There are positives to cold, snowy weather. Cute down jackets and ear muffs, making snow angels and snowmen and of course, eating ice cream in the hot tub.
In the sake world, cold, snowy weather also means that you have a natural environment suitable for creating certain types of sake. By utilizing the low temperatures, brewers were able to control fermentation so that bad stuff didn’t happen. As a result, they became famous for their tasty sake that didn’t have bacterial contamination and spoilage. These things are not good for sake, in case that wasn’t clear.
In warm climates on the other hand, brewing techniques developed that allowed for clean fermentation despite the challenges that a hotter environment bring. Using warmer temperatures for shorter amounts of time when making the yeast starter created less risk and a cleaner sake.
Many regions within Japan are fondly known as “Yuki Guni”, which translates to Snow Country. These are places where there are lots of snow (duh), usually the warm, fluffy kind, and the locals have adapted to this landscape. In the case of Akita, where Taiheizan is located, many local breweries have taken this backdrop and welcomed it with open arms. Akita style Kimoto sakes were born out of this climate.
A traditional style that developed in the 1600s, Kimoto sakes are made with a yeast starter that don’t have lactic acid added. With most modern sakes, lactic acid is mixed into the starter and the pH drops, which is a safe environment to add sake yeast. Other weird stuff doesn’t get into the mix, making sure that the rest of the fermentation goes smoothly. Before brewers realized all of this and lactic acid was a thing of mystic powers, lactic bacteria in the air had to create lactic acid naturally in the yeast starter. This takes time and in unlucky instances, stuff happened in the mash that messed things up.
Cold snowy weather to the rescue! In places like Akita where the winters are pretty solidly cold, low temperatures keeps a lot of the wild bacterias and yeasts in check, even for Kimoto sakes. The result in a clean fermentation and you get sake. Ta-da.
Akita style Kimoto is also a little different from other Kimoto methods and Taiheizan Brewery was instrumental in spreading these techniques. Kodama san, the brewery president, as well as the Akita Prefectural Sake Association president, tells me proudly that his forefathers taught many brewers in his region.
A key difference in Akita style Kimoto is that while Kimoto yeast starters often used smaller wooden vats called hangiri to physically mash the rice with wooden poles, Akita style puts everything into one place. Because all the ingredients are in the tank at once, the rice soaks up all the water, making the mash very hard. No wooden pole is going to be able to get through it so electric “drills” are used instead.
Kimoto also uses less water because wild organisms love water so limiting the amount makes it safer and cleaner. But this again means a harder consistency…tough times for brewers!
So what do these taste like? Kimoto sakes can be clean as a whistle, aromatic and pretty or downright funky. It all depends on what the brewery is trying to do with this method. It’s not the how but the intention that dictates what we get as a final result.
So next time you pick up a bottle of Kimoto sake, make sure you take the time to think about how much work and effort went into the bottle. Or better yet, just drink it and have a good time.