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A Love Letter to Doburoku: The History and Magic of Farmer's Sake

Niwa no Uguisu doburoku bottle
Image credit: https://www.taishokenusa.com

Once featured in Sunflower's Instagram stories as the perfect accompaniment to a delicious, spicy Indian dinner, I special ordered this sake from Los Angeles because I absolutely loved it and had to share. I’ve had a small but intense relationship with doburoku in the last 3 years; it’s one of my deepest beverage infatuations, but so hard to find in the US.

While I’m going to refer to doburoku as sake in this article, it’s worth pointing out that legally, in Japan, doburoku is not sake. Japanese sake (aka nihonshu) by definition has to be filtered and doburoku is pretty much unfiltered. It can be pureed, chunky, effervescent, still, and even can pass through a coarse filter…but at the end of the day, it’s not fully filtered, and therefore not legally sake. And if you're wondering how doburoku differs from cloudy nigori sake, nigori is filtered enough to qualify legally as sake. Thick nigori typically has rice solids (sake kasu) added back in after filtration. 

Still, doburoku is sake if we're not considering it in legal terms. In fact it's the original sake, the mother of sake: what rice farmers have produced in their homes for millenia. It’s a simple recipe where you mix all the ingredients together at once, and it produces a tart, fruity and thick drink that has more in common with atole than daiginjo. For the same reason that grape growers have always made their own wine and apple farmers their own cider, rice farmers have always made their own sake.

Under its original name (dakushu) and by description, historical texts as far back as the Chinese text
Gishiwajinden (from The Record of the Three Kingdoms, cataloging the period 184-280AD) remark that the Japanese enjoyed rice alcohol. Since complex brewing processes and filtration evolved much later, it’s reasonable to assume that the earliest rice alcohol was thick and simple, much like doburoku. It’s worth noting that the Korean rice alcohol makgeolli, similarly thick and fizzy, likely evolved parallel but separately from doburoku. Makgeolli utilizes a different fermentation culture (nuruk) and a distinct process that evolved more directly from beer. Another point which supports this conclusion is the fact that rice cultivation arrived in Japan in 3500 BC versus Korea in 2000 BC, meaning the Japanese (likely) made rice booze long before the Koreans.

The Takada Doburoku Incident, where barrels of doburoku were destroyed by police in Niigata during its ban.If you google doburoku, you’re bound to find sensationalized articles about how it’s “illegal bootleg sake” and “hooch,” but this doesn’t give doburoku its deserved respect. While simple farmer’s liquor has been a mainstay for millenia, it’s only from the Meiji period (1868+) to the 1990s that doburoku was illegal to brew. Doburoku was illegal during this period is because it was associated with home brewing, and as sake was the primary source of tax revenue for Meiji-era government, there was a powerful economic incentive to ban its production. In the 1990s, long after nigorizake was legalized (1966), the national tax agency reworked sake classifications and introduced special doburoku licenses for religious events and small-batch village production. Most of these licenses are now associated with Shinto shrines, Ryokan (inns), and aspiring sake producers who can’t secure a (nearly impossible to get) sake brewing license. Niwa no Uguisu is one of a small handful of premium sake producers committed to making doburoku, and in their case, it’s pasteurized, shelf stable, and exported!– also very unique. I regret that the Japanese Tax Bureau’s efforts to preserve every last tax dollar in the 19th-20th century came at the expense of culinary heritage and culture, but I think it’s our responsibility in 2022 to champion the cause of doburoku and give it the respect and appreciation it deserves.

doburoku brewing and bottling by shinto priests in OitaImage credit: Ishimatsu
 Takeo, www.oitasan.com

So how is doburoku made? As I touched on before, doburoku is a relatively simple process because it involves mixing all of the ingredients together at once, fermenting for around 10 days, then bottling the finished product. In contrast, a sake brewer must meticulously prepare an acid starter, yeast starter, 3-stage addition, fermentation and temperature monitoring, pressing and filtration, dilution…etc., taking a minimum of ~40 days and extraordinary technical expertise. After the 10 day doburoku fermentation has completed, the brew can be manipulated by coarsely filtering the mash, pasteurizing or pureeing, but most often it is packaged raw from the tank, without manipulation.

When doburoku is produced at home, at an inn, or in small batches by local breweries, it’s going to be super-fresh, effervescent, unpasteurized and extremely unique: a celebration of the new rice harvest and the start of the brewing season. This kind of small batch doburoku is a hyper-regional product that is too unstable to export and best enjoyed in late Fall through Winter. It’s an essential part of kyōdō-ryōri, Japanese country cooking, and has been served both at rustic neighborhood tables and elaborate tasting menus since its legalization in 2002. While this style is almost impossible to find in the US, there are examples popping up in America’s teeny tiny craft sake breweries. Nova Brewing in Los Angeles, for example, makes a really delicious one year-round that always sells out.

Doburoku also has a strong relationship with religious rites due to its association with the rice harvest. Shinto shrines traditionally produce doburoku for ceremonies and festivals, and enlist local volunteers to assist with the brewing. These volunteers, typically old grannies and grandpas, bottle the finished product in a grab-bag of random plastic liter containers cleaned and collected over the year. As part of Shinto tradition some regions host Doburoku Festivals, a form of harvest festival where priests (and volunteers) make and offer Doburoku together with harvested rice to the Shinto gods, praying for good harvests the following year. By obtaining permission and acting within approved parameters, attendees and volunteers can escape from being punished under the Liquor Tax Act. The parameters typically restrict consuming/brewing to within the grounds of a shrine, or within special doburoku zones: designated regional spaces where doburoku consumption serves a government-approved purpose. Shirakawa Village in Gifu prefecture, a UNESCO world heritage site, is known for their doburoku festival (Doburoku Matsuri) and in fact enlisted Miwa Shuzo (whose nigori we stock in the shop!) to produce doburoku for the festival. 

Doburoku Matsuri festival: a procession of people dressed in traditional garb and carrying flags walk through the UNESCO world heritage site with beautiful mountains in the background


From the ever-fascinating Japanese Wiki Corpus:


For regional development, designated structural reform districts were established by the government's structural reform in 2002. The production and sale of Doburoku is allowed solely for consumption in the designated districts and locales, such as restaurants and minsyuku (private home that operates as an inn) within the districts (commonly called a “special zone of Doburoku”).
The regions designated as special zones of Doburoku are divided into two types: regions where Doburoku is produced mainly for use at festivals and other events, and regions (ex. Ide Town, Yamagata Prefecture, where Doburoku is consumed in specific locations. In either case, the biggest goal is to develop regions.

Niwa no Uguisu brewery-- an old, wooden, traditional tasting room with beautiful modern bottles. from Madamesake.fr

In the case of Niwa no Uguisu which is located in Fukuoka prefecture, there is no local Doburoku Festival. Instead, the brewery holds both a sake license and a doburoku license, and so is permitted to produce both. Because production is so small, and likely designed for regional enjoyment, there are very few resources available to tell the story of this particular product! What we do know is that long ago, the family was engaged in silk brocade and kimono manufacturing, and in the 5th generation of ownership switched to sake making exclusively. The brewery is now on its 11th generation of ownership and the owner is committed to hiring local employees as well as utilizing local ingredients. The Junmai Ginjo and Daiginjo are exceptional and the Umeshu is one of a kind, having won several awards. I hesitate to be sure, but this might also be the only doburoku of its kind exported to the US. And since I special ordered it for Sunflower, this is the only doburoku in Oregon for sure.

Although we have passed the traditional period for doburoku festivals (October, at the time of rice harvest), Niwa no Uguisu’s doburoku is pasteurized and shelf stable, fresh and delicious for about a year from release. 

Tasting Notes for Niwa no Uguisu Doburoku

Niwa no Uguisu contains only 6% alcohol by volume, making it very(!) easy to drink and well suited to a sunny afternoon. It’s delightfully thick and has a nice fruity sweetness. Doburoku is not meant to be an especially complex beverage, but what it really offers is a pleasant array of soft fruit flavors: peach, melon, kiwi, a bit of tart grapefruit, and soft fresh mochi. If you’re a fan of Calpis, Yakult, white Ramune, or even drinkable kefir, you’ll probably be a huge fan of this doburoku. Even though the texture is thick and it leaves a residue you may not be used to, I think it drinks so elegantly from glass and recommend serving chilled in a wine glass or thin-walled glass cup or ochoko, such as kiriko.

Pairing

For sweet pairings, enjoy doburoku with mildly sweet desserts such as fresh fruit, chestnut pastries (ex. mont blanc), matcha cakes, or Berlu’s fantastic Vietnamese pastries. Seek inspiration not just in Japan’s desserts, but also Southeast Asian, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian desserts. Sweet steamed saffron and raisin cakes would be fantastic!

If you’re in the mood to go experimental, open a bottle with a beautiful spread of homemade spicy and herbal Indian food, and let the cooling milky rice extinguish the heat. Its similarity to makgeolli suggests that this doburoku would also pair well with Korean cuisine, especially against the tang and heat of a good kimchi, as well as an assortment of chili-marinated and fermented funky banchan. On the same principal this would work extremely well with a Szechuan hot pot to give your taste buds a bit of chili respite!

A melty ham and cheese breaded and fried cutlet with a nice cool glass of doburoku, which acts like a tangy sauce on the palate.
From Sake Times: Marie Chiba's Doburoku with Blue Cheese-Ham Cutlet

For a now-famous combination from Tokyo sake bar GEM by Moto, pair doburoku with blue cheese, especially ham and blue cheese croquettes. The proprietor Marie Chiba (once a chemical engineer) encourages guests to “mouth mix”-- that is, take a bite of the croquette and a sip of the doburoku before chewing them together. It’s a startling and incredibly powerful combination of flavors that brings out the best in both sides.

In my research, I also came across a number of casual and complex cocktails using doburoku: mix 1:1 with sparkling water or Ramune, float with mango nectar, add a small amount of okinawan brown sugar, or even an unexpected recommendation from the brewery itself to mix to taste with a light belgian, pilsner or Japanese lager (start with 1:1, and add more beer if you prefer it drier)!