Local Sake

Premium water and rice used

Himeji City, the land of Kuroda Kanbee, an outstanding 16th-century samurai strategist who never lost a battle in the age of warring provincial lords, boasts Himeji Castle―Japan’s first UNESCO-designated World Heritage site as well as one of Japan’s national treasures―which is a popular destination for tourists and history lovers from overseas and Japan. In addition to this beautiful internationally known castle nicknamed the White Heron Castle, it is worth remembering that the region of Himeji and its adjacent Seiban is a land of a variety of indigenous industries that have been cherished and nursed by history and tradition and that have engaged in day-and-night endeavors to capture the hearts and needs of a fast-changing world. Among these industries is the making of local sake. This region of Himeji and Seiban is endowed with water from limpid streams of rivers, with the champion rice for sake brewery, and with experts traditionally called Harima brewers. Lovers of sake from Himeji that offers delicate taste and flavor are steadily increasing in number.

Delicacy of the locale condensed

The Harima area in western Hyogo Prefecture has a long history of sake brewery. It is blessed with the limpid streams of the Ichikawa, Yumesaki, Ibo and Chikusa Rivers that provide good water with low iron content as well as the superb rice Yamada Nishiki, the champion rice for brewing sake. And a number of expert brewers, who have been called Harima master sake brewers for generations, were born and raised in this area. Harima is best suited to sake brewing.

It is believed that in Japan the making of sake from rice began in the Yayoi era (about the eighth century BC to the third century AD) when wet-field rice cultivation got rooted in western Japan. At the beginning, the brewer was a woman! It means that it was the task of the priestess to make sake. She first chewed heated rice well and spit it out to a wooden bowl. (Without her knowing, ptyalin in her saliva catalyzed the hydrolysis of starch into maltose and dextrin.) Then wild yeast launched fermentation on the rice in the bowl to turn into sake.

The quality of water determines the quality of sake, and 80 percent of sake is water. Rivers originate in ground water that supplies wells and springs. Some sake makers in cities transport high-quality water from remote areas, and others move their breweries to the spot with their water of preference. Water is the key to sake brewery. Generally speaking, hard water makes dry sake and soft water, sweet sake. The minerals in hard water vitalize yeast and accelerate glucose breakdown. On the other hand, soft water slows down the breakdown.

The starch contained in rice is essential for brewing sake. The more you polish rice to take away the rice bran, the closer you get to the grain’s white core composed of starch. This white core has less protein, amino acids, and fat. Rice for sake brewery is different from rice for eating. Called sake rice, it has bigger grains with a larger white core. These bigger grains enable a high polishing ratio.

Rice malt and yeast work upon sake rice. The former converts starch into glucose. To make rice malt, steamed rice is used to reproduce spores of aspergillus. Meanwhile, yeast is the key to the taste and flavor of sake. Rice malt and yeast play active and effective roles upon sake rice and condense a delicacy of the locale in sake.

History of sake

According to Japan’s oldest history book Records of Ancient Matters compiled early in the Nara era (710-794), a certain Susukori from the Baekje Kingdom of the Korean Peninsula brought in a brewing method. This method was developed in the ancient Chinese dynasty of Zhou. It was promulgated in Japan. In the region-by-region Records of Natural Features, Culture, and Geography of Harima, the present western Hyogo Prefecture, submitted to the imperial court later in the same era, a line says, “It became malty and sake was made.” It is a description of sake being produced as a result of the actions of rice malt and yeast. A book of law enforcement ordinance in the Heian era (794-1192) refers to the brewing method of sake using rice, rice malt, and water and also to warmed-sake drinking.

After the passage of time, bigger towns began to appear and commerce became prosperous. Sake grew to be a product having economic value equivalent to rice. Temples and shrines brewed sake. Big sake brewers started to thrive steadily. The 16th century saw the coming of local sake prosperity. In the Edo era (1603-1867), there was a breakthrough in brewing technology. To improve sake preservation, pasteurization treatment was created. To prevent the reproduction of lactic acid and rancidity, alcohol was added. Even in Europe, these methods were unknown. Trial and error proved that water with low iron content was fit for sake brewing.

In the following Meiji era, bottling of sake started. The National Research Institute of Brewing was founded. In the Showa era (1926-1989), vertical rice milling machines were invented. Sanitary enameled tanks were introduced to replace traditional wooden barrels. The sake brewing and sales business has steadily advanced on its road of modernization.

Best of all medicines

As a Japanese proverb says, sake is the best of all medicines. Sake has long been thought to be a key element leading a happy and healthy life. It not only brings about a cordial atmosphere for dining and conversation with friends but also creates an open, pleasant mood even around unfamiliar people. (Of course, so long as sake is enjoyed in appropriate amounts!)

According to a study by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), moderate daily drinkers have lower mortality rates than do abstainers or heavy drinkers. The ACSH survey of around 1,600 men between 40 and 64 years of age was conducted for a period of 10 years. In terms of sake, the standard moderate drink is equivalent to some 70 to 270 ml. Moderate drinking also serves to prevent occurrence of heart and other circulatory diseases and provides prophylactic benefits against ischemic heart diseases such as cardiac infarct and angina pectoris.

Alcohol is reported to have functions to raise high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL), curb platelets from clumping together, and reduce stress. In other cases, an insulin-type substance was extracted from sake lees as well as sake without heat treatment. As is known, without insulin, glucose cannot be appropriately metabolized and you get diabetes. In another study, sake was found to be effective in preventing high blood pressure, amnesia, osteoporosis, etc.

Drinking too much can lead to a fatty liver. But glutathione, a substance to prevent alcoholic fatty liver, is found in sake. Also, sake is found to be effective against hepatic dysfunction. In a study on the relationship between alcoholic beverages and hepatic cirrhosis, it was found that only sake drinkers, male or female, recorded low mortality. Another study revealed that the number of patients with cirrhosis is lower in the Tohoku region than in the Kyushu region. People in Tohoku drink more sake compared with those in Kyushu where shochu, a Japanesehigh-alcohol distilled beverage, is consumed more. (This does not mean sake drinking makes livers healthy, of course!)

Your blood pressure will stabilize when you soak in a tepid bath (with a temperature of some 37 degrees C) that contains an appropriate amount of sake. After taking time to warm yourself, you get out of the bath. Even after 20 minutes, your blood pressure is maintained at a lower level than usual. However, you must be aware that it is dangerous to take a bath after drinking sake. This invites a higher heart rate and lowering of blood pressure.

By drinking sake, your body temperature will stay about two degrees C higher than your normal temperature. Blood circulation is activated to make skin smoother. Kojic acid prevents aging changes of the body’s cells and activates them. Kojic acid is an antioxidant substance that is developed in the process of starch converting into sugar and that curbs production of melanin pigment causing blotches and moles. For this function, it is adopted in many whitening cosmetics. In Japan from olden days, they say good sake- and -rice-producing regions produce fair-skinned beautiful women. (Japanese people have experienced this truth without modern scientific proof!)

Popularity in overseas markets

In Japan, alcoholic beverages used to be represented by sake. However, the output of sake has dropped to a third in recent years. In the brewery year 1973 , it marked a record high of 1,421,000 kl but fell to 439,000 kl in the brewing year 2012. Drivers under the influence of liquor came to face severer punitive measures. Companies cut down their entertainment expenses drastically. Some pointed out that the health-conscious trend increased demand for low-alcohol beverages, although high-alcohol shochu is taking advantage of a boom. Anyway, consumers seem to stay aloof from sake.

Local sake has experienced booms a few times in the past and captured the hearts of the Japanese with its taste and flavor. To young people in general, however, sake sounds old-fashioned and time-worn. They tend to enjoy cocktails, shochu with soda, wine, and fruit liquor. After all, the sake industry seems to be falling back on middle-aged and elderly people. Yet, voices are heard from young people in their 20s that it is cool to be a connoisseur of sake or that sake never sounds old-fashioned as others claim. In some on-line questionnaires, not a few answered that they would like to try sake next. The task seems to be how to decipher the needs of consumers and how to increase women sake fans. Women often ignite a variety of booms.

Changing structures of distribution have drastically changed the world of not only the sake industry but the alcoholic beverage industry as a whole. Discount stores have spread over Japan, fueling price slashing and selling of commodities at low prices. To respond to this trend and changes in customers’ buying patterns, sales stores have begun to put pressure on wholesale distributors and manufacturers to cut prices. The alcoholic beverage industry is caught in a vicious cycle. As for sake, the sales capacity of ordinary sake stores is weakening. But sales of sake are increasing at supermarkets, convenience stores, and other organized retailers where consumers say they can spend a carefree time purchasing sake.

Most sake breweries are unique in their own way. Some make much of their family tradition and brewery methods passed on from generation to generation. Others make efforts to meet the needs and preferences of today. Common to them is that their brewers have abundant knowledge and mastery in brewing technologies and are eager to increase the number of sake lovers. They never stop adding originality to their sake technology or developing new technologies.

At the same time, breweries are targeting overseas markets. Thanks to their active sales promotions abroad, sake is becoming popular and exports are increasing. The worldwide health-conscious trend has kindled interest in healthy washoku or Japanese food. And of course, people began to taste sake since it is a good companion to washoku. An increase in the number of Japanese businessmen assigned to foreign countries and their family members living together also served to increased sake consumption through word of mouth. Some brands of sake exported to the United States are loved by fans as luxury liquor. In Taiwan, some other brands are highly appreciated. What are they interested in? If the sake industry can bring their message back to Japan, they will be able to reignite the popularity of sake in Japan.