NIPPONIA No. 44 March 15, 2008


Special Featuresp_star.gifHere’s to Japanese sake!

Sake and Japanese Culture

Written by Dr. Koizumi Takeo, Professor, Tokyo University of Agriculture


Sake being poured into a masu, a “cup” shaped like a box. These masu were made from hinoki cypress wood. In the old days, masu were used to measure volume. (Photo credit: AFLO)


Since time immemorial, people have brewed alcohol and enjoyed it as part of their culture. In many parts of the world, alcohol has held a place of honor and been romanticized as an ideal. The Japanese are certainly no exception. Many centuries ago, they began blending their staple food, rice, with pure water and koji micro-organisms to make Nihon-shu (Japanese sake), skillfully taking advantage of nature and local environmental conditions to create a distinctive brew.

The sea separates the Japanese archipelago from the Asian continent, and this proved to be fortunate for sake brewing because people in “The Land of the Rising Sun,” situated to the east of most of the East Asian landmass, developed their own special brew. Their geographical separation was complemented by many centuries of almost total political, economical and cultural seclusion as well, until modernization began around the middle of the 1800s. Sake is an alcohol designed for Japanese tastes by master brewers who were free from the influence of other cultures.


From beverage of the gods to a drink for the common man

The techniques used to make sake are unique in the world. Rice is milled to a fine white grain and steamed, and then two simultaneous processes are made to occur—the rice is broken down into sugar through the action of koji microorganisms, and at the same time the sugar is fermented into alcohol through the action of a natural yeast.

Sake is Japan’s traditional alcoholic beverage, so traditional and so pervasive that in the Japanese language, the word for alcohol is simply “sake.”

We know little about how sake was first brewed, but one thing we can assume for sure is that it began at a time when gods were worshipped. The god of sake was also the god of rice growing and harvesting. So when the people prayed for good growing conditions and thanked the god for a good harvest, they connected with the god of sake. Sake linked the people to their gods, and then linked people together in congeniality. In this way, sake took on a vital role in religious festivities, agricultural rites, and many different ceremonial events, from marriages to funerals.

The unique process used in brewing sake from malted rice has a very long history—we first read of it in the early 8th-century Harima no Kuni Fudoki (“The Geography and Culture of Harima Province”). About 200 years later, the law book Engi Shiki (“Procedures of the Engi Era”) described how sake was made at the Imperial Court. Even in those ancient times, the basic brewing process followed today was already in use. The process later spread from the Court to the general public: a monk’s diary penned in the middle of the 1500s mentions a transparent alcohol probably quite similar to the sake we now drink. This indicates that the cloudy sake of long ago had already evolved into today’s fine beverage.

Western scientific techniques were introduced to Japan soon after the mid-1800s, and one result was a fairly rapid transformation in sake brewing methods. Before then, brewers had gone by experience and intuition, but soon they were applying solid, scientific principles based on knowledge of microbiology. Interestingly, scientists from other countries who observed Japan’s traditional brewing techniques were impressed, even astounded. For example, the Japanese brewers used cold pasteurization to kill harmful bacteria, following a technique just like the one developed independently by the bacteriologist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895). What Western scientists found especially striking was that this method had been in use in Japan for more than 300 years before Pasteur. At any rate, under the stimulation of Western science, sake brewing methods were examined from a technical perspective and improved even more over time.


The most potent alcohol in the world

Sake has distinguished itself from the other alcohols of the world for a number of reasons.

First of all, sake has the highest alcohol content. You might argue that whisky, brandy, Japanese shochu and Chinese maotai have a far higher alcohol content, but technically you would be wrong! It is true that the alcohol by volume in these liquors is two or three times higher than sake, but that is because the alcohol content has been artificially concentrated through distillation. Before the distillation process, whisky mash has an alcohol content of only 6%, the fruit mash for brandy measures 10%, and the base for maotai, about 5%. Sake mash has an alcohol content of up to 22%, by far the highest of any naturally fermented beverage.

But why is sake the only one with such a high alcohol content? One of the answers is found in the use of spores (koji-kin), the most distinctive feature in sake fermentation. Spores placed on steamed rice multiply while reacting with the rice and turning it into rice mold (kome-koji). During this process, the spores also produce a small amount of conjugated protein (a lipoprotein, which is a biochemical assembly containing fats and proteins). This protein has a strong effect on yeast, the main actor in alcohol fermentation, helping to sustain the fermentation for a long time.

Another clue lies in what is known as “multiple parallel fermentation.” This refers to two processes, saccharification (spores breaking down the rice starch into glucose), and alcohol fermentation by yeast. When brewing sake, the two processes take place in parallel at the same time in the mash. Because of this parallel process, the alcohol content of the mash increases day by day, until it reaches around 20%.


Microorganisms: The secret behind that intriguing fragrance and taste

The second reason why sake is distinct from other alcohols of the world is its wily use of three major types of microorganisms found in the natural environment: fungi, bacteria and yeast. Every other popular alcohol, whether beer, whisky, brandy, vodka, gin, tequila or rum, uses only one type of microorganism—yeast—in the alcohol making process. Sake brewers use three: koji spores to make the koji mold, lactic acid bacteria to stabilize the mash, and yeast to ferment the mash into alcohol. Use of these three microorganism types demonstrates the great sophistication of the pioneer brewers of long ago.

The third reason for sake’s preeminence is the great number of its constituent components. If we add them up, including of course the ones that give fragrance, taste, sweetness and coloring, the number comes to more than 600. No wonder sake has a unique flavor, one superior to any other alcohol! Whisky and brandy average around 400 components apiece, while beer and wine do slightly better at about 500. Sake wins by a landslide, and this helps explain its delicate and subtle effect on the palate.


Sake as part of culture

Sake was created by the ancestors of today’s Japanese. For centuries it has been part of the life of almost every person on the archipelago, because of its importance in rites commemorating everything from birth to death. Sake is more than a drink taken to enjoy a tipsy time—it also serves a vital social purpose at the defining moments in life. It has inspired forms of conduct and ways of thinking, now woven throughout everyday life, and greatly influenced Japan’s gastronomical culture. This is illustrated by the edibles served with sake, the wide variety of containers associated with it (the tiny sakazuki cups and tokkuri bottles), and the highly unusual fact—for alcohol, at least—that sake is often served hot. These examples indicate why the Japanese have always been fond and proud of their country’s most famous alcohol.