Drinking was once a man’s game, but these days, women are rewriting the rulebook. And as the role of the sommelier expands beyond its traditional area of wine, women are helming Brazil’s foray into a more diverse, gastronomically mature relationship with grown-up drinks, including beer and sake.
'For the last five years, the economy’s been stronger and Brazilians have been earning more,’ says brewmaster and beer sommelier Cilene Saorin. ‘That makes room for experimentation and development of tastes. We’re moving, slowly but steadily, away from a “culture of consumption”.’ With over 120 distinct types of beers produced worldwide, Saorin has a mission to change the perception of beer from 'macho and aggressive’ to ‘democratic and tied to the dining experience’. As part of this mission, she’s pioneering the first beer sommelier certification programme in Brazil, in partnership with German brewery institute Doemens Academy. But it was in London, working with the ‘Beautiful Beer’ campaign, that Saorin had the idea of shifting attitudes back in Brazil.
‘I began working with microbreweries and importers who liked the idea of “re-imaging” beer,’ she says. Soon, fine restaurants like Arturito were soliciting her services; but Saorin doesn’t sniff at the more common brews guzzled on the beach, in the stadiums, and occasionally in her own living room. ‘I owe many years of my professional life to popular beers, many of which are quite good.’
Beyond beer, Brazilians have been interacting with sake for at least a century, ever since the first Japanese immigrants arrived at the port of Santos to work in the coffee fields around São Paulo. ‘The word “sake” in Japanese originally meant “alcoholic beverage”,’ says Yasmin Yonashiro, sake sommelier at Kinoshita, a lush eatery in Vila Nova Conceição. ‘It was the only alcoholic drink in Japan until Europeans introduced others.’ Made from rice, sake is brewed in a multiple fermentation process that produces a range of flavours and aromas that Yonashiro explains to the customers when they order the beverage. ‘New sake drinkers have a larger range of complexities that affect what they perceive when drinking,’ she says of the Brazilian palate, which is more accustomed to sweeter liquors such as cachaça.
One of only two sake sommeliers in São Paulo, Yonashiro first came to the drink through her love of history, and an appreciation for the Japanese manner of serving food. Three years ago, while working in a Japanese restaurant, she began to study with two sake specialists before embarking on a trip to California to get a better understanding of the production process. Next up: a month in Japan. ‘I need to be aware of what the public would like,’ Yonashiro says of her trips. ‘What a Brazilian would like. What a Japanese-Brazilian would like. What a Japanese tourist would like. What an American who knows sake would like.’
Meanwhile, shaven-headed and tattooed, petite wine sommelier Daniela Bravin is busy adding a little bit of funk to the profession. Falling into the world of wine after working in Spain for a while, by the age of thirty she had opened her own bar in Pinheiros. Soon, though, she was studying the art and craft of fashioning wine lists. ‘The history of wine is interesting to me,’ says Bravin, who currently splits her time between three restaurants: 210 Diner, IÇI Bistrô and Tappo Trattoria, all owned by the chef Benny Novak and businessman Renato Ades. Bravin enjoys the interaction she has with customers: ‘I love recommending wines at the table, and talking about the history and geography of a particular wine.’
Known for her ability to introduce quality, novel brands and vintages to the lists she constructs, Bravin, who enjoys the ambience at Alberta #3 during her time off, never repeats an offering on any restaurant’s list. ‘That’s the mark of my work,’ she says. ‘Differentiation’. Selections from Australia, South Africa and the USA share the lists with Brazilian, Austrian and Greek wines. Her advice to the novice wine connoisseur? ‘Have an open mind, an open head. Try things.’ Yes, ma’am.