Auckland sake sommelier Wayne Shennen is on a mission to spread the gospel of the oft-misunderstood Japanese tipple.
Like many folk, Wayne Shennen used to hate chardonnay. “My personal experience was that I knew it was rubbish, because I’d had 10 bad chardonnays. Then 15 years later I tried it again and had a decent chardonnay, and realised I’d wasted 15 years not drinking chardonnay.”
Many of us are similarly blind to the joys of sake, says Shennen, the manager of Auckland Japanese restaurant Ebisu. “If you have had bad sake, then you think you don’t like sake. But if you like alcohol, I guarantee you like sake — you just haven’t met it yet.”
Shennen is a certified sake sommelier who’s evangelical about sharing his knowledge.
“If you look at the history of sake, there were governmental decrees in Japan that made it so that brewers had to stop making it the way they wanted to, and those laws weren’t challenged until 50-something years later,” he says of measures brought in during World War II to address a rice shortage. “Most Japanese people think they don’t like sake because most of the sake they’ve tasted was adulterated with flavours and additives, which is where the reputation has come from.”
A common Japanese phrase translates to ‘sake doesn’t fight with food’, a concept Shennen is particularly keen to spread the word about.
It’s one of the few beverages that has significant amounts of umami — the deeply savoury ‘fifth taste’ recognised only recently by scientists — that makes so much of our food so damn delicious. “So when you match it with food that contains umami, it takes it to level five,” says Shennen.
While Japanese food is the obvious partner, it would be a shame to stop there, he says. “Something I’ve been working on is trying to get people to understand that it’s not about Japanese food, it’s about food.” He says hot sake pairs beautifully with pizza, and “I guarantee that the best thing you’ve probably never had is a full-bodied, punchy sake with blue cheese.
“If you think of anything with roasted tomatoes, cheese or cured meats, it’s going to be amazing with sake. You’re talking Italian food, Spanish food…”
While it’s most commonly described as a rice wine, in many ways sake has more in common with beer than wine. It’s made by fermenting rice that has been polished to remove the bran.
“The fermentation aspect of it, where the sugar comes from, the overall process has a lot more in common with beer. As complicated as wine is, fundamentally, you can get some grapes and leave them and eventually alcohol will be created, but that won’t happen with beer. Brewing is definitely the correct word.”
Which provides an apt opportunity to segue to an event Shennen is hosting on Tuesday night — a sold-out seven-course dinner at Ebisu that will pit sake against beer. Part of American Express Restaurant Month, it’s a collaboration between Shennen and his friend Andrew Childs of Behemoth Brewing, where each course of elegant Japanese fare will be matched with both a sake and a Behemoth beer. Guests will have to choose which match works best.
“I’ve done something like this with sake versus wine before but we were probably too nice to each other,” says Shennen. “I’ve known Andrew for a while and this time we’ll probably be a little bit meaner — we’ll make fun of each other a little bit more.”
Shennen is no beer naysayer, however — he loves the stuff. He worked with Childs on the beer matches for the dinner and says the fundamentals of matching are the same, no matter the beverage. “The idea of complementing, of not overpowering, of standing up against big flavours — it’s fundamentally the same.”
As traditional Japanese food is delicate, it’s important to ensure the match doesn’t overwhelm it, says Shennen. “Some of the hoppiest beers and the high ABV beers run the risk of going straight over the top.” Conversely, a light, delicate beer doesn’t have a chance of standing up to tempura or beef. “You might as well just be drinking bubbly water, because you don’t really taste it.”
Guiding diners on matches can be a balancing act, but Ebisu staff are trained to do so gently, says Shennen. “Sometimes a customer will come in and say, ‘Can I have a hot sake and eight pieces of sashimi?’, and the response they’re going to get is, ‘I don’t necessarily recommend that as a way to start, because the hot sake in your mouth at the same time as the sashimi is going to heat it up to a temperature that might be like something that’s been sitting in the sun.’
“If it’s done well, it’s very non-confrontational, but if it’s done badly it’s just a terrible start to the whole experience.”
At the end of the day, when it comes to matching, the customer is always right. “People will sometimes go for a big Barossa shiraz to go with their sashimi as well, which is not a traditional match, but if that’s what they like, personal preference is paramount.”
Shennen, who hails from Tauranga, began his journey into the world of sake when he started working in a Melbourne restaurant called, aptly, Sake, and realised he’d only had rubbish sake until that point. He delved further and further and ended up working in sake breweries in Japan, where he gained first-hand knowledge of the skill and sheer hard slog involved. “These guys are artists, they work insanely hard and don’t get the recognition they deserve.” Now, back home in New Zealand, he’s doing his bit to change that.