As we await the next step in the construction of the interior of the store, we thought that the time was right to introduce a thumbnail sketch of the illustrious history of nihonshu (sake)…
With over 1,700 years of history, sake is older than the Japanese written language. Lore has it that natural airborne yeast landed on an open container of rice producing a slightly fermented liquid that gave some lucky farmers a pleasant buzz. A more factual history documents sake as having migrated with the first Chinese immigrants to arrive in Japan. In any case, by the year 700 or so, it had gained favor with the Japanese Imperial Court which formed its own brewing department. As Buddhism took root in Japan, sake took on a religious ceremonial role bringing sake-making directly into the hands of the shrines and temples. It was during this period that sake brewing methods and “technology” made major advances creating the beverage that resembles what we know today. Within another 400 years or so, breweries had cropped up all over the region surrounding the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto and pasteurization was discovered (about 300 years before Louis Pasteur was born!) as a means of prolonging the life of the product.
From its ceremonial start, sake went on to become a staple of daily life for common folk and an integral part of the national culture. Following WW II, the end of rice rationing and brewing innovations produced great strides in sake diversity and quality with Japanese national consumption peaking in 1974. Unfortunately, the volume and number of breweries have been in decline ever since.
Today, there are roughly 1,100 active sake breweries (sakagura or kura) spread throughout all but one of Japan’s 48 prefectures. Sounds like quite a few right? Well, in 1923 there were about 10,000! And as recently as 1970 and 1988, there were 3,500 and 2,500 respectively.
While the number of breweries and overall sake production has fallen, the good news is that premium or ginjo-shu sake production has actually increased. Even better news is that we in the U.S. are a prime market that has captured the attention of Japan’s sake industry. The interest in sake in our country has grown rapidly as evidenced by the year-over-year double digit increases in import volume over the last several years. Our country has only begun to discover the pleasures that centuries of Japanese brewing craftsmanship has created and refined to one of the most intriguingly complex, food friendly beverages on the planet.
And that dear friends is why Sakaya will be there for you!