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How to build a sake career: Sarah Stewart

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The time has come for the final instalment of our series on careers in the sake industry, ending with Sarah Stewart. A London-based sake educator, she divides her time between drinks education and her work as a veterinary specialist. 

Tell us a little about yourself and your career

I am a WSET Certified Sake Educator and teach sake courses and evening classes at West and South London Wine Schools part time, as well as offering sake consulting services and training. I’m also a Wine Scholar Guild Certified Instructor and an Academy of Cheese training partner, and always take every available opportunity to encourage my wine and cheese students to give sake a try!

I’m originally from Canada, but spent a few formative years living in Japan: one year as a university exchange student in Kyushu and another in Kyoto studying at the Urasenke Professional College of Chado (“The Way of Tea”, colloquially known as the tea ceremony). I initially entered the sake world as a hobby: I was already studying wine, and had been exposed to sake during my tea studies and my time living in Japan and was curious to see how the WSET sake qualifications would compare to wine studies.

My first sake education experience was embarking on the WSET Level 3 Award. This course opened my eyes to the amazing world of sake and made me fall head over heels in love, and actually ended up completely changing the course of my career. My previous full-time job was as a veterinary specialist in small animal internal medicine and oncology; I was a Lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College when I began my sake and wine studies. I left the university in 2022 to devote more time to sake, and now split my time equally between veterinary medicine and sake & wine education.

You were selected as the best sake student of the year after you passed your WSET Level 3 Award in Sake. What is the best thing you took away from your experience of studying and what impact have your WSET qualifications had on your career?

The WSET Level 3 sake qualification genuinely changed my life – if you told me five years ago if I would be working as a sake professional now, I never would have believed you! I drank sake a lot during my time living in Japan while studying Urasenke chado and enjoyed it, but in that context I was generally only drinking kanzake (warm sake) served in the traditional manner from shallow sakazuki cups. When I was first taught to taste sake in a wine glass on my Level 3 course, it blew my mind: there were so many new and fascinating aromas and flavours I hadn’t appreciated before that I was now able to ascertain thanks to mastering the WSET Structured Approach to Tasting.

These revelations had a huge impact on my appreciation for sake, but then when I found out six months later that I had received the IWC Sake Award for the top examination score that year, this elevated sake up to a completely new place in my life. As part of the award I was invited to judge sake at the International Wine Challenge that year; this was an incredibly inspiring experience, and I have been humbled to be asked back to judge annually since.

I continued my education journey by completing my WSET Sake Educator Training earlier this year, and now I can’t imagine a better job than sharing my passion for this incredible drink with new students and guests. If it wasn’t for WSET and receiving this award, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to consider a career in the sake industry. I am so grateful for the incredible opportunities my WSET training has provided, and I cannot recommend WSET qualifications highly enough to anyone interested in expanding their sake, wine and spirits horizons!

What is the sake scene like in the UK at the moment and what excites you about it?

Compared to when I started in 2018, it’s been amazing to see the progress that’s been made in just a few years. When landmark [non-Japanese] restaurants like Evelyn’s Table, Ikoyi, and the Arts Club are getting excited about sake and featuring it prominently in their beverage pairing programs, it helps get a whole new group of people excited about this amazing drink and broaden horizons for how sake can be enjoyed – we don’t only drink Burgundy wine with northern French cuisine after all, so people should be empowered to enjoy sake regularly with all foods, or as a beautiful aperitif on its own.

I’m beyond thrilled that the UK’s first sake brewery, Kanpai, is moving to the legendary Bermondsey Beer Mile in October, where thousands of craft beer fans will pass by and hopefully be tempted in to try sake – I think there’s a huge amount of potential bringing beer drinkers to the sake world the way we’ve already successfully attracted many wine drinkers. I also volunteer with the British Sake Association, a nonprofit organization that helps to bring new people into the sake world, and we’ve seen great interest in our sake study groups and sake dinners where we pair sake with other world cuisines including Turkish, British and Indian to great success.

What do you enjoy most about your sake work?

I love helping students and guests have their ‘aha’ moment with a sake: finding a style they wouldn’t have been likely to try on their own like a funky yamahai junmai or an aged koshu, or converting someone who says they ‘don’t like sake’ (potentially after having product that perhaps wasn’t stored at its best) with an elegant fruity and floral daiginjo. I love researching and preparing these new classes on topics like seasonal sake styles, different sake rice varietals, sparkling sake and sake and food pairing. I’m especially passionate about sake and cheese: many people are surprised to learn that these two go together beautifully, and are often easier to successfully pair than cheese and wine! Seeing a happy class of students at the end of a session excited to get home and try more sake and cheese pairings on their own is a great high note to finish a day on.

What are your top tips for anyone studying sake and want to develop their career in sake industry?

Completing WSET sake training is definitely the first step I would recommend to anyone interested in a career in the sake industry, as these courses will give you a great base of understanding from which to approach the beverage, help you develop a structured approach to your tasting, and give you a globally recognized credential to effectively convey your sake knowledge.

Try to pair sake with as many different foods as possible whenever you have the chance: don’t limit yourself to only Japanese or Asian food pairings. Opened sake generally stay fresh longer than wine, so you can have a few bottles on the go in your fridge at home and try pairing them with different dishes and foods, and also sample each sake at multiple different temperatures.

There’s also no substitute for “learning by doing”: so much of what I learned in the sake textbooks became even clearer once I had the chance to experience fermentation firsthand and do some sake brewing myself. There are lots of opportunities to get stuck in, from one-day brewing courses taught in English at Kanpai Brewery in London, the Micura sake home brewing kits developed by Euka Isawa of Katsuyama Brewery in Miyagi that let anyone make a small batch at home, the Kurabito Stay experience in Nagano where you can stay overnight in a ryokan inside a beautiful old sake brewery and have a 1-2 day hands-on brewing experience while vacationing in Japan, and the more intensive week-long Gakkogura program run by Obata Shuzo brewery on Sado Island in Niigata.

You can follow Sarah on Instagram at @sakestudies.

Interested in sake? Whether you're a complete beginner or a more advanced student, there's always more to learn. The best place to start is with our Level 1 Award in Sake.