The origins of sake merge with the beginning of rice cultivation in Japan around 2,500 years ago.
The earliest writings mentioning Japanese sake have been discovered in Chinese history books dating back to the 3rd century. It says that the Japanese enjoy sake and usually get together to drink it together at funerals. It was then necessary to wait for the 8th century and the “fudoki” to find new mentions about the production of sake. These reports shed light on the original production methods.
In the 10th century, the book “Engishiki” commissioned by Emperor Daigo gives a more precise description of the sake production methods.
The sakes were produced primarily at the imperial court and were intended to be drunk by the emperor or during religious ceremonies.
From the 12th to the 15th century, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines became the main places for brewing sake. It was during this period that modern brewing methods were developed.
It was also during the Middle Ages that lactic acid was introduced into the fermentation process in order to control microbial proliferation. The use of polished rice, which until then was limited to making koji, was extended to making sake. It was also during the Middle Ages that the pasteurization of sake first appeared.
From 17th century
In the 17th century, at the start of the Edo era, moro-haku (sake made from polished rice) initially produced in Itami and Ikeda, both in the Kansai region, joined the top 3 towns (Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo). Moro-haku manufacturing has grown fastest in Edo (Tokyo’s former name), reaching a production of 38,000,000 liters per year, which represents an average annual consumption of 54 liters per capita.
The methods of making sake in the 18th century were very similar to modern methods except that the amounts of water added to polished rice were much less, which suggests that at that time, thicker sake was preferred.
18th century sake is also distinguished by the addition of wood ash to moro-mi (unfiltered sake) to reduce the acidity of the finished product. It was also around this time that alcohol began to be added after the fermentation step to allow for better storage.
In the early 19th century, the nerve center of sake production moved from Itami and Ikeda to Kobe and Nishinomiya in Hyogo Prefecture. The sake which was then produced was characterized by the use of local water (miyamizu) with particular properties. This water, rich in phosphate and potassium, facilitates the proliferation of the koji fungus and yeasts, thus strengthening the fermentation of moro-mi. This transition phase in the manufacturing processes is also characterized by the introduction of the paddlewheel that allows increasing productivity but also improving the quality of the sake by achieving polishing rates higher than those previously allowed by manual polishing methods. Sake brewing, which until then took place throughout the year, was limited to the winter period in order to reduce the risk of microbial contamination and to ensure regular production of high quality sake.
The arrival of European scientists in Japan in the mid-19th century marked the beginning of scientific research into sake, and the German chemist Oskar Korschelt and the British Robert William Atkinson were the first to take an interest in science behind the methods of sake. ancestral production and were particularly surprised by the fact that low-temperature pasteurization had been known to the Japanese for hundreds of years. In 1904, the National Institute for Brewing Research was established. In just a few years, this organization allowed sake production methods to standardize and improve significantly.
The 20th century still saw many changes in the manufacturing processes of sake, changes related in particular to a better understanding of the fermentation process, an improvement of the machines used in the polishing of rice, and the adoption of enamel reservoirs to replace the wooden barrels.
We hope you’ve enjoy reading Japanese sake history through this article.
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