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Kimoto Sake and Nama-zake

# 62

Dec. 2004

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #62
December 1, 2004
Kimoto Sake and Nama-zake

-- Kimoto Sake
-- Nama-zake
-- Good Sake to Look For
-- Sake Events/Announcements
-- Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-- Publication information

Kimoto Sake
Earlier this year, in the March edition of this newsletter, I wrote extensively about yamahai sake, or sake made with the method known as "yamahai shikomi." As readers surely recall, the long and short of yamahai is that the method entails using a special manner of preparing the yeast that often leads to a funky, gamy flavor profile that is unique. While there are of course varying degrees of this yamahai funkiness, usually it involves elevated sweetness, tartness and other well structured flavors.

Let us now look at what could be considered an older cousin of the yamahai method, kimoto.

Kimoto, in short, refers to sake made using a yeast starter (sort of a miniature batch of sake with a gazillion yeast cells in it, used as a "seed mash") made in a very labor intensive way in which the rice, koji and water are mashed into a puree for hours using exhausting techniques that involved mixing hard and "mushing" up the steamed rice grains with long poles. This helps lactic acid bacteria proliferate naturally and faster, preparing the environment for the yeast cells. It also takes more time, a month or so, rather than the two weeks needed for more common methods. More practically, kimoto methods lead to sake that is fuller, more complex and richer, and often a bit gamier as well. It can indeed be very lovely.

Waxing temporarily into the technical realm, lactic acid is necessary at the beginning to sort of sterilize the environment inside the yeast starter. It kills off undesirable bacteria and wild yeast cells. Why does the kimoto "pole ramming" help? Because the lactic bacteria that creates lactic acid (which then conveniently kills off the lactic bacteria itself) despises oxygen, and will not produce the needed lactic acid in the presence of this loathed adversary. Mashing the rice and koji in the yeast starter tank into a puree gets all the oxygen out of the nooks and crannies of the rice grains and koji, giving the lactic bacteria a comfortable space to fulfill its indispensable role in its revered if wretchedly doomed life.

Earlier I referred to kimoto as an older cousin of yamahai. I say "cousin" because yamahai, too, lets the lactic acid develop naturally in the yeast starter. Almost all sake, i.e. (almost) anything not labeled yamahai or kimoto, is made by adding a bit of pure lactic acid at the beginning, as opposed to allowing it to develop naturally. And, I say "older" cousin because kimoto is actually the original method by which all sake was made for centuries until about 1911. After kimoto came yamahai, and then the added-lactic acid method.


If you're going to talk kimoto, you might as well be talking Daishichi, as this brewery from Fukushima is one that will certainly come up. They are known across the sake world for their almost universal adoption of the kimoto method, and their wonderful sake exemplifies all the good things that kimoto can be.

When I was last up their, touring their brand-spanking-new kura, the owner, Mr. Hideharu Ota, graciously provided a ton of background information, history and culture related to kimoto.

"In the early 1900s, Kimoto was all but abandoned; there were only a few kura making it. While as of recent, we actively promote the fact that our sake is all kimoto, we didn't really revive it; we had been making sake using that method for years. Actually, you can't just start up doing a bit of kimoto anyway. There are these special micro-organisms involved. You need to get those guys living in your kura. Sometimes you hear of kura doing just one or two tanks of yamahai, but rarely do you hear that about kimoto. It calls for much more of a commitment on the part of the brewery.

"So we didn't really revive it; but what we did do was to make the first kimoto daiginjo in history. Now that is significant." With its richer, gamier overall character, the conventional wisdom would lead one to not make a daiginjo using a kimoto starter. The typical style of kimoto and the typical nature of daiginjo are at odds with each other. But Daishichi's tedious efforts have made their kimoto ginjo and daiginjo deeply complex, truly exquisite sake.

Ota-san has his strong opinions about this style. "Sake made with the kimoto method is much more stable. In the yeast starter itself, you end up with only about one-third of the number of yeast cells you would have using the more common method. But the cells that remain are there through survival of the fittest, and they are indeed much more robust."

* * *

At some point in time in the 1920s or 1930s, somebody looked at the kimoto method and thought, "You know, there's just GOT to be an easier way to do this!" While likely many thought this, the ones that developed one "easier" way were the brewers at a kura making a sake called Taiheizan in Akita prefecture. Fond of the kimoto method, but less so of the toil and trouble, through trial and error they created what amounts to a big-ass electric drill bit, a one meter long pole with little fins on it. They simply stick that puppy in the yeast starter and VROOOM! - all that rice and koji gets pureed right quick.

Actually, its not quite that rough on the yeast starter, and in fact is gentle enough to call for several applications, just as the original labor intensive pole work would. Still, it manages to help get the oxygen out of the crevices and fissures, helping the tragically heroic lactic acid to do its thing. This less common method is known as "Akita-ryu Kimoto," or "Akita style Kimoto," and is not surprisingly limited to a few kura in Akita prefecture. For those that are interested, you can see a picture of the big-ass drill bit at

* * *
In the end, kimoto sake is richer and more complex than "normal" sake. And, while it can share some of its gamier and wilder traits with yamahai, usually it is less expressive of these characteristics and more so of depth and resonance. I have recommended several sterling examples of kimoto sake later in this newsletter, and searching for and tasting these will answer any and all important questions related to what kimoto is all about.

As sake becomes more popular, the exposure to - and hopefully the understanding of - its various manifestations will grow as well. Nama-zake is one type that is both regularly found in Japan, and beginning to pop up overseas as well. What is nama sake (the s becomes a z for ease of pronunciation, hence "nama-zake"), what is its significance, and what should we all know about it?

Nama-zake is, quite simply, sake that has not been pasteurized. Almost all of the sake on the market is, notably, NOT nama-zake. That's right: most sake on the market has indeed been pasteurized. This is necessary from a practical standpoint because of the presence of a type of bacteria known as hi-ochi-kin, to which sake is particularly vulnerable. The chemical makeup and balance of sake allows this bacteria to thrive in sake, but a proper pasteurization will eliminate it.

But there is more. This bacteria alone will not do too much damage to sake as it is. It is also the presence things like of residual sugars, some originally fermentable and some not, and enzymes residually remaining from the brewing process, that make sake vulnerable to damage from such bacteria, giving it what it needs to thrive and go into a feeding frenzy that drives the flavors and aromas of the sake into bedlam. But again, a good dose of pasteurization will deactivate the enzymes, stopping all that in its tracks.

And this is not a recently introduced process, brought in as an inevitability resulting from the demands of modern times. Pasteurization has been around in sake brewing in Japan since about 1560. This is a good, long 300 years before Monsieur Pasteur brought it to the attention of the world at large.

So, almost all sake out there has been pasteurized. What has not been pasteurized is nama-zake.

Now, sometimes we hear that nama is better, fresher, livelier, and zingier. Is all this true? Well, yes and no. Yes, often nama-zake is fresher and younger and livelier. But perhaps the most important thing to convey is that nama-zake is NOT unequivocally or intrinsically better than pasteurized sake.

This is because in the opinion of many, the lively and conspicuously fragrant nature of much nama-zake masks the true nature of the sake, and all you can taste is "nama-ness," so to speak. Having said that, very often this very nama-ness is what many, many consumers find appealing. It can be very enjoyable and refreshing to be sure. This is why the above question is so difficult to answer.

Of course, not all nama-zake is thusly doomed. In truth, it is a matter of how the sake has been handled. If the unpasteurized sake has been meticulously handled, and great care is taken to store it at low enough temperatures (like 5C or so), and care was also taken to minimize exposure to oxygen during bottling, and furthermore if not too much time has passed, a lissome nature suffusing and uplifting the basic qualities of the sake will be the reward.

The big problem with nama is that it is very unstable and hard to care for. If it is not refrigerated as mentioned above, and consumed young, a number of things can happen. One, it can get too pronounced in its aromatic liveliness, drowning out all subtlety. Two, if enough time under poor storage conditions passes, it can go downright bad, getting cloudy, yeasty, and altogether undrinkable.

Pasteurization itself is not simple. It can be tricky. The most common method is to run the sake through a pipe coiled in hot water, momentarily heating it to about 60C or so. But especially for super premium sake, it is a delicate process. The temperature used and the time spent heated are vital. The trick is, like the oxymoronic good government, to do as little as possible. If too much heat is used, sugars can caramelize, leading to a burnt carbon taste. Also, too strong a pasteurization can castrate the flavor, leaving the sake as but a eunuch of its former self.

As such, lately in-bottle pasteurizations methods have become popular, machines that shower the filled bottles with heated water, gently and sparingly. These seem to be effective in stabilizing the sake but retaining alluring youth and freshness. 

Most sake is actually pasteurized twice, once before maturation, once before shipping. Variations in which sake is only treated one time include nama-chozo, nama-tzume, and others. These variations are subtle and even gimmicky at times. I have described these in depth in the May 2000 and June 2002 editions of this newsletter, archived at

Finally, note that whether or not a sake is nama-zake or pasteurized is independent of grade. You can have cheap sake or expensive daiginjo, and both can come in nama-zake as well as pasteurized manifestions; they are mutually exclusive distinctions.

* * *

Recently, I spent a couple of days with a group of journalists that had come to Japan to learn about sake, on a tour sponsored by JAL. A gentleman from a certain country that shall remain unnamed, but begins with an F and produces its fair share of wine, began to vehemently complain that I had not arranged for any nama-zake to be present at the tasting in that seminar. It took me a while to see why he was so worked up, but when I understood he was comparing this all to his knowledge of wine, I understood.

My eventual response was that it's just not that big a deal, not that significant of a distinction. There are dozens of other things I would rather convey first, like the individual flavor profiles of different rice types, the purpose and effect of more milling, yeast strains, regional distinction and more. Yes, nama is out there, but in the end the concept is less noteworthy than other things, and we only have two hours.

He ended up being quite a kind guy, sincerely and deeply interested in sake. More importantly, I won over (or rather, the sake won over) he and his two compatriots. No mean feat, and very significant. But I digress. 

This past summer I was a tasting judge for a blind tasting run by a major Tokyo sake distributor. One fellow judge was an illustrious gent from Yamagata well known all over the industry for effectively raising the overall quality of sake in that prefecture. He is decidedly outspoken, atypically so for a Japanese person. Despite his occasionally rough demeanor, he is quite nice and a ton of fun. On that fine morning, we were to taste 330 sake from seven a.m. to ten a.m. In the pre-dawn meeting before beginning, we all chatted to be sure our standards were at least somewhat aligned.

For some reason, this important "sensei," let's call him K-sensei, comes off as fairly anti-nama. I am not sure why, but I like my head firmly on its shoulders where it currently resides, and so I did not ask. In any event, he stated clearly to the guy in charge, "I'm gonna ding anything I sense is nama, that's OK with you, right? Right? Nama-zake's getting dinged, OK?"

And indeed, ding 'em he did. In the wrap up, where we discussed each sake, anything remotely aromatic in a nama-zake way had bad marks from him and a few others. (I was not so harsh.) However, I think that in reality, rather than being anti-nama, K-sensei's point was more along the lines of "If I can even smell that it's nama, then it has not been cared for correctly, and I cannot sense the true nature of what such a sake might have been." While this may be extreme, it does represent one school of thought.

In the end, all things considered, nama can be a bit more fresh and lively. While this is an enjoyable and welcome addition to many flavor profiles in the opinion of most people, it is not always so. Nama-ness can at times overpower or mask the true nature of subtle sake. The main point here is that while nama-zake can be unique and enjoyable, it is not intrinsically or unequivocally better. As it becomes more commonly available overseas, we should all pay attention to the styles and qualities encountered.

Good Sake to Look For
Taiheizan (Akita Prefecture)
When visiting this kura last month, I was surprised to find upon greeting the owner and his wife that they both speak very fluent English. This is not something you *usually* encounter on visits to sake breweries, especially in the boonies of Akita Prefecture. But both had spent their college years in the US, and continued to use the language after that. Interestingly, they were originally a shoyu (soy sauce) brewer, and - get this - the government came to them in about 1913 and asked them to start brewing sake. More sake meant more tax revenue, especially back then.

Taiheizan Kimoto Junmai
A kimoto made with the big-ass drill bit, this sake is very solidly constructed and heavily laden with that deliciousness-richness-satisfying quality known as "umami." The aromas are somewhat nutty, somewhat herbal, but fairly restrained, and the acidity too is somewhat understated, especially for a kimoto (in my opinion, anyway).

Taiheizan "Tenko" Junmai Daiginjo
This well-grounded and rich daiginjo is blessed with a full array of flavors and aromas condensed into a thick package. It is admittedly heavy for a sake of this grade, but individual nuances of autumnal fruit, nuts, yeast, wood and herbs blend and alternate making their presence known. The aroma is - like much sake from this region - mildly reigned in, but laced with citrus and melon if you look for it. This is Taiheizan's flagship premium sake product.


Tenzan (Saga Prefecture)
Saga Prefecture, and next-door Fukuoka Prefecture, have lately become my favorite region for sake. This is, admittedly, only one stop in a long progression that changes regularly, but for the time being I am quite fond of the thick, wide, full yet clean flavor profiles commonly found in this part of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's 4 main islands. One very typically Saga-esque sake is Tenzan.

Tenzan "Jizake Tenzan" Junmai Genshu
Very distinctive in its appearance, the bottle itself is wrapped in a rice husk with a small red label plastered on over that. It looks rustic and traditional. The flavors and aromas are boosted, so to speak, by the slightly higher alcohol content (18 - 19% I believe), and the earthy, full, rich flavors meld to give an overall wonderful presence. A clean-cutting acidity helps all this work wonderfully with western food, particularly lighter grilled meat.

Tenzan "Hotarugawa" Junmai Daiginjo
A wonderful blend of several "faces" of sake: the aromas are fruity if grounded, apples and chestnuts dancing together. The weight and texture are on the heavy side, even more so for a diaginjo. Fruity tones that tie into the aromas arise, as do nuts and figs and steamed rice and more, reaching deep into recesses that open up with time and temperature. This is a beautiful example of a daiginjo sake that is much better closer to room temperature than chilled.


Daishichi (Fukushima Prefecture)
Having mentioned Daishichi in the kimoto diatribe above, it would be odd not to mention their sake. However, I have written all their sake up extensively when writing about their special rice milling method, exactly one year ago. Please refer to that archived newsletter for more on Daishichi's fine sake products.

Sake Events and Announcements
Sake "Bon-en-kai" (Year-end Party) December 18, 2004

On the evening of December 18, 2004 I will hold a "Bonenkai," or year end party at Takara. Rob Yellin the pottery guy will be in attendance as well. Note neither Rob or I will actually give a presentation: we are there to enjoy the wrap-up of 2004 with those that have frequented our seminars over the last year.

The food, sake and cost will be a bit different this time. The cost will be a bit higher than usual at \8000, and the sake - all six selections - will  be top-class daiginjo. The food will be centered around "nabe," or "one-pot stew." Mmm. Just right for the winter.

Those interested can make a reservation by sending me an email.

All material Copyright 2004, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.
1-4-4 Jomyoji, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken, Japan, 243-0003


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