Greetings Sake Lovers
You may already know that sake is produced through alcohol fermentation. You may also already know that sake is made in a similar way to beer in that an extra step is required to convert the starch into a form of glucose that the yeast can consume and produce alcohol. These days, a mold called koji does this job, but hundreds of years before koji was transported by buddhist monks from China to Japan, they had to resort to a different method. So how did they malt the rice without koji?
The answer may surprise you.
The microbes inside people’s mouths were actually used for fermentation! This was called “kuchikamizake (mouth chewed sake).” Read on to learn more about how this type of sake was produced.
What is kuchikamizake? What are its origins?
Chewing grain to produce alcohol is in fact nothing new. The Peruvian libations Chicha and Masato are also made this way and there are even tribes who continue this practice today. Over two thousands years ago, it was common practice In Japan and Taiwan. Sake was produced not for consumption but for religious rituals, an offering to the gods. Kuchikamizake might sound more appealing to know that it was female deities who were doing the chewing (not men with bad breath). To understand why this method of alcohol fermentation works, you need to examine human saliva. Human saliva contains the same enzyme that the koji produces called A-Amylase. This is the enzyme that cuts the chains of starch up and converts them into glucose. Spiting the mixture out and preserving it allows wild yeast to ferment the sugar and producing alcohol.
The exact origins of kuchikamizake are unknown but it is said that south east Asia / south Pacific area are the most likely locations of origin. These areas grow many different species of plant, besides grain, that people in these regions eat for nutritional purposes. Many of these contain starch. It is said that this method took root in this cultural region with the spread of rice. It is thought that kuchikamizake was made in Japan during the later half of the Jomon period. However, no historical connection between modern day Japanese sake and kuchikamizake has been found.
How exactly is kuchikamizake made?
The process of making kuchikamisake is essentially just chewing and spitting, so anyone can make it. However, the human mouth is home to an extremely large number of bacteria and very often other bacteria crash the fermentation process creating a strong rotting smell. Let’s just say that individuals should avoid making and drinking kuchikamizake.
Any drink that is over 1% alcohol is categorized as an “alcoholic beverage,” so making it without a permit is in violation of the liquor tax law anyway.
Did the Japanese Word for Brewing, Kamosu Originate from the Japanese Word for Chew, kamu?
The Japanese verb for brew is kamosu. This word is used only in brewing. For this reason, it wouldn’t be unusual to meet native Japanese speakers who are unfamiliar with this word.
There is a theory that kamosu is actually derived from the Japanese verb to chew, “kamu”. Since there are many sake related words that sound very similar, it is definitely plausible that kamu evolved into kamosu. Kinshi Sumonoe, a doctor of agriculture, writes in his book “Sake” that analysis he conducted shows that kamosu may actually derive from the word kabisu.
That is basically what kamikuchizake is.
Incidentally, kuchikamizake even made an appearance in the hit anime blockbuster “Kimi no na wa” (Your Name Is) there was a scene where kuchikamizake comes out. The anime glamorizes it a bit too much though. In reality it is quite gross. However, putting its rather disgusting image to one side, kuchikamizake is the closest thing we have found to sake’s true origin. Why not conduct your own research if you are interested to learn more.
At KURAND, you can mull sake’s origins while tasting over 100 different types of sake. Rest assured you won’t find any kuchikamisake in our fridges.