The Past - Part 3 - 1220 AD: "Temple-made" Sake

Shinnyo-do Temple in Kyoto

Sake’s third movement saw the realignment of sake and religion. Many of the Imperial Court brewers traveled to countryside shrines and temples in order to open small breweries. Why the temples? For one thing the temples owned vast swaths of land that produced a lot of rice. Secondly, the temples usually controlled water sources. And thirdly, the temples were filled with dedicated work forces in the form of monks. These temple breweries – Sakaya no Sake again allowed a return of sake to the people.

Yes – similar to alcohols worldwide – monks or religious servants became the guardians of sake. These ”middle ages” of sake produced even more advances in technique along with the recognition of chemical elements like differences in water sources which produced different qualities of sake. The monks created the first named-effort or technique of sake making other than “chew and spit.”  

The famous – Bodai Moto method came into being and created a new method for fermenting rice.

Briefly, this was a method that promoted the use of a large quantity of water and a bag of airborne yeast infused rice that was buried in a vat of uncooked rice resulting in a pretty course and sour brew.

It was a very exciting time period for the exploration of fermentation techniques. Probably the greatest achievement in sake brewing occurred when the monks realized that if you mill or polish rice that it was far more agreeable to fermentation. Brown rice is hard to ferment since it must germinate first before the core starches are revealed, but white rice was a brewer’s dream come true. White rice was far more susceptible to the special molds that the monks were tinkering with to break the starch into a fermentable glucose. 

This period also saw the discovery of pasteurization almost three hundred years before a certain Frenchman marketed his endeavor. Brewers realized that if they heated up their final product it would have a far longer shelf life and could be sent further and consumed far longer after production. Amazingly this act of pasteurization was documented in a daily diary Tamon’in Nikki that was a detailed recounting of everyday life in the temple Kofukuji located in the Nara prefecture. The now famous Tamon Diary had another entry, 30 years later in 1599, which outlined the prototypical 3-stage sake brewing technique known as San-dan Shikomi that is still used to this very day.

The most interesting aspect of this critical period is that sake production was now varied throughout Japan. Some areas produced better sakes than others. Some techniques produced better tasting brews than others. Some brewers created more flavorful brews than their contemporaries. Japan now had varying degrees of sake to speak about and word traveled.