History of Sake

Sake took a few hundred years to develop after rice was first cultivated in Japan over 2000 years ago, with kuchikami-zake one of the earliest forms of the drink on record. No machinery or technology required, just those with strong enough jaws and teeth who could chew grains of rice. This ‘mouth-chewed sake’ would be spat into a vat and enzymes in the human saliva, along with natural yeast, would be left to produce an alcohol of sorts. Luckily for those of us who appreciate the finer points of the drink, more orthodox means of sake were developed as mentioned in the Kojiki, or ‘Record of Ancient Matters’ in the eighth century. A brewing department was also established within the Imperial Palace in Nara, in A.D 689, assake began the road to prominence.

At this time though, the brewing process would still have been quite rudimentary with the whole of the rice grain being used including the brown, outer parts. It was also not until around A.D. 1000 that the koji-kinmould, required to convert the starch in the rice grains into sugar, was specially cultivated and added to the mash, rather than having to rely on it naturally occurring in the mixture. The Tamon’in Diary, a record of daily temple life written between 1478 and 1618, mentions several aspects of brewing which are still used today. These include the process of ‘polishing’ or milling rice, (to remove the brown outer covering to leave behind 100% white rice), the addition of ingredients to the fermentation mixture in three stages (sandan-shikomi) plus a form of pasteurization, in use a couple of hundred years before Louis Pasteur gave his name to the process in Europe. And the clear sake we know today, wasn’t always so. 1578 was the first time that a sake had been filtered sufficiently to render it totally clear, making it the preferred tipple of the Shogun of the day.

During the Edo period of Japanese history (1603-1868), a number of concerted improvements to the process were made, and sake was produced on a more industrial scale. While previously the job of polishing the rice had been done by hand, using a large pestle and mortar-type utensil or even by people stamping on it, waterwheels began to be used to drive rice-polishing machines on a much bigger scale. In addition, kan-zukuri, the practice of brewing sake in the winter only, (when conditions are best suited to its production), was introduced and continues to this day.

From the days when sake was brewed at the Imperial Court in Nara, the most important area of sake production has always been in western Japan, and in particular, the city of Kobe and its environs in Hyogo prefecture. During the Edo period, this region was at the forefront of technological advancement and large-scale sake production. In Itami, an extraordinary statistic shows that in 1804, 5% of the town’s households were sakebrewers, and more than 20 million litres of sake were shipped that year to the capital, Edo (present day Tokyo). Itami was later overtaken by the Nada area of Kobe as the most important sake production centre, having the advantage of several rivers to drive waterwheels used in rice milling, and a port to allow easier distribution of the finished product.

Roll on the twentieth century and a more efficient way to make sake with the introduction of rice polishing machines along with advancements in the fermentation process. In 1906 the Central Brewer’s Union began selling yeast specifically for use in sake brewing and in the 1920s, the wooden vats which had until then been used for fermentation, were replaced with more modern enamel variants. These modern vats didn’t impart their own flavour on the sake, allowing for a purer taste to be enjoyed.

What sake historians see as perhaps the only real retrograde steps in the history of sake-making came during the 1940s, at the height of war. Due to the restrictions and shortages this period brought with it, from 1943 brewers were forced by law to add pure distilled alcohol to sake. While this imperative was lifted after the war, brewers continued to add alcohol and sometimes artificial flavourings such as sugar and acids for good measure. Although the addition of small amounts of distilled alcohol had been developed as far back as the end of the seventeenth century, this was the first time in the history of the beverage that alcohol was added in significant quantities, and from then on sake with added alcohol has been treated separately from pure sake (junmaishu).

Huge strides in technology now sees today’s larger breweries using computer-controlled equipment to produce sake on an industrial scale, but the number of breweries fell during the twentieth century, from around 10,000 in 1926, to 1,742 in 1997. Production levels of sake itself were at their highest in the 1970s, when modern technology was becoming widespread. They have gradually fallen since, perhaps due to the increase in competition from wine, beer and other alcoholic drinks.

The most striking exception to this trend in recent years has been the increase in production and consumption of premium sake. Only since the 1960s has premium sake been commercially available, and whilst it still only accounts for a small portion of the total sake market, it’s continuing to grow.

In spite of an ever-developing backdrop of technological advancement, many smaller breweries still retain traditional, time-honoured methods that involve a good deal more effort than modern production techniques. This is what makes sake unique to each brewery, as experienced brewers can precisely control the flavour of a sake, and produce a drink full of character, reflecting their craft and skills in the elaborate art of making sake.