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These Black Belt Luchadores Want You To Know That Sake Is A Serious Drink

Sakeman (Photo by Jessica Hamlin/LAist)
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By Jessica HamlinWhat do sake, judo, and lucha libre masks have in common? A group of guys who met in L.A., it turns out.

A sake tasting popped up at Monopole Wine in Pasadena last Sunday, but it wasn't your typical stuffy tasting event. Two men wearing lucha libre masks poured for patrons while sharing each sake's origin and story.

The masked sake aficionados are two of a four-man group called Sakeman, self-described as "Power Rangers crossed with judo athletes." The Sakeman crew wears suits or judo apparel, which is no gag—they're all black belts who met while practicing judo in Boyle Heights and found they also had a fondness for sake. Tokuzo Takahashi, who made his Sakeman debut on Sunday as Sakeman White, is a six-time national judo champion.

"We want to spread the culture of sake from these tiny craft breweries that have been around for hundreds of years," said sake consultant Victor Huynh, who dons a green mask and goes by the name Sakeman Green. "We want to make it something fun and approachable especially for the younger generations of sake drinkers."

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The group has been together for about three years for tastings and pairing dinners, but has been ramping up their presence in L.A. and beyond over the past year. Huynh worked an event at the Japanese consulate in Seattle on Saturday—luchador mask and all—before flying back to L.A.

Though the crew takes a fun approach to sake, they aim to enlighten drinkers. All the Sakeman members are schooled in sake, with Sakeman White recently returning from an intensive program in his home country of Japan, where he made sake at the three breweries featured at Sunday's tasting. When he's not Sakeman Green, Huynh is also a sake distributor. He left his banking job and was brought on board by Sakeman Blue, who was already involved in the sake business.

The Sakeman know that some Americans' only experience with sake is downing a shot or few at Benihana and waking up the next morning with a headache They want to show that good sake exists—a lot of it—and isn't meant to be chugged. Sake was poured into wine glasses on Sunday to get people thinking of sake more as a sipping experience.


Sake is meant to be enjoyed like wine (Photo by Jessica Hamlin/LAist)
"It's brewed like beer, but you enjoy it like wine," Huynh said. "We want everyone to know that sake has no borders. Everyone can enjoy it—it's not just for Japanese food or sushi." To that end, one of Sunday's sakes was Fukuju, which is served at the Nobel Prize banquet in Sweden.

While the group's lucha libre masks may seem random, they actually have a sake connection. "One of the brewers that we get the sake from, he sponsors a guy who does pro wrestling in Japan and that guy is a luchador-style pro wrestler," says Huynh. "We thought, 'Hey that's kinda cool.'"

Sunday's Pasadena tasting was the first of what the group hopes will be a roaming monthly pop-up. They also want to hold more sake education classes and dinners that pair sake with cuisine beyond Japanese food. Like any good superheroes, they're always looking to help, so Sakeman want to take their message across the U.S. and to the rest of the world.

You can keep up with Sakeman news and upcoming appearances on their Facebook page and website.

Jessica Hamlin is a journalist, web producer and editor born and raised in the San Fernando Valley. So she’s, like, a bonafide Valley Girl. Jessica formerly worked as an editor for AOL’s hyperlocal news start-up Patch and her work has appeared on KPCC’s website and in LA Downtown News, Pasadena Weekly and Pasadena Magazine. A Kombucha addict passionate about wellness and nutrition, Jessica likes making and discovering tasty and healthy food and started taking pictures of meals back when everyone used film cameras. You can find her work on her website, Twitter and Instagram.