You may already know that a glass of rich, decadent sake makes an excellent complement to almost any meal, especially sushi and sashimi dishes. Yet, how much do you really know about this alcoholic beverage?
As the national drink of Japan, sake has a fascinating and complex history. The more you understand about this drink, the more you can appreciate and enjoy it.
Today, we're diving into the full history of sake and sharing everything you need to know.
What Is Sake?
Put simply, sake is a traditional Japanese drink made from rice that has been specially fermented to remove the bran content. Light in color and non-carbonated, it has a slightly acidic, sweet flavor and usually contains between 12% and 14% alcohol.
Though the appearance and alcoholic content of sake cause many people to mistake it for wine, it's actually made through a special type of fermentation process called multiple parallel fermentation.
Multiple Parallel Fermentation
This process is complex and contains multiple steps, but it helps to have a high-level overview of how it works.
First, the rice must be prepared.
While the general name for the rice is Sakamai, the most common variety is short-grain japonica. When this rice is intricately milled to remove its outer bran layers, the grain is reduced by up to 70% of its original size.
Once the rice is properly milled, it's ready to convert from starch to fermentable sugar. Fermenters begin by steaming the rice and mixing it with water. Then, they add a type of fungus called koji.
After being mixed with the water and rice, the koji is incubated in a blanket. Over time, it forms into a dry, crumbly, sweet material, which is added to a vat containing more rice and water. This mixture is allowed to ferment for a few weeks, along with a special type of sake yeast.
After the first fermentation process, it forms a substance called moto. On its own, moto has an alcoholic content of around 11%.
To increase this content, a second fermentation process must occur. More koji is added to the vat, along with steamed rice and water. This fermentation lasts around one week, and the final mixture is called moromi.
When it's complete, the sake is ready! Fermenters will then filter, pasteurize, and bottle the liquid for distribution.
Jōmon Period: 14000 to 300 BC
Our account of sake history starts all the way back in the 2nd century BC, during Japan's Jōmon Period. This was the very first time that the wet rice cultivation process began in China, which would later be sent over to Japan around 1000 BC.
However, there isn't any reason to believe that sake was being brewed in Japan at this time. Rather, ancient records suggest that the focus was on cultivating wild grapes and turning them into wine, which was noted as the first alcoholic drink.
During this period, the Japanese population was comprised mostly of hunters and gatherers. They lived a nomadic lifestyle, most likely migrating to cooler or warmers areas to accommodate the changing seasonal climates.
Yayoi Period: 300 BC to 300 AD: The Very First Depictions of Sake
While no one can say for sure when people started making and drinking sake in Japan, there are early records of an alcoholic beverage being made from rice during the Yayoi period of the 3rd century, which occurred from 300 BC to 250 AD. This was a time of great cultural change and advancement in the country.
During the Yayoi period, the Japanese population began to make the shift from hunting and gathering to full-scale agricultural development. While historians believe that sake production was already in full swing by this time, our first written record of it comes from a Chinese source.
One 3rd-century Chinese document explained that people in Japan drank sake during the Yayoi period, especially during times of mourning. Other records confirm this account, indicating that it was commonly consumed at ancient funerals.
As you might imagine, the sophisticated multiple parallel fermentation process looked a little different back then. History books suggest that to achieve a similar effect, individuals would chew rice and spit it into a pot.
Recognized as one of the earliest forms of fermentation, the basic concept was that the person's saliva would work to remove the non-starch-based enzymes from the rice. In turn, the starch could convert into sugar with the addition of natural yeasts.
Kofun and Asuka Periods: 300 AD to 710 AD: Introduction of Doburoku
Sake was still being fermented via basic means at the onset of the Kofun period. However, these years gave rise to another ancient Japanese beverage: Doburoku.
Like sake, we can trace the history of Doburoku all the way back to the first period of wet rice production. Similar to the drink, it also contains the basic ingredients o rice, water, and koji. Yet, there is an important difference to note.
Unlike sake, the final fermented mixture, called moromi, is not filtered in Doburoku. This means that while it contains the same ingredients and is fermented in the same way, the final product is much more muddy and cloudy in appearance.
During the Kofun and Asuka periods, farmers would offer this drink to the gods, alongside rice. The offering was submitted in hopes of a strong and successful harvest, and many regions of Japan still follow this practice today.
Nara Period: 710 AD to 794 AD: First Sake Brewing Division
The Nara period in Japan lasted from 710 to 794 AD. During this time, the Japanese people began to develop more stable and sophisticated methods of growing rice. Although they had been cultivating the grain for thousands of years, they had lacked a streamlined process for harvesting it and turning it into an alcoholic beverage like sake.
This changed with the addition of a dedicated sake brewing division, which was established within the walls of Japan's Imperial Palace right before the turn of the century, in 689 BC. Once this occurred, the term "sake" began appearing more frequently in Japanese domestic documents.
These documents detailed the steps required to make the drink, including the addition of koji. Once this mold was discovered, people were no longer required to chew and spit the rice to ferment it!
Sake production began to spread throughout the country, starting in religious centers such as temples and shrines. Once established there, more commercial brewing spaces began to develop.
Yet, though it was growing in popularity, it's important to note that sake was not widely consumed at this time.
Due to the time and costs required to brew it, the drink was mostly reserved for the privileged and elite classes. Records show that imperial court officials, including the emperor and his aristocrats, enjoyed chilled sake over ice in the summertime. In addition, religious leaders were also known to consume and enjoy the beverage during this period.
Heian Period: 794 AD to 1185 AD
During the Heian Period of Japan, sake began to become more ingrained in the customs and traditions of the country. Much of what we know about sake during this timeframe comes from the Engishiki. This is a 50-volume Japanese book compiled between 907 AD and 927 AD, detailing all of the laws and customs that marked early Japanese culture.
During the 10th century, sake brewing techniques were still largely governed by the Imperial Court. There was even a class-based ranking system in place that determined the quality of the drink that people could access.
For example, officers and people in high ranks could enjoy richly flavored sake that was clear in color and consistency. However, those who belonged to the lower class were restricted to unrefined, muddy sake that more closely resembled the aforementioned Doburoku.
Even if a lower-class resident could get their hands on a bottle of sake, they couldn't open and enjoy it on a whim. Instead, bottles were primarily reserved for special occasions and festivals.
When consuming sake, records show that people would sometimes heat it in a pot to enhance the flavor. They would also serve it with meals, adding it alongside entrees like shellfish and miso.
Kamakura Period 1185 AD to 1333 AD
During the Kamakura Period, the governing body of Japan began to shift away from the Imperial Court. Now, the Shogunate began to take hold. In short, this was the military dictatorship that ruled Japan between 1192 AD and 1867 AD.
As this shift occurred, the country also began to change the way it produced sake. Shrines and temples became the main facilities for production, not the court. Called "sake producers", these locations were often led by well-read, profit-hungry leaders who refined sake brewing techniques and turned the drink into less of a sacred substance, and more of a popular commodity.
In fact, many of the fermentation and brewing processes that are still used to make sake today originated during this period. As production started to ramp up, sake became more accessible to the general public. However, while the elite could enjoy it in small social settings any time they wanted, the middle and lower classes could only enjoy it on special occasions.
As more people started to enjoy sake, the government responded by enforcing a prohibition in 1252 AD, which was later overturned.
Muromachi Period: 1333 AD To 1573 AD
Around the 13th to 15th centuries, individual brewers began to specialize in sake. They marketed their wares under their own trade names, and eventually eclipsed religious institutions as the dominant sake producers.
The Muromachi Period was a time of great craftsmanship and development in Japan. During this time, builders perfected the technique of creating large pails to brew the sake in, which enabled them to make and distribute even greater quantities of the beverage.
If someone wanted to bring a smaller quantity of sake home (rather than drink it on the spot or purchase a pail), they could use newly-invented sake vessels to do so. Around this same time, sake also became safer to consume as producers learned how to use heat to pasteurize and disinfect the liquid. The first record of this technique was created in 1569 AD.
Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo Periods: 1573 AD to 1868 AD
During these two periods, the commercial production of sake began to skyrocket and become a true industry. This was a time of relative peace for Japan, as the country had a reprieve from civil war and discontent.
Some of the most popular sake-producing regions at this time were Osaka, Nada, and Itami. To keep production in check, the government began to adjust the rice supply, as well as pricing. Still, the process continued to boom and become more sophisticated.
Key developments that occurred during this timeframe include:
- Advancements in rice milling technologies that made polishing easier
- The development of a technique called hashira-shochu that prevented microbial contamination
- A new brewing process using a Kimoto-style yeast starter method
Meiji and Taishō Periods: 1868 AD to 1926 AD
From the late 19th century to the early 20th century in Japan, sake production underwent many changes. When the Shogunate government officially ended in 1868, producers began to look at Western brewing techniques to learn how to improve and stabilize the drink's quality.
Some of the most important changes that occurred as a result of this analysis included:
- Replacing cedar casks with glass bottles around 1878
- The formation of the National Research Institute of Brewing in 1904
- The establishment of the first-annual Japan Sake Award in 1911
- Diluting sake with neutral spirits to reduce the amount of rice required during wartime
Shōwa Period: 1926 AD to 1989 AD
The post-war economic boon caused sake production to rise in Japan in the 1970s. By this time, the country had also developed machinery and facilities that allowed producers to make a large quantity of the drink in a short period of time.
Throughout the 1980s, companies began experimenting with different brewing techniques, using other forms of yeast. The results were often fruity and fragrant, and one notable type called ginjo-shu became especially popular.
Throughout the 1990s, the sake industry continued to change in Japan. Most notably, producers developed a new labeling system that described different types of sake, including Tokuteimeisho-shu, or specialty versions.
While production dipped in the late '90s and plateaued around the year 2000, it didn't stay stagnant for long. Small business owners began opening their own breweries. where they could create more unique, specially-crafted sake drinks. Internal consumption and exports began to pick up as a result.
Today, there remains an emphasis on regionally-specific sakes. Though the drink is readily accessible nearly everywhere, its unique characteristics are what make it so special. Thus, producers are using region-specific rice strains and blends to cater to this niche market.
In addition to regional specialties throughout Japan, there are also more international sake breweries than ever before!
Take a Sip of the History of Sake
The next time you enjoy a glass of sake, remember how many years it took to become the refined, accessible product that it is today. The history of sake shows how this beverage has changed over the centuries. Once an elixir of the elite, it's now a global sensation.
Has all of this research made you thirsty for your own bottle? If so, we've got you covered. Feel free to shop our full sake collection online or visit us in person to find your new favorite!