Sake Day and the Sake Production Calendar

October 1st is National Sake Day here in Japan. To celebrate both this, and the launch of our Tokyo Sake Tastings and Tours, we take a look at the Sake calendar, starting with why Sake Day is on… err… Sake Day!

October 1st is the traditional starting date of sake production in Japan. Since 1978, it has been designated “Nihonshu no hi” (日本酒の日) or “Sake Day” by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association (technically, they were the Japan Sake Brewers Association back then!).

What is the significance of October 1st? Long ago, sake brewing was conducted year round.  However, in 1798, the 11th Shogun, Ienari Tokugawa, issued an edict banning sake brewing before the Autumn Equinox (September 23rd). This was partly to do with the fact that Japan had a rice economy of sorts. Taxes and samurai stipends were paid in rice, and Ienari was navigating rice shortages at that time. Thus, October 1st was designated as the start of the tax and accounting year for sake brewing

Notwithstanding Ienari Tokugawa’s dictate, there are natural reasons for thinking of October as the start of the sake year. Rice is harvested in Autumn, having been planted in Spring.

However, there is a deeper, more obtuse reason for why October is an appropriate month for Sake Day.  There are many aspects of Japanese culture which have been inherited from China, and one of these is the zodiac. The twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac, each representing an animal, were traditionally used in Japan to signify the twelve months of the year. The tenth symbol, the tori (rooster) stood for the month of October. The kanji for the zodiac animals differs from the regular kanji used to designate that animal. The written character assigned to tori (酉) resembles a jar, and is used as part of kanji for the the word ‘sake’ (酒) (The three lines on the left indicate ‘water’). Hence, the importance of October for sake!

In the relatively warmer months of October and November, breweries make their regular sake. As the months get colder, they will work on higher grade sake, such as ginjo-shu. This is because the cold weather actually allows the brewers greater control over conditions. For example, natural airborne yeasts are almost fully eliminated by the cold, which is vital in the open fermentation world of sake brewing. Also, the winter provides natural cooling for the heat created during fermentation. In Japanese, this is technique is called kanzukuri (cold brewing) and, driven by the Tokugawa proclamation, the method gained traction in the Edo era. Production of a single-batch of traditional brewed sake typically takes around six weeks. It is still the process used at most smaller breweries which make sake from October to April.

At the start of the brewing season, the brewery staff will hold a ceremony at the shinto shrine on the brewery grounds, inviting a priest to pray for the coming year. Traditionally, sake was produced by farmers, who were ‘naturally’ available to work during the winter months. The season is hard work. For those who want to see the painstaking process in action but  cannot visit during the winter, we recommend Erik Shirai’s incredible award-winning 2015 documentary, The Birth of Sake, which chronicles a hard winter at the 147-year old Yoshida Brewery in Ishikawa-ken, Northern Japan.

Some breweries continue brewing as late as May. That’s not to say that everything is finished by then. Having made the sake, now is the time to promote it. This will involve attending regional food fairs and other sake events, some even nationwide, to market the product.  

However, technology has led to transformation, particularly in the area of climate control. It was Gekkeikan who built the first all-season sake brewing system in 1961, and now a few larger breweries brew year round to keep up with demand.

For our guests, there is one more reason to celebrate ‘Sake Day’ this year. Beginning from 1 October 2017, non-Japanese customers purchasing alcohol for consumption in their home countries will be exempt from both consumption tax and alcohol tax. That definitely deserves an extra-special kanpai!

Maction Planet runs Tokyo Sake Tastings and Sake Tours. Whether you are after a journey through this diverse drink on its home ground, a visit to a brewery, or want to get involved in some truly local experiences such as rice picking or sake preparation, we can help. Contact us at info@mactionplanet.com

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