Big in Japan: The history of sake

I love sake (o-sake, ?????).

For some, it’s the subtle sophistication of a finely aged scotch whiskey. For others, it’s the enticing froth and savory goodness of a perfectly-poured pint.

For me, it’s the sweet, delicious nectar that is sake.

I mean, how many other drinks out there are the products of centuries of culinary revision? How many other drinks out there are so in tune with the changing of the seasons? How many other drinks out there have been adapted and re-adapted to local tastes time and again?

Wine may have been drunk since antiquity, beer may have been a staple in the Middle Ages and tea may have built empires. But, none of these drinks hits the spot quite like a carafe of ice cold sake on a balmy summer’s eve, or a carafe of gently-warmed sake on a chilly winter’s night.

The history and lore behind this sweet, delicious nectar is worthy of textbooks.

Although the date when sake first hit the scene is fiercely debated by academics, what is agreed upon is that it would not have come about without the ancient discovery of a simple mold known as kōji-kin (Aspergillus oryzae, 麹菌). Used to ferment the starch in rice to make sugar, kōji-kin is the key to making sake, just as it is the key to making miso paste and soy sauce.

By the time the Heian Era (794-1185) rolled around, the art of sake was refined enough to warrant a government-sponsored guild comprised of professional brewers. During the centuries that followed, brewers became increasingly skilled at isolating kōji-kin, pasteurizing their products and creating new types and flavors of sake.

In the early 20th century, the Japanese government opened up a sake-brewing research institute, and started holding annual taste-testing competitions. As a result, the masses took to the drink like never before, ushering in the modern era of sake brewing. Yeast strains were isolated, enamel-coated steel tanks were invented, and sake become exalted as the national alcoholic beverage of Japan.

Although the Second World War put a damper on the festivities, sake made a brief come back in the 1950s. Sadly, this reign was short lived as beer was soon to replace sake as the drink of the masses. Today, beer remains the most popular tipple in Japan, though it doesn’t inspire even a fraction of the respect as does sake or nihonshu (日本酒), the ‘Japan alcoholic beverage.’

Although sake is still making a slow but steady comeback in Japan, the quality of the drink is at an all-time high. In recent years, breweries have begun to shifting away from mass-production, and returning to traditional small-batches brewing methods. And, with the popularity of sake on the rise in North America and Europe, better methods of preservation are being put into practice.

Getting thirsty? So am I.

For more on sake culture, including some delicious recipes you can try at home, see An Ode to Sake.