By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

With yamahai, we find ourselves at the very beginning of the twentieth century.

For centuries, kimoto reigned supreme, a process built on experience, perseverance and, well, trial
and error. Regardless, it built a successful and enduring sake industry. Good times.

All of a sudden though, in 1909, the National Institute for Brewing Studies’ Mr Kinichiro Kagi made
a rather staggering discovery. The iconic (even today) pole ramming yama-oroshi was found to be

The centuries old belief that a significant investment of time and good old elbow grease had been
dispelled by a far more restful solution: patience. In a nutshell, with enough time, the enzymes in
the koji would eventually activate and fulfil their duty, penetrating into the starchy core of their
rice grains. A little bit more water in the mix served to help this, as did a small rise in temperature.

“Just five degrees separates my kimoto from my yamahai,” Blake Richardson of moto-i Sake, North
America’s first craft sake brewery, tells me.

Yes, it is largely as simple as that. Yamahai 山廃: 

Yeast starter method developed after kimoto allowing for natural lactic acid production but without the pummelling labours of yama-oroshi. Also takes 4 weeks, twice as long as its successor sokujo-moto, and tends to yield flavor profiles that are full bodied and funky.

As kimoto’s well-worn poles became a distant memory, this new way of creating the yeast starter would blanket Japan’s Prefectures. Fittingly yamahai, or more precisely yama-oroshi haishi moto, was the term put in place to signal the end of kimoto’s ubiquity, taken from the Japanese haishi (to cease) and of course yama-oroshi (pole ramming). Mercifully for us in the West, they condensed this to a far more manageable term: yamahai.

In modern day Japan, yamahai sakes (kimotos too) are not all that common in the overall sake universe. Not all brewers make one, but, luckily for us, these two styles punch well above their weight and draw in a loyal, arguably fanatical, following.

Once such conscript is Byron Stithem at Proper Saké Co. in Nashville TN. “I was in New York at the time when I was lucky to stumble across yamahai but quickly saw that it just wasn’t around much. I remember thinking I’m probably going to have to make this myself if I want to keep on drinking it,” he tells me. 

Byron quickly moves the conversation to British-born sake brewer, the first non-Japanese toji or master sake brewer, Mr Philip Harper:

We’ve had no yamahai fails so we’re a bit like Philip Harper at Kyoto’s Kinoshita Brewery, although we don’t have the 200 years of brewing history he does! He’s a big inspiration for me, his yamahai sakes changed my world.” We can’t argue with that.

Tamagawa, the brewery’s brand overseen by Harper, is a law unto itself and a subject worthy of its own lengthy article. Tamagawa is divisive and controversial and perhaps that’s where a lot of today’s North American pioneer spirit is coming from.

Only a few years in the making, Brooklyn Kura is leading such a charge across the nation. “Our yamahai is a bigger sake. I wanted to make something distinct from the kimoto. It’s hard to get a spontaneous fermentation in what is basically a modern cement building so I took inspiration from Norway’s kveik yeast. Norway’s rural farmhouses have a wooden wreath that is covered in this yeast and dipped into the brewing wort of beer. So I took this idea back to Brooklyn Kura,” so Brandon Doughan’s story goes.

The wreath itself is hung up in the brewery until needed and is celebrated on the yamahai label. Brooklyn Kura’s BYx – Brewing Year x – will evolve over the years and reflect the naturally occurring ambient yeast, lactic acid, and bacteria found at the brewery at any specific time. It’s a wonderful throwback to simpler times.

Most yamahai conversations, more often than not, quickly move into talk of food pairings.

With food it’s great. Yamahai likes full flavored cuisine, like grilled or seared meats, yakitori of course, cheeses too. In fact anything but sushi it pairs well with. Yamahai has less interference and gives more complexity, it’s more free range if you like,” Byron continues, a great way to sum up what is quite a complicated style of sake.

We use spontaneous fermentation for our in-house selections, and it’s not like the brewery is a couple hundred years old like Japan’s kura,” he says, underplaying things. Byron is currently rebranding his labels to highlight more the yamahai process, whereas before it really wasn’t clear he felt.

But there’s a twist in the tale. Yamahai’s reign was shortlived, no sooner had brewers bought into the method and started to forget about the exertions of kimoto than science would deal another slap across the face of tradition. In 1911, just a couple of years after yamahai’s coming of age, sokujo-moto would halve the time required for making the yeast starter, now needing just two weeks. 

The simple addition of a bit of lactic acid to the moto was deemed to be enough to prevent the wild yeast and unfriendly bacteria from multiplying. This artificial addition has distinct advantages. It’s less susceptible to fluctuating environmental conditions, is less labor-intensive and makes it easier for brewers to keep consistent batch quality. But, it does smother the development of those rugged and unfettered aromas and flavors beloved by many sake fans.

Luckily for us, the craft sake brewer maintains a strong desire to extend the longevity of kimoto and yamahai. It’s a unifying force, and growing, and as customers flock back more and more to the tasting rooms and breweries of North America, it feels like the creativity is cranked up to eleven.

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.