June 2, 2015

With Sake, Rules Are Made to be Broken: In the Class with John Gauntner

I'm in Las Vegas now, for John Gauntner's sake professional course. John is the foremost non-Japanese expert on sake, and the rise in popularity of his professional courses is testament both to his skill as a teacher and to the growing popularity of premium sake in the U.S. He's taught the course over 30 times, and this, he told us, was his largest class ever, at 70 people. 

The three-day course packs a massive informational punch, but some of the best parts are John's digressions and stories. Here's one he told to prove two important and related points: one, "exceptions abound" to any rules of thumb that you might try to apply to sake, and two, you can "rest assured that some of what is taught here will be contradicted by someone somewhere along the line." 

To prove his point, John told the story of visiting the Dassai brewery in Yamaguchi Prefecture about 10 or 15 years ago, to meet its president, Kazuhiro Sakurai. It is unusual for sake presidents to also serve as master brewer, or  toji, of their breweries, and Sakurai was no exception. One day, though, his toji quit on him, and Sakurai was in a bind. Impulsively, he decided he would take over as toji. He shook up a lot of things, including the brewing schedule. Instead of brewing for six months of the year, which is the way things have traditionally been done, he started brewing year round. To solve the problem of not having freshly harvested fall rice year round to brew with, he decided to freeze part of his rice crop to use in summer. He let John in on the secret to making good sake with this method: you had to mill, or polish the rice before freezing. 

Some time later, John visited the Rihaku Brewery in Shimane Prefecture. Chatting with the brewery president, he learned that Rihaku makes a special New Year's sake that ships every year on New Year's Day. But if they used local rice harvested in October, they would not have completed sake ready to ship on time for New Year's Day. So they decided to use rice from the previous year, which they had frozen. His secret? "You must not mill the rice before you freeze it."