Amazake is a traditional Japanese sweet beverage, which is a cloudy liquid similar to doburoku (unrefined sake).
It was called as "Hitoyo-zake" (literally over-night sake) or "Ko-sake" (thick sake) long ago.
Cold amazake or hot amazake used to be drunk during summer in order to forget the summer heat. Therefore, the term amazake remains one of the kigo (seasonal words) for summer used in haiku poetry even though amazake is now seldom drunk during summer. Amazake is popular as a healthy beverage because it not only has the effect of warming the body but also prevents natsubate (summer lethargy) when drunk during summer.
Many temples and shrines either sell amazake or provide it free of charge to worshippers on New Year's Day, and sell it for visitors to bring home. In some regions, rice farmers still preserve the old custom of making amazake and placing it on an alter during festivals as an offering of thanks for a good harvest.
Famous shops which serve amazake include Amazake-chaya in Hakone and Amano-ya in Kanda-myojin.
Amazake contains vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, all the essential amino acids, and a large amount of glucose; these nutrients are the same as those contained in intravenous drips provided at hospitals and the production method (described later) is also similar to that of the intravenous drips except for the addition of glucose.
Although called "amazake", it is not an alcoholic beverage and can therefore be consumed by minors. However, because ethanol may be included in its ingredients or may be produced during its production process, people who get drunk easily (particularly children) may get drunk if they consume a large amount of amazake.
Sakekasu (sake lees), which is sometimes used as one of ingredients of amazake, includes about eight percent alcohol according to "the standard tables of food composition in Japan."
For this reason, although amazake is not an alcoholic beverage, is often treated in a similar manner to sake, which is an alcoholic beverage, and the serving of amazake is of avoided when drivers or children are present.
Under the macrobiotic diet, amazake is often used as a sweetener instead of sugar, and the demand for amazake is increasing in overseas markets.
In some parts of the Sanin region, amazake is also called as amagayu.
Amazake is produced according to one of the following methods.
Orthodox production method (using Aspergillus oryzae and rice)
In a similar manner to the production of sake, Aspergillus oryzae is mixed into rice porridge or rice cooked to contain a large amount of moisture, and the mixture is kept overnight (ten to twelve hours) at a temperature of 50-60°C in order to cause the mixture to ferment, thus saccharifying the starch contained within the mixture and creating a sweet taste. Amazake was once called as Hitoyo-zake (literally overnight rice wine) because of this production method. It is said that sake brewers, who could produce sake only in winter, produced amazake as a side job during summer.
Lactic fermentation occurs due to a small amount of lactic acid bacteria that are added during fermentation, and fermentation by Aspergillus enzymes.
If the temperature is too high, Aspergillus enzymes will not be sufficiently active, meaning that saccharification cannot occur and resulting in a less sweet amazake
Conversely, if the temperature is too low, excessive lactic acid fermentation occurs and unrelated bacteria proliferate, resulting in bad-tasting sour amazake. Although Amazake is traditionally served as-is, many of the commercially available varieties contain carbohydrates such as sugar.
Amazake with no added sugar has a natural sweetness and a slightly sour taste due to lactic acid. It is therefore highly valued for its flavor which is plainer when compared to varieties produced by the simplified production method described below, but this production method is labor-intensive. Some tea shops and small to middle scale brewers produces amazake using this production method.
Simplified production method (using sakekasu)
Sakekasu is simmered in water and sugar is added for sweetness. This production method is popular when amazake is made at home. Although sakekasu originating from sake production is typically used, kobore-ume (mirin lees) may also be added. Sakekasu needs to be ground well by using a mortar and pestle. A pinch of salt may also be added to improve the flavor.
As Okura YAMANOUE, a poet in the Nara period left a poem including the term "kasuyuzake" (literally sakekasu soup sake) in his anthology "Hinkyu-mondoka", it can be considered that amazake was already made from sakekasu at that time.
Commercially Available Amazake
Although amazake is typically sold in plastic packs, some varieties are sold in cans. In winter, amazake is often available at vending machines. While most of the amazake sold in plastic packs is produced by the first production method, those sold in cans are often produced by the second production method. While those sold in cans are straight, those sold in plastic packs are sometimes concentrated. It is said that Amazake sold in cans produced by Morinaga confectionary is produced by a method in which the first and second production methods are combined.
According to the second production method, space for fermentation, which is required in the case of the first method, is not needed, resulting in much simper (or much more economical) production facilities than those of the first production method. Furthermore, in addition to the suitability to mass-production, the second method also has the advantage of much cheaper ingredient costs because sakekasu is a by-product of sake production.
Modern people are accustomed to sugar, and may find amazake produced by the first production method too bland due to its sour taste, so it could be considered that the second production method in which it is easy to add strong sweetness is preferable.
As described in the overview, amazake is now drunk in winter. Hot amazake with ginger juice added is often drunk to warm the body (to prevent colds). Amazake added with ginger juice is also sold in cans.