History and Culture
Yayoi Period (300BC – 250AD) - Heian Period (794-1185)
Sake's origin has been traced back to the period when rice cultivation was brought to Japan from China, and an alcoholic beverage was made from rice. Sake has been ingrained in Japanese history, culture and cuisine ever since. Sake is served at special occasions such as festivals, marriages and funerals, as well as at everyday meals. Sake is regularly used in religious ceremonies and court festivals and is often referred to as “the drink of the gods.” Shrines and temples even made sake during the Heian period (794-1185), and they became the main centers of production for about 500 years.
Muromachi - Momoyama Periods (16th Century)
During the late 16th century, brewers started to polish rice for sake making and to press the fermentation mash to separate the sake. Also during this time, brewers used a heat sterilization process called hiire to preserve the sake. This method was also documented in China to preserve wine as early as 1117, but it wasn’t until 1864 when Louis Pasteur formally developed the process known today as pasteurization.
Meiji Restoration (1868-1912)
Around 30,000 sake breweries were established in Japan, but as taxes were levied upon them, that number declined to about 8,000 and mainly wealthy landowners were able to maintain the breweries. In 1904, the Japanese government banned home brewing of sake, which is a law that remains in effect today.
Japan's Economic Miracle (1970–1980s)
Japan experienced an economic boom in the 1970's due to rapid industrialization after WWII. In 1973, over 3,000 sake breweries produced the most volume of sake in its history. The 1980's saw the introduction of tanrei karakuchi and ginjo as two particularly distinct styles of sake that appealed to the consumer which fueled this growth.
Sake has become a world beverage. Exports from Japan have steadily increased over the last 10 years. Exports to the USA have increased by 39% in Japanese yen and 25% by volume over the last 5 years ended 2019.
Domestically in Japan, however, sake has seen a rapid decline in production and consumption due to a declining population and the emergence of wine, beer and spirits as popular alcoholic beverages. In 1975, there were about 3,229 sake breweries in Japan, and today there are about 1,200 active breweries remaining.
A significant factor in the growth of exports was the designation of “washoku” or the traditional dietary culture of the Japanese, to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritages in December 2013. Along with widespread growth of Japanese restaurants in foreign countries, sake has also seen expansion in overseas markets. This growth trend is expected to continue as consumers experience a surge in exports of premium grade sake, after years of tasting lower grade futsushu. Consumers are seeking differentiation amongst the alcoholic beverages they choose, and the beer and wine market has become increasingly saturated in the last several years. Anticipate an interesting growth trend for sake in the next 10 years.