When you drink sake
You feel like the springtime,
And the loud cries
Of impatient creditors
On the outside
Sound in your ears
Like the voices of nightingales
Singing most sweetly.
(Japanese drinking song, Burton Holmes Travelogues, 1870)
Sake is a traditional alcoholic beverage in Japan. It is made through fermentation, like beer and wine. Sake is made from rice, a staple food in Japan. (NRIB)
It is not exactly known when people began making sake in Japan; however, it is believed an alcoholic beverage made from rice was already made in the Yayoi period (300 BC- 250 AD) when rice cultivation was brought from China to Japan. (NRIB)
A Dec 18, 1910 article in the San Francisco Call notes, “It is said that 7 per cent of the entire rice crop of Japan goes to the making of this amber fluid, which contains about 13 per cent of alcohol and is characterized by five distinct tastes, according to experts – ‘sweetness, sharpness, sourness, bitterness and astringency.’”
In Hawai‘i, a century after Captain James Cook’s arrival, sugar plantations started to dominate the landscape. However, a shortage of laborers to work in the growing (in size and number) sugar plantations became a challenge. The only answer was imported labor.
Starting in the 1850s, when the Hawaiian Legislature passed “An Act for the Governance of Masters and Servants,” a section of which provided the legal basis for contract-labor system, labor shortages were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America.
Japanese came to Hawai‘i to work on the sugar plantations between 1885 and 1924, when limits were placed on the numbers permitted entry.
It is not likely anyone then foresaw the impact this would have on the cultural and social structure of the islands. The sugar industry is at the center of Hawaiʻi’s modern diversity of races and ethnic cultures. Of the nearly 385,000 workers that came, many thousands stayed to become a part of Hawai‘i’s unique ethnic mix.
Most suggest the first Sake brewery outside of Japan was in Hawaii, the Honolulu Japanese Sake Brewery Co. Many people still believe that to be true, but it was likely the fourth sake brewery established in the US. The Japan Brewing Co was incorporated in Berkeley, California in June 1901. In addition, two other California sake breweries were established in 1903 and 1907. (Auffrey)
However, the Honolulu sake brewery was more successful, more long lasting, and left a much greater legacy than any other of the early Sake breweries in the US. (Auffrey)
“The Honolulu Sake Brewery and Ice Co Ltd, was built in 1908 by Tajiro Sumida and Tomokuni Iwanaga as the Honolulu Japanese Sake Brewery Co, Ltd.”
“‘The reason it was started is because of the early Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii to work as plantation laborers,’ Emil A Nomura, the brewery’s assistant brewmaster, said the other day.”
“‘You see,’ Nomura said, ‘with the meager wages these workers earned, there was barely enough money left to indulge in the privilege of drinking sake, the Japanese people’s favorite drink. And sake from Japan was expensive, because of import duties and things.’”
“To remedy that drinking man’s urge for his favorite brew, the Sumida-Iwanaga partnership designed the world’s first warm-weather sake brewery.”
“The new brewery differed from any traditional Japanese brewery because it was refrigerated and capable of producing sake all year. ‘The factory had to be refrigerated because sake has to be made in a cool room (as cool as 43 degrees),’ Shinsaburo S Sumida, the brewery’s present president said recently.”
For a time, it was “The only brewery in the world which makes sake year round.” “Sumida explained that until the Pauoa brewery was built by his father and Iwanaga, sake had only been made in winter months, usually from the end of October through February, because its fermentation-mold stages of brewing are easily spoiled by heat.”
The Hawai‘i sake brewery faced several other challenges …
Prohibition in 1920s … However, “The booming brewery, however, didn’t let the no-booze era dampen its spirits. Instead, it froze brewing operations, turned up the brewery’s refrigerators, reopened as an ice factory and skated through the lean Prohibition (and Depression) years.”
“With repeal, in 1934, the ice house thawed itself out, increased its working capital from $150,000 to $250,000 (400 shareholders), imported five sake experts from Japan to supervise the installation of new machinery and went back into the brewing business.”
“With World War II came new problems: a rice shortage which didn’t allow rice to be used as anything but food and a sociological shakeup in Japanese American society.”
“‘It was an order,’ recalls Sumida. ‘We couldn’t use rice for making sake, so at that time we started making shoyu (soy sauce).’ And so the Pauoa brewery-factory shoyued its way through the war, and eventually resumed sake operations in 1948.” (SB & Adv Jan 17, 1971) The Honolulu Sake Brewery ceased operations in 1989.
A side story on Japan’s sake industry …
The Japanese started producing small glass floats in the early-1900s and the first Asian floats came ashore along the West Coast just before 1920.
These Japanese floats are part of early recycling efforts – initial Japanese floats we made from recycled sake bottles. Most floats are shades of green because that is the color of glass from these sake bottles (especially after long exposure to sunlight).
To accommodate different fishing styles and nets, the Japanese experimented with many different sizes and shapes of floats, ranging from 2 to 20 inches in diameter. Most were rough spheres, but some were cylindrical or “rolling pin” shaped.
The earliest floats, including most Japanese glass fishing floats, were hand made by a glassblower. Recycled glass, especially old sake bottles, was typically used and air bubbles in the glass are a result of the rapid recycling process.
By 1939, millions of Japanese glass floats were being used; although Japanese glass fishing floats are no longer being manufactured for fishing, there are thousands still floating in the Pacific Ocean.