For advice on wine, you can tap a sommelier. But who can you turn to for advice on sake? Why, a sake expert assessor, of course. Meet Chris Pearce, one of only 43 people in the world who hold the title. Pearce is also the organizer of the Joy of Sake, a huge annual tasting that allows New Yorkers to taste some of the world’s best sakes. This year’s event, which will be held tonight at the Altman Building in Chelsea, will raise money for brewers who lost their homes in the tsunami that hit Japan earlier this year.
How did you become a sake expert assessor?
There’s a number of sake courses around and most people can pass them just by studying printed materials and answering questions. But that doesn’t really teach you how to taste sake. So the National Research Institute of Brewing, which is a research institute for sake, developed a program for sake brewers so that they could become expert tasters. I was the first person to take the course here — it’s just drill after drill, all tasting.
What is the Joy of Sake?
This event is a chance to taste the sakes that were submitted to the 2011 U.S. National Sake Appraisal. It’s a very severe blind tasting with 10 judges, five from Japan and five from the United States over two days. Tonight, the public will be able to taste them. This is something that they do in Japan, but there is no food. I’ve always felt that enjoying sake without food is really pointless so we’ve encouraged restaurants to participate. This year, there’s 14 restaurants, each with an interesting appetizer, something not on their menu. Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Má Pêche, and EN Japanese Brasserie are participating.
Any advice for a sake novice going to the event tonight?
It’s really set up so that if you are a sake nut, you’ll have a blast. But if you’re just curious or want to learn more about sake, it’s impossible not to have a good time at this event because the sakes are all fantastic. They’re set up in the four different sake categories — Daiginjo A, Daiginjo B, Ginjo, and Junmai. A lot of people go straight to the Daiginjo A because these are the super-premium sakes. In New York, a lot of them would be around $200 a bottle in a restaurant. Many of them aren’t even available in the United States.
Why is sake still such a mystery to Americans?
There’s always a chance that someone will go into a Japanese restaurant where they have some kind of sake and they serve it piping-hot and it’s terrible. And people form a bad conception about it. But those bad conceptions are overcome by anybody who tries good sake because it really is a magical drink. There’s a number of people that went to the Joy of Sake and then decided to get into a career in sake.
What are some of the biggest myths about sake you try to bust?
Some people think that it has a high alcohol content and it’s kind of scary to drink for that reason. That’s a big myth. Most sakes are about 15 percent alcohol, which is about the same as many wines these days. But they have much less acidity than wine, so there’s no bite to them, for the most part.
Anything exciting happening in the world of sake right now?
They’ve been making sake for over 1,000 years so it’s not like there’s going to be some dramatic, new, epic style. But what’s happening now in Japan is that sake just gets better and better every year. Sake consumption in Japan is going down. More people drink beer, more people drink wine. It’s forced brewers to really get their act together because they’re not going to stay in business unless they can make sake that people really like.
Who has the best sake list in New York?
There’s so many it’s hard to single them out. But New York is a good place for sake. To me, it’s easier to find a place to drink good sake here than it is in Tokyo. In Tokyo, a lot of restaurants have sake, but no good selection. But the stuff that makes it to the United States is really good. There’s a lot of restaurants in New York that you can walk into that just have really good sake lists. When the Japanese come here, they just go nuts.