So, you have discovered the beauty of sake, and now you are interested to learn more. Is formal education or a sake certification useful?
The answer to that question depends on several criteria. Let’s take wine as an example. First, wine is a more global beverage and there is greater access to information about wine. Years ago, there was a stigma that formal wine education and certification was an elitist or snobbish distinction . Today that has changed. Although there is a plethora of information about wine today (books, online, blogs, local tasting events, etc.) formal education and certification is becoming increasingly popular. Part of the trend is a youth movement. Today, it is no longer enough to be able to identify and distinguish the differences of a French Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Today, the general public is far more educated about wine as consumers than they were 20 years ago. So why do people increasingly enroll in formal education? Like many subjects today, people seek a deeper knowledge of their hobbies or professions. While a tasting palate cannot be developed in a classroom, the theory and knowledge gained from formal education among peers is now more common. For those that pursue a career in the wine industry, some form of formal education or credential is becoming a minimal requirement for entering the wine profession.
Compared to the wine itrade, the sake industry is less global. There is far less information that is published online as compared to wine. Dare I say, sake is also more complex, subtle and mysterious than wine.
Here is my personal experience with the idea of a formal education about sake. Once I gained an interest of sake after discovering some of the ginjo categories, I taught myself by attending sake tasting events, and occasionally buying a bottle and sharing with friends at home to discuss our tasting opinions. This was all done in the US and it was fun and very lighthearted.
Then, when I was in Japan I had the good fortune to connect with several sake industry professionals. For a year, I was mentored by a native Japanese, who also has a business in the sake trade. He has advanced credentials from formal sake education and daily sake industry business dealings. It was not only enlightening, but also a unique and very fortunate experience for me. My education and knowledge of sake developed immensely during this period. The world of nihon-shu is a more closed industry than the wine world. Wineries eagerly welcome visitors, and tasting rooms are often a branch of their sales and marketing efforts. On the other hand, nihon-shu is exclusive to Japan. The producers are generally located in rural areas. Access to brewers is difficult even for Japanese citizens, much less a foreigner. I was lucky to gain such access from my mentor. It deepened my knowledge to witness first hand the production of sake at several breweries and understand each step of the brewing process.
After one year, I felt confident in my sake knowledge. Like most subjects, there is always an opportunity to gain more knowledge. But I felt like my sake game was well poised and above average to most sake consumers. Then I had an opportunity for some formal education, John Gauntner’s Sake Professional Course was offered once a year in Japan. Like most big purchases I evaluated the cost benefit before making such an investment. I was hesitant. I felt like it was a great expense for information that may feel like review material for me.
However, by this time I had decided to pursue sake in a professional manner. The credential alone would be worthy for credibility and networking purposes. The decision was a good one for me. The course was deep and any question that anyone had could be thoroughly discussed and answered. The profiles of the other students were diverse. The class consisted of twenty-six students from nine different countries. An almost equal mix of genders made up the class. Perhaps three quarters of the group were attending for professional reason, while the others were sincere enthusiasts. Of coarse, taking the class in japan afforded the opportunity to taste some exceptional sake and visit breweries.
Also, there is much to gain from learning with other people. It was a decision that I do not regret. Formal education can spark the passion for your hobby or profession. If you have a genuine interest in sake, and the opportunity for education, I suggest taking advantage of it. The greater your knowledge develops about sake, the greater you can appreciate it.