Many people drink saké with sushi or when eating in Japanese restaurants, but not many people know very much about the interesting history of this uniquely Japanese beverage.
Saké is a brewed alcoholic beverage, produced in a fashion similar to beer, except that where beer begins with a mash of wheat and barley, the base grain used in sake production is rice.
Good sake is produced from a special type of rice (called—shockingly–sake rice), which contains less protein and more starch than typical table rice. After polishing, the rice is rested (air dried), soaked in water, and steamed. A special mold (Aspergillus oryzae) is added to the cooked rice, which is then allowed to ferment for about a week. Afterward, the brewer adds yeast and sugars, along with water and more cooked rice, and the mixture undergoes a second, longer fermentation.
High-grade sake is often fermented at lower temperatures to slow the fermentation process.
After fermentation, the sake is filtered and desired flavoring elements may be added. Then, the sake rests and matures until the brewer judges it ready for bottling–usually about a year after the end of the fermentation process. At that point, the sake is often diluted with water to reduce it from the original 40 proof (20% alcohol) to the more standard 9-12% alcohol volume.
No one knows exactly when the Japanese began brewing sake, but we do know the beverage existed by the early 8th century. The first written history of Japan, called the Kojiki, was compiled in 712 A.D., and since that work contains references to sake, we know the Japanese brewers’ culture was already up and running by that date.
Sake can be consumed either warmed or chilled, though the more expensive varieties are often better chilled or served at room-temperature. There are many varieties of sake available in Japan, and we can find them increasingly easily in the United States as well. It’s worth experimenting, and trying different types if you get the chance!
The sake culture, and the brewers’ guilds, were well-established by the medieval era, which is one reason I chose to include a brewer (Ginjiro) in my Shinobi Mystery series. Not only did a sake shop give my detective a place to meet and talk with friends and suspects, but Ginjiro’s Brewery also allows me to share the interesting lore and culture that surrounded Kyoto’s medieval brewers and their art.
*Brewer image credit: woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-149)[public domain]