2021-10-22 / News

History of Kyoto sake

Kyoto has prospered as Japan’s capital from the 8th to the 19th century and as its cultural capital has nurtured Japanese history and traditional arts. While the city contains 41 sake breweries, 22 are situated in Fushimi district. Within this district is Matsuo Taisha Shrine, built in 701, and houses the god of sake. With so many breweries, the Fushimi district has since the 14th century also been known domestically and internationally as a leading sake producing region, accounting for about 18% of Japan’s total production of sake.

The history of sake is said to date back over 2,000 years, and although much is still unknown about its origins, many different types of sake have been made since then. Kyoto began to function as the capital of Japan in 794. It is known from a book called Ryo-no-shuge, written in 868, that there was a department for brewing sake within the administrative body called the “Heian-kyo Sake Brewer” (Heian-kyo is the name of Ancient capital in Kyoto). Heian-kyo Sake Brewer produced a sake called “Goshu” which was offered to the Emperor. In those days, sake was made differently than today’s process. While made from only malted rice, steamed rice, and water, the ratio of koji and the number of pressing times was high; the end result was a sweet, rich sake. There was also a summer sake called “Gishu”, which was made in summer. Today, Japan still enjoys refreshing sake, nigori sake, and ice-filled sake in the summer, but the practice of making summer sake started in the Heian period. Incidentally, today’s Kyoto (Kyoto City) has four distinct seasons due to its geographic characteristics as a basin, with an average temperature of 32 degrees in summer and about 7 degrees in winter.

A book called the “Heihanki”, written in the 12th century, describes how the sake was enjoyed at the court of Kyoto at the time. The book describes a banquet during the emperor’s replacement ceremony, during which sake was drunk and songs were sung. In ancient Japanese banquets, sake was commonly consumed in a custom called “shikisankon”, and this tradition still carried on today but in another form. When a person takes one sip of sake from a sake cup it is called “Hitotabi”. When this is repeated three times it is called “Ikkon”. The custom “shikisankon” consisted of repeating “Ikkon”three times for a total of 9 drinks. At that time, sake was not drunk out of the traditional ochoko sake glass, which came into use in the 17th century, but was instead drunk from its much older predecessor. This custom has become the “Sansankudo” ritual which is performed in today’s Shinto wedding ceremonies.

In another twelfth-century book, there can be found a menu from the table of Fujiwara Tadamichi, a man of high rank living in Kyoto. The menu includes dried abalone and namasu carp (cut into thinner slices than sashimi) with seasonings of salt, soy sauce, and vinegar. Lastly, there was sake placed to the right of the chopsticks.

By the thirteenth century, the heyday of sake in Kyoto had come. Japan’s first urban breweries emerged, and with more than 300 breweries in a city of 300,000 people, it became a focal point for brewing sake. In the 15th century, in particular, there was even a brewery that paid 10% of the government’s tax revenue at the time. For the first time in Japan, “Yanagi”, the first brand sake emerged and was sold from that brewery.

Here, we will introduce a sake-related game from those days. In this game, a group of ten players drank ten cups of sake, called “Totabi- nomi(ten times drinking)”, and the winner was the one who finished the cup early. In Japan today, it is socially unacceptable to drink early, but it practice existed until a while ago.

A 16th-century book (1576), The Tamoninnikki(Dainary of Tamonin), mentions a sake brewing technique in Kyoto. The term “morohaku,” in which both koji and steamed rice, are polished, is mentioned for the first time. Nowadays, morohaku is the basic method, but it is based on a technique developed around this time. There is also a description of pasteurization. Sake production in the 16th century was still made in earthenware pots (250L-540L capacity), and excavations in Kyoto in 2005 uncovered the remains of regularly dug holes where the jars must have been placed. In fact, there is sake brewery with a history of over 400 years that still owns an earthenware pot that was used at their founding. It is believed that the brewing of sake in wooden vats, which has been gradually re-evaluated recently, began at the end of the 16th century.

It was during this time that the economic center of the country shifted to Tokyo, ushering in a winter period for Kyoto’s sake breweries, and it was not Kyoto but Nada (Kobe and Nishinomiya cities) in Hyogo Prefecture that captured Tokyo’s booming demand for sake at the time, a city of one million people. Especially from the late 18th century onward, Nada became popular in Tokyo for its dry sake, and became Japan’s largest producing area. On the other hand, Kyoto, with its less efficient logistics and mainly rich and sweet sake, could not meet Tokyo’s demand for dry sake, and the number of breweries in Kyoto decreased. Eventually, some breweries selling Kyoto sake with the names of other famous sake production area appeared and they reduced Kyoto’s prestige.

However, Kyoto currently boasts the second largest sake-producing area in Japan. Why? This is thanks to the continuous efforts of the brewers, especially in the Fushimi area. Geographically, Fushimi was blessed with good access to the Tokaido Highway, Japan’s ancient highway from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto. It was also a port town connecting Kyoto to the commercial capital Osaka by the river.

In addition, the feudal lords of western regions were forced to pass through Fushimi, on their way to Edo. Due to a law enforced during the Edo period, lords from all over Japan had to periodically travel back and forth between Edo and their home. This was in order to reduce their economic power and prevent rebellion. Thus, Fushimi was lively with those travelers and had houses owned by each region where the lords stayed.

Fushimi was once called Fushimizu (meaning water is lying or water is hidden) because of the abundance of water in the area. The entire Kyoto Basin, including Fushimi, is said to contain water equivalent to that stored in Japan’s largest lake, Lake Biwa (670 ㎢), which is the current source of water for areas such as Osaka and Kyoto.

The water in Fushimi is said to be of excellent quality because it is free of iron and has an adequate amount of minerals. Although Fushimi is said to have soft water, it is in fact not actually soft water. The abundance of water suitable for sake brewing was another factor in its rise to prominence.

As such an economically, geographically, and logistically important hub, Fushimi took advantage of its condition to increase the recognition of Kyoto’s sake. Especially since the beginning of the 20th century, there have been many pioneering efforts in the sake industry. In the world of sake, it is common to make sake in winter, as the term “Kan-zukuri” suggests. This is partly due to the fact that sake is brewed by nature using rice harvested in the fall. However, this practice came about before the spoilage mechanism of rice was clearly understood. One brewery has appeared and overturns this common sense to produce sake throughout the year. This is brewery is Gekkeikan. This four-season brewing was possible as a result of inviting engineers with high education and diplomas, a rarity at the time, to the brewery at the beginning of the 20th century to improve the brewery’s in-house technology. In a sake culture where sake was brewed by a group of seasonal workers, led by a toji (master brewer), degree holders faced conflicts with them and improved quality.

Also of great importance is the brewery Tamanohikari Shuzo. It has pioneered the resurgence of Junmai sake, now overwhelmingly popular in the overseas market. In the midst of World War II, “triple amount sake,” made by adding distilled alcohol until it was three times the volume of original sake, became popular. Due to the dwindling supply of rice during the war, rice-made sakes were not a necessity, so the government recommended this process, which led to the popularization of this type of brewing. And because of its low cost, its popularity continued for a long time after the war.

However, in 1964 the company bucked the trend and revived sake made entirely from rice, thus laying the foundation for the popularity of junmai sake today.

Also in Fushimi, Masuda Tokubei Shoten was the first brewery to commercialize Nigori, a slightly bubbly sake. The brewery supported the launch of “Ki no Bi,” a Japanese gin that has gained overwhelming recognition in the world of craft gin, and continues to provide water for the distillery. This kind of effort can also convey the enterprising spirit that is rooted among breweries in Fushimi. Thus, the fame that had once been lost was restored with the emergence of such pioneering breweries.

These efforts were supported by the Fushimi Brewery Association, an organization founded in 1913 with six members, and now has 65 members in 25 companies. The organization helped to implement a “scientific approach” to sake making in Fushimi which was previously only carried out by brewer’s experience. Additionally, this organization has supported sake breweries in multiple ways, including not only the introduction of four-season brewing equipment, but also the development of yeast for Ginjo sake, new brewing methods, and the development of sake rice and koji mold. Now, 100 years after the start of these activities, Kyoto has become known both in Japan and abroad as a famous sake brewing region, where traditional techniques are passed on and at the same time many new initiatives are being taken.

Recent Challenge: development of sake specific rice, ”Iwai”

Currently, Kyoto is home to major sake breweries such as Takara Shuzo, Japan’s largest brewery, which produced the innovative sparkling sake “Mio”, and Gekkeikan, having Japan’s largest sake museum which is the gateway to Kyoto’s sake brewery experience. It is also home to a number of smaller breweries with their own distinctive character, such as Masuda Tokubei Shoten, a member of the “Toki Sake Association” established in 2020 to improve the status of aged sake, and Kinoshita Shuzo, famous in Japan and abroad for its natural sake production. Among these unique breweries in Kyoto, there is a legendary rice called “Iwai” rice which is used for sake making by 23 sake breweries out of 41 sake breweries in Kyoto right now.

The production area of “Iwai” rice was expanded to 646 hectares in 1936, and became the representative sake rice of Kyoto. However during World War Ⅱ, as Japan faced a food shortage, the government prioritized table rice over sake rice and the crop acreage dropped dramatically. By 1946, Iwai rice dropped from the list of recommended rice varietals. That means Kyoto prefecture lost any obligation to supply  Iwai rice seeds to farmers. To delist a rice varietal does not mean the volume of the crop goes down to zero, but it was apparent that the variety became unknown consequently.

Since Iwai was delisted from recommended rice in 1946, calls grew louder for the revival of Iwai because of higher sake production suitability. As the situation of the food shortage was improved, in 1955 the rice was put back on the list. In 1962, the crop acreage reached 396ha. However, in 1973 it faced delisting again because of its characteristic of a tall stalk, which was not suitable for harvest machines that were put into widespread use at this time. Additionally, Iwai has a high threshability, so farmers tend not to favor it. In 1973, Iwai was delisted again.

In 1992, the second revival in Iwai rice occurred. The will to produce Kyoto-originated sake emerged among sake breweries and the project to revive Iwai began. However, the rice seed did not exist at the Kyoto Prefectural Agricultural Research Institute (part of the current Kyoto Prefectural Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Technology Center) because it had been 19 years since being delisting. As such, the seeds were provided from Kyoto Prefectural University and the re-revival project began.

At the same time of this revival project, a project to improve its unfavored of higher stalk height and to gain heavier senryujyu, or create larger grains, for higher yield was carried out. In fact, the height of the Iwai rice varietal was 1.1-1.2m, compared to the 70cm of famous table rice, Koshihikari. Needless to say, it was done by holding up to the high modern standards required for sake rice. In 1999, after 8 years, one ideal variety of Iwai was selected out of 18,200 potential candidates. The final “Iwai” has lower height of 1-1.1m (10cm lower than original one) and has a heavier senryujyu.

Iwai has a clean taste with unique flavors. It is said that it has similar suitability to the king of sake specific rice, Yamadanishiki, in terms of sake production. However, it still has difficulties as a sake specific rice. For instance, it has still lower yield of 340kg/10ares, compared to king of table rice, Koshihikari of 500kg/10ares. Additionally, its water absorption is higher than Yamadanishiki, so it needs more technique for sake production.

Now the Research Department at Kyoto Municipal Institute of Industrial Technology and Culture (KMIITC) became a center of the project to identify the relevance between “The way to grow rice” and “the production method for sake making”. It is expected to have a scientifically clear picture of what types of aroma will be observed under certain ways of growing rice. We strongly believe that re-revived Iwai after conquering several difficult periods will play an important role to enhance the potential of Kyoto sake.

It is no exaggeration to say that the history of sake brewing in Kyoto is the history of Japanese sake brewing. It developed in various ways, such as in the form of rituals and offerings to the emperor’s family, and gave birth to a new form of an urban sake brewery. On the other hand, in the 17th century, the city handed over its leading position as a sake production area to other areas, and in the 20th century, thanks to the efforts of industry, government, and academia, it once again became the leading producing region and has recovered to become the second-largest producing area of sake in Japan in the 21st century.

The sake industry has plummeted from approximately 200 million cases (8.64liter cases) shipped domestically in 1973 to 54 million cases in 2019. About a quarter of the volume is shipped domestically. Exports, however, reached a record high of 23.4 billion yen in 2019, with a CAGR of 6.8% in volume terms over the past decade (CAGR 2010-2019), making it a fast-growing sector. The Japanese government has also set an ambitious target of 60 billion yen in exports by 2025, with a CAGR of 2019-2025 of about 27% in value terms.

In particular, the appeal of sake as a food-friendly beverage, like wine, is gradually being transmitted overseas as well. The “amazingly fruit-like aroma and taste” produced from rice, a “grain”, using the “power of yeast” is mysterious, and that is the charm of sake. This is the appeal and distinctive value of sake. Kyoto is at the top of the list of sake producing areas that will lead the export of sake, and the depth of its history and its ongoing efforts to develop sake in recent years will be highly valued in overseas markets.