The mere mention of the word sake is sure to bring a shudder; a sigh and a desperate look of ‘never again’ to many foreign faces. However to the Japanese, the tradition of fermenting rice into wine dates back to c. AD 300 and has evolved into a key component of Japanese culture and cuisine. The popularity of Japanese culture is highlighted in the James bond film, You Only Live Twice, made in 1967 at a time when breweries had to fortify their sake with distilled alcohol as a result of a shortage of wartime rice.
Tiger Tanaka: “Do you like Japanese sake, Mr. Bond? Or would you prefer a vodka martini?”
James Bond: “No, no. I like sake. Especially when it’s served at the correct temperature, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit, like this is.”
Tiger Tanaka: “For a European, you are exceptionally cultivated.”[i]
To understand sake in the West is considered something of a status symbol and in the modern era, it can provide an essential element to successful business dealings. At a traditional Shinto wedding in Japan once the groom has read the wedding oath, the bride and groom then exchange three cups of sake to signify their life ahead.
The original Japanese chronicle called the Kojiki states that Suzukori, a foreign brew master was commissioned to brew fermented rice wine for the Emperor Ojin A.D. 270 -310. Kuchikami no sake – which translates as “chewing-in-the-mouth sake” – was the first reported sake that originated during the era when the city of Nara was the nation’s capital 710-794.
The ceremony of sake belongs to the rituals of the Shinto religion and its consumption is celebrated throughout many festivals including the practice of chewing the rice then spitting it into a vessel to ferment. The amylase enzyme from the person’s saliva would in turn contribute to the fermentation process.
In parts of the northern island of Hokkaido and in the rural areas southern province of Okinawa, ‘only virgins were allowed to chew the rice. These virgins were considered mediums of the gods, and the sake they produced was called hijinshu or ‘beautiful women sake’.[ii]
The origin of sake – like many great gastronomic discoveries – came around by accident. A cask of steamed rice was forgotten and left out for a few days after which time a mold covered the grain causing it to ferment and covert into a distilled rice wine. Unlike wine made from grapes and other alcohols, sake does need time to mature. The unique distinction between sake and other brewed ferments is that the conversion of “rice starch into a sugar occurs simultaneously with the fermenting of sugar to produce the alcohol”.[iii]
As brewing techniques developed over time, a more complex production process rolled out and the common sequence today includes rice milling where the rice is polished and excess starch is removed. Rice washing is a precise process that removes the flour that covers the rice resulting in the introduction of moisture to the grain. Then the rice is soaked so as to enhance the moisture content and prepare it for the steaming process. Steaming the rice for about one hour prepares it for the all-important step of adding the mold, a culture called koji. Koji is the Aspergillus oryzae fungus that generates the essential mold spores required for the fermentation process to propagate.
The addition of koji is the most important step and differentiates the drink from all other brewed beverages. In this process each individual grain must be wet on the inside and dry on the outside so the koji room is usually made of wood or metal. From here the koji powder is distributed evenly. Much like sourdough, biodynamic farming and other cultures dependant processes, a yeast starter is required called moto or shubo, which is added to the koji-rice and water to inoculate the brew kick start the proliferation of yeast to manifest.
Yeast, water and koji levels may be adjusted over a four day period. From here the mashing begins – moromi – and then the entire brew is left to ferment for thirty days. The wine is then pressed through a pressurised machine to extract the rice solids, followed by the pasteurising process occurs so as to preserve the sake and kill off any residual bacteria and enzymes that could impair the quality. To ensure a clear product, the sake is then charcoal filtered to remove any cloud or enzymes that may discolour the brew. From here the sake is stored for three to six months in the traditional casks that often feature in the temple gardens of the Shinto shrines around Japan. The product is then bottled and undergoes a final pasteurisation process before being shipped.
Traditionally sake is served warm because the warming process enhances the delicate flavour, character and subtle nuances of the wine. In the summer months cold sake is enjoyed throughout Japan. Warm sake is always served in a ceramic flask with petite cups while cold sake is served in square timber boxes. It is custom to hold your cup up to receive the sake from the pourer and it is believed to be bad manners to pour your own sake.
Kondo, Hiroshi, 1984. Sake – A Drinker’s Guide. 1st ed. New York, New York: Kondansha International Ltd.
Shizuo Tsuji, 1986. Practical Japanese Cooking: Easy and elegant. 1st ed. Kodansha International.
Donald Richie, 1985. Taste of Japan – Customs and Etiquette. First Edition. Kodansha International Ltd.
Downer, Lesley Downer, 1985. Step-by-Step Japanese Cooking. 1st ed. Lane Cove, NSW: Doubleday Australia Pty. Ltd.
Schott, B, 2003. Scott’s Food & Drink Miscellany. 1st ed. london: bloomsbury.
Sake Production Process | UrbanSake.com. 2013. Sake Production Process | UrbanSake.com. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.urbansake.com/sake-101/sake-production-process. [Accessed 08 March 2013].
2013. . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.www.sake-world.com/html/koji.html. [Accessed 08 March 2013].