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The tax on liquor and the introduction of Kyōkai kōbo


The year 1872, early in the Meiji Era (1868–1912), is generally considered to be the first year that sake was exported. This was the year Japan exhibited sake at the Austrian International Exposition.


However, sake was exported somewhat earlier than that, at the beginning of the Edo Period (1603–1868), to south-east Asia. Also, there are indications that during the Edo Period, sake was exported to Europe via Holland. However, the first time sake was exported with the authorization of the government was 1872.


The promotion of alcohol consumption by the Meiji government
The idea of levying a tax on sake to generate revenue is very old indeed. In the Meiji era, this trend intensified, with the government embarking on a plan to collect a large amount of money by increasing the tax on alcohol.


To achieve that goal, it was necessary for a great deal of sake to be produced and consumed. So the government abolished the complicated system that had been in place since the Edo Period. Instead, anyone who had the technology to produce sake and sufficient capital to start a business was permitted to set up a brewing company.


This was in 1875. Within a year, there were more than 30,000 new breweries.


However, as tax revenue was the government’s objective, the tax levied on sake producers increased each year. For many brewers the circumstances became intolerable, and by the end of the Meiji Period, the number of breweries had fallen to around 8,000.


Because domestic demand for sake was high and not much sake was exported, the alcohol tax was an important source of revenue for the Meiji government. The alcohol tax accounted for around 30% of total national revenue, so it was extremely important as a source of revenue for the government.


A ban on unrefined sake
Because the alcohol tax was such an important source of revenue, it was understandable that the government would do whatever it could to increase taxes. One measure it took was to ban the production and consumption of doburoku. Doburoku, also called nigorizake, is a simply made home-brew type of sake.


The necessary ingredients of sake are steamed rice, kōji, water, and yeast. When these are mixed together, the result is a fermented mash called moromi. When the moromi is pressed, the liquid that is squeezed out is sake.


However, doburoku is generally not pressed. It is made by coarsely straining the moromi. Because the moromi is not finely filtered, it contains rice starch, sugars resulting from the fermentation, and so forth. There are all sorts of solid particles suspended in it, giving it a white, cloudy appearance.


At the time of the ban, doburoku was commonly produced and drunk in the home, using harvested rice.


However, when individuals made their own doburoku, the government could collect no revenue. So they made it illegal to produce in the home. The aim was to encourage people to buy sake — on which tax was payable — and thereby increase revenue.


Bottling and the distribution of Kyōkai kōbo
The government not only levied a tax on alcohol; it also contributed to the development of the industry. Since 30% of tax revenue came from alcohol sales, improving the quality of the product and ensuring stable supply were matters that were considered to be of national importance.


So, first of all, a national brewing laboratory was established. At the same time, a sake tasting committee was set up. Based on the notion that “sake rated highly by the sake tasting committee was produced with good quality kōbo (yeast starter),” experiments were conducted, producing pure cultures of yeast starters collected from top-ranking breweries.


The kōbo produced from this research was named Kyōkai kōbo: “Brewing Society of Japan kōbo.” The Kyōkai kōbo used by many breweries nowadays can be traced back to the yeast starter culture produced in the Meiji era as part of the government’s national strategy. Kyōkai kōbo was distributed to breweries nationwide, making it easier to produce high-quality sake.


It was in the Meiji era that sake began to be bottled for sale. Bottling made it possible to transport sake to be sold in distant regions.


Until that time, sake had been consumed only in the areas where it was produced. Breweries did not sell their product beyond the borders of their prefecture.


However, after bottling began, sake produced in villages and towns could be marketed in distant places. In this way, the distribution of sake received a significant boost.

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