Sake

Sake probably emerged from China in the seventh century, although it is claimed that the first rice wine may have been brewed for the emperor in the third century. The first sake was called 'chewing in the mouth sake' on account of its mode of production. Rice was chewed alongside chestnuts or millet and the wad spit into water in a wooden tub where it was allowed to brew for several days. We now know, of course, that the salivary amylase was degrading starch to fermentable sugars that were converted by adventitious yeasts into alcohol. It was a ritualistic process in Shinto festivals.

The advent of sake proper in the Nara period of 710-794 has an origin comparable with that of beer, insofar as rice went mouldy with the consequence of degradation and spontaneous alcoholic fermentation. Part of the rice that had become infected by mould could be saved and used to start a new batch. We now call this koji, with the principal micro-organism being Aspergillus oryzae.

Through the ages, sake has had profound social and religious significance. Just as for beer or wine, it has served a strong catalytic, functional and social role in the cementing of society.

The Westernisation of Japanese culture, including the fermentation of sake, can be trace to 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy arrived in the harbour south of Tokyo. These days there is a fascinating meeting of Western and ancient Eastern cultures in the production of sake.

In 1872, there were more than 30 000 sake breweries in Japan. The Meiji government recognised (as have so many other governments throughout history) that taxation of alcohol production was a useful source of revenue, and the fiscal burden on sakemakers increased annually. By the start of the twentieth century, only 8000 sake brewers survived and the present shape of the industry was established.

The traditional centres for sake production are Nada and Fushimi and great national brands emerge from here (Figs 8.1-8.6). Local brewers produce Jizaki sakes. There is an increasing use of the latest technology, especially by the largest producers, who apply much automation. Modernisation of the industry was greatly aided by the founding in 1904 of the National Research Institute of Brewing, which was started by the Treasury to test sakes.

A shortage of rice during the last Great War obliged sakemakers to supplement the traditional process stream by the addition of pure alcohol, or glucose or glutinous rice as adjuncts. Such approaches remain as standard procedures in the manufacture of many sakes.

Fig. 8.1 Washing and steeping of polished rice.
Fig. 8.2 Steaming of rice.
Fig. 8.4 Making sake seed.
Fig. 8.6 Filtration of new sake mash.

It was not until 1983 that sake consumption fell to less than 30% of total alcohol consumed. Presently it amounts to about 15% of the total alcohol market. Beer is much more important nowadays, but other competitors include spirits and schochu, which resembles vodka.

There is renewed interest in sake, however, with its perception as a 'natural food'. In 1975, the Japan Sake Brewers Association established labelling practices that led directly to a reduced use of non-traditional ingredients.

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