Nothing is more essential to making sake than rice.  It is the heart of both the beverage and the culture of the country that brought it to prominence.  Rice’s influence on the final product in sake is not as pronounced as grapes are to wine, but it is still critical in every way.  Learning about rice, its components and role in the brewing steps, is critical to understanding sake.

Rice Cultivation

In the world of rice there are two main species.  Oryza sativa was cultivated in Asia along the Yangtze River in what is now China 10,000 – 14,000 years ago.  And Oryza glaberrima was later cultivated independently along the Niger River in West Africa between 1,500 and 800 BCE.  Oryza sativa is by far the dominant species, being grown throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas. It’s two subspecies indica (long grain) and japonica (short grain) and their hybrids make up the bulk of the world’s sake production.  And of those two subspecies, japonica is the base of “sake rice”. However not all japonica is well suited for making sake even if it is used that way. There is food rice that is also used for brewing and then there is dedicated SAKE RICE.

Rice in Japan Culture

It is hard to overstate the importance of rice in Japan’s history and culture.  Grown for over 2000 years, rice in Japan has historically been a scarce and highly valued commodity.  Typically farmers would grow rice to pay tax to the samurai class, which left barley and millet as the primary grains in their own diet.  But improvements in agricultural techniques in the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) allowed for rice to become a regular part of the general population’s diet.  Japan has hundreds of rice varietals and a rating system for the quality grown in each field. Most varietals are local with a few sold all over the country with reputations for great flavor and quality.  Examples of these popular food varietals are Koshihikari, Hitomebore, and Akita Komachi.

Rice and sake consumption in Japan have been declining in recent decades as food and drink options become more varied and tastes become more globalized.  But both remain a critical part of Shinto rituals and popular culture. It is well worth noting that the proper name for sake, 日本酒 or “Nihonshu” literally means “Japanese alcohol”.  And until the 1970s, it was the most consumed alcoholic beverage for hundreds of years in Japan.

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