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Sake has played a central role in Japanese life and culture for the past 2,000 years while the knowledge and techniques involved in sake brewing have spread to every corner of the country. In fact, sake is such an integral part of the Japanese diet that having some knowledge of it can add to one’s understanding of Japanese history, culture, and society. This website gives you everything you need to know to raise a glass (or cup) of Japanese sake.
Made primarily from rice, sake is a fermented beverage. It is brewed using a microorganism called koji along with yeast. Sake’s alcohol content varies from 13% to 16%. It takes pristine water to make sake, and brewers take advantage of the various kinds of natural water available in Japan to make only the best. There are many different varieties of sake, and it can be enjoyed either warm or chilled, depending on the season.
Sake might be just about the best medicine for whatever ails you, as long as it’s consumed in moderation.
So say, “Kampai!”
If we view the history of sake as the story of Japanese liquor, or at least rice-based liquor, we would see roots that stretch back as far as 2,500 years to a period when rice cultivation began to dominate Japanese agriculture.
The oldest writings on Japanese sake can be found in some third-century annals of Chinese history. These records state that the Japanese have a “fondness for sake” and are “in the habit of gathering to drink sake when mourning the dead.” There are also several stories about sake, some mythical, noted in the historical records compiled by the eighth century Japanese imperial court. The Fudoki, an ancient record of provincial history during this era makes reference to sake brewed using mold and provides a unique glimpse into how sake made with rice and koji was once produced.
Then there is the tenth century law book entitled Engishiki which details ancient sake-making methods used at a time when sake was produced mainly at the imperial court, either to be drunk by the emperor or for ceremonial use.
Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples began brewing sake in the 12th to 15th centuries and it is from this period that we get the techniques for modern day sake brewing.
One production technique that sake-brewers are justly proud of is multiple parallel fermentation. It’s a sophisticated production method that combines the processes of saccharization and fermentation to boost the alcoholic content to 20%. Sake is the only fermented alcohol in the world for which this is done.
Records from the Muromachi period (approx. 1337 to 1573) show that a pasteurization process dubbed hi-ire was being used in the sake making process long before Louis Pasteur was even born. During this process, pressed sake is heated to 64 degrees Celsius before being stored in containers. The heat kills any bacteria and halts all enzyme activity to bring out a more mature flavor in the sake.
Along with these techniques brewers began employing the process of lactic acid fermentation. The brewers would add koji, water and steamed rice together in a mashing process to create the shubo (yeast starter). While the yeast grew in the shubo, the lactic acid inhibited microbial contamination.
As brewing methods evolved, the mass production of sake became possible. By the seventeenth century, sake production had moved beyond the confines of the shrines and temples to become the province of skilled artisans wholly dedicated to the craft of brewing.
Rice shortages during World War II and the immediate postwar period forced brewers to find ways to fill the gap, like adding alcohol to the sake.
Today the notion of “local production for local consumption” is fueling another kind of trend in the world of sake production. Sake makers in different regions are leveraging the skills and assets they have close at hand to cultivate new varieties of sake rice and unique types of sake yeast to be used in fermenting sake for a new age.
Although Western style clothing is the norm in Japan today and Western foods have been wholly incorporated into the Japanese dining table, ancient customs still prevail when it comes to those milestone events in people’s lives. When ushering in the New Year, or celebrating those special moments in their children's lives, the Japanese even now observe certain age-old traditions and sake is usually somewhere at the center of them. Here we will look at the connections between sake and the different occasions that punctuate the year in Japan, a country blessed with four distinct seasons.
Elaborate displays of special dolls are set up on this day in honor of little girls who are toasted with momozake (peach sake) in hopes that they grow to be healthy adults. In recent years shirozake (cloudy sake) or amazake (sweet sake) has been gaining in popularity over the traditional momozake.
Custom calls for flying carp-shaped streamers called koinobori, displaying special dolls outfitted in ancient armor, soaking in bathwater with iris stalks (shobuyu), and drinking sake containing iris petals (shobuzake).
This sake is drunk on the last day of June to wash away the impurities that have accumulated during the first half of the year. Having finished planting their rice fields, farmers in Japan traditionally take a break at this time of the year. They drink sake wishing for a gentle summer and bountiful fall harvest.
In China, where this festival originated, it was believed that climbing to high ground and drinking chrysanthemum wine on this day would keep one free from calamity. Although in Japan this tradition is no longer observed, the custom of drinking sake garnished with a chrysanthemum blossom still lives on.
The twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac, each representing an animal, were traditionally used in Japan to signify the twelve months of the year. The tenth symbol, the tori, or chicken, stood for the month of October. The written character assigned to this animal (酉) was originally made to resemble a jar and was also used to indicate the word “sake.” October is also the month when rice is harvested and when sake brewing begins, hence the first of the month was designated National Sake Day in 1978.
Members of the family customarily gather together, wish one another a happy New Year, and then drink a special sake called toso.
Drinking sake while gazing upon an inspiring snowy landscape is an elegant custom believed to date back to the tenth century.
Drinking sake on New Year’s was believed to drive away impurities and keep one out of harm's way. Peaches, irises and chrysanthemums were also thought to possess the power to drive away misfortune. Drinking sake infused with their ethereal powers was believed to boost one's physical well-being and vitality. The different kinds of sake consumed on these occasions were and still are Japan's taste of the seasons.