vocabulary, the 4 SSI classifications (Kunshu, Soshu, Junshu and Jukushu) and tasting/pairing guidance. There’s no test, but taking the course gets you a card proving you’ve done it and, for those interested in going on, a significant discount on the SSI kikisake-shi course.
My goal was to see if I thought I could actually deal with an organized tasting course, and to get the discount if I go on.
I’ve been toying with the idea of getting Kikisaki-shi certification for work, and out of personal interest, but I have doubts about the tasting section–when I look through the guides, I find myself wondering “What does Acacia even smell like?” or “What kind of sake tastes like stone?” and…yeah, I’m not sure I could pass a test like that. Given the significant cost involved, it felt like a big risk.
And then I found the Sake Navigator (Japanese link) cert. This course not only is cheaper, but there’s no testing and there are teachers there to help give advice on tasting methods, understanding the differences in sakes, and pointing out how different sake flavors match or clash with food flavors–all of which sounds right up my alley.
I took the course in Tenjin, Fukuoka, a short shinkansen trip away.
My teachers were the manzai comedy duo Nihonshu, Japan’s only kikisaki-shi comedians. The class had 24 students of all ages (20 and older, of course) and ran from 3 to 6 pm.
The lecture started with the very basics: what sake is. We went over the differences in brewed drinks, distilled spirits and liqueurs, then how sake is unique in its fermentation style. We moved on to the specifics of the brewing process, and got into the different words seen on labels like Ginjo, Muroka, etc., and how brewing techniques dictate the labeling.
None of this was new to me. It was interesting, and I was glad I could participate fuly in a Japanese-language class on the topics, but it was all stuff I’d learned on my own.
The tasting, however, was very beneficial. There’s something about proper tasting you can’t really pick up from books or YouTube, and the guided course through 6 different sakes, covering the 4 SSI classes, and two sakes made from Omachi rice with different yeasts, really helped emphasize the points to look for when evaluating sake.
The first four sakes were picked because of their strong characterization of their class. They are all Kyushu sakes, and of course were excellent. The pairings were with:
Strawberry, Boiled/flavored egg, Camembert cheese, blue cheese, cured ham and raisins. I was truly amazed at how the flavors of the sake AND the food could be brought out/killed by the pairing. The Blue cheese and aged sake were particularly surprising, as individually I was not a fan of either, but when paired the flavors really came alive. The strawberry and sake #6 were also an interesting pair, as the yeast from #6 was isolated from strawberry flowers. The flavors kind of blended so it was hard to know where one started and the other ended.
Some points I found interesting was that since nama sakes have active enzymes, they can be difficult to pair with fermented foods like cheese or kimchi, but a good pairing can actually make flavors really burst. The Junshu’s umami balanced well with strong, salty flavors like the ham and Camembert, and the Kunshu really came alive with the sour strawberry.
All in all, it was a great chance to try some unusual sakes (that aged koshu was interesting, but I’ll never ever buy it on my own) and talk about this great drink!