Sake Rocks it Old School: Komoto Sake makes a splash

Part of an artisanal revival, the robust kimoto style has depth born of hand crafting and natural ingredients.
By Linda Burum, Special to the Los Angeles Times.

These more assertive sakes possess a depth and range of flavors that industrially produced brews never develop. And as the Japanese diet has become richer, and sake has gained an audience worldwide. Kimoto and other robust sakes have gained popularity because they can be paired with more kinds of foods than lighter, more delicate sakes.

Beau Timken, proprietor of True Sake in San Francisco, the first all-sake store in the U.S., says full-bodied sakes are the next frontier for aficionados. “These have the flavor dexterity needed, now that sake is seen as a drink to match up with many kinds of food,” he says.

To add an extra measure of boldness to their sakes, artisanal sake breweries, or kuras, are experimenting with a variety of techniques that hadn’t been used since before World War II. They are fermenting sakes in old-fashioned cedar barrels instead of standard enamel-lined, stainless-steel tanks.

They are producing unfiltered sakes, organic sakes, sakes made from sprouted brown rice and sakes brewed with slower, labor-intensive fermentation techniques. And they’re working with little-known yeast strains and heirloom rice varieties.

Handcrafted process
PERHAPS the most intricate of the revived techniques is the centuries-old handcrafted process known as the kimoto method, which died out in the early 1900s. To make kimoto sake, brewers create their starter yeast mash without relying on commercially produced lactic acid to speed things up.

When the kimoto mash develops naturally, there’s a give and take between the yeast and bacteria until the yeast prevails. The result is gamy, yeasty undertones adding complexity to the brew.

The kimoto method may be used for most sake categories, including junmais, or pure rice sakes;daiginjos, or super-premium sakes; and ginjos, or premium sakes. (Sake style categories, a sometimes confusing welter of designations, provide information about, among other things, whether alcohol has been added and how much of the rice grain is polished away before steaming and fermenting.)

Daishichi, a kura in the northern prefecture of Fukushima, may have been the brewer to inspire the modern kimoto-style revival with its Minowamon kimoto junmai daiginjo. But this 300-year-old sake maker did more than simply bring back the method. It came up with “super flat” rice polishing, a technique that eliminates more of the grain’s impurities. Its resulting sakes — unlike traditional varieties that tended to be a bit syrupy and funky — had amazing clarity yet also the complexity of kimoto-style brews.

Another brand that paved the way for the kimoto revival, Kodama Brewing Co.’s Taiheizan, made in Akita prefecture, won acclaim for its daiginjo kimoto sake as well as for its explosive junmai kimoto, “Grand Mountain.” Its slightly less labor-intensive modification of the kimoto technique resulted inAkita-ryu kimoto, or Akita-style kimoto.

Every year the availability of kimoto sakes continues to expand. The few mentioned here illustrate just how much their styles can vary.

From Yamagata prefecture comes Hatsumago kimoto junmai. Its luscious aromas may be attributed to the unique yeast of Yamagata, a strain that clearly has thrived in the northern region’s deeply cold winters.

For a rustic kimoto sake, Kurosawa junmai kimoto is a choice that fares well served warm or cold. Its origins in Nagano prefecture, a region known for its consumption of wild game, may be why the sake pairs so well with grilled and fried foods, the sort of accompaniments likely to turn up in a country-style izakaya, or pub.

Although traditional methods and ingredients are prized for the elegance they can bring to sake, few kuras are dispensing with their modern technology. Automatic rice cookers and computer-controlled temperature for the brew tanks, among other things, are still viewed as essential.

Brew masters no longer sleep by their tanks as was done for centuries, to awaken in the middle of the night to check the temperature of the fermenting sake.

The decades after World War II were an era that profoundly changed the fate of Japanese sake. Brutal postwar food shortages meant that table rice instead of sakami (sake-grade rice) took precedence. Brewers fortified their sakes with glucose and cheap alcohol.

Many traditional techniques went by the wayside. And sake’s reputation foundered as many small regional kuras closed and others grew more industrial. Meanwhile, the Japanese public developed a fondness for beer and other alcoholic beverages.

The prosperity of the late 1970s brought a renaissance for unadulterated sakes. The movement, comparable to the microbrewery boom in the U.S., inspired kuras both large and small to finesse their sake methods and to bring new and memorable varieties to market.

Yuji Matsumoto, sake sommelier at Tokyo Table in Beverly Hills, confirms the emerging preference for full-bodied sakes, and points out that other techniques besides the kimoto method are used to create elegant versions. Some kuras make unfiltered brews, such as Nanbu Bijin, a special junmai from Iwate. Based on Gin Otomi, a locally grown rice, Nanbu Bijin has a golden color and melony flavors.

Narutotai from Tokushima is made using the yamahai method, a slightly more modern version ofkimoto. The brewer has amplified the sake’s already compound nature introduced by a slow-growing starter mash. Kikumasamune Honkano sake also gilds the kimoto lily. Its brew master adds a smidgen of fine rice alcohol, a touch that gives his perfumy brew added kick.

The ascendancy of bold, audacious sakes in Japan may have begun as a response to that country’s ever more cosmopolitan eating habits, but it’s a trend that has a natural foothold here in Southern California, where more and more non-Japanese restaurants are adding not only sakes, but bold sakes to their wine lists.

And why not? With these big, full-bodied styles, sommeliers can suggest some that will pair as brilliantly with lamb chops or duck as their more delicate counterparts do with sushi and tofu.

Where to find interesting sakes
ARTISANAL sakes including interesting robust styles such as kimoto sakes are available at fine wine retailers, restaurants and Japanese markets. The following sources have extensive selections, helpful staffers and/or special programs. At smaller retailers, the selection can change frequently.

Retail stores
Beverages & More. Store locations at About 30 to 40 sakes; artisan and large producers.

Marukai Markets. All branches carry sakes from artisan and large producers. Gardena, (310) 660-6300, has more than 80 sakes. Little Tokyo, (213) 893-7200, has more than 200. West Covina, (626) 430-0900, and Costa Mesa, (714) 751-8433, each has more than 40;

Mitsuwa Marketplace. All branches carry 30 to 60 sakes from artisan and large producers. Costa Mesa, (714) 557-6699; Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, (213) 687-6699; San Gabriel, (626) 457-2899; Torrance, (310) 782-0335; West Los Angeles (Centinela), (310) 398-2113;

Nijiya Markets. All branches carry sakes from artisan and large producers. Torrance, (310) 366-7200, and West Los Angeles, (310) 575-3300, carry more than 50 sakes. Industry, (626) 913-9991, has more than 30. Little Tokyo, (213) 680-3280, has more than 100;

Silverlake Wine. Los Angeles, (323) 662-9024; An idiosyncratic rotation of eight to 10 sakes; primarily artisan producers.