Today, October first, is Sake Day, or Nihonshu no Hi as designated by the Japanese sake brewing industry. Of course, this isn’t a true national holiday (can someone start lobbying the incoming new government?), but one which is celebrated by sake lovers at home and abroad.
There’s little to no information in English available anywhere about this day, so I’m afraid I can’t tantalize you with any of the exciting ways that folks in Japan celebrate the holiday, other than their likely consumption of the good stuff. Perhaps one of my Japanese readers can fill in some blanks.
In any case, it’s appropriate on a day to celebrating this unique beverage to reflect on its long and important history in Japan.
Like wine, no one knows exactly when sake first made an appearance. In a similar fashion to grape wine, the knowledge that fermented rice eventually yields an alcoholic beverage was probably discovered in accidental and then later deliberate stages, as innovative and curious folks explored ways of getting drunk.
We know that rice cultivation in wet paddies (the contemporary form of cultivation) began around the 3rd century AD and developed very slowly for the next 300 years until more modern techniques began to be slowly imported from China and Korea.
Around that time we have the first written records acknowledging the existence of a beverage that must have been around for some time previous to that date, as the records are not just bills of sale or minor transactional notes, but a declaration of the formation of an official imperial brewing department for the emperor.
Somewhere between 800 AD and 1100 AD sake brewing had developed to the point that there were different recognized brewing methods and guilds beginning to form in order to protect the techniques and knowledge of these methods, as well as to ensure employment for those who understood them. Around this time it is believed sake was first warmed for drinking.
By the end of the Heian era (the early 13th century) there were 15 different types of sake being brewed by the 180 independent brewers in the (then capital) city of Kyoto alone. Sake brewing would soon become popular among monks as well, leading to an explosion in breweries situated in temples and shrines.
In the late 14th century, partially due to the healthy competition among thousands of sake breweries, the major technical developments that directly influence today’s sake brewing took place. The use of a concentrated yeast mash as a starter for the sake process was formalized during this time, and the spores of the koji mold that is still in use today were first isolated and cultivated.
In 1578 the brewers in the Itami prefecture had grown to be some of the pre-eminent sake makers in the country, and in this year they developed a filtering method that yielded what was probably the first perfectly clear sake, which immediately struck the fancy of the Shogun. His demand for sake turned Itami into the sake capital of Japan for hundreds of years.
By 1600, the three stage sake brewing process that is used today had been formalized, pasteurization of sake was a regular occurrence (even though it wouldn’t be called such for a few hundred more years), and sake production had moved almost entirely to the use of white rice for brewing purposes.
For pretty much the following 200 years, sake production and demand in Japan grew in waves. Technological innovations continued to occur, including notably the process of adding a little distilled alcohol during the brewing process, and the craft became slowly more artisan, with emphasis on rationality, the type and quality of water involved, and the type of rice used all becoming elements of a highly sophisticated craft.
Sake production and demand is likely to have peaked in the mid 19th century when a law was passed allowing anyone to become a brewer. As many as 30,000 breweries were opened in the year of the law’s passing, though that number dwindled as taxes on sake and its raw materials increased through the end of the century.
In 1895 sake yeast, or the particular strain that is most responsible for sake fermentation was isolated.
By 1900, there were about 8000 sake breweries in Japan, many of whom had been in business for centuries already. In 1904 the government established a national sake research institute, and shortly began holding the annual tasting and competition for new sakes that still goes on today.
The two major developments in the sake industry during the first half of the 20th Century were the invention of the modern rice milling process and its associated machinery, which is directly responsible for much of the modern evolution of sake as a beverage, and the development of Yamada Nishiki, which is the most popular strain of rice used for brewing sake.
World War Two demolished much of the thriving sake brewing industry in Japan, either literally, or at least by circumstantially forcing almost half of the then 7000 sake brewers to halt production, marking a sort of dark ages for sake production.
After the war, when Japan was finally opened to the global economy, sake began to see competition from other beverages, most importantly from beer, which quickly became one of the most popular drinks in the country, fueling the development of a native beer brewing industry that survives today.
in 1973, the modern word for sake nihonshu was coined and put into regular use and a year later, sake production in Japan hit an all-time high. Though production would fall for the next twenty years, interest in sake as a high quality artisan beverage would continue to rise, giving birth to Jizake (regional, “small production” sake) and the Ginjo and Daiginjo sake classifications in use today.
Which brings us to today, and my need to go out and have a bottle right now. I hope you’ll do the same, or if not, at least enjoy what’s left of Sake Day. Kampai !
I am indebted to John Gauntner and his Sake World web site for many of the facts above. It is virtually required (and highly recommended) reading for anyone interested in sake.