Organic, biodynamic, slow, and natural – these are buzzwords that are often used when talking about farming or wine. But how do we talk about these methods in sake-making? I've always considered kimoto and yamahai sakes to embody these characteristics. Capturing the power of living microorganisms, kimotos and yamahais are arduous, unpredictable, and old-world – a true labor of love.
Currently only about 1% of sakes produced are kimotos and yamahais. In the early 1900s, kimoto and yamahai methods were replaced by a simple brewing method called sokujo. Instead of taking advantage of naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria in the brewery (the kimoto and yamahai method), the sokujo method allows brewers to add industrial lactic acid to the starter mash – thus saving at least two weeks in sake-making time. The sokujo method is also easier to control as the industrial lactic acid is more stable and predictable.
In the kimoto and yamahai methods, temperature control is key, as high temperatures may result in unwanted bacteria, while low temperatures may inhibit the growth of lactic acid. It is a delicate balance that must be controlled every hour of the day. The result, however, pays off in depth of flavor and aroma, thanks to a very wild and healthy yeast mash. Kimoto and yamahais capture an earthy complexity that no sokujo can.
The difference between kimotos and yamahais is that kimotos use a technique called "pole-mashing." This is where the brewers mix the mash with large wooden poles. The yamahai method skips this step and the ferment is left to its own devices with less intervention, so it’s sometimes considered even more wild than kimoto.
The kimoto pole-mashing method at Izumibashi Shuzo in Kanagawa.
The handful of breweries that still make kimoto and yamahais are staunch believers in keeping the tradition alive. Niida Honke is inspired by old traditions, and made a commitment in 1967 to return to its origins by using only organic rice, natural water, and wild microorganisms. Daishichi Brewery, considered the grandfather of kimoto brewing, did try their hand at sokujo, but came to the conclusion that they could not brew the sake they wanted. The richness in taste could not be achieved using the sokujo method.
Earthy, umami, nutty, are words that come to mind when describing kimotos and yamahais. But I also love them because they can be unexpected and interesting, cup after cup. And they are also great food sakes, as their heightened acidity can stand up to heavier foods like cheese and meat – perfect as we cozy up during the winter.
As you may know by now, kimotos and yamahais are my favorite sake category and we don't hide it on our shelves at Umami Mart, where they are well-represented! Next time you are here, ask us for a recommendation.
Yoko, Co-Founder of Umami Mart and Kikizakeshi
We can not celebrate kimoto without including a bottle from kimoto-heavyweights Daishichi Brewery. Leave it to Daishichi, who exclusively make kimotos to make a delicate, refreshing version that can be enjoyed chilled or slightly warmed. This dry sake boasts a range of flavors including pear, white pepper, vanilla, chestnuts, and mushrooms. Enjoy it chilled as an aperitif or warm it up and have alongside steamed crab, or spaghetti carbonara!
Kurabito (brewers) at Daishichi Brewery using the pole-mashing method to make their kimotos.
Kayoko and I can't wait until we can travel to Japan again and visit Daishichi Brewery's estate in Fukushima, reminiscent of the Shining!
Junmai Kimoto 2 Year Aged “Black Dragonfly”
Izumibashi Shuzo (Kanagawa, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 65% Estate-grown Yamada Nishiki, SMV +7, Acidity 1.3
With aromas of yogurt and milk colliding with fruity flavors of lychee and pear, there’s something for everyone in this dry kimoto made with estate-grown rice. Aged for two years, this sake has a light golden hue that can be viewed in a wine glass. On first sip, the dairy notes are met with subsequent sips revealing pineapple, and finally ending with a satisfying black pepper finish. I had an aged goat cheese with this sake at room temperature, which brought out the umami. The brewer also recommends rubbing raw garlic cloves on a toasted baguette, spreading cultured butter, and finally topping with camembert and serving alongside this sake at room temperature. Or warm it up and pair with seared lamb.
Kurabito (brewers) using the pole-mashing method to make their kimoto at Izumibashi Brewery.
Estate grown rice on the Izumibashi Brewery grounds.
Tatsuriki Kimoto Tokubetsu Junmai
Honda Shoten (Hyogo, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 65% Yamada Nishiki, SMV +2, Acidity 1.7
This sake is a perfect example of why I love kimotos! With notes of sweet potato, creme brulée, and cornbread, this sturdy champagne-hued sake paired deliciously with a yakiniku meal at Fish & Bird in Berkeley. Enjoy its full spectrum of umami by pairing with cow’s milk soft cheeses, or sip by itself to get notes of earthy hay. Try at room temperature or warm it up slightly to 110°F on a cold night. This year, Honda Shoten celebrates its 101st celebrating by opening a store specializing in aged sake.
Kurabito (brewers) tend to the mash vat labeled "kimoto" at Honda Shoten.
Exterior of Honda Shoten with a bold noren that says "Tatsuriki."
Kinpou Yamahai Junmai
Niida Honke (Fukushima, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 80% Toyo Nishiki, SMV: Undisclosed
Kayoko and I had the pleasure of meeting the brewers of Niida Honke over Zoom last spring. Their mission is to create sakes naturally, using organic rice, and leaving fermenation up to naturally occurring lactic acid and yeast. This means that their sakes taste different year after year, which is an anomoly in the sake industry where makers strive to make the same exact brew every time. This sake has aromas of charred banana and tart yogurt with flavors of roasted nuts, and is best enjoyed warm in a ceramic sake cup. Try this bottle around a cozy meal of nabe or roasted chicken and vegetables.
The rustic, yet pristine interior of Niida Honke in Fukushima.
The whole team at Niida Honke.