Though sake is often referred to as rice wine, the process of making sake has more in common with the brewing of beer. Despite the parallels with beer, sake making is distinguished from other brewing methods by its use of multiple, parallel fermentation processes. When making an alcoholic beverage from grains, it is necessary to convert starch into sugar and sugar into alcohol. When brewing beer this occurs in two steps, but with sake the process is simultaneous.
The true origins of sake are unknown; we do know the Japanese honed and cultivated the brewing process over the last two thousand years, producing the quality sake enjoyed today. Once known as the "Drink of the gods,” sake was first brewed in Japan after the practice of wet rice cultivation was introduced around the third century.
Lacking today’s modern machinery, the initial, rudimentary brewing process included chewing grains of rice and spitting them into bowls. (The chewing process produced the enzymes necessary for fermentation). More orthodox methods were later introduced when it was discovered that adding Koji-Kin mold and yeast would promote the fermentation process. Further advancements followed, including polishing the rice to remove the bran, which produced better-quality sake.
Japan first began producing sake on an industrial scale during the Edo period (1603-1868). This era saw the introduction of the waterwheel, which became the means of propelling rice-polishing machines (eliminating the previous manual process of polishing rice grains).
Sake production improved dramatically during the 20th century with the first government sake brewing research institute opening in 1904, more advanced machinery and specifically selected yeast strains. Wooden barrels were also replaced with enamel-coated steel tanks, which eliminated the flavor the wooden barrels imparted, allowing for the sake’s pure flavor to remain.
Always at the cutting edge of brewing technology, Japan’s larger breweries have incorporated computer-controlled equipment, producing sake on an even greater industrial scale. However, the time-honored methods of producing handcrafted, premium sake remains alive among smaller, family-owned and operated breweries. These breweries source local ingredients while utilizing their microclimate to showcase regional styles and flavors producing what is known as Jizake, or regional sake.
Whether sake comes from north or south, east or west, mountain or coastal areas, one can expect certain styles and flavors as a direct result of each regional influence. The taste of sake is achieved with four simple ingredients: water, Koji-Kin, yeast and rice; yet, many flavor profiles and styles can be attained. The parameters are focused around sweet to dryness, acidity, texture, fragrance, umami, complexity and finish.
Sake continues to be a divinely enjoyable drink, offering variety and depth that holds its own on any table or wine list.