When people look back on being in lockdown, there’s going to be a lot of conflicting emotions. From my perspective, one of the positive things is being able to have more time to pursue interests and new goals. When I look back on lockdown, it’ll be with the knowledge that I used that time to become a certified sake sommelier.
Japanese sake was the kind of hobby that took me completely by surprise. It made its home inside my head and took me down a rabbit hole that led to a certification that fills me with pride and enjoyment for the future. Here’s what it’s like to become a sake sommelier during lockdown.
Choosing a course
There are a few different sake professional courses that can be undertaken, with two of the most recognised being the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 3 class and the Certified Sake Sommelier class from the Sake Sommelier Association (SSA).
I decided to choose the SSA course because it happened to be based in my home city of Manchester and overseen by the guy who got me into nihonshu, John Callow.
The SSA Certified Sake Sommelier Course was run over two days online and featured a multiple choice test and blind sake tasting.
On the first day of the course, John was very welcoming and demonstrated his passion for sake immediately. Via Zoom, he took the students through the complete history of sake, the production methods, the importance of different ingredients and fun sake stories.
Prior to the course, we were sent different samples of all the major premium sake grades, which included junmai, honjozo, ginjo, daiginjo, junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo. Supplied by The Sparrows, these samples came in numbered bottles that were sipped throughout the day, with John encouraging us to discuss how each tasted.
There was also a spoon tasting test that was designed to help us pick out different nuances in sake flavours. This exercise involved dipping into different extracts such as lychee and comparing them alongside each other.
There was a week break in between both days and John welcomed us back over video again. The lessons of the second day involved learning how to read the kanji of sake bottles, the history of umami, sake serving temperatures and food pairings.
Initially, I felt quite intimidated by the prospect of trying to read kanji. But John took us through some helpful exercises in order to understand the different grades. For example, the characters for ginjo can be broken down into ‘gin’ to look like a singer and ‘jo’ for someone brewing.
After more sake tasting in the morning, the exam happened in the afternoon. This was conducted over video as well, with John moderating. The multi-choice exam and blind tasting lasted for 60 – 90 minutes.
The blind tasting featured multiple choice answers too. The questions focused on things like dryness, the ‘body’ of the sake and so on. At the end of the tasting, we were asked to write a short summary of the sake and were allowed to describe any flavours we detected, food pairing suggestions and serving suggestions.
Throughout both days, John was extremely helpful, responding to all questions and sending revision notes when needed. It’s well worth learning from him if you’ve got an interest in sake.
Completing the course online demonstrates that it’s possible to become a sommelier from anywhere in the world.
WSET or SSA?
The choice will come down to personal preference, though I think it’s important to understand some of the differences between the WSET and SSA courses. The WSET courses are generally considered to be more technical, drilling into the science of sake production and being more rigorous.
The SSA courses carry the same level of prestige and focus more on the history and culture of sake. It’s more about telling the story of nihonshu and would suit fans of Japanese culture. As someone who enjoys storytelling, I found the SSA course to be a better fit for me.
Becoming a sake sommelier felt like a rewarding experience to me because it enabled me to broaden my horizons, delve deeper into a subject that I’m passionate about and be better equipped to share that passion with others.