Doburoku, the last home-brewed sake?


What is Doburoku?


Regarded as the simplest form of alcohol to be made from rice, Doburoku is a sake that did not undergo filtering or pressing after fermentation. Therefore, it is different from your average cloudy "nigori" sake because cloudy sake usually has the sake lees part filtered out. Although nigori is often described as "unfiltered," this isn't strictly true since Japanese law stipulates that all sake must be filtered. Clear sake gets that way by pressing the mash through a cloth sieve. Nigori follows all the same processes but is simply passed through a more porous cloth. This allows bits of rice solids to remain in the liquid, giving nigori both its appearance and name.


Doburoku has a lower alcohol content than other sake. This is because in the normal sake brewing process, the main ingredients – steamed rice, koji, and water – are not added to the shubo (yeast starter, also known as moto) all at once but in batches over several days. This gradual process, taking place in a controlled temperature environment, keeps the yeast producing alcohol alive throughout the entire process. The brewer can therefore decide when to stop the fermentation.


Making doburoku, however, requires adding everything in one go. Thus, the yeast in the shubo doesn't have time to multiply as much as it would in a regular batch. As a result, the yeast becomes overworked by the sheer volume of sugar created. It eventually dies out, which stops the fermentation process at a much earlier stage of brewing. The result is a sweeter drink with lower alcohol content.


Doburoku is relatively easy to produce; in the past, it was brewed everywhere, from the family household to the farmer's house. However, the introduction of liquor taxation laws in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) saw the home-brewing of alcohol outlawed. It is thought that these laws were intended as a safeguard to make future tax increases more tolerable for a brewing industry that was struggling to shoulder the burden of all the significant tax increases implemented during the First Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars.


Fast forward to the present, the home-brewing of Doburoku is, in most cases, still illegal.





The Last Home-Brewed Sake?


In 1984, Maeda Toshihiko, a Japanese activist, had a history of campaigning to liberalise home-brewing and, in 1981, had announced a new literary work entitled: 'Let's make Doburoku' which was taken to court on suspicion of breaking the liquor tax laws.


Although he didn't quite achieve the liberalisation of Doburoku brewing, his argument was that: "the production of Doburoku is a part of food culture and is a right to pursue happiness, a basic right protected by the constitution". His assertion that liquor tax laws only favoured the bigger breweries with the facilities to brew in quantity was undoubtedly instrumental in liberalising one aspect of sake brewing: In 1994, a declaration was made to scrap the tax laws that were branded as behind the times and bad for business. As a result, we are now in an age of more liberal brewing.


Doburoku is rarely brewed in Japan nowadays, seeing as it's technically banned without a specialised license. Most of these licenses are granted to Shinto shrines and some Japanese inns and restaurants that make it from their own rice. These brewing venues are designated as "special wards" for small-batch (less than 6,000 litres a year) production. Rice farmer Shinichi Kobori, for example, produces his own doburoku, which he serves at Makoto-ya, his sushi restaurant in Katori, Chiba. And at Nihonshu Hotaru in Tokyo's Kanda neighbourhood, Tomiomi Miyai brews and serves his own doburoku by the glass. These purveyors are rare exceptions on Japan's sake scene and well worth a look for visiting enthusiasts.


But, for us who are outside of Japan, there's good news: if home-brewing is legal where you live, no one's stopping you from trying your hand at it. You can find a lot of detailed recipe instructions online! If you ever make some, please let us know; we'd love to see how it's coming along and perhaps even try it!


The only ingredients you’ll need are white Japanese rice or Japanese sweet rice, rice koji, some active dry yeast and filtered water or bottled water; in the case of bottled water, make sure to pick the softest water possible. 


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