Sake & Wine Cultures in Japan
Sake vs. Wine: Genealogical Differences
SAKE is often referred to as “rice wine,” but that’s a misnomer for a beverage gaining in global popularity. There are vast differences between sake and wine, where sake is a unique Japanese alcoholic beverage, a stand-alone product in a category of its own.
The main ingredient in wine is Vitis Vinifera, a species of grapes simply known as wine grapes, as opposed to grapes consumed for food. Grapes accumulate glucose sugars through ripening, and when it comes to brewing them into wine, yeast is added to ferment the sweet, crushed grapes into alcohol.
For sake, rice is the main ingredient. Alike grapes, rice is divided into two types: rice consumed for food, and Sakamai, a strain grown exclusively for sake brewing. However, unlike grapes which are sweet fruits, Sakamai are grains made up of starch molecules, therefore requiring extra steps to culture the rice. Koji mold is introduced to convert rice starches into sugars before the brewing process can begin, a highly technical and artisanal endeavor for sake brewers.
Wine Came First, then Sake Took Over
Sake production took root in Japan with the arrival of rice cultivation from China some 3,500 years ago. With warm temperatures and high humidity from spring to summer, rice cultivation ourished in Japan.
Interestingly, the rise of sake came after their practice of using wild grapes for fermenting into wine. But what’s historically more sig-nificant is that as soon as sake became commercially available, the Japanese switched to rice-based liquors, and wiped out their earlier grape wine foundation.
So, how was grape liquor so easily replaced by rice liquor in Japan? It’s not due to the Japanese a nity to rice, nor for gains by the government through taxation. The reason is more organic. The very characteristics of sake, from the ingredients to the brewing process, all suit the country’s climate, geographical resources, and food culture.
Japan’s nutrient-rich earth and high humidity better enhance rice cultivation than grapes. The root system of the grape plant runs shal-low in Japan’s rich soil, causing plants to quickly produce leaves. The overgrowth of leaves would deter the photosynthesis process, offsetting the balance of sugar and acid concentration packed into each grape, necessary for ideal wine brewing.
In today’s Japan with modern advancement in equipment and techniques, fine wines are on the upswing. In fact, they’re being recognized by world-class critics, most notably the indigenous Koshu grapes originating in Yamanashi Prefecture. They’re gaining recognition as a fine wine grape variety around the world, competing alongside European wine grapes.
The Jizake Boom
By the 1970’s, the sake industry faced a crisis. Most sake brewing was led by industrial-scale breweries, and their consumer base was made of aging adults. Under tremendous economic pressure, small-scale sake breweries in Niigata Prefecture banded together to rescue their dwindling craft-brewing trade. Their efforts not only revived the industry, but revolutionized it.
Back then, corporate breweries dominated the distribution channels into metro-area markets. This jizake movement heralded a campaign based on artisanal qualities possible only through micro and hand- brewed techniques by seasoned brew masters, the rich history, and unique culture of the region.
Today, thousands of fine jizake are available at upscale eateries and retailers across Japan, summoning fans of the young, fashionable set. In the 1990s, jizake trickled out to the United States, Europe and Asia, where hundreds of premium varieties are now available. Sake has even climbed up in prominence in the arena of Western alcoholic beverage professionals and it now has its own contest category at the world’s most prestigious wine competitions.
Japan’s once dwindling sake industry is seeing a new light, as jizake fine artisan brews reach further away from home, to delight the larger international consumer base. tj
The complete article can be found in Issue #278 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.