An Interview with Beau Timken
The co-creator of Sake - A Modern Guide (Chronicle Books) Sara Deseran once referred to me as a "sake savant." At first I was a little bummed out by this description thinking of Jeffery Rush in "Shine" or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man quoting airlines that have the safest track records. I'm not crazy damn it!! (debatable) But then I "got" what she was alluding to - that I am not your typical fan of something.
Sake has an incredible meaning for me and this brings out equal parts crazed scientist and fascinated lover. I often refer to myself as a sake freak, and that should not be construed as some guy chugging down bottles of sake in a dank dark basement, but rather it should conjure up an image of a guy who cannot put head to pillow unless he has learned at least 5 new things about the subject of sake each and every day. And when I cannot learn something from others, I teach myself!
What follows is an interview that I conducted with Beau Timken very late one evening in his dank dark basement:
|Interviewer: Good evening!Beau: I am NOT an animal............Interviewer: Ummmmm Okay! Beau we know the whole story about the first time that premium sake touched your lips, but what is it about sake that made you "freak out?"
Beau: The obvious answer was and remains quite simple - how can rice and water taste like melons, cherries, clover honey or fresh cut bamboo? The not so obvious answer is that sake got under my skin. It became an itch that I couldn't scratch. I just had to know more and more about the process, the history, the why's and the how's? I was never the best student, and as such never really valued education. But when sake spoke I finally realized the power of educating one's self. To learn something for grades is one thing, but to learn something for passion is entirely different.
Interviewer: Who do you like to "freak out" most by your new found knowledge of an ancient beverage?
Beau: The professionals. I love teaching owners of breweries, major importers, and educators on the subject of sake weird and different perspectives that I have amassed in my short time with sake.
Interviewer: For example?
Beau: Bottle Nose! No not the dolphin, but the first whiff of air that sake breathes in when you open a bottle that has been sealed for several months or years. Of course everybody knows to smell as one pours, or to dig your shnoz in the glass for the primary and secondary aromas, but I went to the source. When I first starting doing it I was amazed at the extremely bizarre "smells" that emitted from the closed bottle. When you remove the cap immediately get your nose as close as possible to the top of the bottle. (This is easier to do when you are alone as it looks as if you are about to snort the whole bottle.) And really inhale! I mean try to bring the fluid up the neck! And behold an entirely new array of "aromas" that more often then not do NOT present themselves later in the glass. I have pulled some really amazing scents from "Zebra-Stripe Chewing Gum" to Cinnamon and from Halloween wax teeth to "wood furniture in the sun." Now, most every pro that I drink with does the "bottle nose," and that is pretty funny!
Interviewer: What else?
Beau: Size Surprise! No not the embarrassing moment at the beginning of an orgy! Size does mater in the "performance" of premium sakes. It is obvious by now to most that sake performs in many of the same capacities as wine, thus aroma, acidity distribution, and taste are affected by the size and shape of the vessel that one chooses to employ. Back in the day when I reviewed a sake I always used my favorite glass or for a while a professional sake cup. But this was always one shape and that was okay for consistency but did not allow for "performance." In this regard I realized that many drinkers who read my reviews would be drinking the same sake out of vastly different glasses or cups. So, I thought why not review a sake in three or four differing vessels to see which one worked best as per acidity distribution, flavor movement, and aroma characteristics. And voila it is now standard business practices for me and my peers. (This is why I irk some distributors, because they want to come to the store and throw down some sauce and try to get me to carry it. But they don't have the patience for me to do the 3 vessels, and more often than not say "Here freak, take the bottle!") My pal John Gauntner positively commented on this when he saw a professional review that I did for a brewery in Kyoto.
Interviewer: Is there more?
Beau: Yes lots but I forgot to mention the size issue taken to the extreme. On some tastings I do go crazy - I am NOT CRAZY - and use a series of glass vases to taste the sakes. Now these are not small vases! They are your huge glass cylinder vases that you see at high- end florists that hold really tall flowers etc. I have them in four sizes and when I really want to see how "surface area" can affect the acidity distribution I pull these babies out. Have you ever tried drinking out of a garbage can? That is the image one can pull away from this. For me it is really amazing to feel a sake go flat in a vast vessel. It is also incredibly entertaining to watch a 55 year-old Japanese guy holding a massive glass vase to his lips when you can see his face in the bottom.
Interviewer: I am almost afraid to ask, but are there any more sake inventions that you can lay claim to?
Beau: Of course there is the TasteMatch system that I invented to help take the guesswork out of selecting a sake. Where if you can speak to your wine and beer profiles we at True Sake can get you in the right ballpark of a sake that would best represent these styles. This is under the premise that somebody who likes a huge Zin and Guiness Stout will not like the same sake as somebody who likes oaky California Chardonnays and Light Beer.
Interviewer: Yes we are well aware of this ground breaking amazing breakthrough that should be a candidate for a Nobel Prize, but is there anything else that is really out there?
Beau: Damaging Sake! I love beating sake up. I love aging sakes that should be consumed quickly, I love keeping delicate sakes in the sun, I love shaking sakes to replicate the movement of sake being transported, and I love keeping bottles of sake opened for months on end. Call me an abuser. Go call the cops. I don't care. I love trying to destroy sake, but more often than not I cannot! For many of my tastings I will take a bottle of sake and keep it in the window display of the store, and save a "well conditioned" bottle from that batch for comparison. Then after some serious sun - sometimes for months - I will compare the two bottles for my guests at a tasting. Funny enough 7 out of 10 times people prefer the damaged bottle. And this just goes to prove my point that sake is so resilient. And that people shouldn't get too caught up in the "you must have freshly bottled sake" drive that is in vogue at the moment. We also have shaken a bottle everyday for 3 months, as well as put one in and taken one out of a refrigerator every day for a month.
Interviewer: Dare I ask?
Beau: I am glad that you did! My latest gig is speed sucking sake. I know it sounds very weird, but I like sucking in a sip of sake super fast through my mouth. A speed sip if you will, that passes more above the tongue than on it. In fact the sake should hit the back of your palate before anywhere else. And I do this why? I find that the acidity of the sake gets exposed a little more. You can taste a layer of flavor that doesn't require being moved by the acidity, and of course it gets you drunk faster. Wrong! That last thing was BS. It for me is a way of just tasting a sake in a different capacity.
Interviewer: How do we learn more?
Beau: Buy the book .................. or wait for the movie.
Interviewer: How do we buy the book?
Beau: We are selling them in the store right now. But if you would like to order on-line you must - at this point - preorder at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. You may even order from the Chronicle Books website, but for now I will link you to the Amazon page for the book. And by all means if you see fit please review the book on these sites. I greatly appreciate your interest and support! (Chronicle will send an email postcard when the book is available)
Check it out:
Sake - The Modern Guide