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‘Doburoku’: Reviving a rustic sake tradition

by

Special To The Japan Times

Sachio Egawa is a Renaissance man of sorts.

A spry 68-year-old with a jokey manner and a full head of black hair, he raises his own cows, grows rice and cultivates giant yamame trout in a pond on his farm in northern Iwate Prefecture. In autumn, he forages for wild mushrooms; in winter, he goes hunting for deer and, on occasion, bears.

Egawa incorporates the fruits of his labor into thoughtfully prepared meals for the guests at his pension, Milk Inn, on the outskirts of the town of Tono.

“I want visitors to taste real kyōdō-ryōri (Japanese country cooking),” he says, explaining that the regional cuisine — which traditionally relies on home-grown crops and wild ingredients such as vegetables and berries gathered from the mountains — is an expression of Iwate’s history of self-sufficiency.

Until the early 2000s, the one thing missing from the rustic repasts at Milk Inn was doburoku — the slurry-like, unfiltered sake that had been brewed by local farmers for centuries. The practice was outlawed in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when the national government introduced liquor taxation laws and imposed strict regulations on sake production. However, 15 years ago, Egawa embarked on a quest to revive the lost art of doburoku-brewing, which he describes as “an important part of Japanese food culture.”

Working with officials in Tono, he lobbied for an exemption to the liquor licensing rules, which require that sake brewers produce a minimum of 6 kiloliters per year.

“It was hard, because there was no precedent,” Egawa says, recounting a painful two-year struggle to cut through the multiple layers of red tape.

In 2004, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi granted the city of Tono an exemption from the licensing laws, declaring the area a “special economic zone” — known as tokku in Japanese — and Egawa became the first individual to gain permission to micro-brew doburoku. But after obtaining his groundbreaking permit, he faced another obstacle: He needed to learn how to brew.

“There was no one I could ask,” he says. “Anyone making doburoku at home would have been arrested.”

Eventually, he turned to historians, who helped him craft a recipe based on ancient texts. He studied the basics of fermentation and, after six months of trial and error, he succeeded in producing a brew that matched his vision. Kaitaku is a milky white liquor with pronounced banana aromas (those who have visited a sake brewery will be reminded of the moromi, or fermentation mash) and a pleasing kick — a classic example of doboruku.

Later, Egawa added two more varieties to his line-up, which I sampled recently at his home, in a room decorated with stuffed stoats and pheasants. Kaika is a rose-tinted brew that derives its lovely pink color from a special strain of yeast and boasts lively flavors of peach and red berries. The slightly nutty Gokoku, meanwhile, contains a small amount of wild grains such as millet and amaranth, both staples in Iwate Prefecture.

On Oct. 14, Egawa will be serving his doburoku at an outdoor dinner prepared by Tokyo chef Shinya Ogino on the grounds of the Tono Mirai-zukuri College. The second in a series of “gourmet rides” highlighting sustainable agriculture in the Tohoku region, the event will follow a 55-kilometer cycling course around Tono. Egawa will be waiting to raise a glass at the finish line.

For more information on the gourmet ride and Milk Inn, visit bit.ly/2xY5bJb.