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7 Facts about Yamahai Sake for the Sake-Holic

Tom Inoue

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Yamahai’ is a buzzword among sake fanatics, yet it remains elusive to those who have just started discovering sake.

The reason is simple: it’s a very rare type of sake and has a strong flavor that people either love or dislike.

But whether you like it or not, being knowledgeable about yamahai will instantly make you look like a sake connoisseur. And who wouldn’t like that?

Yamahai’: A type of sake and production method

The term ‘yamahai’ can refer to either a type of sake or a method used in sake making.

In terms of sake making, there are three methods currently used—regular, yamahai, and kimoto method.

yamahai and kimoto classification

Yamahai is rare

Yamahai and kimoto methods account for only a minority in the production volume, with only 9% and 1% respectively.

yamahai and kimoto volume

This is due to the time and effort needed to make sake (more than 1.5 times that of regular sake), and also they require more expertise to practice. As a result, only a few breweries in Japan use these methods.

It has a rich and strong taste

Yamahai and kimoto generally has a deep, earthy flavor of yoghurt or mushroom, with a strong acidity. Kimoto has the same profile.

Popular yamahai brand includes Tengumai and Kikuhime, and Hiraizumi.

Kikuhime yamahai

Image Credit:http://www.kikuhime.co.jp

Hiraizumi yamahai

Image Credit:http://item.rakuten.co.jp/akitatokusan

Tengumai yamahai

Image Credit:http://www.sasas.jp/

However, it’s a polarizing drink—some love it, some don’t. And largely speaking, sake beginners tend to prefer non-yamahai types because of its strong earthy flavor.

Corresponding to such fact, some sake breweries have started making fresher and clearer yamahai sake. Yukawa brewery’s Kuroemon, Hokuan Daikoku’s Iyari are good examples. They don’t has strong, earthy flavor. Rather, they are very mild and fruity.

Kuroemon yamahai



Image Credit:https://www.google.co.jp

So at least try some of them before deciding whether you’re a fan or not.

It goes well with rich, heavy food

yamahai and food pairing

Food rich in fat, sugar, starch, and thick sauces are best paired with yamahai or kimoto sake. Dishes like bouillabaisse, beefsteak, roast pork, and Japanese sukiyaki are recommended.

Check the richness and acidity of your yamahai sake. Pair it with food that has similar flavors.

Yamahai and kimoto are similar

Yamahai and kimoto share similarities in flavor and in the production process.

We’ve already mentioned the three types of sake-making methods. Kimoto is the oldest, and the regular method (officially called ‘Sokujo-moto’) is the most common and modern. Yamahai is an improved version of kimoto.
Let’s take a look at them in depth.

Similarities between yamahai and kimoto

The differences between kimoto, yamahai, and the regular method reside in the yeast-starter making process.

In the regular method, lactic acid and yeast is added to a mixture of rice, koji, and water at the beginning, to make a fermentation starter. In kimoto and yamahai, on the other hand, naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria from the environment (I.e. brewery building) is added spontaneously to the rice mixture, followed by the yeast. That’s why it is sometimes said that both yamahai and kimoto types represent the flavor of the brewery.

Also, while the regular method takes only 2 weeks, kimoto and yamahai methods go through approximately a month to create the yeast starter. This length of time allows lactic acid bacteria to develop slowly, making it possible for bacteria and even wild yeast to grow. This is why kimoto and yamahai have a richer taste.

Regular method

yamahai and kimoto method

Difference between yamahai and kimoto

The diagram below shows that kimoto and yamahai are very similar in terms of process and production time. The only difference is the mashing step is omitted in yamahai. This omission makes little difference in the flavor between the two, according to the National Research Institute of Brewing in 1909.

yamahai and kimoto method

However, the regular rice of yamahai and mashed rice of kimoto provide different environments to the yeasts. This could be an important variable that affects flavor.

Mashing step in kimoto method
kimoto mashing process

Image Credit: http://www.kansai.meti.go.jp/

By mashing the mixture in the kimoto method, the mixture becomes easier for rice to be processed by koji fungi to make sugar from starch. This process takes several hours and several times in a day, which is very costly and time-consuming. On the other hand, yamahai simply uses the power of koji mold to dissolve the rice and create a homogenous mixture.

Yamahai in Japanese is “山 廃”

If you haven’t tried it before, I recommend trying a cup of yamahai in Izakayas or Japanese restaurants.

Want an entire bottle? Sake shops have what you’re looking for. There are various kinds and brands of yamahai to choose from.

If you prefer to look for one yourself, try to find these characters on the label:

Yamahai Labels
yamahai Labels
yamahai Labels

Kimoto Label
yamahai Labels
yamahai Labels

It’s not the same classification with ginjo or junmai

The different categorization of sake may be confusing, and people often find themselves putting yamahai and kimoto in the same box as Ginjo or Junmai.

They are actually independent of each other, and can be put together in one product. Here are the different types of sake based on key differentiating factors:

different types of sake

Read more about “ginjo and daiginjo” and “junmai and honjozo” types here: “What is Premium Japanese Sake”

Yamahai and kimoto account for only a small portion of the market and may be hard to find. If you find it, I recommend you to try it. Don’t miss out on this rare yet unforgettable drink.

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