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Secret recipe book found in northern Japan sparks project to brew Edo-period sake

Kaori Fuse, right, and Kosuke Kuji, president of Nanbu Bijin Co., hold the secret book written by chief brewers from the Edo period, in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, on April 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Ikuko Ando)

MORIOKA -- A project to recreate Edo-period sake is underway at a brewery in northeastern Japan, following the discovery of a book of secrets in which the area's chief brewers -- then known as "Nanbu Toji" -- wrote down their sake brewing methods.

    The sake made according to the recipe in the book uses about 40% less water than today. The liquor is expected to be ready in June, and those involved are looking forward to it, with one participant commenting, "There is a certain romance in the project, figuring out what sake from the Edo period would taste like."

    The secret book was found at the Nishiono Shoten store, which was established in 1778 in Hirono, Iwate Prefecture. The store used to be a sake brewery, and an earthen storehouse where sake was brewed from the late Edo period to the early Showa period remains there.

    Kaori Fuse, 57, whose parents own the store, guessed that a "brewer's yeast" remained in the storehouse, and in June 2019, she consulted with Kosuke Kuji, president of the brewing firm Nanbu Bijin Co. based in the Iwate Prefecture city of Ninohe, about sake brewing.

    Steamed rice is cooled by exposing it to the air without using a machine in order to make it closer to the sake of the Edo period, at Nanbu Bijin Co. in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, on April. 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Ikuko Ando)

    Fuse searched for old documents she had donated to Tohoku University in the neighboring prefecture of Miyagi in order to research the manufacturing method but couldn't find the information she needed and came close to giving up on the project. However, in November that year, she found two secret books kept at her parents' house.

    The secret recipe book includes information such as the amount of rice and water to be processed at three different times. Kuji said he remembered being surprised, saying, "I've never seen such a detailed instruction manual."

    In the brewing process at Nanbu Bijin on April 7, the Kamenoo brand of rice, which has been around for many years in the Tohoku region, was used without much polishing to bring it closer to the recipe used to produce Edo-period sake. After the steamed rice was exposed to the natural cold air, the craftsmen transferred it to a wooden bucket.

    "The taste of sake is different now from it was in the Edo period. I think it will be a unique sake that is far different from what we have today," Kuji said.

    Fuse remained enthusiastic about the brew, saying, "I want to make local sake for the local people."

    The completed sake will be sold at Nishiono Shoten and Nanbu Bijin. The idea of cultivating the same rice as in the Edo period and using it to make sake is also growing.

    (Japanese original by Ikuko Ando, Morioka Bureau)

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