The Past - Part 5 - 1900 - 1960: The rise of "National" brand Sakes

Modern milling machines and other technological advances paved the way for higher quality sake.

The turn of the century saw a commercialization in the sake business as large breweries became massive endeavors that created national sake brands that further introduced sake throughout Japan. Also, during this time, sellers gained influence across the industry, becoming increasingly powerful and dictating the success and failure of many breweries. Retailing and distribution became a very contentious battle ground filled with dangers of high commerce on a fiercely proud and loyal drinking market.

At this time—roughly 1200 years after the Imperial Court first injected itself into the betterment of sake by creating a brewery to master brewing techniques—the Treasury Ministry opened the National Research Institute of Brewing to aid the brewing industry in their efforts to make better sake.  In 1907 the Treasury Ministry partnered with the Japan Sake Brewers Association to create the National New Sake Competition, a government sponsored sake tasting that created a new quality drive by pitting prefectures and breweries against one another to see who made the best sake.

The two alignments between the sake market and the government gave birth to a new national loyalty: sake became the nation’s supreme beverage, which transferred better brewing techniques countrywide. Sake grading systems and “brand reputations” naturally followed this governmental involvement, as did the politics of sake.

As the speed of making sake became increasingly important, modernization quickly followed with the advent of the following:  traditional water wheel milling systems were replaced by large rice polishing machines; concentrated super yeasts became available for sale on a national scale; traditional wooden brewing vats were replaced by enamel tanks that guaranteed more even fermentation; brewery layouts evolved for more seamless movement of materials; rice cooling equipment came on-line to aid in faster production; heating and cooling systems were introduced; better pressing techniques evolved; and, bottling and transportation equipment allowed for fewer workers to do twice the work in half of the time.

Two modernized brewing methods emerged to combat the lengthy and tedious Kimoto method. The first was the introduction of the Yamahai method for easier yeast starter creation, which essentially debunked the entire concept of the Kimoto method. The second was the introduction of the very speedy sake production technique called Sokujo-Moto, which called for the addition of lactic acid to cut in half the time it took to create a yeast starter. This technique became known as the “fast-developing” moto and accounts for roughly 99% of all sake production today!

As quickly as sake blossomed during the turn of the century it also fell on hard times. The resounding effects of the Great Depression were felt as a wave of economic hardships impacted the industry. Hardest hit were small local breweries that could not deal with plummeting demand. People were starving, and eating rice became far more important than drinking it. Three, four, even five hundred year-old breweries went bankrupt and ceased to exist. These dark days only became darker at the on-set of World Wars I and II.

In 1937 Japan and China went to war. The direct result was the immediate rationing and massive reduction in sake production. Soldiers were hungry and needed food—not alcohol.  Essentially, the Japanese government took control of the sake industry.  By the time the US and Japan were at war the Japanese goverment dictated who could make sake and how much they could make. Brewing facilities were closed or used to produce war essentials. By 1943 tens of thousands of breweries were reduced to a mere 3,000 that were allowed to make sake.

Due in large part to wartime rice shortages, the breweries that remained open had very little supplies to produce sake. Soldiers were now starving and rice cultivation went strictly to consumption efforts. It was during this time that brewers realized that they could expand their batches if they added distilled alcohol to the brew. By adding distilled alcohol they could increase batch sizes by three or four times. "Sambai Zojoshu" literally translates into tripling the sake; it was a new technique that would prevail past the lean war years to become common practice.