Understanding Natural Sake – Kimoto and Yamahai

The days are shorter, the air a little lighter and my hair feels a little less frizzy. As we ease ourselves into fall and the new school season, let’s get a little sake nerdy and this theme is as nerdy as it gets…

Natural wine has been in the limelight for the last few years and it’s no longer just for hippies or hipsters. It’s a combination of a philosophy, a way of life, a way to declare our independence from the main stream. Whatever you think about natural, biodynamic, organic or sustainable wines (all very different by the way), our awakened interest in knowing where our wine comes from and how it’s made is hard to argue in its merits. It promotes responsibility to the earth and respecting the natural cycle of things.

With that being said, is there natural sake? And what makes it natural? It’s a popular conversation topic and controversial at times but there are some recurring themes to think about.

One element the naturalist sake brewers are talking about is the difference between sakes made in the sokujo starter method, versus ones made with kimoto and yamahai starter methods. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to combine these two into the same camp, as yamahai is a variation of the kimoto method.

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 (i.e. sokujo), 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, things went sideways in the mash that messed things up.

This is pretty risky as you can imagine but cold temperatures keep wild yeasts, bacteria and other microorganisms not good for sake brewing in check. This is why kimoto sakes are particularly famous in chilly places like Akita. Cold temperatures mean cleaner, more controlled fermentations, which equals clean sake.

Kimoto also utilizes less water because as wild yeasts and bacteria love water, limiting the amount makes it safer and cleaner. But this again means a harder consistency…tough times for brewers!

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So what do these sakes 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.

There are plenty of yamahai and kimoto sakes made in either style but yamahai sakes tend to be more funky, earthy and full of umami. This is because most people expect yamahai sakes to be this way. There is an expectation that brewers try to keep in mind when calling things different names so that consumers aren’t surprised when they drink the sake. These funky sakes are often aged for a year or two, so that the earthy notes come through. There’s a pretty big range of sakes in this category to try in the market so make sure you try a few.

Sakes to try:

Taiheizan Kimoto: Made by Kodama Shuzo, an Akita producer who has been championing Kimoto sakes for a long time. The “Akita Kimoto Method” was developed, nurtured and passed down by the brewers at Kodama brewery. Deep umami notes with signature kimoto acidity and complexity.

Taiheizan Kimoto

Tengumai Yamahai: Brewed in Ishikawa on the west coast of Japan, famous for its amazing seafood and kaiseki (the original tasting menu). Local Gohyakumangoku rice, brewed in the Yamahai method and aged for two years in neutral barrel. Lots of savoury, nutty notes with tons of acidity.

Tengumai Yamahai Jikomi Junmai

 

Amabuki Kimoto Omachi: A brewery in Kyushu who specializes in using flower yeasts to brew sake. This one is made with Rhododendron yeast and in the kimoto method. Very clean, lots of acidity and a gorgeous mouthfeel, which I assume the Omachi rice has a part in creating. A beautiful example of a refined, ginjo style kimoto.

天吹-純米大吟釀-雄町