Sake is a Japanese brewed alcohol consisting of rice, koji and water, and is the most notable alcohol to come out of Japan in the past century.
Koji, a key ingredient of sake, is an enzyme secreting fungus. As strange as this sounds, it is actually a natural fungus that is also used in classic Japanese ingredients such as miso and soy sauce.
The entire process of making sake can take up to three months - remember this next time you down it!
The ancient history of sake.
Sake is actually so old that it predates written history. This makes sake especially unique; not many alcohols can be traced back to Japanese antiquity!
The process of brewing was not always accomplished with koji. Originally, it was much more crude. Villagers would chew rice and nuts, spitting their chewed mixtures into a tub which would be left to ferment.
Their saliva took the role that koji has in the process of making sake, so be thankful that your glass of sake isn’t brewed using these methods!
The discovery of koji during the Nara period (from 710-794) replaced the villagers and their saliva, and made sake brewing much less manual. This also resulted in the version of sake as we know it.
Related Article: Sake vs. Soju, Similarities and Differences
Sake in the 20th century.
At the beginning of the 20th century, sake made up more than 30% of Japan's tax revenue. This actually resulted in a government ban of home-brewed alcohol, due to the loss in potential tax that the Japanese government was experiencing as a result of underground sake markets.
The market for and quality of sake experienced massive change due to the Second World War, as did the market for many types of food.
Rice shortages made it hard for breweries to keep up with ongoing demand for sake, so brewers began to add pure alcohol to maintain volume, making a good quality sake harder to find.
In fact, most sake is still made using mostly pure alcohol, so until you want to be drinking pure alcohol, be sure to get a good quality sake!
Thankfully, after the war, the general quality of sake improved, as local breweries began to prioritize the quality of their craft, although western style alcohols such as wine, beer and spirits became much more popular due to an increase in imports.
Because of this, the consumption of sake has decreased, while its quality has gradually increased.
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Sake, as it is today.
As of recently, international demand for sake is said to be at an all time high. Over the pandemic, sake businesses saw an increase in sales, most likely due a willingness to try something new, especially in a time of such boredom.
Improvements in technology means sake is being produced on an industrial scale, though this also means that there are less than two thousand breweries in Japan that specialize in sake.
However, small breweries still produce traditional sake (not the saliva method!) that require more effort, but tend to have a more unique flavour - true to its ancient origins.
It also means that different breweries can create a version of sake, individually unique, compared to the industrial sized factories.
More experienced brewers can customize the flavour of their sake, and take their time in creating much more than a beverage, but something closer to art.
With the internet and international shipping making things easier and easier, high quality sake is at an arm's reach!
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