Taking the Sake Professional Course with John Gauntner
I have just returned from Japan as a newly minted Certified Sake Professional. This qualification is granted by the Sake Education Council, a non-profit organisation created to promote sake outside Japan. It was the first of its kind, and to this day, the best. The SEC is headed by John Gauntner, the teacher of the CSP course. John quite modestly refers to himself as “sake’s biggest evangelist”, but to his students and sake enthusiasts around the world, he is the sake guru. In the English-speaking world, his knowledge of sake is without rival.
When I went to study with John, I understood the sake fundamentals quite well. Each day of his course, however, was a completely revelationary experience. John not only knows everything about sake, his vast experience armed him with endless wealth of first-person anecdotes to illustrate each point he is teaching. I am a terrible day-dreamer, but my mind hardly wondered during the course . May be once or twice – thinking of all the superb sake I had just sampled. Intensive, interactive lectures were mixed with sake tastings that cemented the points we learnt. We tasted around a hundred sakes, each carefuly picked as an example of what John wanted his students to learn. That’s an impressive number. In fact, some sake professionals keep coming back to his course to recalibarate their palate – it is virtually impossible to assemble such a comprehensive sake lineup overseas.
Each day was capped off with a group izakaya feast, where John introduced us to yet more amazing sakes.
I enjoyed sake before the course – enough to start spreading the sake love through my website – but I didn’t know just how good sake can be. John went all out and arranged the rarest, most sought-after sake brands appear on our dinner table, including the ultra-cult Juyondai. Worth the hype, you ask? Well…it was certainly a stand out sake, but not in my top 3. A post on my favourites later.
The last two days of the course were spent touring breweries in the Kyoto and Hyogo areas. John’s name carries a ton of weight in sake industry, and a few brewers of distinction lifted the lid on their brewing tanks.. Walking through each step of the brewing cycle, and tasting as we went – koji, moromi (fermenting sake), just-pressed sake – seared all that theory into the sensory brain. (Moromi, by the way, is not unlike Japanese fizzy milky drink Calpis. Milky-white, sweet and carbonated).
There more tastings at each of the 4 breweries we visited. Having all passed the exam, most students used the opportunity to celebrate all things sake and drank it, no spitoon in sight! Perhaps some were more sensible and saved themselves until dinner, but I wasn’t one of them. My personal highlight was the side-by-side comparison of Eikun brewery’s sinshu (new sake) against the matured version. I had to sample everything a few times, just to be sure…
Five days went by quickly, and as John said his good-byes during the final dinner – he had to urgently return to Tokyo on business – there was a palpable bitter-sweet change in the atmosphere. Already softened by delicious Daimon sake, we farewelled our Sensei with gratitude and a touch of sadness, and a big round of applause.
Just a few more snaps of the fun we had: