‘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 is rare
Yamahai and kimoto methods account for only a minority in the production volume, with only 9% and 1% respectively.
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.
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.
So at least try some of them before deciding whether you’re a fan or not.
It goes well with rich, heavy food
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.
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.
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
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:
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:
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.