Kyoto is famous for the finest water to produce Sake. But Sake also needs the finest rice, and Japan produces the best tasting rice in the world.


Sake or saké (/ˈsɑːkeɪ/, “sah-keh”) is an alcoholic beverage of Japanese origin that is made from fermented rice. Sake is sometimes called “rice wine” but the brewing process is more akin to beer, converting starch to sugar for the fermentation process.

In the Japanese language, the word “sake” (酒, “liquor”, also pronounced shu) generally refers to any alcoholic drink, while the beverage called “sake” in English is usually termed nihonshu (日本酒, “Japanese liquor”). Under Japanese liquor laws, sake is labelled with the word “seishu” (清酒, “clear liquor”), a synonym less commonly used colloquially.

Sake is sometimes referred to in English-speaking countries as rice wine. However, unlike wine, in which alcohol is produced by fermenting sugar that is naturally present in grapes and other fruits, sake is produced by means of a brewing process more like that of beer. To make beer or sake, the sugar needed to produce alcohol must first be converted from starch.

The brewing process for sake differs from the process for beer, in that for beer, the conversion from starch to sugar and from sugar to alcohol occurs in two discrete steps. But when sake is brewed, these conversions occur simultaneously. Furthermore, the alcohol content differs between sake, wine, and beer. Wine generally contains 9%–16% ABV, while most beer contains 3%–9%, and undiluted sake contains 18%–20% (although this is often lowered to about 15% by diluting with water prior to bottling).

The origin of sake is unclear. The earliest reference to the use of alcohol in Japan is recorded in the Book of Wei in the Records of the Three Kingdoms. This 3rd-century Chinese text speaks of the Japanese drinking and dancing. Bamforth (2005) noted that the probable origin of sake was in the Nara period (710–794 AD).

Sake is mentioned several times in the Kojiki, Japan’s first written history, which was compiled in 712 AD

By the Asuka period, true sake, that which is made from rice, water, and kōji mold (麹, Aspergillus oryzae), was the dominant alcohol and had a very low potency. In the Heian period, sake was used for religious ceremonies, court festivals, and drinking games. Sake production was a government monopoly for a long time, but in the 10th century, temples and shrines began to brew sake, and they became the main centers of production for the next 500 years. The Tamon-in Diary, written by abbots of Tamon-in (temple) from 1478 to 1618, records many details of brewing in the temple. The diary shows that pasteurization and the process of adding ingredients to the main fermentation mash in three stages were established practices by that time

In the 16th century, the technique of distillation was introduced into the Kyushu district from Ryukyu. The brewing of shochu, called “Imo—sake” started, and was sold at the central market in Kyoto.

In the 18th century, Engelbert Kaempfer and Isaac Titsingh published accounts identifying sake as a popular alcoholic beverage in Japan; but Titsingh was the first to try to explain and describe the process of sake brewing. The work of both writers was widely disseminated throughout Europe at the beginning of the 19th century.

During the Meiji Restoration, laws were written that allowed anybody with the money and know-how to construct and operate their own sake breweries. Around 30,000 breweries sprang up around the country within a year. However, as the years went by, the government levied more and more taxes on the sake industry and slowly the number of breweries dwindled to 8,000.

Most of the breweries that grew and survived this period were set up by wealthy landowners. Landowners who grew rice crops would have rice left over at the end of the season and, rather than letting these leftovers go to waste, would ship it to their breweries. The most successful of these family breweries still operate today.

During the 20th century, sake-brewing technology grew by leaps and bounds. The government opened the sake-brewing research institute in 1904, and in 1907 the very first government-run sake tasting/competition was held. Yeast strains specifically selected for their brewing properties were isolated and enamel-coated steel tanks arrived. The government started hailing the use of enamel tanks as easy to clean, lasting forever, and being devoid of bacterial problems. (The government considered wooden barrels to be unhygienic because of the potential bacteria living in the wood.) Although these things are true, the government also wanted more tax money from breweries, as using wooden barrels means that a significant amount of sake is lost to evaporation (somewhere around 3%), which could have otherwise been taxed. This was the end of the wooden-barrel age of sake and the use of wooden barrels in brewing was completely eliminated.[citation needed]

In Japan, sake has long been taxed by the national government. In 1898, this tax brought in about 55 million yen out of a total of about 120 million yen, about 46% of the government’s total direct tax income.

During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–1905, the government banned the home brewing of sake. At the time, sake still made up an astonishing 30% of Japan’s tax revenue. Since home-brewed sake is tax-free sake, the logic was that by banning the home brewing of sake, sales would go up, and more tax money would be collected. This was the end of home-brewed sake, and the law remains in effect today even though sake sales now make up only 2% of government income.[citation needed]

When World War II brought rice shortages, the sake-brewing industry was dealt a hefty blow as the government clamped down on the use of rice for brewing. As early as the late 17th century, it had been discovered that small amounts of alcohol could be added to sake before pressing to extract aromas and flavors from the rice solids, but during the war, pure alcohol and glucose were added to small quantities of rice mash, increasing the yield by as much as four times. 75% of today’s sake is made using this technique, left over from the war years. There were even a few breweries producing “sake” that contained no rice at all. Naturally, the quality of sake during this time varied greatly.[citation needed]

After the war, breweries slowly began to recover, and the quality of sake gradually went up. However, new players on the scene—beer, wine, and spirits—became very popular in Japan, and in the 1960s beer consumption surpassed sake for the first time. Sake consumption continued to go down while, in contrast, the quality of sake steadily improved.

Today, sake has become a world beverage with a few breweries springing up in China, Southeast Asia, South America, North America, and Australia. More breweries are also turning to older methods of production.

While the rest of the world may be drinking more sake and the quality of sake has been increasing, sake production in Japan has been declining since the mid-1970s. The number of sake breweries is also declining. While there were 3,229 breweries nationwide in fiscal 1975, the number had fallen to 1,845 in 2007.

October 1 is the official Sake Day (日本酒の日) of Japan


The rice used for brewing sake is called shuzō kōtekimai (sake rice). The grain is larger, stronger, and contains less protein and lipid than the ordinary rice eaten by the Japanese. The rice has a starch component called shinpaku in the center of the grains. Since sake made from rice containing only starch has a superior taste,[clarification needed] the rice is polished to remove the bran. If a grain is small or weak, it will break in the process of polishing. This rice is used only for making sake, because it is unpalatable for eating. There are at least 80 types of sake rice in Japan. Among these, Yamadanishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Miyamanishiki and Omachi rice are very popular.


Water is one of the important ingredients for making sake. It is involved in almost every major process of sake brewing from washing the rice to dilution of the final product before bottling. Mineral content can play a large role in the final product. Iron will bond with an amino acid produced by the koji to produce off flavors and a yellowish color. Manganese, when exposed to ultraviolet light, will also contribute to discoloration. Conversely potassium, magnesium, and phosphoric acid serve as nutrients for yeast during fermentation and are considered desirable. Yeast will use those nutrients to work faster and multiply resulting in more sugar being converted into alcohol. And so hard water, with a higher nutrient content for yeast, is known for producing a drier-style sake, while soft water will typically yield sweeter sake.

The first region known for having great water was the Nada-Gogō in Hyogo Prefecture. A particular water source called “Miyamizu” was found to produce high quality sake and attracted many producers to the region. To this day Hyogo has the most sake brewers of any prefecture.

Typically breweries source their water from wells, though lakes and rivers can be used as well. Also breweries may use tap water and filter and adjust components as they see fit.


Sake is produced by the multiple parallel fermentation of rice. The rice is first polished to remove the protein and oils from the exterior of the rice grains, leaving behind starch. Thorough milling leads to fewer congeners and generally a more desirable product.

Newly polished rice is allowed to “rest” until it has absorbed enough moisture from the air so that it will not crack when immersed in water. After this resting period, the rice is washed clean of the rice powder produced during milling and then steeped in water. The length of time depends on the degree to which the rice was polished, ranging from several hours or even overnight for an ordinary milling to just minutes for highly polished rice.

After soaking, the rice is steamed on a conveyor belt. The degree of cooking must be carefully controlled; overcooked rice will ferment too quickly for flavors to develop well and undercooked rice will only ferment on the outside. The steamed rice is then cooled and divided into portions for different uses.

The microorganism Aspergillus oryzae (a mold) is sprinkled onto the steamed rice and allowed to ferment for 5–7 days (Uno et al., 2009). After this initial fermentation period, water and the yeast culture Saccharomyces cerevisiae are added to the koji (rice and mold mixture)[13] and allowed to incubate at 4 degree Celsius for about 7 days.[14] Over the next four days, pre-incubated mixture of steamed rice (90 kg), fermented rice (90 kg) and water (440L) are added to the fermented mixture in three series.

This staggered approach allows time for the yeast to keep up with the increased volume. The mixture is now known as the main mash, or moromi (醪, also written 諸味).

The main mash then ferments, at approximately 15-20 degree Celsius for 2–3 weeks. With high-grade sake, fermentation is deliberately slowed by lowering the temperature to 10 °C (50 °F) or less. Unlike malt for beer, rice for sake does not contain the amylase necessary for converting starch to sugar and so it must undergo a process of multiple fermentation. The addition of A. oryzae provides the necessary amylases, glucoamylases, and proteases to hydrolyze the nutrients of the rice to support the growth of the yeast(S.cerevisiae).[14] In sake production these two processes take place at the same time rather than in separate steps, so sake is said to be made by multiple parallel fermentation.

After fermentation, sake is extracted from the solid mixtures through a filtration process. For some types of sake, a small amount of distilled alcohol, called brewer’s alcohol (醸造アルコール), is added before pressing in order to extract flavors and aromas that would otherwise remain behind in the solids. In cheap sake, a large amount of brewer’s alcohol might be added to increase the volume of sake produced. Next, the remaining lees (a fine sediment) are removed, and the sake is carbon filtered and pasteurized. The sake is allowed to rest and mature and then usually diluted with water to lower the alcohol content from around 20% to 15% or so, before finally being bottled.

Fermenting Maturation of SAKE

The process during which the sake grows into a quality product during storage is called the maturation or maturing process. Mature sake has reached its ideal point of growth. New sake is not liked because of its rough taste, whereas mature sake is mild, smooth and rich. However, if it is too mature, it also develops a rough taste. Nine to twelve months are required for sake to mature. Aging is caused by physical and chemical factors such as oxygen supply, the broad application of external heat, nitrogen oxides, aldehydes and amino acids, among other unknown factors. It is said that Saussureae radix from the Japan cedar material of a barrel containing maturing sake comes to be valued, so the barrel is considered indispensable.


Tōji (杜氏?) is the job title of the sake brewer, named after Du Kang. It is a highly respected job in the Japanese society, with tōji being regarded like musicians or painters. The title of tōji was historically passed on from father to son; today new tōji are either veteran brewery workers or are trained at universities. While modern breweries with refrigeration and cooling tanks operate year-round, most old-fashioned sake breweries are seasonal, operating only in the cool winter months. During the summer and fall most tōji work elsewhere, and are commonly found on farms, only periodically returning to the brewery to supervise storage conditions or bottling operations.




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