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Moto - The Yeast Starter (Part 2)

# 13

Sept. 2000

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #13

September 15, 2000



The *moto* yeast starter, Part II: Yamahai

Of Rice and Region, Part IV

Sake to look for

Sake Home-brewing Scene

Sake-related events in North America and Japan

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Publication information


[The moto, part II]

Last month we looked at the standard process of creating the moto, also known as the shubo, the yeast starter for a batch of sake. Below is a description of a very special and interesting variant on this step called Yamahi-shikomi.

From hundreds of years ago until the early 1900's, it was thought that the rice and koji had to be mixed and crushed into a puree when creating the moto in order for them to work properly together and convert the starches to sugars. To achieve this, kurabito (brewery workers) would ram oar-like poles into the small vat for hours on end to make a smooth paste of the contents; exhausting work to say the least. This pole-ramming activity is known as yama-oroshi.

This yama-oroshi pole ramming is one of the most classic sake-brewing scenes around, and is commonly seen in paintings, and on old films at sake museums such as those at the larger breweries in Nada. It is during such activities that kurabito of old would sing traditional brewing songs, all but forgotten now, to keep them awake and active, and to help them count strokes.

Then, in 1909, Mr. Kinichiro Kagi at the National Institute for Brewing Studies discovered that all that hard work simply wasn't necessary. If left alone, the enzymes in the koji would eventually dissolve all the rice in the developing moto anyway. No tiring pole-ramming was needed. The only catch was that you had to add a bit more water, and keep the temperature a bit warmer, a comparatively painless process. *Now you tell us!* rose the silent cry from countless exhausted brewery workers, past and present.

When it became known then that the rough part (yama-oroshi) could be ceased (hai-shi), yama-oroshi hai-shi, shortened to simply yamahai, was born.

But technology was not finished poking fun at tradition. Ah, no, there was more mockery in store. In 1911 it was discovered that by adding a bit of lactic acid to the moto at the beginning, the whole thing could be accomplished in about half the time. Lactic acid is a product of the yeast life cycle, and when present in sufficient amounts, it prevents wild yeast and unwanted bacteria from proliferating and adversely affecting the flavor.                

When the yamahai process is used, since the lactic acid comes into existence more slowly, a bit of funky bacteria and even wild yeast cells inevitably make it into the moto as it develops. This gives rise to gamier, more unabashed flavor profile in the end.

Yamahai moto takes about a month to develop, and can be nerve wracking as those stray bacteria and wild yeast cells can ruin a whole batch if they are not kept in check to some degree. Sanitation is paramount, and pains must be taken to keep the developing moto covered and protected.

Adding lactic acid at the beginning speeds the process up, allowing the moto to be ready for use in about two weeks. It also protects it from the start, putting everyone at ease. (For what it's worth, these riff-raff bacteria are sometimes called *Makushita* bacteria within the industry, in reference to the Makushita division sumo wrestlers, who are not quite as strong as their seniors in the main show.)

This alter-ego of yamahai, in which a bit of lactic acid is added in the beginning, is known as sokujo moto, or *fast-developing* moto. Due to a characteristic resistance to new-fangled technology, it took about ten years for sokujo-moto to gain acceptance on an industry-wide basis. However, most sake today is created using the sokujo moto method, as it is faster and easier and leads to a cleaner flavor. In a sense, yamahai is for those with more eclectic tastes.

Flavor-wise, what are the differences? Yamahai has a higher sweetness and acidity, with richer, deeper, significantly more pronounced flavors. A nice descriptive word for most yamahai is *gamy*. Sokujo-moto (i.e. most sake on the market) is comparatively milder and cleaner in flavor. However, there is oodles of overlap; yamahai sake can occasionally be clean and refined, and sokujo-moto sake can (once in a while) be wild and gamy. So in the end, extreme cases notwithstanding, it's not a whole lot to get worked up about.

Many, many kura (breweries) make yamahai or kimoto sake, but not all. Some specialize in it even. Due to the strange yeastfellows involved, yamahai moto must be prepared in a separate room from the rest of the moto preparation.

The *Sake to Look For* section below lists several yamahai-shikomi sake to look for and taste. (The word shikomi here simply refers to creating a tank of sake.) Certainly a worthwhile experience.

So, what you need to take away from this newsletter, the one-liner executive summary so to speak, is this: for yamahai sake, the yeast starter was created in a slow and laborious way that allowed more wild yeasts and bacteria to become a part of the brew. This usually leads to a richer, tangier flavor. That should demystify things a bit. Anything else you need to know, your palate will tell you.


[Of Rice and Region, Part IV]

There are a total of 47 prefectures in Japan, and all but one brew at least some sake. The six prefectures introduced in the past several issues of this newsletter represent the top six sake-producing prefectures. Not every prefecture produces sake of such unique character, but there are a few more worth mention. In this final *of rice and region* installation, we will look at those few remaining important sake prefectures.

Some have always had good sake, but geographical conditions did not lend themselves to market expansion, so they have always remained a minor player. Other prefectures, through the efforts of prefectural sake research centers, have recently developed rice, techniques and special yeast that has caused a huge jump in the quality of the sake throughout the region. Here are just a few of those regions, and the history and reasons behind their great sake.


Famous as the source of the best green tea, Shizuoka is located on the Tokaido, the historical road between Edo (old Tokyo) and the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe region. Proximity to this mighty highway of past and present has helped Shizuoka sake spread both to the east and to the west. Although sake has never been a major product for Shizuoka, clean rivers filling deep wells  and melted snow running down from nearby Mt. Fuji provided the water for plenty of good sake.                                                                

Due to the efforts of prefecture's industrial technology center, and the personal mission of one Denbei Kawamura, Shizuoka sake burst on to the greatness scene in 1985 (as judged by their showing in national new sake tasting competitions). Kawamura (who is still live and kicking, by the way, although near retirement) took the time to research methods and fine tune them, instructing the region's kura on how to improve their sake. Shizuoka was also a trail-blazer in developing new pure yeast strains. Yeast affects flavor, and more so fragrance.

Shizuoka sake, more than being one-glass, super-delicate, fine-lined sake, might be best considered session sake. Generally light and fragrant, with a lower than usual acidity, it is sake one can drink a lot of without getting bored or finding it cloying. It is generally only slightly on the dry side and often laced with a gentle fruitiness.

As there are only 35 kura in the prefecture and none of them are very large, Shizuoka sake can be a bit harder to find than most. But it is well worth the search.


Modern-day Kochi prefecture was long ago known as the Tosa Region. Tosa played an active part in the Meiji Restoration, but more relevantly, it has long been famous for its drinkers. Warriors, politicians and writers from Tosa were all famous for imbibing massive amounts of sake. Apparently, the traditions continue today.

Despite all the consumption, there are only 20 or so kura in this prefecture on the smaller island of Shikoku. The weather is comparatively warm, which means that until the recent advent of refrigeration and water-filled cooling jackets, brewing methods had to be adjusted a bit.

Kochi sake still has a recognizable style. It arose not so much from the water or rice of the region, but rather from the fact that everyone drank so much. It is made to be easy to drink in quantity, and it is.

Kochi sake is actually the driest in the entire country, drier than Niigata even. Where Niigata sake is dry, crisp, and complex, Kochi sake is more approachable. Generally the fragrance is subdued. It is soft and smooth as water, but it opens up and widens in flavor quite nicely as it makes its way in.

The acidity can often be high, so it goes well with slightly oily fish, for example. The umami, that satisfying presence that is hard to describe, fills the palate afterward. It is designed, they say, to not cause hangovers even if more than one's share is consumed.


Yamagata sits tucked near the northwestern corner of Japan's main island, Honshu, surrounded by mountains on three sides, but with a stretch open to the Japan Sea. Lacking a port of any significance, and not being exactly centrally located, distribution was not Yamagata's forte. As such, Yamagata sake developed in relative isolation and never got the attention it deserves.

Only a third of the sake brewed by the 50 plus kura there leaves the prefecture. The hometown people like the local brew, too, as 90 percent of all sake consumed there is Yamagata sake.

Yamagata sake is in general relatively full in body, but clean, and often (but not always) with a good, sturdy acid presence. More than anything else, sake here seems to have an abundance of personal character and individuality, uniquely distinct yet almost magically balanced.

Like many other prefectures, Yamagata has also put a lot of effort into yeast and rice development. They have for several years now been using a developed-at-home rice varietal called Dewa 33, which in Japanese is a pun referring to the old name of the region and the surrounding mountains.


....That about sums it up for the Of Rice and Region series. Naturally, there are several other prefectures with distinctive sake styles as well. In all fairness, it is a very subjective observation, and personal preference has played a big part in what has been written here. But the prefectures described in the past few issues (archived on the sake-world site, remember) are, for the most part, the main areas to keep in mind. As sake appreciation gains critical mass, learning about these regions will likely become as important as their wine-producing counterparts throughout the world.


[Sake to Look For]

>Kikuhime (Ishikawa Prefecture)

Yamahai-Shikomi (in Junmai-shu, Junmai-Ginjo, and Junmai Genshu manifestations)

Kikuhime makes a lot of light, fragrant, delicately balanced sake, but their Yamahai Shikomi sakes are not those. This is some of the strongest-flavored sake in Japan. Kikuhime has taken the yamahai method to the extreme here, and created sake that is bold are sharp and crisp and daring. The color, too, is a unique, rich golden amber. Gamy and strong flavors are boosted and accented by high acidity, sweetness to balance it, and bitter tones in the background. Yet despite all this, it avoids being harsh are cutting.

The most refined of these three would  be the junmai-ginjo. The junmai is middle-of-the-road, and the rarer junmai genshu (genshu is undiluted sake, therefore with a slightly higher alcohol content) is the most powerful. These will not be everyone's favorites, but they *are* out there for those that are interested.

Kikuhime Yamahai Junmai-shu is available in the US, imported by American Pacific Rim of Los Angeles and/or New York.


>Tengumai (Ishikawa Prefecture)

Yamahai-shikomi Junmai-shu

Ishikawa Prefecture is blessed with relatively hard water. Yamahai is more easily made with hard water, since hard water promotes more vibrant yeast activity, crucial to making yamahai. Tengumai, like Kikuhime, makes a very wide range of yamahai sake, including several aged yamahai sakes. Although they are not as eye-opening as nearby Kikuhime's yamahai, they have an unmistakable rich character to them. In fact, they have their own thread of distinction that makes a Tengumai Yamahai immediately recognizable. Slightly tart, bitter, smoky, acidic and sweet elements intermingle to form a lovely package, with soft edges to the overall profile.

Tengumai Junmai-shu is available in the US, but their yamahai series at present is not available.


>Ippongi (Fukui Prefecture)

Junmai Yamahai

This yamahai is an example of a more mellow, less yamahai-esque sake. From the largest brewer in Fukui Prefecture, which sits quietly on the Sea of Japan side of Honshu, Ippongi Junmai Yamahai is dry and slightly soft, with the more distinct yamahai characteristics relegated to the recesses of the flavor profile. A very faint chocolate tone presents itself in the middle, with a rice-like touch in the finish.

Ippongi Yamahai is available in the US, imported by the Sake Service Institute in New York and Los Angeles.


>Tsukuba (Ibaragi Prefecture)


Tsukuba is made in Ibaragi, a bit north of Tokyo, by a brewery whose main brand is Hakushika. Not Kuromatsu Hakushika, from Nada (where they brew excellent sake, by the way) and formerly brewing in the US, and whom this brewery beat in a court case over the use of the name Hakushika, but the original Hakushika, named after a white deer seen in a dream by a local Buddhist priest long ago. Tsukuba was added as a second brand name a few years ago, and more is brewed under that name than under the Hakushika name now.

Name disputes aside, this is excellent sake. Wonderfully balanced with a light but definitively seductive fragrance. The flavor is textured and pleasantly grainy, tickling the palate before fading away. Definitely serve slightly chilled.

There are Junmai Daiginjo and other manifestation of this sake as well. Alas, it is not exported out of Japan.


>Bijobu (Kochi Prefecture)

Junmai Ginjo

Bijobu is one of a handful of sake from small brewers recently in the limelight. From the home of the driest sake in Japan, Kochi Prefecture on the island of Shikoku, Bijobu can be found at decent sake pubs all over the country. The toji (head brewer) is but 35, was a self-employed computer programmer in Kanagawa (just south of Tokyo) when his love for sake and a bunch of coincidences led him into this brewery. Three years later he was running the show as toji.

The fragrance is crisp and fresh like an apple orchard, but a bit more subdued. Quite dry but with a well-grounded heaviness to the flavor, more of a feel than a taste. Elegant and refined overall.

They only make about 100 kiloliters here, so it is hard to come by in retail shops in Japan, much less outside of Japan.


[Sake Home-Brewing Scene]

There is a renewed effort to liven up the US Sake Home-Brewing seen, with the AHA (America Homebrewing Association) possibly allotting one or more classifications to sake. This effort needs to be encouraged and supported, as it will lead to a faster grass-roots knowledge of sake and its complexities. Those interested should contact Bruce Hammel at Also check out Jim Liddil at, who manages the Sake Digest, a mailing list for sake home-brewers.


[Sake-related events]


On October 8, at the Access Japan series of events in Toronto, there will be a presentation on sake by John Gauntner and the Sake Export Association, including a sake tasting. Those interested in attending should contact me by email at for more details.

On the evening of October 12, at the Japan Society in New York City, there will be a presentation entitled *Sake: Drink of the Gods, Drink for the People,* focusing on sake place in festivals and in Shinto ceremonies. Following this will be a short lecture on sake rice by John Gauntner, and a sake tasting of about 20 premium sake from Japan sponsored by the Sake Export Association. For details and reservations (this program has sold out the past two years), please contact the Japan Society in New York City at 212-832-1155. The following day, there will also be an industry tasting for restaurateurs and dealers, also at the Japan Society. 


Japan Times Ceramics Scene writer and Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin and I will be doing a joint seminar on sake and pottery on the evening of Saturday, November 18, at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin Ochanomizu/Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. The evening will include a meal, half a dozen or so good sake, and lectures by Rob and I. Seating is limited and fills up fast.

To make a reservation, please email me or fax me at

There will also be a sake-only seminar on Saturday, October 21 at Mushu. The evening will begin with a blind tasting of several sake, and progress into a meal, with a discussion to follow in relation to the evening's sake selections. To make a reservation, please email me or fax me at


Sake writer Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, September 30, from 6:30 until the last train at Romantei in Akebono-bashi (Yotsuya Yanagicho). The topic will be sake yeast strains and their special characteristics. Although this seminar will be entirely in Japanese, Matsuzaki-san's smarts and tasting ability are amazing and entertaining. Guaranteed fun. Seminars feature a short lecture with tasting, and an optional but highly recommended konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. Those interested can make a reservation through me at Also, more information is available at in Japanese.


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