By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

In the Beginning: Kimoto

For both kimoto and yamahai, the yeast starter takes twice as long as the modern day sokujo moto process relying on naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria to create a suitable environment for the sake yeast to multiply.

In so doing, a whole host of other wild yeasts and bacteria spend a short period of time as part of the brew, adding a distinctive wild and gamey tang to the final sakes. And it’s for such aromas and flavors that these two historical types of sake are catching the interest of brewers and customers alike.

It certainly makes for some interesting flavors,” Byron Stithem at Proper Saké Co. tells me. “In the US most people are experiencing sake for the first time so something that pairs with Western cuisine is a good thing, with more complexity on the nose and the palate. America is getting into more modern wine styles. I’m talking natural wines, orange wines, skin contact, all that stuff, which has some parallels with yamahai and kimoto in that they are from a non-intervention production,” he adds.

Unapologetically, here’s the spoiler for Kimoto 生酛:
Kimoto uses a traditional yeast starter method that requires long paddles (kai) to laboriously combine yeast, water, rice and koji into a mash that naturally promotes lactic acid development. This takes four weeks and creates flavors that are generally robust and sometimes funky and tart.

Throughout Japan’s Edo era (1603-1867) and beyond, all yeast starters were kimoto, and everyone was happy with that, unaware of the brewing revolutions around the corner that would simplify so much.

You see, making kimoto is strenuous stuff. Man-sized poles are rammed into small (historically) wooden tubs containing a thick mix of rice and koji, intent on bashing it into a purée. Such aggressive efforts were judged to assist the natural yeast in propagating and kick off the whole fermentation process.

This pole ramming (yama-oroshi) could go on for quite a time, hours in fact, and at all times of the day making sake production at this time into quite a physical ordeal, even more so than today’s experience. But it was deemed essential, and let’s face it, it worked for centuries.

Certainly amongst today’s brewers, there seems to be a growing unspoken allegiance towards a more reverent approach to sake making, as Brandon Doughan at New York’s enterprising Brooklyn Kura explains: “We’re all about the traditional side of sake making, take out the legalities and essentially we’re focused on making proper Japanese sake, basically their Nihonshu.”

Blake Richardson of moto-i Sake, North America’s first craft sake brewery, takes his lead too from the Japan sake mothership, a true fan of yamahai and kimoto sakes. “I always wanted to make these formats. For centuries this is just what you did as a brewer in Japan, there wasn’t such a choice of styles like there is now.

In North America, it seems drinkers are of late looking to purer methods of production, something offered by both yamahai and kimoto. That’s certainly the case for Brooklyn Kura. “I was so inspired by the kimoto I had at Takashima Brewery in Shizuoka Prefecture, it was like this lemon yogurt on a spoon and totally amazing. Breadth of offer is important to Brooklyn Kura’s customers, we need to be sure what we have are all very different to each other and our kimoto helps that a lot,” Brandon informs me.

Pole ramming is supplanted by stomping in Brooklyn, but the microbial situation remains the same. “Our kimoto uses calrose, a very hard rice so it needs to be smashed up. In fact we invite the local kids along to help us with this, which is a lot of fun.

Brooklyn’s kimoto is named “Greenwood” after the park and gothic cemetery just two blocks away from the brewery. “There’s some huge old trees in the park so I’m sure the yeast starters in our courtyard have some Greenwood microorganisms drop into the tubs when the kids are stomping about and that’s pretty cool.” Brandon’s still looking to isolate a Greenwood yeast, we’re told, but isn’t giving up.

Clearly kimoto production is far from straightforward. Now, as then, brewers need to rely a lot more on instinct and experience. At moto-i, Blake is constantly checking temperatures and relocating the repurposed German schnapps tanks around the brewery, as well as on the rooftop when conditions are right to manage the yeast and bacterial populations. “Luckily the tanks are on wheels,” he admits, “and we call it “Kimoto On The Roof”. We’ve tried the Akita-style pulverising of the mash for our kimoto but it’s largely all down to the temperature controls.

We did our first kimoto in 2019 so it’s still early days and we’re always learning. However, both yamahai and kimoto are easy sells to people that have a natural affinity with brewing processes, passionate fermenters if you like. We seem to attract quite a lot of these kinds of consumers,” confesses Brian Polen, partner in crime at Brooklyn Kura.

It seems the risk-reward balance of kimoto production is paying off and striking a chord across North America. Although there’s no hard and fast textbook profile for kimoto, advocates will talk of a richer, more robust beverage, with a depth and lactic tang, bordering on a tartness.

This does allow it to play a leading role in food pairings, offering as it does a wealth of savoury components, and can hold its own with rich dairy dishes (carbonara and cream sauces), umami rich ingredients also (cheese, mushrooms). Grilled meats love a kimoto too, so that’s your izakaya skewers, but also your grill favourites. Light her on up!

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Sake Brewers Association of North America or its members.

A certified sake sommelier, Will Jarvis is the owner and founder of Sake Matters, consulting for a variety of clients in Hong Kong and around the world. He has over 20 years’ experience working in the F&B industry in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, is a trained chef and holds a diploma in hospitality.