History of Sake
Sake is a traditional Japanese drink that is made from fermented rice. It has been consumed and used for religious ceremonies for over 2000 years now. In fact, a study of Japanese history would be incomplete without the study of Sake history. The drink is mentioned in the ‘Kojiki’, which is the first written and recorded history of the country. Japan is a country known for its customs and traditions, and sake, a traditional drink also involves traditions and customs.
A brief look at history
Wet rice cultivation was introduced in Japan in about 300 BC. Around the same time sake was created for the first time. While the drink can be traced back to China over 4,000 years ago, it is in Japan that gained popularity. Over the centuries the process of making sake has changed in many drastic and some subtle ways. Today, people across the world can enjoy drinking sake, and don’t have to visit Japan to do so.
Sometimes people refer to it as a rice wine. However, the drink is fermented in a manner quite unlike any other alcohol. The bran is stripped and the rice is polished so as to remove the protein and oils from the grain. The sake rice is rich in starch and is ideal for preparing the fermented drink. Once it is cleaned and polished the rice is soaked in water and the cooked in water. In the olden days, in villages, people chewed on rice and nuts and the mixture was thrown into a communal tub. The enzymes that are naturally found in human saliva played a crucial role in fermenting the rice mash. This was also a part of Shinto religious ceremonies. Canvas bags were used to extract the alcohol from the rice mash and stored in wooden barrels.
Over the centuries the communal chewing aspect was eliminated and brewers began to introduce the Koji fungus and later, yeast was added to the rice mash. During the Asuka period the drink was made rice, water and koji mold, and was a potent alcohol. The era of the Heian saw the restriction of sake for religious use and it was rarely consumed.
Sake was produced by families and even at temples by monks. In the Tamon-in Diary the monks at the Tamon-in temple mention the production of the alcohol at the temple. It was used for Shinto religious ceremonies such as offering to the Gods and to cleanse the temple. When sake is offered to the Gods, it is called ‘Omiki’. People drink Omiki so as to gain favor and blessing of the Gods in the form of a rich harvest or communication with them.
Sake is also used for ‘Sansankudo’, or the ceremony in which the Shinto bride and groom consume the drink during the wedding. The Diary also mentions the improvements and changes made to the brewing process. This includes pasteurization and the addition of ingredients during the fermenting stage.
Changes to the brewing process
In the 1300s the alcohol was mass produced and breweries were established across the country. The government also levied tax on the alcohol. It is believed that in the 17th century an employee at a sake factory used ashes to get rid of the sediment found in the drink. The employee was trying to damage the batch of sake but ended up discovering a process that would advance the brewing process. With the coming of the industrial revolution sake breweries were also automated.
The traditionally used canvas bags were replaced by a press in the 19th century. However, some brewers still take pride in brewing sake in a traditional manner. Like everything else across the world sake too was affected by the Second World War. It is said that ‘kamikaze’ pilots drank the spirit before they undertook a flight. Due to the lack of sake rice, pure alcohol and glucose were added to the rice mash in order to increase production output. This process is still continued today and many brands choose to add brewer’s alcohol to their sake. However, some brands still produce it only with sake rice, water, koji fungus and yeast.
In the 20th century the production of sake received an impetus from the government that hoped to gain more tax from it. In 1904, the Japanese government also established the first sake brewing research institute. It identified and specified the yeast strains that were to be used for fermenting the rice mash. Enamel coated steel tanks took the place of wooden drums that were used to mature the alcohol. Home brewing was banned in 1904 in the hope that the government would be able to raise much required wealth from the tax that was levied on sake.
Today, there are sake breweries not only in Japan but across the world and it is a popular drink. Many breweries choose to use the traditional methods of fermenting and maturing the alcohol. The Alcohol by Volume (ABV) of undiluted sake is as high as 18%-20%. This is a far higher ABV as compared with wine (9%-16%) and beer (3%-9%). The alcohol is diluted with water before it is bottled and sold in the market.
Sake and traditions
For many centuries now sake has been shared by family members and friends and is a drink that is raised to toast the most important bonds in life. It is believed that you should not pour your own cup of sake, but it must be poured by a friend and likewise. Sake is a drink that is to be shared and enjoyed with the people that you love and revere.
It can be served in ‘choko’ small ceramic cups, poured from ceramic flasks known as ‘tokkuri’. The temperature at which it is served is often dependent on the weather and season. It may be offered hot, cold or at room temperature. High grade sake must not be heated as heating can cause the loss of aroma and flavor. For special ceremonies like weddings, sake is served in saucer like cups.
Another interesting way to serve this traditional Japanese drink is in the ‘masu’, a wooden cup that resembles a box and is used to measure rice. The glass may be placed inside the ‘masu’ or the ‘masu’ can be put on a saucer like cup. The drink is poured in a manner that it overflows and fills both containers. This indicates the generosity of the host.