Craft Beer Festa Kyoto
By Nevitt Reagan
It may have been the balmy spring weather. Perhaps the comfortable layout of the outdoor venue. Or possibly just the calm, considerate style of Kyoto.
Most likely, it was a combination of all three that produced one of the most pleasant beer events in recent memory. The Craft Beer Festa Kyoto, held on Sunday, May 16 at the Shin-Pu-Kan courtyard, provided a good, if unexceptional, overview of the current beer scene in Japan. The first-ever craft beer event held in Kyoto, it was limited to twenty brewers from fifteen prefectures representing a cross-section of established breweries (Minoh, Swan Lake, Ise Kadoya) and some less well-known names (Shuzan Kaido, Oya Brasserie, North Island). Each brewer offered just two styles of beer (except for Fujizakura Kogen, which brought four), representing mostly their mainstream offerings. Nothing really unusual or over-the-top, but simply well-made beer in nearly every case.
The event was organized primarily by Kyoto's Yamaoka Sakaten which, according to my friend Lefty, has the best selection of bottled Japanese microbrews in Japan. Without any fixed cover charge, attendees were free to buy as many beer tickets as they desired at Y300 per 200ml glass. All twenty breweries were ensconced beneath a series of four large canvas roofs. We wandered leisurely from one to another; there was no sense of rushing about to try an unreasonably large number of new brews, as is often the case at larger beer festivals. Local restaurants offered a variety of snacks, and Yamaoka Sakaten provided an extensive, somewhat high-priced, selection of bottled microbrews for purchase.
IPA fans might have been a bit disappointed, as only two were available, but one was Shiga Kogen's unmatchable brew. Other standouts included Shonan Imperial Stout (7%), which was deep and rich, with a thick floating head. Swan Lake had a rather full-bodied amber ale, hopped to a level much higher than normal for the style. Fujizakura Kogen brought their dark fruity Sakura Bock, malty and without a hint of the 8% alcohol it packed. After these heavier brews, it was refreshing to encounter Ise Kadoya's crisp, clean, and bracing California Common Beer, based on the style of Anchor Steam Beer of San Francisco. Hakusekikan, noted for extreme high-alcohol beers, offered their light Shizen Bakushu, a delicately floral and complex brew made, in the lambic mode, using wild yeast skimmed off the top of water tanks left out overnight on a Gifu mountainside.
The crowd remained at around the same size throughout the afternoon, never reaching uncomfortable proportions or becoming overly raucous either. Lefty seemed to be on friendly, familiar terms with nearly every single brewer; he also knew the finer points of their beers, possibly better than they did. Andrew Balmuth, whose Nagano Trading Co., Ltd. imports some of the tastiest U.S. microbrews to Japan, was there enjoying an outing with his wife and child. Tadg McGloughlin, proprietor of Tadg's Irish Bar and Restaurant (Kyoto's top craft beer bar) appeared to be casting a cool eye about for possible new brews to feature on his upcoming expanded tap list.
It was a rather long event, running from 11am to 8pm. And so, later in the day, there were occasional sounds of festival souvenir glasses breaking gently on the pebbled concrete, yet somehow seeming to be random and appropriate musical interludes, like wind chimes ringing in the beer breeze.
Nagano Brewpub Tour 2010
By Tim Eustace
On a sunny Saturday in late May, a group of nine of us packed into a van and headed to what we hoped would be beer nirvana in the mountains of Nagano and Niigata, or as close as we could get.
Our first stop at Oh La Ho, in northeastern Nagano prefecture, was a great starting point, as the clear skies provided an excellent view from the brewery into the valley below and far mountain ranges. That weekend was Oh La Ho's special lunch buffet, which for 1500 yen was a good deal, and if you liked Asparagus, it was a great deal. Asparagus is grown locally, and the brewery doesn't shy away from putting it in, well, almost everything.
The four beers on tap were the standard Golden Ale, Amber Ale, Kolsch and a seasonal White Ale. The Kolsch was as flimsy as ever and always fails to impress me. Conversely, the Amber was moderately hoppy, well-balanced and continues to impress me. The Golden Ale was the disappointing surprise. The usual pungent hop character had been reduced, leaving a somewhat unpleasant graininess to the beer. Luckily, the White Ale was smashing. Fuller in body than a typical wit, it showed signs of coriander and orange peel on top of that body. Overall Oh La Ho batted .500 on their beer, not bad but it could have been better.
Next up was Shiga Kogen, in the far north of Nagano. It was a special treat visiting the brewery, not only did we get a tour of the brewery, but we were lead to their nearby hopfield, where we enjoyed the sun and samples all of their offerings, including the outstanding Yamabushi Saison. After that we received a small tour and snacks at the family's spacious old house (the brewery has been a family business for over 200 years, but until recently was purely a sake brewery). The folks at Shiga Kogen sure know how to treat guests well and make great beer. This stop was the highlight of the trip for me and Yamabushi was clearly the best beer on the trip.
Next up was Shinano brewery, on the border of Nagano and Niigata. We arrived just before the very early closing time of 5pm, but the staff was gracious enough to allow us to stay until almost 6pm so we could try all their beers. The Amber, Dragon Ale, seemed to be the hit amongst the masses, though I was more enthralled with the very roasty Kurohime Stout. The brewery is very rustic and lovely and they have well water running from a spigot in front of the brewery that is very very clean (bring lots of PET bottles and fill up if you visit the brewery). Again, just like the other two breweries we visited the overall quality of the beer was fairly good.
The final stop of the day was Myoko Kogen, where they have a brewery, hotel and ski hill all rolled into one. It was comical when they drove us by shuttle bus from the hotel to the spacious brewery restaurant, which was all of 40 meters from the front of the hotel. I had Myoko Kogen beer before and didn't think it was very interesting, which is why when I started with the very clovey and well- balanced Weizen it was a pleasant surprise. The Alt and Kolsch were less impressive, but certainly not terrible. The food was OK, but overall the Myoko Kogen complex feels like it saw its better days during the economic bubble in the 80s.
The next day I managed to squeeze a small hike up the ski hill and breathe in some great mountain air before taking off to what was probably the biggest mystery brewery to us, Nihonkai Yuhi in the very picturesque touristy town of Nagaoka, Niigata. Located across the street from the Sea of Japan, the second floor brewery not only has great scenery, but even much better food. The four beers on offer, included a Pilsner, a Pilsner with Koshihikari rice, a Dunkel with Koshikari rice and a 9% barleywine. Surprisingly the two rice beers were competently made and the clear winners.
The Pils was a bit lifeless and the barleywine was just weird - unbelievably sweet, it was clearly not fermented all the way. Thick and syrupy, more than a few sips of this dark red brew could cause a diabetic some serious problems. The lunch special of 1000 yen for food and a pint of beer was a great bargain, especially in light of the fact the food (ok, we just had pizza) was definitely amongst the best brewery/brewpub food I've ever eaten. A stop for lunch at Nihon Yuhi and trip to the beach is a definite a must if you are ever in Nagaoka.
A bit inland and we ended up at Echigo, Japan's first brewery, which started 'making' beer in 1994 - though they also served beer the day the law was changed to allow microbreweries. Through the years Echigo has produced some tasty brews, such a Baltic Porter, a nice Stout and a one-off 100IBU IPA. All memories of this place being an inventive brewery that could make decent beers where quickly crushed, as we made our way through the seven beers on offer. Not only was the quality clearly below average, but they were serving an infected Pilsner and initially would not admit to it. Eventually, they said the brewer had not infact tried the beer, which was released the day before and did not charge us for the pitcher we ordered. However, overall Echigo was not at all impressive and prices were significantly higher than Nihon Yuhi. We all regretted not having a full lunch at Nihon Yuhi. Echigo is clearly not worth a stopover.
The final stop was midway between Niigata and Tokyo at Gunma's Den Plaza brewery. The brewery is part of a multitude of buildings, each offering meats, vegetable or dairy products that were produced on site. There was a playground and other attractions, but the day was drawing to a close, so without hesitation we hit the restaurant for dinner and to sample the three beers on offer. I don't remember all the beers, but I remember a sweetish 8% Bock that was served way too cold and a Pilsner I mistook for water. My tonkatsu dinner was much more memorable than the beer. Still the atmosphere is pleasant and if it was nice a day, it would be a good place to stop over and enjoy a beer outside.
All in all, the trip was great, with some delicious brews. Clearly the Nagano breweries are far ahead of their Niigata brothers, but Nihon Yuhi and Myoko Kogen did show how little known breweries can produce some not-bad brews. A bit of refinement and these breweries could become regular taps at bars in Tokyo. Nagano beers should be on tap much more in Tokyo, as there is clearly some good beer that is not making its way to all the good beer bars in Tokyo. Let's hope breweries in other prefectures will take note of what is going on in Nagano and raise their game.
Unusual Japanese Craft Beers
Here is a selection of interesting Japanese craft beers. Most are available at Tanaka-ya in Mejiro.
Kinshachi Pils (Nagoya Japan, all malt, 5% abv) Solid malty flavor with good hop balance that holds it up. Both malt and hop flavors intertwine leading to a long and bitter finish. Something like this could well be your regular choice for summer.
Preston Brown Ale (Tochigi Japan, all malt, 4% abv) Roasty malt aroma with little hops present, medium roast malt flavor sort of like light chocolate. Well balanced and very drinkable. A tasty session beer.
Preston Irish Ale (Tochigi Japan, all malt, 6% abv) Quite a bit like porter in color and appearance. Dark fruity malt flavors with some sweetness and minimal bitterness. Fruity dark roast mineral-like light astringency that balances well the malt in light of the minimal hop bitterness.
Kamakura Beer Moon (Kanagawa Japan, all malt, 5.5% abv) Tangy and malty with a bit of roast malt for amber color and a bit richer flavor. Good balance of malt body and hop bitterness.
Yokosuka Beer-sake (Kanagawa Japan, all malt, 5.5% abv) Faint malty aroma with little hops present. Tart initial flavor with some malt tang, leading to a slightly rich yet refreshing finish.
Hansharo Masako Beer (Shizuoka Japan, all malt, 5% abv) Odd sour initial flavor. A bit fruity and rather malty, but the sourness is too distracting. Said to be brewed with sake yeast used in daiginjo sake.
All articles by Bryan Harrell unless noted.
Sapporo International Beer & Food Festival
The Hokkaido International School will be holding their annual Sapporo International Beer & Food Festival on the last weekend in June. The event is a fundraiser for their Developing Country Scholarship Fund which provides schooling for the children of Mombusho Scholars whose stipends do not include international school tuition.
The festival will feature an array of foods from many countries, along with lots of craft beer from Hokkaido and Honshu as well as Austria, Belgium, Norway and the U.S.A. In addition, there will be a program of live music.
Dates and times are June 25 (4 to 9 pm), June 26 (11 am to 9 pm) and June 27 (11 am to 7 pm). Admission is free, but there will be a charge for food and drink. For more details, phone 011-644-3217 (daytime) or from 6 pm phone 011-512-4774 or go to www.ezo-beer.com/foodanddrink/index.htm.
BEERS will be having a meeting on Tuesday, July 13, at 8 pm in Shibaura, near Tamachi station on the JR Yamanote Line. BEERS stands for Beer Enjoyment, Education and Research Society, a Tokyo-based English-speaking beer club that usually meets on the third Tuesday of each month. If you are interested in attending one of the upcoming meetings, please write to Tim Eustace at tokyobeers (at) yahoo.co.jp.
(Belgian) Beer Lovers Club
August 28 (Saturday) from 5 to 9 pm
This quarterly event is a great way to enjoy a good variety of Belgian beers at a reasonable price. It's held on the last Saturday of May, August, November and February at Bois Cereste, a Belgian beer specialty bar in Akasaka, and works like this. The 3,500 yen admission gets you ten tickets which you use for beer and food. Most Belgian beers are just two tickets, which makes the beer at least 35% less expensive than normal. Plus, the atmosphere is warm and cozy.
Most Belgian beers are just two tickets, which makes the beer at least 35% less expensive than normal. Plus, the atmosphere is warm and cozy. Here is a map and more infomation on Bois Cereste.
Craft Beer Festa Kyoto - More beer events (continued)
by Nevitt Reagan
The summer season includes many more beer events. Here are a few:
Beer's Continuing Diversification
I was recently at a great beer party, and a handful of craft beer lovers got into a discussion about the massively hopped beers which are quite popular these days. One fellow said this was just a "pendulum swing" and that these brews will gradually fall out of favor.
I disagreed, and believe that the ultra-hoppy beers are here to stay, but will not become the standard norm. These "big hop" and "big alcohol" brews are part of the increased diversity in beer flavors. What's more, I believe that there will be new kinds of beer appearing in the years to come that we just have no idea about. The beer scene continues to evolve and present us with new flavors, new sensations and new surprises. What do you think?
Special thanks this issue to Nevitt Reagan and Tim Eustace for their contributions. We'd love your contribution, too, so send your story ideas (or story) to brewsnews "at" yahoo.com by Friday, July 30.