Brews News Issue #18 -- June/July 1999
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Great Japan Beer Festival '99

Held on 12-13 in the JA building in Otemachi, this year's Japan Beer Festival was smaller than last year's event, yet still provided people with pretty much all the beer they could drink, albeit in 60 ml portions. I didn't hear anyone complain that the Y3,000 entry fee was too high.

While it didn't seem that there were any solid standouts among the more than 100 different Japanese craft beers offered, I did get the sense that overall quality is up and obviously defective beers are on the way out. There were a lot of "safe" beers - practically all brewers had some sort of lager or lager-like product, and many of the dark beers were quite subdued, with a few exceptions.

The true standout of the event, however, was the appearance of world beer authority Michael Jackson on the tasting floor for a few hours on Sunday afternoon. Some people had the chance to greet the amiable and always interesting Beer Hunter. Although I didn't attend the seminar he gave in conjunction with the Festival, I have heard him speak about beer and food before, and his talks are truly fascinating.

There were so many beers on tap that I wasn't able to give fair comparison ratings to any of them, but I did make note of beers that impressed me for some reason, so take the following as a list of loosely recommended brews.

  • Hitachino Nest White Ale from Ibaraki - sort of in the Belgian Wit style, but with downplayed features. Made from wheat and barley malt, along with a bit of orange juice. Interesting and somewhat refreshing.
  • Echigo Weiss from Niigata - a new wheat/barley brew from Echigo Beer, spiced with coriander and bitter orange peel. Very clean and clear. Halfway between a Belgian Wit and a Berliner Weiss, with an interesting sour note. From Echigo's new factory, in a can, to sell from this summer for about Y300. Echigo also offers a good, solid Pilsener, in cans for the same price.
  • Yona Yona Blonde Ale from Nagano - This is a standard American Wheat Ale, light and drinkable with a faintly sweet flavor and a floral aroma.
  • Niigata Swan Lake Rye Ale - A very spicy and interesting brew, though it could have been made better. Brewed with 90% malt and 10% unmalted rye.
  • Ushiku Bower Maibock from Ibaraki - 7% alcohol, rich and malty with a sweet tangy finish. Quite substantial, and would be ideal for late fall in Japan.
  • Hakuseikan India Pale Ale from Gifu - an interesting "lite" version of IPA with nice flavor and a surprisingly refreshing finish.
  • Hida Takayama Sweet Stout from Gifu - Rich and aromatic, with lots of toasty, roasty malt flavor. Heavy body, 7% alcohol. Very fine texture and superb balance between malt sweetness and roasted malt flintiness, with just the right amount of hops. Available on draft at Kura Kura in Shimokitazawa (phone 5433-2323, Kitazawa 2-20-19, Setagaya-ku; just behind the Daiei at the south exit).
Overall, the Japan Beer Festival is certainly a welcome event, not only for the chance to try a vast number of different craft beers, but also for the chance to meet others interested in craft beer. I look forward to next year's event, and hope that more small Japanese brewers participate.

Good flavors at the Zenkoku Ji-Beer Matsuri

Although the event was originally scheduled to end on May 9, it was extended to May 30 due to strong popularity, according to the organizers. I showed up on the afternoon of May 8, and found that the "matsuri" consisted of a small vending booth in front of the Furusato Plaza in Harajuku, with a couple of small tables and some single chairs farther behind. Certainly they could have used more seating and tables. Small glasses of draft were Y300, and full bottles of a variety of craft beers were only Y500, making it difficult to taste your way through too many unless you brought along a six-pack of fellow drinkers. Still, any exposure to craft beer is good exposure, and even though most of the Harajuku tourists passing by the beer booth had no idea that craft beer existed, at least they were given the chance to find out. Reviews of most of the beers I had are in the Beer Ratings, and two were so good (Tazawako Weizen and Sunchi Victoria Amber Ale) I bought some extra to take home.

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New Place in Shimokitazawa Specializing in Japanese Microbrew

Kura Kura opened with little fanfare on May 2. They have six taps, five of them for Japanese microbrew, and one for Yebisu to service those with more conventional tastes. A small glass of draft averages about 700 yen. In addition, there is a rotating parade of bottled beers at prices ranging from 500 - 900 yen.

On a recent visit, I managed to taste a fair number of their offerings with the assistance of a few other drinkers. The Minoo lager from Osaka was light, briskly bitter, and overall an excellent brew. The sweet stout from Hida Takayama was roasty rich and superbly smooth - the same brew that drew my attention at the recent Japan Beer Festival '99. Also recommended are any of the beers from the Hitachino Nest brewery. Another standout was the Ginga Kogen Weizen on draft - it seemed sweeter, smoother and a bit richer than the canned version now on sale in many 7-11 convenience stores. Many of the other brews I tried, however, left me with the same impression I got at the JBF - nice and defect-free, but certainly not exciting or even interesting.

What was very interesting at Kura Kura were the fish fillets marinated in beer yeast and grilled. Both "hokke" and salmon are available prepared in this manner, and I found them both to be excellent, although the "hokke" is a bigger cut of fish. They're sent all the way down from Hokkaido, and are certainly worth a try.

As a craft brew bar, Kura Kura is a welcome addition to the Tokyo craft beer scene, although their selection isn't as complete as you'll find at Popeye (03-3633-2120) in Ryogoku, which seems to offer more Japanese craft brews than anywhere else in Japan. For a review of Kura Kura as a restaurant, see the Tokyo Food Page brewpub listings.

Kura Kura is located just behind the left side of the Daiei Gourmet City supermarket, just outside the south exit of Shimokitazawa station, which is at the intersection of the Inokashira line from Shibuya and the Odakyu line Saturdays and Sundays from 1:00 to 11:30 p.m.

Ji-Beer House Kura Kura
Kitazawa 2-20-19
Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
(03) 5433-2323

Also check out their website (in Japanese) at http://J-beer.com

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Gotemba Kogen Craft Beer Bargain

The izakaya Hana-no-mai in Shibuya is now having a special on Gotemba Kogen beer from Shizuoka prefecture. From 5:00 to 10:30 p.m. nightly, you can have all you can drink for 90 minutes for only 980 yen. So after two or three glasses, you're already getting your money's worth. Better yet, at lunchtime, a small glass (about 250 ml?) is only 109 yen. Why this price? It might have to do with Hana-no-mai being on the 7th floor of the 109 building in Shibuya. Honestly, at this price I don't know how they keep the place going.

When asked how long this beer bargain would continue, the staff didn't seem to know, but suggested that it would continue for some time. To be safe, be sure to call and ask about the "nomi-ho-dai" (all-you-can-drink) offer before you set out. Even without the special deal, a regular glass is 380 yen, and a 1.6 liter pitcher is just Y1,780 - certainly a reasonable price for craft beer.

The place bills itself as an "iizakaya with delicious seafood and craft beer" and while the beers of Gotemba Kogen brewery are far from the boldest examples of craft beer I've ever had, I'll certainly take them over the mass-produced beers that most places offer. All are clean and well-made, though the flavors are a bit timid. The pilsener would be a good choice for those who normally drink fizzy yellow beer, while the dunkel is a tangy amber lager with a light body. The best one, though, is the weizen, and it's quite true to style, but a bit mild.

Food at Hana-no-mai is quite inexpensive, and represents a good value. If you're lucky enough to get a seat by the window, you can enjoy views of the Shibuya skyline as you sip your beer.

Hana-no-mai
7F, 109 Building
Dogenzaka 2-29-1
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
(03) 5459-2072

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Iwate Craft Beers Sold in Ginza

The Iwate Plaza shop in Ginza sells the specialties of Iwate, and recently these have come to include several brands of craft beer brewed in the prefecture. Here's a list of what's available:

  • Iwate Kura beer: weizen, pale ale and red ale Y480 a 350ml bottle; stout Y580 a bottle.
  • Morioka Akaoni no Namida beer Y360 a 350ml bottle. (I found this to be a little disappointing, actually.)
  • Ginga Kogen komugi beer Y265 a can. (Other standard Ginga Kogen beers also available at the regular prices.)
  • Zumona beer golden pilsner, Y500 a 500ml bottle.

There are a few other brands, but they were way overpriced, including one that was Y3,000 a liter. The Iwate Plaza shop is on Harumi-dori, a little past Kabuki-za but on the south side of the street. Ginza 5-15-1, phone 03-3524-8315.

-- Submitted by Robb Satterwhite

 

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Haunted Beer House

Earlier this month I had one of the worst beer experiences ever in Tokyo. Between Nogizaka and Roppongi stations I ran across this cozy little beer bar named Cavern that had a sign proclaiming over 200 different kinds of beer available. A friend and I went in and sat down at the counter.

After looking at all the bottles of beers on the shelves and in the coolers, I asked to see a menu. The woman behind the counter told me there was no menu, and seemed impatient with me. Then I looked around a little more, and noticed that there were several kinds of beer which hadn't been imported into Japan in quite some time. I could sense that I was in the midst of a mass burial site for old beer, so decided to go with a Bush from Belgium, which at 12% is a very strong beer which should keep well. My friend took a similar approach, and ordered a Rogue Barleywine Ale (about 11%).

When my Bush arrived, ice cold in a glass without the bottle, I noticed that the color was darker and hazier than normal, and the beer had a distinctly "off smell." I was certain the beer was past its prime, so I asked the woman to show me the bottle from where the beer came. She took the bottle to the small sink behind the bar, and scrubbed off the importer's label which bears the freshness date. Then, apparently since she couldn't get the label off cleanly, started to take another bottle down from the shelf. I stopped her, and asked her to show be THE bottle that once contained the beer in front of me, and she reluctantly complied.

Once the bottle was in my hands, I pointed out to her that the importer's label was removed, and told her the reason I asked her for the bottle was to confirm the freshness date since I thought the beer was way past its prime. She replied that the shop "doesn't serve any beer beyond its freshness date" and that my beer should be okay. I told her I often have Bush in other places, where it tastes a lot better than the one I was served. Then I asked her why she removed the importer's label and she said it was the "system of the shop" but wouldn't reveal the reason for this so-called system. I continued to complain, not drinking even a sip of the beer, and she continue to repeat her "we don't serve any beer beyond its freshness date" mantra in an increasingly irritated tone.

Finally, her co-worker behind the counter waved us out of the bar and we happily left without paying. Even though the bar is still named Cavern, I now refer to the place as Ale-schwitz when I warn people not to go there. Makes everyplace else in Tokyo seem great by comparison.

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New Craft Beer Home Delivery Service

Several weeks ago I sent out a questionnaire to Brews News readers asking about craft beer purchasing and drinking habits. Many thanks to all who responded. In case you didn't hear, I am working with a respected food importer (who also has several refrigerated warehouses!) to set up a craft beer import and sale business. What we hope to do is bring in first-rate microbrew from the U.S. West Coast, sell it as fresh as possible at a reasonable price.

While progress is slow in obtaining the necessary licenses, it looks like sales could begin as soon as October of this year. Details will follow.

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Daylight Savings Beer?

The April 15 edition of the Nikkei Sangyo Shimbun ran a story about the possibility of Japan adopting the practice of "summer time" or as it is known in North America, daylight savings time. Clocks are set an hour ahead in spring, and an hour back in autumn, so that daylight lasts longer in summer. While other countries have successfully adopted this practice for years, there is still strong resistance in Japan for a number of obscure reasons. According to the Nikkei Sangyo article, Sapporo's website ran a survey of people viewing the site, and some 52.6% of those surveyed were in favor of daylight savings time, 9.5% were against it, and 37.9% said it didn't matter. Apparently, some believe that longer summer daylight means longer times spent at beer gardens, and more beer consumed. Sapporo Beer would certainly be in favor of that.

-- Submitted by Mark Schreiber

 

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The BEER Ratings

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 June 20, 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.

! ! ! ! ! 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.

    No luck this time.

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

    Ezo Soba Beer made by Rogue Ales of Oregon USA - An interesting "happo-shu" due to the use of 55% buckwheat, and 45% malt; surprisingly low 2.9% alcohol. Beautiful golden color, faintly hazy, rich nutty aroma, light tangy malt flavor which quickly fades to a clean finish, leaving only the hops behind. Creamy texture. Very interestingly dry and crisp flavor, but in a style of its own. The brainchild of Ezo Beer founder Phred Kaufman of Sapporo. Y330 at Kawachiya in Shibuya.

    Jever Pilsener Friesisch Herb from Germany - all malt, 4.9%. Pale yellow, with a striking herbal hop aroma and a very smooth mouthfeel and fine-bubbled carbonation. Light malty body with a strong bitterness that lingers long on the tongue. Superbly refreshing, and ideal for hot summer days. Amazingly rich flavor and good character for such a light, dry beer. Y230 a bottle puts it around the same price as mass-market Japanese beer, making it a superb value. Bought at Espoa in Yoyogi Uehara, but available elsewhere. For a real treat, try the draft version at Bernd's Bar in Roppongi (phone 03-5563-9232, Roppongi 5-18-1 2F), the best place I know for German beer in Tokyo.

    Kloster Brauerei Neustadt Pilsner brewed by T.A.B. in Pathumthani, Thailand - all malt, 5%. Very pale yellow lager, with a snow white head that quickly fades. Aggressive hopping with good European varieties (Saaz?) gives it a refreshing zing. A faint bit of sweetness, with a very light body. Super clean finish. Not normally sold in Japan, but available for Y800 a bottle at Imu Aroi Thai Restaurant (good food!) in Naka Meguro. (phone 03-3713-1752; 1-24-6 Kami Meguro, Meguro-ku). I would normally prefer heavier and darker beers with Thai food, but this provides an interesting change, and may suit deep-fried foods better. No jokes about "Kloster-phobia" okay?

    Rogue Honey Cream Ale from Oregon, USA - malt and honey, 5.2%. Clear gold, brisk floral hop aroma, thick fluffy head, light body, and a sweet malty taste with good quenching bitterness. There is just a touch of honey in this, giving it a very subtle honey taste, particularly at the end. Y330 at Kawachiya in Shibuya.

    Sunchi Beer Victoria Amber Ale from Niigata - all malt, 5%. Slightly hazy amber, with an appealing fruity aroma. Wonderful fruity tangy flavor, with a creamy texture, and a pleasing aftertaste. Y500 at Zenkoku Ji-Beer Matsuri in Harajuku.

    Tazawako Weizen from Akita - wheat and barley malt, 5%. A very pleasing example in the classic Weizen style, with sweetness tempered by the clove and banana aromas produced by authentic Weizen yeast. Richly flavored yet refreshing. Y500 at Zenkoku Ji-Beer Matsuri in Harajuku.

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

    Akafuji Ji-Beer from Shizuoka - (no specs available) Said to be made from water from Mt. Fuji, this reddish amber brew reminds me of a Vienna Style Lager. Slightly creamy texture, with a fresh and clean taste, followed by a rich tangy aftertaste. Fine, gentle carbonation with a thick off-white head. Let it warm a bit for a creamier texture and stronger flavors. Good hops, but could use more hop aroma. Y480 a glass at Tofuro in Roppongi (phone 5410-4222, 4-9-8 Roppongi, Minato-ku), where it is the house craft beer. Tofuro also has a good selection of craft sake and even the famous Isanishiki imo-shochu for those inclined.

    Ezo Noboribetsu Jigokudani Smoked Beer made by Rogue Ales of Oregon USA - all malt, 5%. Although the classic rauch (smoked) beers of Germany are bottom-fermented lagers, this one is top-fermented with ale yeast. The smoky flavor is due to the use of a little smoked malt with regular malt. Hazy orange brown, smoky aroma, very slightly astringent, full malty flavor with the tangy sweetness providing a superb backdrop for the smoky flavor. Clean finish with "smoked meat" notes lingering. Though not everyone will like this style, it is a really wonderful beer that is normally paired with smoked meats and sausages. I found it to be a great match with Emmental and other types of Swiss cheese. Y330 at Kawachiya in Shibuya.

    Dios Dark Ale from Fukui - all malt, 5%. Chocolatey and rich, with a focused sweetness and clean flavors. Y500 at Zenkoku Ji-Beer Matsuri in Harajuku.

    Old English Ginger Beer from England - all malt, with raw ginger, 4.7%. This is a dry ginger beer with a pungent ginger aroma and flavor, backed by strong malt presence. Bright gold color, odd sweet vegetal aroma, like apple cider ever so slightly off. Very clean and agreeable taste with clearly defined malt and ginger flavors. Slightly puckerish sour aftertaste. Would be better with a "hotter" ginger bite, though many would find that approach undrinkable. Y310 at Espoa in Yoyogi Uehara, and in many other places.

    Sunchi Beer Kingdom Dark Ale from Niigata- all malt, 5%. Dark brown, faintly sweet, with a rich and tangy malt flavor. Almost like a Scottish Ale. Y500 at Zenkoku Ji-Beer Matsuri in Harajuku.

    Wakasa Pale Ale from Fukui - all malt, 5%. Obviously made with good water. Strong malt structure, but needs a little more bitterness to counter the malt. Overall quite pleasant. Y500 at Zenkoku Ji-Beer Matsuri in Harajuku.

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

    Wakasa Weizen from Fukui - wheat and barley malt, 5%. An okay drink, but the use of an ordinary ale yeast doesn't produce the exciting weizen aroma profile. Y500 at Zenkoku Ji-Beer Matsuri in Harajuku.

! - 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.
    Super Hop's Magnum Dry from Suntory - A "happo-shu" with 25% malt, saccharified starch, 5.5%. Loose head looks like soap suds, solid yellow color, faintly sulfurous aroma, grainy flavor. Overall, not at all a satisfying drink, but the reason we mention it is the highly unusual and somewhat surprising "theater popcorn" aftertaste that lingers. It should have a cleaner aftertaste to qualify as a dry beer. The regular Super Hop's fared pretty well in a recent tasting of happoshu, so it looks like Suntory dropped the ball on this one. I predict it won't make it till fall.
ugh - We recommend that you avoid this product.
    We were lucky this time. No beers in this category.

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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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