Welcome back to what feels like a sake science class!
Last time we took a look at the historic, and enduring, kimoto sake production process. This article will go into some depth on yamahai, the ‘kissin’ cousin’ of kimoto, as termed by sake legend John Gauntner.
And, of course, he’s not wrong. Pretty much everything in the production of yamahai is the same as that of kimoto, so let’s take a walk on the wild side to find out more.
The shared goal of kimoto and yamahai is to naturally harness the cleansing functionality of lactic acid so that the sake yeast population can safely explode and turn the sugar into alcohol.
The ingredients purchased by the brewery to achieve this are the same for both processes, namely steamed rice, and koji (rice propagated with koji spores). Along with these items are the pure waters of Japan and the millions, billions I suppose, of lactic acid bacteria that come free of charge courtesy of Mother Nature, that will accumulate in the moto and rid it of any unwanted microbial presence.
As if in response to the fatigued moans and groans of the sleep deprived brewery workers, their muscles aching from too much kimoto pole-ramming, a certain Mr. Kinichiro Kagi, arrived on the scene a little over a century ago.
A sake geek of the time, in 1909 he figured out that by adding a little more water, at a slightly warmer temperature, the whole physical chore of pole-ramming could be dispensed with and yamahai, (an abbreviated combination of yama-oroshi (pole-ramming) and haishi suru (to cease)) was born, and the oar like poles were relegated to the brewery store room to gather dust.
Unbeknown at the time to Kinichiro-san, the yamahai phenomenon wouldn’t have anywhere near the lifespan of kimoto. It would soon be discovered that by simply adding a bit of pure lactic acid into the moto, rather than relying on managing the unpredictable and volatile army of friendly but wild lactic bacteria, the whole yeast starter process would be simplified even further. And in 1911, this is just what brewers started doing. It also halved the time needed to make moto, saving costs and increasing productivity.
Yamahai’s reign of just two years would, you might imagine, easily have been lost in the brewing annals as a passing trend but it remains a respected category within the current sake industry. Why is that? I can think of two valid reasons, there may be more, but it has to be in part down to the fact that something so transformational that halves the effort, and all but eliminates the significant spoilage risk in moto making, would be wholeheartedly embraced, quickly discovering the resulting sake to be really rather good, and certainly different enough from kimoto to keep both production methods going.
The other, more romanticised point being that good things take time and effort, if it’s easy, everyone would be making it. Yamahai is an art, a skill, and worth the wait. It’s distinct, rich and embodies sake heritage and craftsmanship in each sip. Fancy aromatic modern day ginjos are a wonderful thing but there are times when it’s good to be a little grounded.
But if you’re still not convinced, there are two additional compelling reasons beyond nostalgia to drink a little (well, as much as you can) yamahai. Kimoto too, of course.
Firstly, they’re great food sakes. These two classifications can generally be drunk chilled or warmed meaning that a very broad range of foods will pair well with them.
No, admittedly we wouldn’t recommend them as plate pals for delicate sashimi but they’ll be great with the most expensive wagyu sando you can afford and, for any homesick Brits out there, warmed yamahai is perfect with Sunday roast beef. Plus, both kimoto and yamahai are made across all sake grades although many feel they tend to work best as junmai.
The idea of brewing a daiginjo, basically as refined as it gets in the sake world, using the somewhat primitive yamahai method is perhaps quite an irreverent concept. It’s a bit like having a tournedos Rossini prepared for you at the local burger joint. Yet somehow it works.
Iwanoi Shuzo in Chiba Prefecture, right by Tokyo, makes one such yamahai daiginjo, a junmai (no added alcohol), for which Robert Parker awarded 95 points. It’s made with Hyogo’s wonderful plump yamada nishiki rice, polished to 40%, and this elegance is maintained in a very clean and light sake, punctuated by some funkier, saline and earthy notes thanks to the yamahai treatment.
The second compelling reason is that, crucially, kimoto and yamahai sakes combined make up just 1% of the overall market - if we don’t drink it, we’ll shrink it. Given all the challenges in production, it would be a lot easier for brewers to put all their eggs into the ‘fast’ and relatively trouble free sokujo-moto method, but that would be a great loss.
Of the two, yamahai tends to be that little bit funkier with higher acidity and umami but levels can vary from strongly boisterous to almost undetectable. Kimoto is a little more tart and reserved than yamahai but either way is more often than not distinctive versus most ‘fast’ moto sakes.
If you’re looking to calibrate your palate then our recommendation for a true taste of yamahai would have to be Okura Shuzo’s tokubetsu (‘special’) junmai yamahai. What makes it special? Normally a lower than required polishing rate is behind the tokubetsu grade but here it’s down to the 100% omachi rice that’s milled to 70%.
This is a gamey sake, you get meat broth savoury flavours, it’s a dry manly drink, rich in umami and hearty all the way through. A great partner to cheese, better still our very own Cheese Sando actually, made with Italy’s wonderfully melty asiago cheese.
But don’t just take our word for it! Ask any of our Staff which sakes they would recommend for your dining plans and first forays into these fascinating classifications and just see what all the fuss is about!
Will Jarvis is based in Hong Kong and the author behind Sake Matters, focusing on the Japanese beverage and surrounding culture. Will has previously worked for a variety of international food businesses around the world, is a trained chef and certified Sake scholar.