Journalist Discusses the History of Making Sake

Journalist Discusses the History of Making Sake

By Miguel Espinosa

Last Thursday, journalist Nancy Matsumoto visited the College to lecture about sake, how it’s produced and its role within Japanese culture. The lecture, hosted by the Japanese club and MiddUncorked, took place at the Axinn Center. A sake pairings dinner at Proctor Hall occurred afterward.

Based in Toronto, Canada, Nancy Matsumoto is a freelance writer and editor whose work specializes in sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture. According to Matsumoto’s biography at, her writings have been shared in reputable publications such as Time, Newsweek, Health, People, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and The New York Times.

She also co-authored the book, “The Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders: Supporting Self-Esteem, Healthy Eating and Positive Body Image at Home”. The book is a recipient of a National Parenting Publication award, and is the “the definitive encyclopedia for parents who are concerned about their child’s weight eating,” according to an expert in the field.

Matsumoto’s lecture started by asking the question, “What is sake?” The word “sake”, in Japanese, translates to alcohol.

Sake, although having a range of aromas and sharing the same sweetness and dryness range of wine, is more closely related to beer. Like that for beer, the creation of sake involves transforming grains into sugars, and then converting the sugars into alcohol using yeast. Sake, unlike wine, derives sugar from rice grains rather than fruit. Facilitating such a process requires the skills of a master brewer, or toji.

Matsumoto then guided the audience through the history of sake. Sake, a culturally significant drink in Japan, is at least 2,000 years old. The sake most people are familiar with today dates back to 1,000 years ago. Some historians suggest that its first creators were women, and that it was reserved only for gods, shrines and temples. In fact, traditionally, brewing sake passed down multiple generations as a family business. Nowadays, sake still plays an integral role in Japanese contemporary life and culture.

The discussion returned again to the process of creating sake, albeit at greater detail. According to Matsumoto, the elements that comprise sake are surprisingly simple, since it requires only a few ingredients: water, rice and yeast. The environment for brewing must be strictly controlled, however.

After the rice is cooled and fanned, it is then taken to a koji-muro , a warm, cedarlined room that is favorable for producing a certain kind of mold. This mold is cultivated to grow on rice for between 48 to 72 hours; the resulting product, mold-inoculated steamed rice, is called koji.

The koji is transferred to a small tank where water, rice and yeast are added. This portion of the sake brewing process aims at creating a yeast starter, known as shubo or moto.

The yeast affects the aroma and flavor of the sake. Shubo temperature is strictly controlled, and the environment surrounding the shubo must be kept clean. After two weeks, the yeast starter eventually is transferred to a larger tank where three more rounds of rice, water and yeast are added. The larger tank is left to ferment for three to five weeks, and the sake is pressed and filtered afterwards. The sake is then aged for about six months, and is diluted with water before bottling, reducing the alcohol level from 20 percent to about 15 percent.

Matsumoto then presented the different categories of sake, which are dependent upon rice milling percentage. For example, daiginjo, which is milled to 50 percent or less, is known to be light, complex and fragrant. Ginjo is classified for milling rates less than 60 percent, honjozo or 70 percent or less and fustu-shu for anything without a minimum.

Matsumoto also went on to discuss sake pairing, and how a sake’s subtle taste makes the drink very food-friendly. Some may want to drink sake with foods that have tastes of similar or contrasting quality.

Matsumoto dove into stories from the brewing industry, and how recent global events have affected large sake manufacturers. We heard about female brewers, and how they have contributed to the experimentation and innovation of sake creation. We also learned about the “ginjo” movement of the 70s, and how the number of brewers have declined in the industry.

Learning about and understanding sake is helpful in constructing one’s worldview of Japanese culture, whether it be contemporary or historical.

“[Sake] has a long history,” said Michiko Yoshino ’17, Japanese Club president. “Drinking culture plays a big part in school and work culture, having parties to celebrate the end of a long project or a way to treat clients. Sake is one of those ways people use to accommodate social situations. As one of Japan’s national drinks, it is recognized globally and Japan prides itself on making fantastic sake.”

Sake has provided enjoyment and leisure for the Japanese people, past and present. Since it is recognized internationally, people across the world have shared in sake’s pleasure; perhaps by studying it, others will come to greater appreciation of Japanese culture.