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Kimoto and yamahai: What kinds of sake are these?


If you have looked at the label of a bottle on which yamahai shikomi was written and thought that it looked like good sake, then you must be something of a connoisseur. Since yamahai is an old, labor-intensive method of making sake, there are relatively few examples of this type of sake on the market.


A term related to yamahai is kimoto. The kimoto method is somewhat different from yamahai, but both methods involve a significant amount of manual work, and are used relatively rarely nowadays. Both methods will be introduced below, starting with the kimoto technique.


The ingredients of sake are rice, kōji (a mold culture that converts starch to sugar), and water. In addition, to actually make sake, yeast (kōbo) is added. The yeast converts the sugar to alcohol, and thus sake is produced.


The Japanese term for the yeast starter added to the rice, kōji, and water is shubo. It is also called moto. To produce sake, the yeast in the shubo must be vastly augmented.


However, there are many other bacteria present as well as the yeast. It is necessary to follow a procedure to ensure that only the yeast is propagated. Lactic acid is used for this purpose. The various bacteria in the atmosphere are prevented from getting a foothold by the presence of lactic acid.


Normally, lactic acid is added directly to the shubo. This way, the yeast culture can be rapidly propagated. This fermentation method is known as sokujō (literally “quick fermentation”).


However, another approach is to make use of lactic acid bacteria naturally present in the brewery instead of adding them from an external source, and wait for these bacteria to propagate naturally. By using the naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria, other types of bacteria and wild yeasts can be prevented from propagating themselves. It’s a sophisticated and pure culture technique that propagates lactic acid bacteria in the presence of unwanted bacteria.


This is the kimoto method. Because the lactic acid bacteria are propagated naturally from existing bacteria, this method takes more than twice as long as the sokujō method.


Moreover, to propagate the lactic acid bacteria suited to sake making, the harsh cold temperatures of winter are needed. The work is done in icy cold conditions with wooden poles being used to mash the mixture of steamed rice, kōji, and water into a porridge. Making the work even more arduous is the fact that it is done right through the night.


In this way, a suitable environment for the lactic acid bacteria to propagate naturally is prepared. This procedure involving the mashing of the steamed rice, kōji, and water is called yama-oroshi.


It was mentioned above that yeast (kōbo) is necessary for the sake brewing process. In the kimoto method, the yeast must go on multiplying in the presence of unwanted bacteria and lactic acid bacteria. For this reason, only a vigorous strain of yeast is selected.


Normally, in such circumstances, as the concentration of alcohol increases, the yeast would die out. However, with the kimoto method, the yeast survives even in the presence of a high level of alcohol, and continues to produce alcohol. The result is a dry sake with no roughness of taste.


The kimoto method can be regarded as the most traditional and natural sake brewing method. However, because the kimoto method is so physically demanding and labor intensive, research was undertaken to try to find a way to reduce the effort required. The yamahai method was developed as a result of this research.


The word “yamahai” is an abbreviation of “yama-oroshi haishi kimoto” (meaning “modified kimoto method in which the yama-oroshi stage is omitted”). In other words, yamahai is based on the kimoto method, but with the labor-intensive yama-oroshi mashing stage omitted. By eliminating the heavy work of mashing the steamed rice, kōji, and water in icy conditions, sake could now be produced more efficiently.


However, it was not quite as simple as removing one step from the kimoto method. The yamahai method also involves various detailed changes to the procedures of the kimoto method.


Even with the elimination of yama-oroshi, the time and labor involved in producing sake was still considerably greater when compared to the sokujō method that is generally used nowadays. The yeast selected to suit the yamahai method gives the final product a deeper and richer flavor. This is what to expect of yamahai sake you see on the store shelf.

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