Brews News by Bryan Harrell
Issue #16 -- Spring 1999

Maybe This Bud's for You?
by Bryan Harrell

This month, Budweiser Japan launched a new beer in the Japanese market that would certainly surprise American craft beer fans. "Budweiser Fine Malt" is a rich, golden 5.5% alcohol beer made from 100% American malt. No rice, no corn, no chaser -- it's Bud's first 100% malt beer in Japan. With a metallic brown-and-gold label with ivory insets, this new Bud product seems to be going after Japan's super-premium (mass-produced) beer niche occupied by Yebisu, a 100% malt beer brewed by Sapporo with a similar color scheme on the label. In terms of gravity and mouthfeel, Bud Fine Malt even resembles Yebisu, although it shares certain malt and hop flavor similarities with the brewer's flagship product. My guess is that if Bud released this product in the U.S. market, this tasty brew would immediately cut into the sales of Heineken, Beck's, and many other European imports. Budweiser Fine Malt is priced the same as popular Japanese beers at around 225 yen per small bottle or can, with some places offering a small discount.

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eating & drinking

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Good Beer Places
by Bryan Harrell

Harbor Deli: Good microbrew, surprisingly great casual food

This place is a gem - a casual deli in the lobby of a large Shinagawa office building pouring quite credible microbrew, and serving absolutely superb sandwiches, salads, and lunchboxes. This great idea was hatched by the team of Ian Tozer and David Chiddo (formerly of Lunchan, West Park Cafe and Farm Grill) and features a number of their innovative and tasty recipes.

But first the beer, which comes from the nearby T.Y. Harbor Brewery. Despite nearly two years of somewhat unstable quality, T.Y. seems to have gotten their act together and is now producing clean, stable beers that are the best brewed in Tokyo at present. Reguarly on tap at the Harbor Deli are the weirdly named Ubon Pale Ale and Iehu Amber Ale, which are both clean, well-balanced and full-flavored. The Pale Ale has a sharper bitterness, highlighting the Cascade hop from the U.S. Pacific Northwest. On the other hand, the Amber Ale is mellower, maltier and much more easy going. When I was there in early March, the special was T.Y.'s Coffee Stout, a rich, toffeeish brew with a hint of sweetness and an even smaller hint of coffee. Interestingly, the light chocolate-colored head was coarse and foamy with large bubbles, and looked like a slice of chocolate milkshake had been grafted on top of my beer. This stout was certainly a treasure, particularly since it was priced the same as the other two at just 500 yen for a good-sized glass.

And now the food. What you can expect is cutting-edge California-Pacific flavors with no shyness about the use of good herbs and seasonings, nicely harmonized with the rich goodness of New York. Offerings are almost all lunch fare - bagel sandwiches, grilled panini sandwiches, wraps (sort of like a cold burrito), deli sandwiches, soups and salads. The Californian Wraps included chicken caesar salad, grilled veggie, smoked salmon and chinese chicken salad - all big and filling for only 550 yen each. I enjoyed a grilled eggplant and mushroom panini sandwich (450 yen) which contained a welcome slice of cheese, probably provolone. Bagel sandwiches included smoked salmon, a decidedly un-kosher ham and brie, and a tempting roast turkey club. Featured in the deli classic sandwiches is a B.L.T with A (for avocado) for 550 yen. Then there are an array of deli items like salads, soups and a light yet flavorful turkey chili.

Of course, there's a full-on espresso bar with all your coffee favorites, along with a number of herb teas thrown in for good measure. And a handful of fresh-squeezed 100% juices. Also, naturally, a natural goods bakery with cookies, croissants, tarts, muffins, and David's N.Y.-style cheesecake - miles away the very best in Tokyo - at just 350 yen a slice. But what really sets the Harbor Deli apart are the power smoothies with optional natural source supplements like ginseng, spirulina, bee pollen, propolis, royal jelly and more for 100 yen each. It's amazing that a place so small can offer so much - and still have great microbrew beer!

David tells me this is a model for other Harbor Deli locations now being planned for other parts of Tokyo. Until they open, however, you'll have to make it to their slightly remote Shinagawa location. Fortunately, it's less than a five-minute walk from the Konan exit of the station through covered walkways to the Shinagawa Intercity Bldg.

Harbor Deli, Shinagawa Intercity Bldg. lobby, 2-15-2 Konan, Minato-ku, Tokyo. Phone (03) 3472-0585. Open 8 am - 9 pm weekdays, Saturdays 10 am - 8 pm. Also open Sundays through the end of March - call ahead first.

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Brewtex Tokyo 99
Phred Kaufman with a bottle of Birra Roma.

The activity at Brewtex Tokyo in March this year was a lot more subdued compared to last year, as growth in the Japanese microbrewing industry seems to have come to a standstill. The same was true at the adjacent Beer Japan 99, an exhibition of microbrew which drew only eight small breweries, less than half the number of last year.

Over at Beer Japan, seven Japanese microbrewers (out of over 200 currently operating here) were pouring glasses of their beer. Notable among them was Hitachino Nest Beer of Ibaraki prefecture, one of the consistently best craft beer line-ups in Japan, which is produced by sake brewer Kiuchi Shuzo. Joining the Japanese was Sapporo-based American Phred Kaufman with his line of Ezo Beers, specially brewed for him by Rogue Ales of Newport, Oregon. Phred says sales are down in Japan right now, but that still hasn't stopped him from introducing his innovative new products. Following on the success of his Soba beer (made with the same buckwheat used in Japanese noodles), this year Phred has rolled out Birra Roma, an oregano-flavored beer redolent of cold pizza. No telling how this will be received by the growing number of Italian restaurants in Japan.

Brewtex and Beer Japan are but a tiny part of the massive Foodex international food and beverage exhibition, Asia's largest, held annually in March just outside of Tokyo in Makuhari. The many exhibition areas are arranged by country, and within these there is a surprising amount of beer action.
Philip Rogers of Anchor Brewing Company.

Anchor Brewing Company had a small but lively booth in the U.S. zone, pouring samples of all their products, which are imported into Japan in refrigerated containers by Koami Co., Ltd. Present was Philip Rogers of Anchor, who told me he is very pleased with the job that Koami is doing, particularly in terms of ensuring that high levels of product quality are maintained until the beer reaches the consumer. Really! When I can get completely fresh reefer-imported Liberty Ale from Anchor Brewing in my neighborhood for Y340 per bottle, Japanese microbrews costing more become suddenly less appealing.

Over in the Belgium zone, the category of beer was handled with particular gravity at the Belgian Beer Information Center, a cozy impromptu pub offering samples of most all of the more than 100 Belgian beers imported into Japan. In addition, several Belgian brewers had their own booths, and were considerably generous about familiarizing visitors with their beers. Standouts included La Gesvoise, a canned Belgian Witbier with a refreshing finish, the line of Bush beers (sold as Scaldis in the U.S.) including their new 10.5% alcohol Blonde, and the John Martin line which includes many English-influenced Belgian ales.

The high gravity of most of the Belgian brews was easily matched in the nearby Austria zone by the strong brews of Schloss Eggenberg. Their Urbock 23 (plato) at 9.6% has a rich, creamy mouthfeel and drew quite a crowd, while their Mac Queens Nessie (7.3%) made from Scottish Highland whisky malt raised more than a few eyebrows.

Mr. Benoit-Y. Friart, president of Brasserie Friart, next to a giant bottle of Bush Amber. Normal 250ml-size bottles are available for Y950 at Belgo beer bar in Shibuya.

One very interesting new development was the Urayasu Bridge Brewery's new Brew On Premise business operated out of their brewery just outside of Tokyo. Home brewing of anything more than 1% is still illegal in Japan, but apparently the authorities look the other way if a licensed brewer is actually doing all the work. The pitch seems to be making small batches of standard recipes for people who want it in custom-labelled bottles.

At least a year or two of economic upturn will be necessary to get Japan's microbrewery industry back on the growth track, and despite the drawn-out recession through much of the 90s, the only closings I have noted have been Csarda's Kobe brewpub in January 1998, followed by their larger Yokohama brewery restaurant in January of this year. A number of the larger microbreweries are expanding, and producing lower-priced (yet full-flavored) canned brews to improve their overall profitability. Japan's first micro, Echigo Beer, is rumored to be completing an expansion in May and intends to enter the lower-priced canned craft beer market. As more and more microbrew makes it to liquor store cooler shelves, the entire industry is certain to benefit from increased awareness of craft brew. The biggest winners, however, are beer consumers who can now enjoy a bit more diversity in their drinking.

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Letter to Brews News

Bryan,

I'm a Londoner with less than the expected nostalgia for London. And when I lived in London, I had the typical Londoner's taste (typical for that time, at least) for anything either with an exotic name or coming from a long way from London...which included the greatly overrated Loewenbraeu (which I can still drink) and such sugary concoctions as Southern Comfort (which I no longer can). Thus I have no nostalgia for my earlier tastes or poisons.

Nope, it's only in the last five years or so that, as a tourist in my own city, I've discovered the delights of London beer. Fuller's and Young's are both old-established London breweries whose images in London are utterly banal - no designer-stubbled people drinking from transparent bottles, no rotund Belgian monks, etc. As for destinations within Britain, many of us Londoners (if I can include myself among them) greatly prefer the landscape and people of, say, Yorkshire. But, although some of the beer from exotic and picturesque parts of England is fine, a lot of it is less exotic than names and label designs suggest. Fuller's and Young's, from Wandsworth and Chiswick respectively (or vice-versa, I always forget), are as good as any.

Peter Evans

Bryan replies:

Peter, I just happen to have reviews of two Young's products this issue. Read on...

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Rating This Season's Beers

The following beers were all tasted by Bryan Harrell.

FINE PRINT: These are tasting notes on a random assortment of beers, many available only this season, tasted up to March 10, 1998. Only beers which are sold in Japan by the usual means are tasted and rated. 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.

CORRECTION: The "Fuller's 1846" Bottle Conditioned Celebration Ale tasted last time was actually the "Fuller's 1845" version. Thanks to those who pointed out this error; Philip Thacker, who wondered "was the brand modernized for Japan?" and Peter Evans, who remarked "1845, huh? One of us is out by a year--probably me."

! ! ! ! ! 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.

    Rather than leave this space blank again this time, I went out and rustled up some likely suspects. Here are some that made the grade.

    Bush Amber, 12%. This is the strongest Belgian ale, and one of the richest and most complex. Deep fiery orange color, amazingly rich aroma with dried fruit highlights and fragrantly herbal hops, punctuated with a heady waft of alcohol. Remarkably seductive malt complexity in the flavor, well balanced by a generous use of hops. This might be the most "American" styled of the Belgian ales owing to the largeness of the malt/hop balance, although the flowery aromas of the Belgian yeast come through in mid-palate. Please keep in mind that this is not a refreshing beer, rather it is one to be savored slowly and marveled over. As such, it is best in the dead of winter. Fortunately, this exceptional beer comes in 250 ml bottles, so the total amount of alcohol is about the same as in a large bottle of Japanese beer. The enjoyment, however, is many times over. I normally drink this beer (Y950) at Belgo in Shibuya (03-3409-4442 / www.flex-inter.co.jp/beer), but did find it sold for about Y320 at Nadaya (03-3400-3773) in Omotesando at Jingumae 5-48-2, just past Kinokuniya when walking toward Shibuya.

    Westvleteren Trappist "8" (dubble style), 8%. Deep ruby brown, thick head, classic dubble style with a wine-like aroma, rich dried-fruit maltiness, and high carbonation. Bitterness predominant in the surprisingly dry finish with alcohol apparent. This is the rarest of the authentic Trappist beers, and was available for 500 yen a while this winter at Kawachi-ya in Shibuya (03-3462-6604) near the robot-head police box on the way to Tokyu Hands. The bottle has no label, and apparently it is rarely distributed outside the monastery.

  ! ! ! ! - Highly recommended, without hesitation or fine print.

    Karuizawa Kogen Beer Amber Ale. 5.5%, all malt. From Ya-hou Brewing, Karuizawa, the folks who bring you Yona Yona Pale Ale. Found at the Kinokuniya liquor store in front of Ebisu station at Y298, this is a good value in a can, and with the accent on malt it's a good companion product to the highly hopped Yona Yona. Lovely reddish amber color, good clarity, rich tan head, malty aroma with roasty highlights. It is clean, rather dry, and obviously well made with a very smooth flavor that is quite subdued, marked by a slightly malty tang that turns up in the finish. Not at all striking or strongly flavored, it's a beer one can enjoy nearly all evening long. The attractively designed can has a rather detailed description of the beer in Japanese. Let's hope for more reasonably priced quality beers like this one in Japan.

    Swan Lake "Koshihikari Shikomi Beer" from Niigata, 5%. Y600 at a small liquor store in Shibuya. Imagine a craft beer that boasts the type of rice used in its brewing. Anyway, organic koshihikari rice (a type for eating, not sake brewing no less) is used together with fine-quality pale malt in this nicely made pilsener-style lager. It is unfiltered, but there was little sediment in the bottle, which was wrapped in a cloth-print paper and capped with thick gold foil. This is a very refreshing, clean-tasting beer with a very soft mouthfeel. Bitterness is also clean and well focused, with the sharp aroma of Cascade hops present in the finish. At no more than Y380 per bottle this would be a great beer to enjoy on a regular basis; unfortunately, as well brewed as Koshihikari Shikomi is, it's just not worth Y600.

    T.Y. Harbor Ubon Pale Ale. See article on the Harbor Deli above. Also available at the TY Harbor Brewery (03-5479-4555) in Tennozu near Shinagawa and at Saloon (03-5410-4988) in Roppongi.

    Wangan Maihama Pilsener from Urayasu, Chiba. 5%, all malt. Typical gold color, with high clarity. This is a good, sturdy full-flavored German-style lager with a great balance of rich malt and complex hops. The strong, lingering aftertaste begins with malt, then finishes with hops. Interestingly, a recommended serving temperature of 8 degrees C is indicated on the label. The brewery is owned by liquor discounter Kawachiya, so the Y290 price makes perfect sense. Great value for lager lovers.

    Young's Oatmeal Stout. 5%.Thick but short-lived biscuit-colored head, virtually black but shows bright red highlights under strong light. Bitter roasty aroma with a slightly iodine character, along with alcohol presence. Once sipped, it is incredibly soft and smooth, with a surprisingly light body, yet with a silky coating effect in the mouth. Some hop flavor in mid-palate, but final flavors are like smoky burnt toffee, quickly fading to a refreshingly clean finish. This is an interestingly balanced beer with more than just the interplay of malt sweetness and hop bitterness. Overall, it is not so sweet, yet not too dry and flinty. Could this be the ideal winter session stout? Y310 at Kawachiya in Shibuya.

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

    Budweiser Fine Malt, 5% all malt lager. See article above. A potential alternative to Kirin Braumeister and Yebisu, at a slightly lower price. About as "un-Bud" as Bud ever gets.

    Old Nick Barleywine Style Ale from Young's of London. 6.8% alcohol. Rich light tan head, deep reddish mahogany color, nutty fruitcake-ish aroma like well-aged sherry. Warmingly rich malty flavor with slightly burnt caramel tones and a hint of licorice, which emerge more as the beer warms. Faint hops in the aroma and aftertaste, but generally a "malts on parade" kind of brew. At under 7% alcohol, it's a bit weak compared to modern barleywines which run between 8.5 and 11%. Also, the idiosyncratic parade of flavors departs greatly from what people expect in a beer, and for this reason it did not quite make four stars in this rating. This distinctive product is not for everyone, but will certainly attract devoted fans. Y310 at Kawachiya in Shibuya.

    T.Y. Harbor Iehu Amber Ale. See article on the Harbor Deli above. Also available at the TY Harbor Brewery (03-5479-4555) in Tennozu near Shinagawa and at Saloon (03-5410-4988) in Roppongi.

    Wangan Maihama Weizen from Urayasu, Chiba. 5%, Barley and wheat malt. This is a krystallweizen, which means that the yeast has been filtered out, making it unusual for Japan where hefe-weizen types predominate. It's a clear and pretty pale whitish yellow, with the requisite "clove and banana" aromatics from a true weizen yeast. Easy going, well-balanced and very drinkable, but somewhat lacking in interesting character, most likely because the flavor-imparting yeast has been filtered out. Still, this might be good for people who otherwise do not drink beer, or those new to the world of craft beer. Blue glass bottle is a bit risky in terms of the beer becoming lightstruck, but if kept cold and dark it should be good at least 60 days past its freshness date. Y320 at Kawachiya in Shibuya.

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

    Suntory Muginokaori Double Malt, 5%, happo-shu brewed with 50% malt, and saccharified cornstarch. When you see the words Double Malt on the can don't get your hopes up. It really means two kinds of malt - barley and wheat - but it's only 50% of the grain content because this is a higher-category happo-shu (the lower category can contain 25% max.). The higher category means more tax, so this one is priced at Y175 instead of Y145 for other happo-shu brands. As can be expected, there's a grainy cereal aroma, although the taste is surprisingly smooth and rich without the cidery-ness common to many happo-shu brands. There are grain and honey highlights in mid-palate, though the watery-ness is distracting. Not bad flavor for the money, but that's not saying much. Still, the addition of wheat malt and the comparative richness make this interesting effort a standout in the happo-shu category.

! - 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.

    Asahi Beer Water, 4.5%, malt, hops, sugars, and "flavorings." Everybody just LOVES this name, so we couldn't avoid reviewing this beer, which I expected to be a happo-shu. It looks like any ordinary Japanese mass-produced lager, except for the slightly paler yellow color. Carbonation is lively, and the head shows a little creaminess at the beginning. Faint herbal hop aromas are joined by some slighly funky grainy odors. The taste is very light and brisk, with a touch of acidity, and a quick, clean finish. Tastes like a light U.S. beer tweaked for the Japanese market.

    Azumabashi Alt from Sumidagawa Brewery in Asakusa, operated by Asahi. It's a coarse slightly orange amber color, with a rich head. There is a bit of sweetness from the malt and a hint of ale character. This is a far improvement over the version served about two years ago, but still not "there" as a craft beer product.

    River Kolsch from Sumidagawa Brewery. This cloudy dark yellow ale with a semi-rich head suffers from the same flat hopping style characteristic of many Asahi beers. All the hops seem to have been added at the beginning of the boil, so there is bitterness, but practically no hoppy aroma. Although it is top fermenting, there is very little ale fruitiness or aroma. It seems to be brewed for people who normally drink lager, but are thirsty for something a bit different.

ugh - We recommend that you avoid this product.
    Kanro Green Tea Beer from Sumidagawa Brewery. This cloudy green beer tastes somewhat like a kolsch, with the unappealing addition of green tea powder, which gives it a funky fishy aroma to match its ugly, cloudy appearance. This beer was served in late December, but fortunately should be long gone by the time you read this.

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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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XREF: [ Tokyo brewpubs and beer bars | imported beer stores | Japanese microbrew beers ]

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