Brews News by Bryan Harrell
Issue #15 -- Winter 1998

Asahi As Number One?

According to a recent story in The Japan Times, Asahi is poised to become Japan's largest brewer for the year 1998, overtaking Kirin's 45-year lead. While Kirin is predicting shipments of 2.39 million kiloliters for the year, Asahi anticipates shipping some 2.46 million kiloliters. However, whether or not these estimates pan out won't be known until early next year.

While this may be a sign of success for Asahi's increasingly popular Super Dry brand, another reason is that the composition of the beer market is changing as more consumers switch from beer to lower-priced beer-type "happo-shu" beverages. These are very similar to mass-produced beer, but are taxed at a lower rate because they contain no more than 25% malt, with the remainder being corn, rice, starch, sugars, and other lower-cost fermentables. In Japan, beer must contain at least 66% malt. Asahi is the only major brewer which has not introduced a beer-type happo-shu product.

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Ginga Kogen From Minor to Major?
Music to our ears, but...

The other day I heard a rumor that Ginga Kogen beer, a Japanese microbrewing company with three small breweries, has passed Orion Beer (Japan's distant fifth major brewer) to become the fifth largest brewer in Japan. In response, I called Japan ji-beer expert Koike-san, who explained this would be highly unlikely, since Orion's yearly 70,000 kiloliter capacity is far greater than Ginga Kogen's current combined capacity of less than 20,000 kiloliters. Even with the opening of GK's 40,000 kl brewery in Nasu next spring, Orion would still be larger. To make sure, I called Ginga Kogen headquarters in Ginza and was told they aren't even close to Orion in terms of production volume.

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Good Beer Places
by Bryan Harrell

Speakeasy: Tokyo's Newest Brewpub It's not surprising that Speakeasy calls itself a "microbrewery restaurant." This place looks nothing like a brewpub. It's a dark, casual restaurant with a fairly classy atmosphere. While I only had the beer during my visit, the menu certainly looked tempting - how does a foie gras chawan mushi (Y780) grab you?

The beer is good, but not tremendously so. Which is, again, not surprising because they seem to be pushing wine, fancy cocktails and have a fairly large collection of imported bottled beer. Which makes you wonder how much confidence they have in their brews. The wheat ale was an average weizen that could have been a bit creamier, and really should have had more carbonation, though there was an array of well-focused flavors and the hops were attractively presented. The amber ale was served too cold, but once allowed to warm a bit, this reddish brown brew showed a richly balanced combination of tangy malt flavors, including some faintly sweet coffee notes, although the body was a bit thin and the finish just a bit too dry. Also on the menu were a stout and a honey ale. At Y490 a glass, the price is lower than can be expected, making Speakeasy easily worth a visit or two.

Speakeasy, Sega Gigo Bldg. B2, 1-21-1 Higashi Ikebukuro; phone 5985-8177 Open every day from 11:30 - 2, and 5:30 - 11:30.

Die Wurst Is One of the Best

You gotta like a place that has a happy hour on German beer at Y200 a glass between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Especially if the beer is Spaten Premium Lager. In terms of top-quality beer, this has to be the best bargain in Tokyo. I'm not certain if the happy hour is still on, but in any case, Die Wurst German Farm Grill in upper Shibuya (at the top of Dogenzaka on route 246) is recommended for those who enjoy good German beer. They have draft beer in a number of sizes, priced between Y580 for a decent sized glass and Y1,760 for a biggie (if you have to ask how big this is, then you probably can't finish it). Other Spaten products are the Bock (6.5%) and the glorious Optimator doppelbock (7%). Also served are other German greats, such as Franziskaner Weiss (Gold, Crystal, or Dunkel) at Y980 a bottle, and Bit and Jever pilsners at Y880 a bottle. In fact, only German beer is sold here, but there are enough varieties to keep it interesting. Don't miss the giant soft pretzel, served warm, for only Y280. Plus, the German meat platter (Y1,500 and Y800 sizes) is made up of quality imported schinken, cured ham, and sausages. Phone 03-5457-2871. From Shibuya station, walk up Dogenzaka till the top of the hill (about 10 minutes), staying on the right side of the road. Bear right when the road meets the overhead highway, then walk another few minutes and you'll find it on your right near the entrance to an underground pedestrian crossing entrance.

The same company runs a smaller bakery/restaurant above Kamiyacho subway station on the Hibiya line, where many of the same beers are available. The Shibuya location, despite its inconvenient distance from the station, is larger and more comfortable, with pleasant service.

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Historic Hacker-Pschorr Brewery in Munich Closes

A landmark since 1417, the old Hacker-Pschorr brewery has recently found itself sitting on some very prime real estate in the center of Munich. Needless to say, Paulaner, owner of the H-P brewery and brand, has recently closed it and demolition is imminent. However, the H-P brand will remain and will be brewed using the same recipes by the same brewers in the Paulaner Brewery on the outskirts of town. For years, Isetan in Shinjuku has featured Hacker-Pschorr beers, and still has some stock of products made in the old brewery. Hurry down and pick up a few tasty remnants produced in the original location. Not that the flavor is expected to change, but....

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Rating This Season's Beers

The following beers were all tasted by Bryan Harrell. For some beers, he was assisted by this issue's Brew Crew: Michael Ainge, John Gauntner, and Robb Satterwhite.

FINE PRINT: These are tasting notes on a random assortment of beers, many available only this season, tasted up to December 15, 1998. We only taste and rate beers which are sold in Japan by the usual means. Unless otherwise noted, prices are 200-240 yen and all are in 330-355 ml bottles (normal beer size). These are unfiltered tasting notes, so please don't expect nicely edited grammatically perfect descriptions.

! ! ! ! ! Exceptional, among the best of its type in the world.
! ! ! ! Highly recommended, without hesitation or fine print.
! ! ! Recommended as being good, interesting, worth a try.
! ! Some people may like it; otherwise close but no cigar.
! We don't think you'll like it, but there's some reason why we mention it. You're on your own with this one.
ugh We recommend that you avoid this product.

! ! ! ! ! Exceptional, among the best of its type in the world.

    Nothing again this time, folks, but several came close.
! ! ! ! - Highly recommended, without hesitation or fine print.
    Fuller's 1846 Bottle Conditioned Celebration Ale from England. 6.3%. Tangy and smoky malt flavor with a sweet toffee candy aroma and alcohol apparent. This is a superb holiday dessert beer with layers and layers of complex flavor. Very close to five stars. Y600 at Isetan for a 500ml bottle, ideally shared with four people. Pick up a few of these to take to a holiday party.

    Ginga Koken Beer (weizen). 5%, malt with wheat malt. This canned version of GK's popular Weizen is priced at only Y298 at Isetan, making it a much better value than the same beer in the more expensive indigo-colored 500ml bottle, putting this beer, easily GK's best, into reasonable price territory. Brewed at GK's Hida Takayama brewery with ultra-pure mountain water, it has a fresh, floral aroma with those clove/banana highlights that indicate a good authentic weizen yeast has been used. Surprisingly dense and creamy heat, restrained sweetness that doesn't linger. All the more surprising that such good flavor can come from a can, we should only hope that this beautiful blue can of weizen will become a common sight in convenience stores throughout Japan.

    Optimator Doppelbock from Spaten (Germany). 7%, all malt. Y580 a glass at Die Wurst (see review above). Gorgeous deep brown color, with a powerfully rich maltiness with layers of complexity amidst a slight fruitiness. Yet there is no untoward sweetness, and a surprisingly clean finish considering all that's happened on the palate. This sort of "malt-on-parade" excitement and liveliness is what the Germans really do well. Restrained herbal bitterness. This one tastes great in the middle of winter. Very close to five stars. Usually available on draft, but was only in bottles when I visited Die Wurst in early December.

    Spaten Premium Lager. 5.2%, all malt. In the quest for rich, interesting and unusual beers it's easy to forget how great a classic German lager can be. This one instantly reminded me why Germany is famous for beer. Light medium yellow color, fresh herbal hopping and lively malt flavor in perfect balance, topped with a dense creamy head. This is a superb session lager, and can be enjoyed all night long.

    Suntory Brown Ale. All malt, about 5.5% alcohol. Deep golden, this is really a rather hearty pale ale, with good tanginess and initial malty sweetness disappearing into a clean finish with a nicely bitter aftertaste. Thick creamy head, and much like an English bitter, but with far more carbonation. Still, much better than Kirin's Europe series Pale Ale. Y700 a glass at Winds in Akasaka (03-3582-8951, 3-10-4 Akasaka, near Akasaka Mitsuke Station). Managed by Suntory, this place highlights all their limited production beers, some of which can be pretty good. Worth checking out from time to time.

    Yona Yona Pale Ale. 5%, all malt. From Ya-hou Brewing, Karuizawa. Here is another great value in a can, priced at only Y260. This is a U.S. West Coast style pale ale, with plenty of Cascade hops all the way through to the aroma. Cloudy orange amber, striking citrus/pine nose from the Cascades, strong and rich malt flavor leading to a fresh, clean finish with some lingering bitterness. At this price, there's just no reason for hoppy ale fans to settle for ordinary mass-produced lager.

    Youngs Special London Ale. 6.4%, malt and other grains and sugars. Y380 at Tobu. Superbly layered flavor with a slight tartness balancing the rich, chewy malt. Complex Kent Goldings hop bitterness throughout with a long, pleasant aftertaste. Very close to five stars.

! ! ! - Recommended as being good, interesting, worth a try.

    Anchor "Our Special Ale 1998" from Anchor Brewing of San Francisco. Deep mahogany color with aroma dominated by peppery, slightly astringent spices. A different recipe is used each year, and we found this year's effort bit too dry and lacking sufficient sweetness to develop the spice flavors. Still, it's distinctive enough to warrant trying this year, and makes a great "once-a-year" conversation piece quaff with friends. Y350 for a bottle, with a large and very attractive 50 oz champagne-style bottle available for Y2000 at some stores. Mitsukoshi in Nihonbashi is a good place to look.

    Asahi Black. 5%, malt with rice and cornstarch. Beautiful deep reddish brown. Unlike Asahi's Dunk, THIS is closest to the German "dunkel" style, very drinkable, with a slight roasty bite, yet lacking sufficent aroma and hop complexity, a characteristic of most all Asahi beers since priority is given to a clean finish with little aftertaste.

    Erdinger Weisse from Germany. 5.3%, malt and wheat malt. Fine, complex German wheat beer with creamy texture and rich white head. Y410 at Tobu.

    Kai Helles from Yamanashi. 5%, all malt. Y700 for a 500ml bottle. Interestingly rich taste for such a light lager, pronounced malt flavor with low bitterness. Quite drinkable, particularly on a hot summer day.

    Kirin Stout. 8%, malt with other grains and sugars. This true top-fermented stout is hard to find; Y240 at Meiji-ya in Roppongi. Darker and richer than Guinness, with a bit more sweetness and close to twice the alcohol. The sweetness is balanced with a higher hop profile, with less roasty malt flintiness. Make sure you don't confuse this with the more popular Kirin Black, which is a dark lager with a comparatively ordinary flavor.

    Lion Ale by Sapporo. Top fermenting ale, though very lager-like, made with pale malt and caramel malt. Very clearly fined, a light amber color with a reddish tinge. Some aroma of malt and hops, with hops predominating. Clean bitterness reminiscent of Edel Pils (another limited production draft-only beer from Sapporo), with a similar level of creaminess in texture. Y580 a glass at selected Lion Beer Halls, where you can also find the nicely hoppy Edel Pils (four stars) for the same price. This beer is served too cold for an ale, so order one in advance and let it warm slightly before drinking.

    Premium Dunkel by Sapporo. Nice amber lager, slightly richer than ordinary beer, with a beautiful reddish brown color. Thick head, though not so creamy, yet with good texture. Hopping could be a bit cleaner with better defined herbal bitterness. Overall, a very clean and fresh-tasting beer. Y480 for a small mug at certain New Tokyo Beer Restaurants and in the Sapporo Beer Restaurants at Ebisu Garden Place. As can be expected, it's served a bit too cold, so order one in advance and let it warm slightly to bring the sweet maltiness out.

    Suruga Alt from Shizuoka Pref. 5%, all malt. Y380 at Isetan. Lovely reddish brown color, cleanly filtered. Malty tang with roasted coffee notes, but thin body and a dry finish with strong bitterness that detracts from the malt.

    Suruga Pils from Shizuoka Pref. 5%, all malt. Y380 at Isetan. Very pale yellow, light body, creamy mouthfeel but little malty presence, leading to sharp bitterness and a quenching finish.

    Yamatoji-bakushu from WAOH in Nara. 4.5%, all malt. Approx Y600 for a bottle. Gold-colored beer that seemed to be a lager. Rather similar to Ebisu, but with more aroma, and stronger hop aftertaste. Still, far less character than other WAOH beers we've tasted.

! ! - Some people may like it; otherwise close but no cigar.

    Asahi Super Premium. 5.5%. Richer than other Asahi beers, but the same astringent hop bitterness. We were expecting something a bit more.

    Doppo Bock from Okayama. 7%, all malt. Rather pale gold, with a rich yet one-dimensional flavor. Too much bitterness for a bock, and not enough malt complexity. About Y380 per bottle.

    Dunk by Asahi. 5.5%, malt with rice and cornstarch. Dark golden yellow, sweet malty aroma, full yet nondescript flavor, reminiscent of a U.S. malt liquor, but tastes better. The name is supposed to allude to the German "dunkel" style, but this beer would be closest to a bock at best. However, it has freshness going for it, and might be good when something a bit heavier than normal is wanted, as you stand in front of the glass doors at the average liquor store.

    Harvester Organic Lager (Canada). 5%, all malt. Y250 a can at Isetan, and also available at selected KFC outlets and KFC's Harvester restaurants. Made with organically grown malt and hops, though standards are not specified. Pale yellow, with a slightly pronounced malt character for this style, and a soft mouthfeel.

    Koedo Pilsner (Saitama). 5%. Attractive high-necked bottle with "Koedo Brewery" in raised letters on the glass; Y340 at Isetan. Faintly hazy light gold color, ordinary Euro-lager taste (which means it's maltier with more herbal tasting hops than ordinary Japanese beer). Very little aroma apparent. Still, it's too close to mainstream Japanese beer for many of us to take notice.

    Satsuma Ale from Kagoshima. 5%, all malt. Thin flavor with insufficiently developed malty flavor, and rather one-dimensional hop profile. We've had much better from this brewery, particularly their great weizen. Price unknown.

    A Winter's Tale (Fuyu Monogatari) from Sapporo. 5.5%. Nothing really special, except this gives you the classic Sapporo beer taste in a slightly richer, stronger format. Nicely smooth, slightly heavy body yet not too sweet, striking a good balance. Not too carbonated, but could still use a much creamier head to match the richer body. If you really like regular Japanese beer, then give this one more star.

! - We don't think you'll like it, but there's some reason why we mention it. You're on your own with this one.
    Daiba Beer, Kolsch (5%) and Alt(5.5%). Both top-fermented. These beers deserve the same review because even though one was hazy brown and the other hazy yellow, they tasted virtually identical. Compared to my experience about 18 months ago, these beers have improved tremendously, but that's still not saying very much. Let's say that Daiba Beer is no longer defective and has risen to the level of drinkability. Basically, all the hops seem to have been added at the start of the boil, so the result is beer that's coarse with one-dimensional astringent bitterness. Next, the beer is fermented to the point of a rather coarse dryness with very little rich maltiness. (Essentially, these are the characteristics of Asahi Beer, which is said to provide technical support to this restaurant brewery.) Flavors are flat and lack liveliness. Y700 for two small plastic cups at the Sunset Beach Brewing Company restaurant counter during afternoon tasting hours. Phone 03-5500-5066.
ugh - We recommend that you avoid this product.
    Fortunately, we didn't find any in this category this time.

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We look forward to your feedback, and your contributions to Brews News. If you're interested in being on our tasting team, please send us a note telling us why you want to join. Cheers, BRYAN HARRELL brewsnews @ bento.com

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Brews News copyright (c) Bryan Harrell and contributors.

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