Sunday, April 14, 2019

Just Brew It, Part One: A Brief History of Sake

A brief history of Sake

Sake brings me right back to 2004 when I was 24 years old and played my most memorable EA Sports NHL franchise season ever. I took the Columbus Blue Jackets, made them even worse, played on the hardest setting, sucked hard for a big chunk of the season, barely made it into the playoffs, and won the Cup in seven games in each playoff series... all while drinking Gekkeikan Sake in a mug on the rocks.

That's not how you think a history of Sake article would start, right? Hey. That's how I learned to appreciate Sake, and now I love it. Recently I had one that goes for $450 retail and it was INCREDIBLE. I just got a package from Tippsy, which is basically like a wine club dedicated to premium Sake, containing three Sakes that I'll be reviewing this coming Thursday. (This was Tippsy Sake Box #1, and there's since been a follow up with Tippsy Sake Box #2)

Even though Sake has the "rice wine" nickname due to its final product similarities with wine such as profile and alcohol percentages, technically it's a beer because it's brewed and made from grain, and in this case the grain is rice. Bud Light, which uses a significant amount of rice in it's production, actually does have a slight Sake flavor.

Sake runs deep in the culture of Japan and Japan runs deep in the culture of Sake. But it actually didn't originate there and it's certainly not staying there. Sake began in China, the indigenous land of rice. And, in today's world, you might be surprised to buy a bottle of Sake that you assumed was Japanese until you flip the bottle over to find that it was actually made in Oregon.

The earliest recorded mention of Sake is dated around 500 BCE by the Chinese, which is about the same time that rice made it over the water to Japan, but it's speculated that Sake actually originated around 2,500 BCE in the Yangtze River Valley of China. Rice was essential to life for these people and at some point it was discovered that it could be fermented, probably by neglecting it in certain conditions, and you could get drunk off of it too. Bonus!

But once rice hit Japan, Sake got crazy. Instead of leaving rice out to ferment, villagers would chew up rice with nuts and grass and then spit it out into one big bowl. The most prized batches were chewed only by virgins. The enzymes from the saliva would initiate fermentation and it would become a low alcohol ricemeal. This was the first official Sake, and they called it Kuchikami ("chew and spit"). It doesn't sound pleasant, but it was something. The communal chewing ended when it was discovered in the 700's CE that simply adding a fungus called koji-kin to mushed up rice and water would ferment it and, I'm assuming, make a more enjoyable alcoholic slop.

We homo sapiens are like that. If it's an abundant resource then we'll find a way to use it to get our buzz on and forget our worries, and then ingrain it into our cultures. Rice in Japan for Sake, grapes in Italy for wine, agave in Mexico for Mezcal, corn in the United States for Bourbon, cough medicine in Hyannis, and the beat goes on.

Because fungi go apeshit during the hotter months, it's easier to control koji-kin during the colder months. Thus, the Sake making season takes up the colder six months of the year. So traditionally kuras (Sake houses) would hire farmers that would need work in the offseason. They'd work their own land during the growing season, and then leave their families for the other half of the year to work in a kura. Can you imagine not seeing your kids for an entire half of the year?

In the 2nd century CE the Imperial Court took over Sake for about 500 years or so under the observance of a special division called Sake-no-Tsukasa. They laid down the ground rules for making the Sake we know today and enforced them, kinda like the government does with beer and wine today, but it was also because they were ultimately the producer. Sake was a proud product of the Empire, and monopolized by it as well.

Jumping ahead to the 10th century CE, it was mainly the monks that were producing and making the advancements in Sake, just like the beer and wine of the same era in Europe. The monks added their own standards on top of those from the past, and when it comes to alcohol the monks seem to always make the most important improvements. For example, it was during this time where it was discovered that the more you milled the rice closer to the core the better quality of the Sake, and also when Sake was first successfully filtered to result in a clear liquid. Sake-makers even beat Louis Pasteur to pasteurization.

MATTHEW C. PERRY
AKA EEYORE
Japan had purposefully isolated themselves from the rest of the world for a very long time, and I honestly don't think anybody blames them for doing so. But then Matthew C. Perry rolled up in 1853 with the intent to open Japan's ports for American trade. Judging by his photos and other images, Matt just looks like he's been sad from then moment when he was born in 1794 to his death in 1858. Let's call him Eeyore. Eeyore was a Commodore in the Navy and commanded ships in the War of 1812 and Mexican-American War before we was assigned to open up Japan's ports by President Fillmore in 1852.

On his first sweep past he put up flags on his ships that told the Japanese if they fought back they'd be destroyed. Eeyore fired blanks with his cannons to frighten them and later said it was just to celebrate America's Independence Day. Then he returned six months later with more ships, and after a month of negotiations the Convention of Kanagawa was signed.

Once the deal was made, the Japanese saw just how far behind they were in a lot of things compared to the rest of the world. Today we think of Japan as the pinnacle of technological advancement and innovation, but back then they were way behind because they were so insistent on remaining with their traditions and old-school ways. Kinda like the Amish. Only a lot deadlier. The Amish don't have samurai.

EMPEROR MEIJI
As a result of this realization the Meiji Restoration of 1868 brought back imperial rule. The intent was to have a nation that would have a driving force once again, under Emperor Meiji, leading them forward by embracing foreign technology while also respecting their cultural values and traditions.

The whole world was now opened up to Japan, and what does Japan have to offer to the world? Well, one of the many unique things that it does offer is Sake. So new laws were made that permitted anybody who had the money and means to produce Sake to do so. A huge surge of 30,000 new Sake breweries opened up within a year. Buuuuut taxes cut that down by a third fairly quickly. For the longest time only the wealthy landowning rice growers could afford to produce Sake, and a lot of those brands are still around.

During the Edo period (1603-1868) they figured out how to add glucose to help ferment the sake and to just straight-up add alcohol. But it wasn't until World War II that these methods became common practice. This was a rough time for Sake because the war effort needed rice for actual food, and these methods allowed Sake to still be made and increased yields four-fold. 75% of the Sake produced today still use those methods. This is not a bad thing because adding alcohol and watering it down again to lower the ABV brings out the aromatics. We'll learn about in the following parts to this series.

Even with the long history of Sake, "premium Sake" is kind of a new thing that didn't really start to take off until the 1980's with a newer generation, newer technology, and better understanding of the processes. Now gingo (a tier of premium Sake) is a huuuuuuuuge category on the market. The lower grade stuff still dominates production, but gingo is where it's at as far as buzz and trending popularity. And you'd think that being called "premium Sake" would make it expensive, but it's surprisingly affordable! Again, more about this in the following chapters.

The combination of 2,500 years of experience and knowledge, the wisdom and respect for tradition, and the innovation and capabilities of modern day technology has made the quality of Sake better right now than it's ever been. What's out there right now is insanely amazing and probably the best bang for your buck alcoholic beverage on the shelf.

So let's keep going and learn more about Sake! Part 2: Making Sake is all about how Sake is made, obviously, while Part 3: Understanding Sake will go over the different categories and how to buy Sake.

- Joey Casco CSW/CSS
   TheWineStalker.net
"SITE" YOUR SOURCES!
References:
Wikipedia
Sake Confidential
The Sake Handbook
A Brief History of Japanese Sake
History of Sake
The Story of Sake
History of Sake
10 things you probably didn't know about sake
Sake: History, Ingredients, different kinds and making them
History of Sake
The reason rice is polished
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