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Road to Becoming a Certified Sake Professional

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Like wine or beer, the in’s and out’s of sake are vast. So much so that there are entire educational courses created around cultivating experts. Within the Hai family, we’ve got a handful of sommelier’s and cicerone’s (certified wine and beer experts, respectively) and now we have our very own Certified Sake Professional, Matt Taylor at Uchi Houston. Big thanks to Matt for sharing his thoughts on the road to certification.

1) How did you find out about this class?

In my search to find out more about sake, I came across some pamphlets and small online booklets that John Gauntner had put together. As I gulped more information down, there were numerous references to him as well as Bo (who runs true sake in San Francisco). I eventually Googled him, figured out he taught a Sake Professional Course and a path of sake education opened itself up to me.

2) Who is John Gauntner?

John Guantner is essentially the world’s leading, non-japanese speaking sake expert. His accolades in the realm of sake are unmatched and extensive. He pioneered the way for the western world’s entry into all things sake as well as almost single-handedly opened the door to new markets for the Japanese sake community in a continuously shrinking local market.

3) What was the course like and where did it take place?

The course was held on the beautiful Denver University campus and was an in-depth, intensive sake knowledge explosion. As Mr. Gauntner puts it himself, there was “no sake stone left unturned.” Taking the course clarifies every single question you could have about general processes, methods, and history of sake.

4) What was the most interesting thing you learned?

While the number of nerdy facts and delectable tidbits was pretty vast, the thing I found the most interesting from the experience was how many people were there, learning with the intention of growing the sake brewing industry here in the states. Many home brewers and some professional beer brewers had come to grasp it all. It made me excited for the future of sake here stateside, especially since there is less regulation here which (I hope) creates more room for new styles and varieties.

5) What was the most interesting thing you tasted?

Oh, we got to taste it all. Including poorly made sake, and sake that was well past its prime (and was not intended to be aged), but if I had to pick one tasting it would be the one where normal pasteurized sakes were put next to their exact nama brothers; same rice, same yeast, same exacting process, yet one was the polished, refined expression and the other a wily whim of brightness.
Now, the single most interesting sake I tasted was probably the Ko-Midori Midorikawa Junmai Ginjo Koshu 2007. It was funky to say the least. Saltines, bruised fennel, cabbage, fermented fish, and even a little pee pee of the kitty… It’s like one whole strange day of choices wrapped up in a dense little sip.

6) What certificate did you earn?

I am now a Certified Sake Professional. And it’s true what they say: it immediately made me more attractive. Kidding! I am still waiting for this.

7) What was the test like?

Easy! Nah, I’m just joking. It’s easy if you’re as into sake as I am. But overall the test is comprehensive and the course teaches you everything you could know without witnessing a Kura in person during a brewing season. But I do think that with the background we are given at Uchi, plus a small 50-page book would get anyone ready enough to take the class and pass the test.

8) What inspired you to do this?

Essentially I was inspired by the depth and complexity of the sake world. There are so many misconceptions, so many things we take for granted due to the fact that historically, most of the actual education on sake in the western world is drowned in marketing.

9) How do you use this information on a daily basis?

I drink it in. The level of knowledge I have allows me to better pair, better engage with guests, better enjoy, and better educate my fellow Uchi-nauts. There’s nothing like giving a glass of sake to someone, especially when they have a preconception about it and say, “Have you tried that one slightly warm?; Here eat this salty fish and now taste it; Give this yamahai a whirl with that lamb, you’ll love it.” And then boom! You take someone who thought sake was just a Japanese gimmick to accompany sushi and blow their friggin minds. My favorite thing is looking at the expression on their faces when I know they will now forever be transfixed by sake.

10) What is the next step?

Level II, baby!
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