What is Japanese Sake? A Unique Fermentation | not really Wine, not really Beer

Most Americans consider sake a Japanese rice wine, but it is actually more akin to beer, but with a unique fermentation process. Furthermore, a look back in time suggests that sake may have originated in China, not Japan.

What is sake? The Japanese word for sake “nihonshu” literally means “Japanese alcoholic beverage”. It does not necessarily refer to the specific rice-based beverage that foreigners exclusively call Sake. What differentiates sake from other alcoholic beverages is its unique fermentation process. Although all wines are the result of a single step fermentation of plant juices, sake requires a multiple-step fermentation process, as does beer.

The requisite ingredients are rice, water, yeast, and an additional substance that will convert the starch in the rice to sugar.

People have always found ways to make alcohol with whatever ingredients are available, so it is likely that beverages similar to sake emerged soon after rice cultivation began. The most popular Theory holds that the Brewing of rice into alcohol began around 4000 B. C. along the Yangtze river in China, and the process was later exported to Japan.

There are many ways to ferment rice. The sake of yore was different from the sake that is popular today. At one time it was fermented with human saliva, which reliably converts starch to sugar. Early sake devotees chewed a combination of rice, chestnuts, millet, and acorns, then spit the mixture into a container to ferment.

This chew and spit approach to alcohol production has been seen the world over in tribal societies. Subsequent discoveries and technological developments allowed for more Innovative approaches to fermentation.

Sometime in the early centuries A.D. a type of mold called Koji – kin was discovered to be efficient in fermenting rice. In the 1300s, mass sake production began in Japan and it soon became the most popular national beverage

Nowadays, production of the best nihonshu has been taken to new heights, with new and different ingredients and processes and classifications. There are some people who even believe that sake can be a healthy skin ointment.


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