Sake in Japan: A Brief History — Perhaps you are unaware.

Sake in Japan is a alcoholic beverage created from fermented rice. It is the country’s national beverage and is widely offered during formal ceremonies, special events, and national holidays in Japan, where it is known as nihonshu (literally, “Japanese liquor”). It’s usually served in a sakazuki, a tiny porcelain cup, and poured from a tall bottle called a tokkuri. We examine the extensive history of this traditional Japanese beverage.

After rice was first planted in Japan over 2000 years ago, sake took a few hundred years to mature, with kuchikami-zake being one of the earliest versions of the drink on record. There is no need for machinery or technology; just people with strong jaws and teeth capable of chewing rice grains are necessary.

This’mouth-chewed sake’ would be spat into a vat, where enzymes in human saliva, together with natural yeast, would form an alcohol. Fortunately for those of us who enjoy the finer qualities of the beverage, more conventional methods of sake were devised in the seventh century, as stated in the Kojiki, or ‘Record of Ancient Matters.’ In A.D. 689, the Imperial Palace in Nara created a brewing department, and assake began its rise to fame.

Because sake predates written history, its exact origin is unknown, however the oldest documented manufacturing of the drink occurred in China about 500 BC. The method was simple: locals would meet to chew grains and nuts, spitting the contents into a communal tub, which was then kept and fermented (the enzymes in their saliva aided the fermentation process).

This practice was quickly abandoned, maybe for the best, with the discovery of koji, a mold enzyme that could be applied to rice to initiate fermentation. During the Nara period (710–794), this brewing technique is said to have expanded throughout country, culminating in sake in Japan as we know it today.

However, the brewing method would have been rather primitive at the time, with the entire rice grain, including the brown, outside sections, being utilised. It wasn’t until around the year 1000 that the koji-kinmould, which is needed to convert the starch in rice grains to sugar, was deliberately grown and put to the mash, rather than relying on it naturally occuring in the combination.

Several parts of brewing are mentioned in the Tamon’in Diary, a record of everyday temple life written between 1478 and 1618, and are being utilized today. These include the ‘polishing’ or milling of rice (to remove the brown outer covering and leave only 100 percent white rice), the addition of ingredients to the fermentation mixture in three stages (sandan-shikomi), and a form of pasteurization that was used in Japan hundreds of years before Louis Pasteur gave the process his name in Europe.

And clear sake, as we know it now, was not always the case. The first time a sake in Japan was sufficiently filtered to render it completely clear was in 1578, making it the Shogun’s favored beverage.

sake in japan

Until the 10th century, when temples and shrines began brewing their own, sake in Japan production was a government monopoly. For decades, temples would serve as principal sake distilleries, and by the 1300s, sake had become Japan’s most revered beverage.

New rules allowed anybody with the money and aptitude to brew sake in Japan to create their own brewery during the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912). Over 30,000 new breweries debuted in Japan in a year, but over two-thirds of them were forced to close owing to rising taxation on sake makers. Several of the family-owned and run breweries that made it through this time are still in operation today.

Sake in Japan quality and output have skyrocketed as brewing technique and equipment have improved. Steel tanks quickly replaced the original wooden sake barrels, which were deemed unhygienic and less robust. Around this period, sake accounted for almost 30% of all tax income in the country, prompting the government to outlaw home-brewed alcohol since it could not be taxed. In Japan, homebrewing without a license is still prohibited.

sake in japan
Artist Utagawa Yoshikazu (Credit: Wikipedia)

During the 1940s, during the height of the war, sake historians believe the only major regressive steps in the history of sake-making occurred. Due to the constraints and shortages that this time imposed, brewers were required by law to add pure distilled alcohol to sake beginning in 1943.

Even after the war, brewers continued to add alcohol and occasionally artificial flavorings like sugar and acids for good measure. Although little amounts of distilled alcohol had been added to sake before the end of the seventeenth century, this was the first time in the beverage’s history that alcohol was added in considerable quantities, and sake with added alcohol has been regarded separately from pure sake since then (junmaishu).

Today’s larger breweries use computer-controlled machinery to create sake on an industrial scale, although the number of breweries declined over the twentieth century, from roughly 10,000 in 1926 to 1,742 in 1997, owing to significant technological advancements. Sake production peaked in the 1970s, at a time when modern technology was being more widely used. They have steadily declined since then, possibly as a result of increased competition from wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages.

sake in japan

The rise in production and consumption of premium sake has been the most notable exception to this trend in recent years. Premium sake has only been commercially accessible since the 1960s, and while it currently still accounts for a small fraction of the entire sake market, it is growing.

Despite the ever-changing background of technological innovation, many smaller brewers continue to use old, time-tested procedures that require significantly more effort than current production techniques.

This is what distinguishes each brewery’s sake, since expert brewers can precisely regulate the flavor of a sake and produce a drink with personality that reflects their craft and talents in the intricate art of sake creation.

sake in japan

Despite the fact that there are only about 2,000 sake breweries in Japan, the drink has rapidly increased in popularity outside of the country, with breweries establishing in North and South America, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Sake Day, a traditional Japanese celebration observed on October 1st each year, is now observed by brewers and fans all over the world.

👉 Credit: Sake in Japan: A Brief History — Perhaps you are unaware.

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