Sake is made from rice. In Japan, sake has been consumed since ancient times. It was not exactly the same sake as what we have these days. The technique has advanced over time to the present day. This history of sake goes back about 2,000 years. The brewing of sake is a complex process. First, the rice starch needs to be converted into sugar. Then sugar is fermented by yeast to alcohol. The present established method of converting starch into sugar is by Koji-kin (aspergillus mold), the same process used since the 4th century.
The organization, sake brewery office, was established by the Imperial Court and started brewing sake for the ceremonies during the Heian period (8th to 12th century). In the 15th century, hundreds of small-scale sake shops were born in Kyoto and sake came to be brewed throughout the year. At the same time, sake was brewed in temples in Nara and other places came to lead the development of brewing techniques. Since then, the technical development with consistent quality has progressed and from the middle of Edo period (18th century), the brewing technique similar to today’s style was established.
First, Koji-kin (aspergillus mold) is carefully grown over the steamed rice to make malted rice. Then, water and more steamed rice are added to the malted rice to make the fermentation starter. After that, the fermentation is promoted by the unique method, three-step fermentation process) by adding more steamed rice and water three separate times. Then sake is filtered, pasteurized at low temperature, stored, and matured. This production method requires very complex, detailed, and advanced skills. Around this time, brewing sake in its best season, winter, became very popular. This technical development gave rise to the special professional group of sake brewing called “Toji” group.
It was also discovered that the quality of water had a big effect on brewing sake. It was the development of rice breeding, brewery science, and manufacturing facilities after the Meiji era (19th to 20th century), which marked the beginning of modern Japan, that established the modern brewing process. However, the brewing skill involved with the “multiple parallel fermentation process” which converts rice starch into sugar and converts sugar into alcohol simultaneously, has not changed even today.
Various Sake Produced in Climate Conditions of Japan
Japan is a long arc-shaped island country, surrounded by the warm current flowing from south to north and the cold current flowing from north to southwest. The climate varies greatly from north to south and from the Pacific Ocean side to the Japan-Sea side. Japan also belongs to the temperate monsoon region and experiences four seasons. However, due to the central mountains, over 1,000 m elevation backbone ridge, that divides the archipelago, the character of the climate, even at the same latitude, is quite different from the Pacific Ocean side to the Japan-Sea side.
As a result, farm and marine products are very different in each region. The custom of local foods using local recipes had been created, and therefore, each region has its own traditional cuisine diverse in flavor, seasoning and cooking methods. As a result, sake breweries in each region have their sake styles match their local cuisines. Brewing sake for each lifestyle and diet was developed and refined for each region.
Even now, the Japanese cultural sensitivity to the four seasons is reflected in how sake is consumed. Each season brings us a different type of sake and a different way to drink it. In autumn, we have Hiyaoroshi, well matured over the summer; in the winter to early spring, Shiboritate with a fresh flavor; in the hot summer, cold Namazake (unpasteurized sake), and more.
Recently, various technical approaches to sake brewing have developed. There are many styles of sakes available on the market. However, most importantly, the quality control of sake after shipping is essential for enjoying the delicate taste and different flavors. The reason for the sake bottles to be lightproof brown or UV-cut bottles is to reduce the sunlight, the most dangerous factor for preserving sake quality. For drinking delicious sake, it is important to store it in a cool and dark place.
We hope to pass this beautiful sake culture to the future generation of Japan and the international community.