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Sake is a Japanese word meaning "alcoholic beverage". However, in Western countries it refers to a type of alcoholic beverage prepared from a fermentation made from rice and known in Japan as nihonshu (日本酒 "alcohol of Japan").
In the West, sake is commonly referred to as "rice wine". The production of alcoholic beverages by grain fermentation is more common in beer than in wine.
There are also other beverages known as "rice wine" that are significantly different from nihonshu. Depending on the brand of the product, it can reach 15 to 20 degrees alcohol.
The history of sake is still undocumented and there are multiple theories as to how it was created. One theory suggests that rice brewing began in China along the Yangtze River around 4800 BC and later the method was exported to Japan.
Another theory explains that sake brewing began in 3rd century Japan with the advent of wet rice cultivation. The combination of water and rice resulted in fermentation and the appearance of mold on the rice.
Regardless, the first sake was called kuchikami no sake (口噛みの酒), or "sake to chew in the mouth," and was made with chewing rice, chestnuts, millet and acorns. The mixture was spit into a barrel and enzymes in the saliva converted the starch in the rice into sugar.
This sugary mixture was then combined with freshly cooked rice and left to ferment naturally. This ancient form of sake was low in alcohol and was consumed as a porridge. This method was also used by Native Americans (see masato and pulque).
Chinese millet wine, xǐaomǐ jǐu (小米酒), made in the same way, is mentioned in inscriptions as early as the 14th century BC when it was offered to the gods in religious rituals. In about the 8th century B.C., rice wine, mǐ jǐu (米酒) with a formula almost exactly like Japanese sake, achieved great popularity in China.
Centuries later, the rice-chewing process became obsolete thanks to the discovery of koji-kin (麹菌 Aspergillus oryzae), a mold with enzymes that converted rice starch into sugar and is also used to make amazake, miso, nattō and soy sauce.
Rice with koji-kin is called kome-koji (米麹), or malted rice. A yeast dough, or shubo (酒母), is added to convert the sugar to ethanol. This process can greatly increase the alcohol content of sake (18% to 25% by vol.); the starch is converted to sugar by the koji and the sugar is converted to alcohol by the yeast in an instantaneous process.
Koji-kin was possibly discovered by accident. Spores of koji-kin and yeast can float in the air and settle in wet rice paddies creating a fermentation process.
The resulting fermentation could have created a pasty sake without the need for people to chew the rice. This paste probably did not have a quality taste, but the toxicity was not as high.
The development of techniques and methods from China in the 7th century eventually produced a better quality sake.
Sake became very popular and a sake brewing organization was established at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, the capital of Japan at the time; the result of this support led to a rapid development of production techniques.
In the Heian Era, the third step in the sake brewing process (a technique that increased the amount of alcohol and reduced the acidity) was developed.
Over the next 500 years, sake brewing techniques steadily improved.
For example, the use of a starter mash or "moto" with the goal of cultivating as many yeast cells as possible before brewing. Brewers also isolated koji for the first time to more consistently control the process of converting rice starch into sugar.
On the other hand, through various observations and trials, a form of pasteurization was developed. Bacteria that accumulated in the barrels during the summer months caused some batches of sake to begin to turn bitter.
These batches were transferred to other tanks and heated. However, pasteurization of the resulting sake was impossible if the sake was then returned to the barrels infected with the bacteria.
Thus, the sake ended up being more acidic and unpalatable to drink. The workings of this pasteurization process were not fully understood until Louis Pasteur discovered it 500 years later.
During the Meiji Restoration, anyone with the financial resources and knowledge to brew was legally allowed to operate his or her own sake brewing business.
About 30,000 sake breweries were established throughout the country in one year. This prompted the government to increase taxes on the sake industry and the number of breweries was reduced to 8,000.
Most of the breweries that grew and survived this era came from landowners. They were able to obtain rice at the end of the harvest season and keep stocks for the rest of the year. Most of these successful companies are still operating today.
During the 20th century, sake brewing technology advanced greatly. The government established the Sake Brewing Research Institute in 1904, and in 1907 the first government sake-brewing test was conducted.
There are four basic types of sake, created with a fine variety of ingredients. The inner part of the rice grain contains the starch (which is what ferments) and the outer parts contain oil and protein, which tend to leave a strange or unpleasant taste in the final product. When the rice is polished, the outermost part is removed, leaving only the starchy center.
The basic types of sake, in order of increasing quality, complexity and price are: