Introduction to Sake

Sake is a very popular alcoholic beverage in Japan and other parts of the world. It is also known as rice wine although its production is quite different from that of traditional wines. Whereas wine is made by fermenting sugar in grapes, sake is brewed from fermented rice in a process similar to that of making beer.

The origin of this traditional Japanese drink has never been quite clear. The “Book of Wei”, which chronicles the ancient history of Japan, describes the use of alcohol in Japanese ceremonies around the 3rd Century. Rice cultivation in Japan began around 300 BC which means production of sake must have begun at around the same time Sake is also mentioned in the earliest Japanese archives known as “Kojiki” written in 712 AD. These ancient records state that alcoholic beverages were consumed whenever people gathered to mourn the passing on of a relative or friend. Famous sake production regions in Japan included the city of Kobe in the Hyogo prefecture. Kobe was a renowned technological and sake production hub in the Edo period. Although the exact inventor of sake will forever remain unknown, this famous drink’s popularity has spilled over the borders of Japan and is today enjoyed millions across the world.

The drink’s brewing process may have undergone numerous changes in the course of history but the basic concept remained the same up to date. The traditional Japanese liquor is fermented in a very unique way. The process involves stripping of bran and polishing the rice to remove unwanted proteins and oils from the grain. It is this starch-rich rice that is used to make the fermented drink. In ancient times, villagers chewed on rice and nuts to create a fermenting mixture which was collected in a communal tub. Chewing rice and nuts was one of the many Shinto religious rituals but served to ferment sake too. By the 20th century, production of sake had greatly advanced especially after the invention of rice polishing machines and more efficient fermentation techniques. Specially processed yeast for sake fermentation was introduced to market by the Japanese Central Brewer’s Union in 1906. By the 1920s, sake was no longer fermented in wooden vats but in modern enamel containers that preserved the drink’s pure taste and flavour. The drink’s quality standards saw a major decline at the height of the Second World War in the 1940s. This was brought about by restrictions and shortages which forced brewers to add distilled liquor to sake. This practice, which continued even after the war, led to the use of artificial flavours such as acids and sugars.

Fortunately, today’s technological advancements and predilection to quality and high standards, has led to emergence of large brewing companies using the latest computer-controlled equipment to manufacture sake on a large scale. Fierce competition from modern alcoholic beverages including beer and wine drastically affected the production and consumption of this traditional liquor. Worldwide consumption of sake was bolstered by the introduction of premium sake in the 1960s. While it only accounts for a small percentage of the popular liquor’s market, consumption of premium sake continues to grow beyond the Japanese borders. It is now possible to enjoy a refreshing serving of sake in a Japanese restaurant anywhere in the world.

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