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Yamahai Sake; Glass Bottles

# 53

March 2004

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #53
March 1, 2004

-- Yamahai Sake
-- Sake in Glass Bottles
-- Good Sake to Look For
-- Sake Events/Announcements:

Yamahai Sake
Yamahai sake is distinctive and unique, and while not all that common, it is interesting and definitely worth learning about. Here it will be explained in more detail than it previously attemped. "Yamahai," also common called "yamahai shikomi," is short for "yamahai moto,"  which is even shorter for "yamaoroshi haishi moto." (Got all that?) 

The term yamahai (and its longer manifestations) refer to a process in sake brewing. It all relates to the yeast starter: a small vat of rice, water and koji to which yeast is added and propagated to the point where there are more than 100 million yeast cells in a teaspoon. This yeast starter, also known as the "moto," or shubo, is the seed of a batch of sake.

Originally, it was thought that the rice and koji had to be mixed to a puree for them to work properly together and convert the starches to sugars. To achieve this, kurabito (brewery workers) would ram oar-like poles into a washtub-sized wooden vat of the mixture for hours on end; exhausting work to say the least. This pole-ramming is known as yama-oroshi.

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. 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 kurabito, past and present.

When it became known then that the rough part (yama-oroshi) could be ceased ("haishi" in Japanese), yama-oroshi haishi moto was born. Taking the first character from each of these words (i.e. the yama from yama-oroshi and the hai from haishi) led to the term yamahai.

What's the big deal? Why the fuss? Why even note it on the label? Because yamahai sake is a horse of a different color - usually. For reasons detailed below, yamahai is usually significantly fuller in flavor than most regular sake, with a higher acidity, sweetness, and a bit of extra funkiness that can only be described as gamey or wild.

And why is that? In the end, it is all about lactic acid.

Lactic acid comes from lactic bacteria, of which there are plenty floating around in the air. When they figured this out, they soon after discovered in 1911 that by adding a bit of pure lactic acid to the moto at the beginning, the whole yeast starter could be accomplished in about half the time, like two weeks, and with a lot less stress and worry. Lactic acid prevents wild yeasts and unwanted bacteria from proliferating and adversely affecting the flavor.

When a moto is made by the yamahai method, however, that pure lactic acid is NOT added in the beginning. They start with only rice, koji, and water in a small vat. What this means is that every kind of naturally occurring  yeast and his brother drop in the tank, along with every riff-raff bacteria that might happen to pass by. This is, remember, an open-fermentation. Naturally, plenty of lactic acid bacteria crash the party as well. But bullies that they are, they begin to proliferate, and the lactic acid they spew out while doing so kills off everything in sight. Eventually, like so many bad party guests, excess is their downfall, and the lactic acid they so well create kills themselves as well. It is, in a sense, bacterial suicide.

The good news is, however, that once this carnage is over, what we have is a totally sanitized environment. There are no living bacteria or wild yeast cells left. Zero. The big goose egg. At this stage (after the acid itself fades a bit), pure cultured yeast is added, and safely allowed to proliferate madly in this clean environment to the point that those aforementioned 100 million cells can live in one teaspoon of moto.

Note they do not use naturally occurring yeast here. Some people think that they do, since the flavor can be wild and gamy. Cultured yeast cells are used just like any other sake, and in fact, even in yamahai the yeast is very carefully selected based on a myriad of factors.

Remember, almost all sake (like way over 99%) out there is NOT yamahai. This means they DO add a tad of pure lactic acid at the beginning stage to most sake on the market. Adding this lactic acid speeds the process up, allowing the moto to be ready for use in about two weeks, about half the time of yamahai. It also protects it from wild yeast and bad bacteria from the start, putting everyone at ease. This alter-ego of yamahai is known as sokujo moto, or "fast-developing" moto.

Back to the flavor differences: yamahai has a higher sweetness and acidity, with richer, deeper, significantly more pronounced flavors. Sokujo-moto (i.e. most sake on the market) is comparatively milder and cleaner in flavor. However, yamahai sake can sometimes be more restrained and less wild; it depends on many things.

In fact, there is a wide range of yamahai flavor profiles available. Many, many kura make yamahai sake, and while some are typically strong and wild, others are barely identifiable as yahamai, but distinctive nonetheless.

And why is this so? Why are the flavors wilder? Do they not use pure yeast after securing a sanitary environment? Yes, but before that all kinds of strange yeast and things were involved. While no one is 100% sure, it is thought  that  the fact that they were once there contributes to the flavor profile being what it is.

So, in the end, the main point to remember from this diatribe, 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 - for a limited time - become a part of the brew. This usually leads to a richer, tangier flavor. In the end, that is what it is all about.

A note to readers: it took me years to get straight, understandable answers on all the aspects of this. Years. Consider yourselves lucky (in all humility).

Sake in Glass Bottles
These days we take it for granted that sake comes in glass bottles. But the truth is that sake's history in glass bottles is surprisingly short.

Glass has been used for windows and such since the middle Edo period, which means perhaps the mid-18th century. Certainly some vessels for eating and drinking were made of glass back then, but it was not until 1879 that the first glass bottle of sake appeared on the market. And it was not until 1902 that the first 1.8 liter bottle "ishou-bin,"  which would become the standard size, went on sale.

So what were they all drinking from? Back then sake was still brewed in wooden tanks, and then stored and shipped to sake shops in wooden casks called "taru," usually holding 72 liters. Townsfolk would go to their local sake shop carrying their own ceramic bottle and get a fill directly from these wooden casks. It was a system that had worked well for hundreds of years.

And it didn't die out quickly, either. Glass production was not exactly advanced in Japan at that time, at least not for bottles. Bottles were still a rarity, despite the potential advantages they offered, and they were still filled and capped by hand at the kura that used them, which was slow. Also, the caps were ceramic as well, held on by a metal harness (similar to those seen on Grolsch beer bottles and other similar products).

It was not until 1930 or so that continuous bottling machines were invented, and even then Japan was slow to adapt. And even as late as 1940, 60% of all sake was still getting to the consumer through wooden taru and personal ceramic bottles carried to the sake shop; only 40% of all sake was finding its way into 1.8 liter glass bottles. Certainly all the military activity back then affected availability of materials, but still, this seems quite late compared to other countries and other similar products.

By 1949, all but one percent of sake was sold in the large bottles, and this is just about the time that ceramic lined steel tanks began to replace wooden vats in brewing, making glass even more desirable than the wooden "taru" casks formerly used for shipping.

As a side note, when sake was shipped in taru to the distributors or sake shops from the kura, it was shipped as genshu, or full strength sake, as it travelled better that way. The sake shop or pub would then add a bit of water to lower the alcohol content of 20% or so down to a more enjoyable 15-16%. However, some less than scrupulous retailers would add a bit more water. Or a little bit more, or even a tad more, sometimes depending on how much the customer at hand had already imbibed. This led to the term "kingyo-sake." Kingyo is goldfish, and the term referred to sake that had been thinned out so much that a goldfish could live inside the taru, unaffected by the now miniscule amount of alcohol.  

One final tangent: today we can buy sake known as "taru-zake," which is simply sake stored in a wooden taru, deliberately to absorb the woody tastes and smells. It can be quite tasty and enjoyable, but accept in advance that the woodiness will massively overpower any delicate aspects of the sake.

Good Sake to Look For
This month, it seems most appropriate to introduce a few yamahai sakes.

-- Tengumai (Ishikawa Prefecture); Junmai-shu Yamahai
Tengumai is one of the most prominent yamahai brewers around. They make a yamahai at every level of sake, and this particular junmai-shu is available outside of Japan, at least in the US. Solid and richer than most, yet most of the gaminess is in the back end, and in secondary aromas. Settled and full, with a billowing acidity expected of a yamahai, yet all in exquisite balance.

-- Kikuhime (Ishikawa Prefecture)
This is it folks. The yamahai of yamahais. Not for the weak hearted. Kikuhime's yamahai junmai is as full, tart, herbal and wild as it gets. While it is balanced and very well crafted, know it is a big sake indeed. Eschewing fruit for pine and other forest-like greenery touches, one glass and you will know the nature of yamahai sake. And all of this helps it to stand on its own, as a settling evening drink.

-- Masumi (Nagano); Yamahai Ginjo
Masumi makes a couple of yamahai products, and this particular one strikes a very even balance between a typical ginjo profile and a typical yamahai profile. Light yet untamed in some ways, it maintains a nice fruity trace to the aroma and flavor, with that yamahai sweet-tart touch lacing the flavors overall. Very enjoyable, and available outside of Japan, at least in North America.

-- Hiraizumi (Akita Prefecture); Yamahai Junmaishu
Hiraizumi Yamahai is a bit more clean and refined than the typical yamahai flavor profile. Some may prefer more roughness in their yamahai, but making a gentle one can also be viewed as a statement of skill. There is an earthy aspect to the flavor that is contrasted nicely by a solid acidity, which hangs around for a while but without becoming cloying. The fragrance is somewhat unique, not exactly flowery or fruity, but seems to fit in well with the rest of the sake's attributes. This kura is the third oldest operating in Japan, having been founded in 1487. That's more than 500 years of brewing.

-- Kenbishi (Hyogo Prefecture); "Tokusen"  Honjozo
One of the grand old players of the sake brewing world. Kenbishi has been a household name, famous among sake, for hundreds of years. Kenbishi has its origins in Itami, once a famous brewing region (before Nada came along). The symbol, two black diamonds, is one of the most recognized sake marks in the country. The company itself is curious. They maintain a minimal staff, including no salesmen whatsoever, in maintaining their position as one of the largest twelve brewers in the country. They actually sell on their centuries-old reputation alone. Their brewing is spread out across several smaller breweries, and old, hand-crafting techniques are the rule. They are quite secretive; they allow no tours of the breweries, and they do not exactly provide a wealth of information on their labels. The sake itself has a unique distinction, somewhat peculiar but appealing at the same time. It is all made in the yamahai method, but they do not tell you this on the label. A bit rich, with a gentle tartness and even a mild suffusing sweetness in the recesses. The fragrance is fairly subdued. Kenbishi is wonderful lightly warmed as well as slightly cool. Despite their large size, Kenbishi is not available outside of Japan. They don't seem at all interested. (Like I said, they are curious.) But the name and double black diamond are worth remembering.

Sake Events and Announcements
Sake Seminar in Tokyo, March 20
On the evening of Saturday, March 20, from 6:00 pm until about 9:00 pm, I will hold a sake seminar at Takara in the Tokyo International Forum near JR Yurakucho station. Those interested in attending can make a reservations by sending me an email at

Ginjoshu Kyoukai Event, Roppongi Hills, March 27 & 28
On Saturday and Sunday, March 27 and 28, the Ginjoshu Kyoukai, a group of 80+ brewers displaying their fine ginjo-shu sake, will hold an afternoon tasting in The Arena in front of the Roppongi Hills complex. While final details are still fuzzy, the tasting will run all afternoon both days, and will include seminars in Japanese, as well as English (by yours truly). Keep the days open, and check for details.

Sake Seminar, Wine House, Los Angeles, March 31
On Wednesday, March 31, there will be a sake seminar at The Wine House in Los Angeles. The cost is $50. For more information and reservations, contact Coffield at the phone number below.

Wine House
2311 Cotner Ave
Los Angeles,Ca 90064
310 479 3731

Sake Books:
-- THE SAKE HANDBOOK, published by Charles Tuttle.
This second edition of my first book, with more sake, more sake pubs in the Tokyo area, and updated information, is the most detailed on the brewing process.

-- THE SAKE COMPANION, published by Running Press
This book approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch, and covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember. Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook. The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).

This anecdotal read describes aspects of the sake world from a foreigner's point of view, including the personalities, events, and techniques that make the sake world so unique and special, things that may be lost on those that are too close to the subject. Written in Japanese.


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