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Sake is the traditional rice wine of Japan. It comes in several different varieties, and was first made at least 2,000 years ago. Since then, sake has played an important role in Japanese culture and history. From its origins as the "drink of the Gods" to its current status as one of the most popular drinks in the country, the history of sake is steeped in tradition, innovation, and custom. 

Sake was first brewed in Japan after the practice of wet rice cultivation was introduced in that country around 300 B.C. Though the origins of sake can be traced in China as far back as 4,000 B.C., it was the Japanese who began mass production of this simple but delicious rice concoction. The basic process of making sake involves "polishing" or milling the rice kernels, which were then cooked in good, clean water and made into a mash. The earliest "polishing" was done by a whole village: each person would chew rice and nuts and then spit the mixture into a communal tub the sake produced was called "kuchikami no sake," which is Japanese for "chewing the mouth sake." The chewing process introduced the enzymes necessary for fermentation. Although it was part of a Shinto religious ceremony, this practice was discontinued when it was learned that Koji (a mold enzyme) and yeast could be added to the rice to start the fermentation process. 

At first, sake was produced for private consumption by individual families or villages. While this practice continued, sake rice also became a large scale agricultural product. The largest production area was centered around Nada, near the present-day city of Kobe. Although more sake was being made, it was mostly consumed by the upper classes. Sake was used for many different purposes in the Shinto religion, including as an offering to the Gods and to purify the temple. The bride and groom each consume sake in a Shinto wedding ceremony in a process known as Sansankudo. There were many other uses for sake in Shinto, most of which are still in practice today.

It was in the 1300s that mass production of sake allowed it to become Japan's most important drink. In the years that followed the production process was improved, and sake breweries popped up throughout the nation. All of the early variations of sake were cloudy until a seventeenth century brewery worker thought to use ashes to settle the cloudy particles in the sake. The story has become somewhat of a legend, because the employee was apparently disgruntled, and was trying to destroy the batch; instead, his actions refined the sake and earned him a place in history. Japan's Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century introduced automation and machinery into the brewing process, making this popular drink even more available. 

In the twentieth century, a press replaced the traditional canvas bags for squeezing the liquid out of the rice mash, yeast, and koji mixture, although some sake is still brewed the old-fashioned way. Shortages of rice in World War Two also caused changes in the brewing process: glucose and pure alcohol were added to the rice mash in order to increase the production yield and brewing time. Although borne of necessity, this process has been continued to this day, but sake made with just water, koji, yeast, and rice is still available. 

Though the brewing process and availability of sake has changed over the years, sake's important role in Japanese culture has not. From its earliest beginnings sake has been a drink of reverence, family, and friendship, consumed to mark important occasions. Because it is meant to be enjoyed with friends and family, tradition holds that a person must never pour their own sake; instead another person pours for you, and you do the same for them. For thousands of years sake has been a major part of Japanese life, and its popularity is now increasing on the international stage.


 

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