Topic of the Week 12/11/17 - Masters

Shout out to and for some great information on the California wine scene shifting in the 1990s. Take a look at the discussion here if you missed it!

This week: Sake

What is yamahai sake and how does it differ from other brewing methods?

  • When we talk to yamahai, we are speaking about one of the various methods of starting the ferment in sake. The point when starches are the process begins to converted to sugar and sugars are converted to alcohol.

    Yamahai comes from the terms yama-oroshi and hai-shi (combined and shorted to yamahai), which mean end of the rough part, signaling a pass of a more difficult difficult way of processing sake. This past method, now called Kimoto, involved pounding the sake rice with poles to mix the rice and koji into the moto (basically the mash that will start fermenting). It was discovered that a little extra water and heat would accomplish this, so yamahai was born. A more modern technique ( sukojo) has been developed, and is the most widely used.

    So what is the difference in taste? The problem with yamahai is that its slow to ferment, even more so than kimoto. Like with wine, a slow ferment can be dangerous. Without a healthy yeast strain, and the elevated temperatures, various other bacteria and yeasts can enter the moto, leaving strange flavors. Sanitation is key here (except when it isn't- like a bretty wine that is delicious). Flavors of cured meat and wild game are typical in yamahai sakes, though the intensity of these flavors will vary from brewery to brewery. Kimoto will be similar in that it has strong flavors, but it typically is more on the earthier side than the meaty side you get with Yamahai. Both are usually used in Junmai sake (due to the strong flavors that would overwhelm delicate flavors of higher grades), but some breweries will use these methods in their Junmai Gingo and Daigingo offerings. In perfect conditions, the starter method, whether it may be Kimoto, Yamahai or Sukojo may have much less influence on the final product than any other decision a brewer would make (rice variety, polish ratio, yeast strain, filtration method, pasteurization,  etc...).

    Some good examples:
    Horoyoi Nama Junmai Ginjo by Naba in Akita
    Mizuho Yamahai Junmai by Kenbishi in Hyogo
    Tengumai Jikomi Yamahai Junmai by Shata in Ishikawa

  • Some quick notes on structure and at the table re: Yamahais:

    Yamahai tends to be higher in acidity than other styles of sake - even kimoto.  And while the total level of acidity in sake is a fraction of that in wine, the difference is still notable.  Secondly they tend to be much fuller-bodied whether junmai or honjozo.

    Pairing-wise yamahai works best with dishes with richer sauces or higher fat contents, and most especially those that focus on rich earthy flavors - a perfect sake for a butter-covered lobster, king crab - or lightly gamey dishes like pork belly.

  • If you haven't already, definitely take a look at the Sake Expanded Guide, definitely a plethora of great information there about yamahai sake and beyond.

    I've seen it used for a range of things, from uni, caviar, and fermented crab, to rice and white truffles. There's another degree of umami and savory tones that really spring from yamahai style sakes, and this is interpreted and used in a number of ways depending on the producer.