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SAKE, THE JAPANESE ALCOHOL
Sake is a Japanese word meaning "alcoholic beverage", which in English has come to refer to a specific alcoholic beverage brewed mainly from rice, and known in Japan as nihonshu. Sake is widely referred to in English as "rice wine". The history of sake is not well documented and there are multiple theories on how it was discovered. Regardless the first sake was called kuchikami no sake, or "chewing-in-the-mouth sake," and was made by people chewing rice, chestnuts, millet, acorn and spitting the mixture into a tub. This early form of sake was likely low in alcohol and consumed like porridge. Later, from approximately the 8th century BC, rice wine, mi jiu with a formula almost exactly like that of the later Japanese sake, became popular in China.

Rice inoculated with koji-kin is called "kome-koji" or malt rice. This development can greatly increase sake's alcohol content as starch is converted to sugar by koji, sugars are converted to alcohol by yeast in one instantaneous process. Koji spores and yeast floating in the air would land in a soupy rice-water mixture left outside. The resulting fermentation would create a sake porridge not unlike the kuchikami no sake but without the hassle of needing a whole village to chew the rice. Experimentation and techniques from China sometime in the 7th century AD gave rise to higher quality sake. Sake eventually became popular enough for a brewing organization to be established at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, the then capital of Japan. This resulted in full time sake brewers, and these craftsmen paved the way for many more developments in technique. For the next 500 years the quality and techniques used in brewing sake steadily improved. Batches of sake that began to turn sour due to bacteria during the summer months were poured out of their barrels into tanks and heated. However, the resulting pasteurized sake would then be returned to the bacteria infected barrels. During the Meiji Restoration, laws were written that allowed anybody with the money and know-how to construct and operate their own sake breweries.

Land owners who grew rice crops would have rice left over at the end of the season and, rather than letting this stash of rice go to waste, would ship it to their breweries. 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. During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905, the government banned the home brewing of sake. The reason being that, at the time, sake 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, hence more tax money would be collected. When World War II erupted, the sake-brewing industry was dealt a hefty blow as the government clamped down on the use of rice for brewing. There were even a few breweries that were able to produce "sake" that contained no rice at all. Naturally, the quality of sake during this time suffered greatly.

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, but in contrast, the quality of sake steadily improved. Today, the quality of sake is at the highest it has ever been, and sake has become a world beverage with a few breweries springing up in China, Southeast Asia, South America, America and Australia. While the rest of the world may be drinking more sake and the quality of sake has been increasing, it is not clear sailing for the sake industry. In Japan, the sale of sake is still declining and it is uncertain if the exportation of sake to other countries can save Japanese breweries.


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