Sake, Japan’s traditional rice wine, has played a key role in the country’s history and culture. Once known as the Drink of the Gods, it is still quite important and popular today. This is not only because of its taste, but also because of the customs and tradition invoked by the wine.
While sake can be traced back as far as 4,000 B.C. in China, it is actually the Japanese who first mass produced the wine. It was around 300 B.C. that Japan saw the introduction of wet rice cultivation and the first brewed sake.
To create the wine, rice kernels were milled, or polished, cooked in clean water, and then turned into a mash. In early times, the whole village took part in the polishing process. And it definitely was not like any practice you’d see today!
Each villager chewed nuts and rice before spitting the chewed mixture into a collective container. This not-so-sanitary process was referred to as “kuchikami no sake” or “chewing the mouth sake.” The reason that the villagers chewed the nuts and rice was to create the enzymes needed for the sake to ferment. Luckily the process isn’t still practiced today, thanks to the discovery that yeast and a mold enzyme called Koji could be mixed together with the rice in order to start fermentation.
When sake was first produced, it was created for villages or individual families to consume. Although you will still see sake produced today for private consumption, it is also created on a larger scale for mass consumption.
Mass production of sake became popular in the 1300s, which also allowed the wine to gain its notorious popularity throughout Japan. As the years went by, the process used to create sake improved and breweries of the rice wine began to grow and flourish.
Early varieties of sake were quite cloudy. However, during the 17th century, a crafty brewery worker unwittingly discovered that adding ashes to the mix would settle the sake’s cloudy particles. Legend has it that the disgruntled employee planned to destroy the sake, but instead he managed to figure out something that no other before him had!
During the 20th century, the production process once again changed, making it even easier to create the popular rice wine. Although you will still find some brewers using old-fashioned methods, in most cases the traditional canvas bags once used to squeeze the liquid from the mash mixture was replaced by a press. And, thanks to a rice shortage during WWII, pure alcohol and glucose became additions to the mash that helped to speed up brewing time and increase production yield.
Even though the way sake is created has changed greatly since its inception, the role that it plays in Japan’s culture definitely has remained the same. It remains the drink of family, friendship, and reverence. You’ll still find that the same traditions, such as not pouring sake for your own consumption, still hold strong and will more than likely continue to do so in the future.
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