When people are asked to think of a food or drink they associate with Japan, one of the first things that comes to mind is none other than sake, Japan's national beverage. Global consumption of sake has been growing steadily in recent years, and people around the world are coming to recognize its distinct qualities. We'd like to take this opportunity to introduce to you the history of sake, how it is brewed today, and why it is such an irreplaceable part of Japanese culture. 

To start off, one important thing to keep in mind if you're in Japan is that saying "sake" might not mean quite what you think it does. "Sake" (酒) actually is just a general term for alcohol in Japanese. The word you'll want to use is nihonshu (日本酒), which literally means "Japanese liquor." This refers to Japanese alcohol made with four main ingredients - water, rice, koji mold, and yeast. 

Sake is generally served cold or gently warmed, and has traditionally been used in ceremonial settings, historically including events such as Shinto festivals and weddings, as well as the New Year. In modern times occasions now include store openings, professional sports team celebrations, and election victory parties, in addition to casual drinking, of course. To avoid spoiling in hot weather, sake has traditionally been brewed in the winter, and despite modern refrigeration techniques, sake still maintains a seasonal quality. Looking at the big picture, how did sake become such a staple of Japan's culture? Let's take a look back to see how sake has developed over time to occupy such an important position in Japanese society!

Sawanoi (Ozawa brewery), a sake brewery established in 1702. ©TOKI

Sawanoi (Ozawa brewery), a sake brewery established in 1702. ©TOKI

A Brief History of Sake

The history of alcohol goes back practically to the beginning of recorded history itself! A 3rd-century Chinese text, Records of the Three Kingdoms mentions alcohol in Japan. Japan's first known recorded history, the Kojiki (compiled in 712 CE) also mentions sake. Records show evidence that the very first sake-brewing facility was built in Nara, the old capital, in 689.  

Up until the Heian Period (794-1195), production of sake was almost entirely controlled by the imperial court, and was used in religious ceremonies, the imperial court (where the emperor himself might imbibe), and drinking games. However, with the rise of Buddhism during the Nara Period as well as some imperial reforms, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines began to brew sake, and became centers of sake production for around 500 years. Diaries of Buddhist priests in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) prove that sake brewers were already using a pasteurization technique called hiire (火入れ), where heat applied to the sake would kill bacteria (long before Louis Pasteur in the 16th century!). Brewers were also starting to use massive 1,500 liter vats, allowing for mass production in large facilities outside of shrines and temples. 

During the Meiji Restoration, the government allowed the creation of small private breweries, leading to as many as 30,000 sake-producers, which shrunk to about 8,000 over years of increasing taxation. The surviving breweries tended to be landowners who grew large amounts of rice crop, meaning that any leftovers they had could go to a brewery. 

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) actually caused the Japanese government to ban home-brewed sake, since it was tax free. The government was getting around 30% of its tax revenue from sake, and hoped that banning home-brewed sake would increase revenue, a law that remains in place to this day. However, the government did also play a part in pushing the limits of sake production technology, including promotion of enamel-coated steel tanks for storing sake, which solved problems of bacteria in the wood, as well as evaporation.  

World War II was a tough time for sake production, as the government began to tightly control distribution of rice for war efforts. Rice shortages led some breweries to add pure alcohol and glucose to the rice mash before pressing to improve the yield, a technique which many breweries use to this day, although some prefer to stick to more traditional methods.  One important innovation from 1943 was the sake class grading system, dividing sake quality into the Special Class (tokkyu, 特級), First Class (ikkyu, 一級), and Second Class (nikyu, 二級).

Breweries finally began to recover after the war, but with Japan's globalization throughout the 20th century, the industry found itself forced to compete with beer, wine, spirits, and other types of alcohol. In 1991, Japan introduced the new Junmai System to rank sake, classifying sake based on several factors including how much the rice is polished and the amount of brewer's alcohol or other additives. In recent years the number of breweries in Japan has been declining, but sake itself is still going strong in many ways. It has gained popularity around the world, with more attention also being given to older, traditional production methods. 

The Modern Brewing Process

While the ingredients for sake seem simple, brewing sake is by no means straightforward! Let's see an overview of the whole process.

The sake brewing process starts with the cultivation of  sakamai , sake rice. ©TOKI

The sake brewing process starts with the cultivation of sakamai, sake rice. ©TOKI

  • Acquiring the correct rice and water

    The first step in making good sake is procuring the right type of rice. Sake brewers actually use what is called sakamai (酒米), literally meaning "sake rice." This type of grain is larger, stronger, and contains less protein and fewer lipids (fatty acids) than rice for consumption.

    The final sake product is actually as much as 80% water, and so successful sake breweries have always been linked to areas with good water resources. Good water for brewing sake has low iron content, since it is said to ruin the color, scent, and taste. Potassium, magnesium, and phosphoric acid help the yeast and koji develop.

  • Rice milling

    The rice has a starch center, called the shinpaku (心白). This is considered the relatively desirable part of the grain, and so the rice is polished to remove the bran around it. Using a stronger type of rice prevents grains from breaking during the polishing. As little as 30% and as much as 65% of the kernels can be removed during polishing, and removing different amounts results in different tastes. The percentage of the kernel remaining is referred to as the seimaibuai (精米歩合), or polishing rate. After polishing, the rice needs to be left alone for about 10-20 days before washing/soaking.

  • Washing/Soaking

    Next, the rice needs to be washed and soaked, similar to how we prepare regular rice at home. Washing the rice makes sure the nuka powder (糠, also translated as rice-bran) is removed, and the rice is left to soak. The amount of time the rice is soaked is shorter the more it is polished. Times can vary from as short as a minute, to overnight.

  • Steaming

    This is where the process significantly diverges from how regular white rice is prepared. Instead of putting the rice in water and boiling it, the rice is placed into a steaming vat, called a koshiki (漉し器), so that steam comes up through it, giving the rice a firmer consistency, as well as a harder outside and softer inside. At this point, the batch might be split. Only about 1/4 of the rice will be covered with the koji mold, while about 3/4 will go straight into the fermentation vat.

  • Koji cultivation (Seigiku, 製麹)

    Good koji is vital to making good sake. There are thousands of different strains, but brewers will choose only the best ones for making sake. Koji mold in the form of a fine powder is sprinkled over the rice, and the batch is left in the "koji room" (kojimuro 麹室), where a high temperature and humidity level are maintained for 36-45 hours, during which the brewers will monitor and frequently mix or rearrange the batch. Only about 100 grams of the koji powder is enough for 1 ton of sake!

    Trivia: Koji was actually declared a "national fungus" in the journal of the Brewing Society of Japan because of how it is used not only for sake, but also to make soy sauce, miso, and a variety of other important Japanese foods!

  • The yeast starter (shubo/moto 酒母/酛)

    Yeast is also essential to modern sake production, and the yeast starter ensures that there will be enough yeast cells. This is essentially the initial seed mash before the main mash. Remember how we split the rice into two batches, one with koji, and one without? Some of the koji rice and some of the plain rice are recombined at this stage, along with more water and some pure yeast cells, making the perfect environment for the yeast to flourish over a period of around 2 weeks.

Inside the Hakkaisan sake brewery. ©TOKI

Inside the Hakkaisan sake brewery. ©TOKI

  • Starting the main mash (moromi, )

    After the yeast cells have been allowed to flourish over about two weeks, we can move on to the main mash. Everything will be transferred to a much larger vat, and over the next four days the brewers will add even more of the ingredients, doubling the size of the batch each time. The brewers will monitor the batch over the next 20 to 40 days, making sure the temperature, humidity, and other factors are controlled to ensure the quality of the final product.

    The whole chemistry of this process is complicated, but the main idea is that during the alcohol brewing process, the starch turns into a sugar, which then turns into alcohol. When brewing beer, this happen in two discrete steps, but when brewing sake, the two processes occur almost simultaneously.

  • Dilution

    At this stage, some water is added to the mixture. Adding water can also bring out softer characteristics in the flavor of the sake. Brewers may also choose to add brewer's alcohol, which not only influences the texture and viscosity, but as we mentioned also increases the overall yield, although it may sacrifice some flavor.

  • Pressing the sake (Joso 上槽)

    Sake can be separated from the mash in several ways. One way is to put the sake moromi into something resembling a mesh pillow case, and then stack it in a box-style press called a fune (槽). Another way is the yabuta air bladder press, which inflates to press the sake. Sometimes the bags are simply suspended above a container to let gravity do the work of separating the sake.

  • Roka (濾過, filtration)

    Sake at this stage is often run through a charcoal filter, removing solids that could cause discoloration or other problems during the aging process. Without the filtration, the sake might have a yellowish-green tint to it.

    Unfiltered sake is also a marketed product, referred to in Japanese namagenshu (生原酒) or namazake (生酒). Be warned - it has a much livelier taste, but has to be refrigerated since it's also skipping pasteurization.

  • Pasteurization

    As we mentioned above, using heat to pasteurize sake was a well-known practice since the 14th century in Japan. Sake today is briefly exposed to high temperatures to kill off bacteria and deactivate enzymes that could adversely affect the color and flavor, making sake easier to store and less prone to spoil.

  • Aging

    Most sake is left to age for about six months (and sometimes up to a year) before it can be shipped out for consumption. It can be aged in storage tanks or in bottles. It is also diluted again with water, bringing the alcohol content to about 15%. For comparison, wine is generally about 9-16% ABV (alcohol by volume), and beer is around 3-9%, whereas sake is actually around 18-20% before dilution. It is also pasteurized once more before shipping.

    Finally, we've reached the end of the brewing process! A typical batch of sake produces roughly 250 of the standard 720 ml bottles (about the same size as a bottle of wine).

Sake is aged for six months to a year before being shipped. ©TOKI

Sake is aged for six months to a year before being shipped. ©TOKI

Sake's Lasting Legacy Throughout Japan

At Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo, empty barrels of sake can be seen on display. Sake is said to bring people and the gods together. ©TOKI

At Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo, empty barrels of sake can be seen on display. Sake is said to bring people and the gods together. ©TOKI

Throughout Japan's history, sake has played an important role not only in formal ceremonies and casual drinking, but also in supporting and promoting local and regional industries. Brewers take pride in making use of locally grown seasonal ingredients, important characteristics emphasized in traditional Japanese food and drink culture. Many local farming communities can grow rice during the summer to be used for brewing sake in the winter.

The brewing facilities themselves can even play an important role in sustaining a community. Some of the oldest brewing sites in Japan are even registered as Tangible Cultural Property, giving official recognition to their cultural significance. One amazing example of this is the original Hinomaru brewery building, also known as Masuda Castle in Akita Prefecture. This is where the Hinomaru sake brewers established their trade in 1689! To this day, they make the best use of rice grown locally, making invaluable contributions to the local economy. In fact, a huge number of breweries take great pride in using locally grown ingredients, which gives their product unique qualities while simultaneously supporting local industries.

While sake consumption has seen a decline since the introduction of foreign liquor, brewers still feel optimistic about the future of sake, as consumption has climbed in recent years. After the tsunami and earthquake disaster in 2011, people at first felt it was inappropriate to drink sake, as it usually has a celebratory connotation. However, people soon began to realize that consumption of sake could actually become a way to support the local industries in the Tohoku region, showing that sake has the power to bring cheer even in the darkest of times. This has even helped lead to a renewed sense of pride that Japanese people feel for sake, and reminded people of the long legacy of sake as a part of traditional Japanese culture.