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We often hear that sake today is better than it ever has been, thanks to the cumulative effects of centuries of experience and decades of modern
technology and research. But rarely do we hear about the history of sake, and the various manifestations that sake as we know it today went through over the generations.
Many of these different "types" of sake were merely stations along the road of sake development, cruder versions in one way or another of the
ambrosia we enjoy today. Perhaps the least appealing of these alcoholic ancestors was kuchi-kami sake. The brewing process was fairly simple: rice was chewed up (most desirably by virgins) and spit
into a large vat. Enzymes in the dames' drool and natural yeast combined to create alcohol. All bets are off as to the fragrance, or with
what food went well with such sake. Fortunately, things got better from there. In the late seventh century, brewing began to take form and a
brewing department was established within the walls of the Imperial Palace then in Nara.
As such, Nara became one of the first brewing centers, and many
developments took place there. Much brewing was done in the temples of Nara. A book called the Tamon-in Nikki describes the exploits of a monk named Eishun, who was in charge of brewing at several temples,
including Kofuku-ji and Bodai Senshoryaku-ji. Sake brewed by these monks came to be known as Sobo-shu.
Some of the developments that took place then and there include
the first sake brewed entirely with polished (as opposed to brown) rice, sake called morohaku. Other developments noted in that book include sandan-shikomi (adding rice in three stages to the ferment) and
pasteurization, appearing in Japan about two centuries before Pasteur wrote of it.
Other memorable brews of that era include Amanozake, brewed at a
temple called Kang~o-ji on Mount Amano. This sake, prized by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, uses highly-developed (in a saccharifying sense) koji and results in a dark, dank, sweet and sour sake. There is a brand
from Osaka today called Amanozake that reproduces this old style in their Amanozake Boso-shu. Check it out.
Not to be forgotten are Toyohara-shu, brewed at Toyohara-ji in Fukui,
and Hyakusai-ji-shu, brewed at Hyakusai-ji in Shiga. Unfortunately, Nobunaga Oda burned both of these to the ground in his unifying efforts, so that no brewing records remain.
With the capital having moved to Kyoto, the brewing world there too began to bubble. There were, after all, plenty of thirsty aristocrats to
satisfy. At one point, artisans contracted to brew were making up to 13 different types of sake for various occasions. These had names like
"black sake" (kuro-ki) and "white sake" (shiro-ki), differing in sweetness and strength, some with infused flavors. Many of these different "types"
were actually nothing but local names for the local brew. For example, there were 347 breweries in Kyoto in 1426. Yanagi-zake was a general
term applied to sake from the capital at that time, possibly referring to a sake dealer called Yanagi-ya in Kyoto (although both shochu and sake were nicknamed yanagi in some areas at some times).
Another such nickname is Kaga no Kiku-zake, referring to sake from the Kaga region, modern day Ishikawa. It referred to sake brewed with water flowing down from the mountain Hakusan, in deference to the
goddess of Hakusan, Kikuri Hime, residing at Shiroyama Hime Jinja. The term Kaga no Kikuzake is still used today, although not as commonly.
In an effort to revive some roots, 14 sake brewers in Nara got together four years ago and formed a group to study the sake brewed 500 years ago at Bodai Senshoryaku-ji. They managed to recreate the methods
used in making at least the moto, the yeast starter for a batch of sake. Bodai-moto, as it has been dubbed, is similar to yamahai moto and kimoto in that it fosters the speedy development of copious amounts of
lactic acid to keep flavor-altering bacteria out of the pure yeast mash.
After the 16th century, however, things began to stabilize in terms of
brewing methods. Improvements that refined the flavor or enabled volume production became more common. From this point on, with a few exceptions, sake traveled a fairly straight line to become what it is
today. Technical developments along the way, like rice milling equipment, sake pressing tools, and countless others all helped to make better sake, or more of it faster. The one arguable hiccup in that
progression was the addition of excessive amounts of brewers alcohol and balancing flavorings that became legal in 1942. A response to rice shortages, the practice remained after the war and is still actively
This is really only the tip of the iceberg of sake history. Sake historians have written books on sake history alone. It can be interesting, provided you have a lot of time on your hands. For most,
however, focusing on the present is the way to go.