Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sake 101: History & Production

First produced in Japan roughly 2,500 years ago, sake has an extensive history, is produced in a variety of different styles, offers a wide range of aromas and flavor characteristics, and frankly, can be rather confusing. Do you want Junmai? Daiginjo? Junmai Daiginjo? In this series, we aim to clear up any questions you may have about sake, and give you a more thorough understanding of this traditional beverage which has made such an impact on Japanese society throughout history.

We'll start off by providing you with some background information:

Sake actually originated in China about 4,500 years ago, and the Chinese developed many of the most important techniques for sake production. However, when wet-rice cultivation was introduced to Japan, this knowledge was transferred as well, and early rice farmers were among the first to introduce sake into Japanese culture.

In ancient Japan, sake production involved an entire village - each person would chew on a mixture of rice and nuts, and then spit it into a large tub. The saliva added the enzyme necessary for fermentation, and sake produced in this manner was called "kuchikami no sake", which is loosely translated to mean "chewing the mouth sake". This process was also part of a Shinto religious ceremony, however it was discontinued when it was later discovered that koji mold and yeast could produce the same results.

Adding Koji mold to the rice at the Dewatsuru Brewery
At first, sake was produced in relatively small quantities and was consumed by individual families or villages. However, over time the rice became a large scale agricultural product, the production process evolved, and sake was created in much larger quantities. It became an important component in many Japanese customs - sake was used as an offering to the Gods, to purify the temple, consumed in wedding ceremonies, and also became popular among the upper class. By the 1300's, breweries were being built, the production process became more modern, and sake was being mass produced. In the 19th Century, Japan experienced their Industrial Revolution, and breweries began to incorporate machinery into the production process, making sake widely available to the public.

Tending the steamed rice at the Manabito Brewery
The basic process of sake production has not changed much throughout history, although the technology is of course, much more modern. The first step involves "polishing", or milling the rice kernels to remove the outer layer of the grain. The rice is then washed to remove any unwanted excess particles (called "nuka"), soaked for a period of time to add moisture, and then steamed - a process which allows the starch molecules to emerge. The rice is then cooled and periodically sprinkled with koji mold to convert the starch into sugar. A yeast starter, known as "shubo" or "moto", is added to the mixture to promote fermentation which will then last for 18 - 32 days. It is during this time that the skilled brewer adjusts the temperature and varying other factors to create the desired flavor characteristics. After fermentation, the mixture is "pressed" which removes the unfermented rice, or "kasu", and only the sake remains.

After the sake is created, there are a variety of different processes that may be implemented. The sake can be filtered, pasteurized and aged - or not. These final steps, along with variations of the brewing process, greatly affect the finished product... but we'll get to that topic next week.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

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