Interview: National Sake Sommelier Michael Tremblay

A few months ago we had the pleasure of experiencing a unique sake tasting at Toronto’s Ki courtesy of sake sommelier Michael Tremblay – one of only five in Canada. One thing we’ve always wanted to know, though: what makes someone an expert on sake? We caught up with Michael following his recent three-week trip to Japan, where he had the rare opportunity to work at several sake breweries across the country, to talk about his experience and what he’s looking to bring to Canada.

How did the trip come about? What was the purpose of the trip?
Two years ago, Ki sent me to Tokyo to complete the Advanced Sake Professional course offered by world-renowned sake educator John Gauntner. The course focused on honing our blind tasting skills as well as also visiting several sake breweries throughout Japan. Going back to Japan was a product of Ki’s commitment to our sake program. After sending several staff members to sake courses offered in New York and San Francisco, our hope was to continue to develop these individuals and the sake culture at Ki. I was given the opportunity to expand my sake knowledge by first learning Japanese by taking language courses, and also by going to Japan to work in a sake brewery to learn more about the brewing process.

Thus, the purpose of the trip was to expand on my sake knowledge and language skills by working at various sake breweries throughout Japan.

Which sake breweries did you visit?
I visited many sake breweries, all of them producing brands that are well-known in Japan and with our guests at Ki in Toronto. I visited Nakashima Shuzo in Gifu Prefecture, Rihaku in Shimane Prefecture, Oomuraya in Shizuoka, Kumazawa in Kanagawa, Kizakura and Higashiyama from Kyoto, and Kikusui, Hakkaisan and Yoshi no Gawa from Niigata Prefecture.

What did you do while you were there?
The focus of the trip was to experience brewery life at several breweries throughout Japan. I wanted to do everything the brewers did and learn from that experience. Brewery life starts in the wee hours of the morning – between 5am and 7am – and concludes in the early evening. My primary duties were steaming and washing rice, stirring the moromi and moto fermentation tanks, working in the koji room, helping on the bottling line, and washing equipment. I also worked on my sake tasting skills and tasted a lot of different sakes in various stages of development.

What are some of the most memorable moments?
OKONOMIYAKI IN GIFU: My first stop in Japan was working at the 300-year-old Nakashima Brewery. This was my first stop and naturally I was a little nervous. For four days I worked alongside the five brewers and ate three meals a day with them. At one of our dinners, two of the brewers made Osaka-style okonomiyaki and we paired it with sake straight out of one of the moromi tanks. Although this was an amazing meal, what was even more remarkable was how welcoming the brewers were to share their table with me, and how generous they were with their thoughts on sake making.

NIIGATA SNOWFALL At Ki: I often tell the staff and guests about the legendary snowfalls that Niigata Prefecture receives annually, which is one of the reasons that Niigata sake is so clean and delicious. While working at Hakkaisan Brewery for a week, I experienced this first-hand as it snowed about two meters in four days. It was so beautiful and I was truly in awe at this magical sake region!

A CANADIAN AND A RICE FARMER FROM IWATE In Shizuoka Prefecture: I was assigned to work with a rice farmer from the northeast prefecture of Iwate who came south to help brew sake in the winters. His dialect of Japanese was impossible for me to understand (even the President of the brewery had trouble understanding him!), but over two days working together we learned to understand and communicate with one another with a combination of broken Japanese and charades. Despite the language barrier, he taught me a lot about the flavour profiles of just-pressed sake, as we kept coming back to try the same sake at various stages of pressing.

TEA CEREMONY IN SHIMANE: I had told the President of Rihaku Shuzo that one of my goals while in Japan was to experience a traditional tea ceremony. The next day, without any fanfare, he brings me to his grandmother’s home for a tea ceremony. She is 93 years old and was a teacher and student of the ancient art of the tea ceremony for over 40 years. She brought out her favourite tea bowl for me to use, which was made 300 years ago in the Edo Period!

What did you learn from this trip?
I was able to learn a lot about the brewing process that you cannot learn from reading a book. There are so many subtle and intricate steps to sake making and I tried to absorb as much as I could. For example, I was able to learn more about how Koji rice is made. One of the most crucial aspects of sake making is the development of Koji, or rice that has been inoculated with Koji mold. This Koji mold helps break down the rice’s starches into sugars, which can then be fermented into alcohol. The process of making koji is incredibly time intensive, as the temperature and humidity are carefully controlled for 48 hours. Over the course of a day at Nakashima Brewery, for instance, we visited the koji room over six times to work with the koji, not to mention the brewers that had to stay overnight to continue monitoring.

I continued to develop my sake palate. I was lucky enough to try many sakes that were in different parts of production; sake from shubo tanks where fermentation was just getting started to sequential days of fermentation from different moromi tanks. I was even able to taste the evolution in how different sake can taste from the beginning of pressing to the end of a Yabuta press (Accordian press).

What did you bring back with you to Canada? Will you be introducing anything new at Ki?
Besides a lot of sake bottles, I have brought back an incredible amount of ‘behind the scenes’ sake knowledge, which I cannot wait to share with the staff at Ki and all of our guests that routinely come in to enjoy our extensive sake list. I have some very exciting seminars organized for our staff to relay as much of my experience to them as I can. We also have several sake dinners planned around May’s Kampai-Festival of Sake event with some of the breweries I worked at. Lastly, we are looking at the possibility of sake tasting classes for our guests at Ki in the near future.

I am also delighted to say that we are bringing in a sake from a very small producer called Kumazawa Shuzo, which produces an amazing brand called ‘Tensei’. They have never exported before and Ontario will be their first overseas market. When I visited the brewery in early February, President Kumazawa-san and Master Brewer Igarashi-san were extremely excited – as was I! The sake has arrived and should be available at Ki in the next several weeks.

What do you think about the sake trend in Canada right now?
Seven years ago, Ki began a sake program that continues to grow and expand each year. Presently, we have over 55 sakes available from some of the best sake producers in Japan and North America. This is a testament to growing consumer knowledge and interest in sake, and that is incredibly exciting. In addition, last year’s Kampai-Festival of Sake tasting event, which Ki participated, in was incredibly popular and a sold out event and I believe that this year’s event will build upon this success!