While drinking too much sake will leave you feeling ill, amazake – more or less the alcohol-free base for sake – is revered for its grab bag of health benefits, such as better digestion, increased energy and stress reduction.
This ‘super drink,’ as it’s affectionately called, purportedly contains so many qualities that people seek in drinks like kombucha, but most people outside Japan haven’t even heard of it let alone consumed it. That’s because due to its short shelf life, it’s rarely exported.
Crafted by sake breweries, koji amazake contains only three ingredients: cooked rice, koji (a mold used in other Japanese fermented foods such as soy sauce and miso) and water.
In the regular sake brewing process, rice is fermented with koji, then the mixture is combined with yeast and steamed rice to start alcoholic fermentation. Amazake only goes through the first fermentation and the result is a thick, rather sweet beverage, akin to a luscious coconut milk. It can be served hot or cold, pureed for a richer texture, or thinned out with additional water.
Mentions of this fermented drink can be found in texts dating back to 720. According to Shoko Baba of Hakkaisan Brewery, amazake was traditionally brewed in the summer; as sake production takes place in the fall and winter, breweries used this downtime to create a simple beverage to sell in the slower months.
During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), the government deemed it an essential source of energy and controlled the price so it was affordable for the majority of the population. There is another version of amazake produced during the sake brewing season, made with sake lees (residual yeast), rice and water, but this contains a bit of alcohol and added sugar for flavor – consider it the Bud Light of sake.
Nowadays, koji amazake is consumed year round, largely by people trying to take advantage of its purported benefits. Japanese women consume amazake as part of their beauty regimen – complex B vitamins and amino acids nourish hair and nails, and its antioxidant properties contribute to smoother skin. For the dairy-averse, amazake provides many of the same probiotic benefits as yogurt, and reportedly contributes to overall better digestive health.
Glucose, a source of energy, is a key compound in the beverage; Baba recommends consuming it in the morning, and athletes regularly quaff the drink pre- and post- workout. Vitamin B5 reduces stress and some claim aids in weight loss.
For many, consumption of amazake brings their day full circle. Amazake’s other nickname is “drinkable IV drip fluid,” and after a long night drinking sake at an izakaya in Tokyo, amazake may be the best hangover cure out there.