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The Past - Part 1 - 500 BC: "People made" Sake

Utagawa Hiroshige wood-block depicting farmers sowing rice during the winter season.


For roughly the next 1,500 years, rice was both eaten and enjoyed as an alcohol-type of gruel that became the focal point of communal rice growing villages. At some juncture sake became a product made by humans in the most interesting sort of way. Kuchikama no Sake took root in farming villages as a way to communally make sake in a shorter time frame than allowing a batch of harvested or cooked rice to rot.

Farmers somehow realized that if they chewed rice and spat it out into wooden tubs or buckets, the enzymes in their mouths would break the long-chain starch molecules into glucose.  This glucose would sit in the bucket for about a week and allow airborne yeasts to propagate and ferment the sugars into alcohol.  Chewing and spitting became a vital bonding and communal activity that produced a concoction that was used for religious and ceremonial activities. It is important to note, as sake is a major component in the religious landscape of Japan, it has and continues to be used in most every religious ceremonies and festivals; the bond between the Shinto gods and humans has always been connected through sake.  

In an effort to make the Gods even happier, village leaders decided to have female virgins do the chewing and spitting instead of the rank and file. And so began the next phase of sake's history: Bijinshu which became the first technical improvement in the manufacturing of ancient sake. Sake became an event and an occasion since it was a focal point for community building and religious celebration, which was not lost on the Imperial Court of Japan.

The period when sake was made by accident can be considered sake’s first form of production. Minzoku no Sake was the the first, albeit unofficially, recognized period when sake was made for a specific reason. It was a time of function more than exploration in the make-up of sake. People made sake as an extension of their everyday lives; sake was a food source with a kick. Sake's continued success was that it made both the people and the gods happy from this early juncture. The concept of using rice for something other than food took root and launched the next incarnation of Nihonshu.



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