Japan Beer Festival 2002
May 18 - 19 Weekend at Yebisu Garden Place in Tokyo
This year was much better than last year. The signage was above and behind the beer servers, the people serving beer were helpful and informed (providing you speak Japanese) and the overall quality was rather encouraging - I only had a few clunkers. Also a nice touch to the event was the glass washing service.
My favorites had to be the beers from Hakusekikan of Gifu, Japan's answer to the fabulous Hair of the Dog Brewery in Portland, Oregon which specializes in exotic, high-gravity, high-alcohol "sipping" beers. Super Vintage is a 14% abv bottom fermented barley wine in a class of its own, with spectacular complexity and a deep, rich flavor. Crystal Ale is a 12% abv blonde, heavy bottom fermented beer with a striking sweetness that quickly leaves off, leading to a dry finish. Mariage is patterned after a Belgian lambic, and accordingly is the only beer in Japan that is spontaneously fermented with airborne natural yeast. The result is thrillingly complex, funky and rich, with a myriad of flavors that unfold in the mouth. Hakusekikan may have to be Japan's most interesting specialty brewery, and can be reached at 0573-45-2110.
Other great beers were the beers from Nasu Kogen Brewery, particularly the rich and delicious Nine Tailed Fox barleywine; the Red Rice Ale from Nest beer which was brewed with malt and an old variety of rice called Akamai (red rice); and the organic ales from Wind Valley in Shizuoka.
Otsukaresama Set at Popeye
& Heavyfoot Club in Kagurazaka
& Kanda Gasse in Akihabara
Not only is this the best Japanese craft beer pub in the universe, it also has one of the happiest happy hour deals. Between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., for each beer you order of a selected list, you can choose a free plate of food from another selected list. That's right, a small plate of food free with every beer purchase. What's more, the food is good and generous. Things like an awesomely fresh and big salad, and shrimp in chili sauce with a Thai food edge to it.
Bakushu Club Popeye
2-18-7 Ryogoku Sumida-ku, Tokyo 130-0026
Phone: (03) 3633-2120
Heavyfoot Club in Kagurazaka
The entrance of this place is really unusual. The front end of a 57 Chevy seems to burst out from the wall by the stairs leading down to this basement dive. Next to the Chevy is a statue in a serape riding a penny farthing bicycle. Downstairs, though, the fun starts with a bottle of Namara Nigai (the Japanese name for Brutal Bitter brewed by Rogue Ales in Oregon, USA) for just 700 yen, very reasonable for a great US microbrew. Plus, other interesting beers for low prices, along surprisingly good food and friendly service.
6-38 Kagurazaka B1 Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162
Kanda Gasse in Akihabara
Akihabara is just as famous for its lack of good food as it is for its good bargains on anything electronic. This is why it was such a surprise for Robb Satterwhite and I to encounter Kanda Gasse on the western edge of Akihabara. We found a lovely basement place with high ceilings, a small stage where live music happens on certain days (though Robb admitted being scared by the accordions), decent authentic German food, and some really great German beers. My favorite was the limited edition Einbecker Mai-ur-bock (700 yen), a totally gorgeous bronze colored heavy lager which is likely to be sold out by the time you read this. Nevertheless, they have plenty of other good beers to choose from.
Dai-ichi Dempa Bldg. B1 2-4-4 Soto Kanda Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Brews in the News
Beer from Hawaii, Brooklyn, Chofu, California, Aichi, Greece....
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.
We recommend that you avoid this product.
Tsunami Lager (Mehana Brewery in Hilo, Hawaii) - 4.8% abv, all malt. Bright orange bronze, dense ivory head. Juicy fruity aroma with hints of dried apricot and coconut. VERY smooth and drinkable. Light body, dry finish, so minimal bitterness is appropriate. The name Tsunami, however, isn't - this is a very gentle beer with an appealing complex flavor. Hardly lager-like except for the dry finish, and thoroughly appealing in a very distinct way. The recipe is a masterpiece, letting the best aspects of both ales and lagers come through. A very charming beer. \380 at Nisshin Foods in Azabu.
Brooklyn East India Pale Ale (U.S.A.) - 6.9% abv, all malt. Light orange amber, ivory head, faint malt and strong hop aroma. Exciting blast of juicy tangy malt and crisp floral hops, very flavorful but light and rather dry, becoming drier in the finish, which features quenching spikes of hop bitterness. An excellent execution of one of my favorite styles of beer, and compares well with Anchor Liberty Ale except that hops are English instead of the American Cascade hops used in Liberty. Another masterpiece from Brooklyn brewer Garrett Oliver, one of America's most talented brewers. Plus, the neck label offers a concise and well-written explanation of the India Pale Ale style, which is much-needed information for people interested in this style of ale. It reads "East India Pale Ale is our version of the sturdy ale made by the British brewer George Hodgson in the 1820s to survive the voyage from London around the Cape of Good Hope to Calcutta. East India Pale Ale is brewed from English malt and hops. Visit the brewery Saturdays noon to 5 p.m. at 79 North 11th St, Brooklyn, New York 11211. www.brooklynbrewery.com A bargain at \310 at Kawachiya in Shibuya.
Wolaver's India Pale Ale (U.S.A.) - 6.5% abv, all malt, organic. Bright golden orange, short-lived ivory head. Faint malt and hop aroma. Initial sweet malt flavor quickly overtaken by brisk hop bitterness, which remains until the lingering aftertaste. The best organic beer I have ever tasted, and a truly remarkable effort considering the few organic malt and hop choices available to brewers. Like Brooklyn's East India Pale Ale, this is true to style according to what modern beer experts know about the ales brewed in England for export to India on long sea voyages around South Africa. Wolaver's Ales are brewed in Mendocino County, California. Check out their website at www.wolavers.com While this Wolaver's beer is not yet available in Japan, Wolaver's organic Pale Ale and Brown Ale are available in Japan by mail order from Tengu Natural Foods, phone 0429-82-4811, fax 0429-82-4813, e-mail email@example.com For their complete line of organic food products, check out their website at www.alishan-organic-center.com
Kin Shachi Bock by Land Beer K.K. (Inuyama city, Aichi Pref.; phone 0568-67-0116) - 6.5% abv, all malt. Lovely red amber, tan head. Strong dried fruit aroma, tangy malt flavor up front, chased moments later by brisk hop bitterness. This is more bitter than a German-style Bock should be, but still quite delicious. Perhaps a U.S. West Coast Bock? Wonderful overall, this beer rocks. \380.
Kin Shachi Alt by Land Beer K.K. (see above) - 5% abv, all malt. Gorgeous deep burnt umber, short-lived light tan head, juicy malt with rich flavors and a hint of tartness. Tang appears in mid-palate and extends through the long finish. A bit too fruity and flashy to be an Alt, but a very decent effort and a good drink. \380.
St. Druon de Sebourg Biere de Garde Blonde (France) - 6% abv; malt, wheat and hops. Deep yellow, tightly knit white head, slightly sweet malt aroma. Light body with moderate sweetness with touches of tart fruit like pineapple, strong carbonation, funky Belgian yeast vibe with a long, sweet finish. Somewhat like a light version of Duvel, perfect for brunch some sunny Sunday. In a small 250 ml bottle, and a bargain at \198 (or 3 for \500) at most Yamaya stores.
Mythos Hellenic Lager Beer -- 5% abv, original label says 'malt, hops, yeast, water' but Japanese importer label says 'malt, hops, grains, anti-oxidant.' You're on your own, but this is a fairly study beer that tastes all malt. Golden, thin but tight white head, skunky hop aroma, right Euro-export lager flavor. Sweet with full and solid mouthfeel; dry and bitter quenching finish, solidly crafted beer that walks all over local beers, with its strong malt structure. Euro-label says all malt, 5% abv but Japanese label says malt, hops, grains, anti-oxidant. The importer is at www.ikonbeer.com
Jindaiji Beer by Hoppy (Chofu, Tokyo) - 6% abv, malt, starch and hops. Medium brown with a dark orange tinge. Moderate malt body and some bitterness but lacking in overall structure. Tastes sort of like Bass, but not as good and 50% more expensive. So what's the point? Ugly green bottle, cheesy graphics.
Alaska by Kirin - 5.5% abv, malt, hops, barley, rice, corn, starch, sugars. Medium yellow, thick sudsy head, faint "beer" aroma. Rich initial taste, then quickly becomes watery. Another ersatz beer! But hops linger in the finish, with a sugary "candy" aftertaste. Well, the geometrically textured can in shades of blue certainly attractive.
Yes, we do lagers!
It is certainly the "cold beer" season, and it's time to take a look at some lagers. This month the brew crew (Jonathan Lloyd-Owen, Eiko Nishida and Bryan Harrell) takes a look at some refreshing Japanese lagers, including the classic Kirin Lager and a recent imitator, along with a handful from exotic countries. All are between 5 - 6% alcohol, except where noted.
Kirin Lager - The current version is thin and watery, and lacks the richness and bite of Kirin Lager as it was 20-25 years ago.
Sapporo Fine Lager - This is the one that got Sapporo in trouble for out-and-out copying of the look of the Kirin Lager can. What's more, not only did Sapporo knock off the look of the beer, they also managed to approximate the flavor of modern Kirin Lager, which is not hard to do. Worst of all, Fine Lager is a HAPPO-SHU while Kirin Lager is still (technically, at any rate) a beer! I can hear the Sapporo brewmasters bragging "Yeah, we can outbrew you with one hand tied behind our back. We can make a beer that tastes as good as yours using only one-third the malt. Haaaahahahahha." However, making a low-malt beer that tastes like today's Kirin Lager is not hard to do seeing how much Kirin has thoroughly dumbed down the taste of their flagship brew. Similar to Kirin Lager. Jonathan remarked that it's a bit zippier.
Kirin Classic - Supposed to be a recreation of Kirin Lager in the 60s and 70s, but lacks the richness of the original, circa 1977. Still, a cut above other Kirin products.
Sapporo Lager - This is a rare one that for some reason is still brewed by Sapporo. Pasteurized instead of microfiltered. More like the original Kirin than Kirin Classic, and certainly more fine than Sapporo Fine Lager low-malt beer. Worth trying if you run into it someplace.
Steinlager (New Zealand) - This one reminds me most of what Kirin Lager tasted like 25 years ago. Rich yet dry and quenching. One of the better mass-produced lagers in the world with a distinctive Asian lager taste, for some reason.
Lion Lager (Sri Lanka) -- Sweetish malt, rich with subdued floral hops. Lion is a superb old brewery that has been recognized by Michael Jackson for producing great beer, particularly their stout
Zambezi Premium Lager (Zimbabwe) - Yellow, thick sudsy head, balanced malt/hop aroma. Full flavored yet somewhat light body. Very much like a German export lager like Lowenbrau or Spaten.
Kalyani Premium Export Special Lager (India) - Light yellow, thin white head. Light malt aroma, touch of floral hops. This one is obviously designed for Indian restaurants in Europe and North America, and has a somewhat bland flavor intended to please everyone. However, it is a competently made beer. One would expect that a darker beer with more body would go better with Indian food.
Myanmar Lager Beer (Burma) - 5% abv; malt, hops. "Brewed to International Quality Standards" proclaims the label. One would hope so. Yellow, white head. Faint malt aroma. Slightly fuller body than the average Asian lager may make it match better with Burmese food. This is a very well made beer that falls exactly between Singha Gold (Thailand) and Tiger Beer (Singapore). As such, there is little reason to seek it out, other than to show your support for the current regime of the same name.
Happoshu, Crapposhu - enough already!
Has anyone noticed that the four major brewers are no longer releasing any new beer products? That's right. All their efforts have been going into the creation, release and promotion of happo-shu, a sort of low-malt beer made with only 25% malt, with things like starch, grains, corn, sugars and whatnot making up the rest of the fermentables. Since this product is taxed at a lower rate, it can be sold for a more reasonable price than beer, and in some cases about half the price.
This low-malt beer has captured close to half the entire market for beer and low-malt beer, engendering an overall "dumbing down" of the average quality level of Japanese beer, which was surprisingly high just 25 years ago.
Back then, there wasn't the proliferation of the beer-today-gone-tomorrow products; rather, each brewer had one or two brands they pushed, along with a couple of minor standbys for the niche markets. New beers were rarely introduced because product lines covered pretty much of the available market bandwidth for flavors.
What's more, each brand had a distinct flavor the average person could identify. Kirin was rich yet sharp, Sapporo was soft and full, Asahi was lighter and grainy like an American beer, while Suntory was laughable and seemed to exist only to make the others seem better.
Plus, each brewer had a few niche beers that satisfied enthusiasts. Kirin, for example, had Mein Brau (a Marzen style heavy lager) and Kirin Stout (a heavy 8% English-style stout which they still brew today).
Today, it is hard for even a seasoned beer taster like me to identify one brand from another. What's more, Kirin Lager, once Japan's most popular beers and one of my favorites, has been changed beyond recognition, with Kirin making it lighter and blander to compete with (i.e., make it taste like) lesser beers.
The happo-shu trend seems to be picking up where Kirin left off when it abandoned the flavor profile that once made Kirin Lager a decent quaff after a bath at the local sento.
Call me a spoilsport, but I agree with the government that the tax on this "crappo-shu" should be raised. In fact, it should be higher than real beer, and special tax breaks should be given to small brewers with only one brewery to encourage quality and diversity. Japanese brewers are perfectly capable of making some of the best beers in the world. Let's make the tax system fairer to allow them to do it.
In the meantime, I encourage you to tell your friends to boycott mkass-produced low-malt crappo-shu. While few Brews News readers actually drink the stuff, I do, but strictly for reporting purposes. However, in keeping with the theme of this rant, I will no longer review the stuff unless there is some strongly compelling flavor reason.
Hop Pellets, 13 varieties from Cascade to Willamette, with alpha acid ratings. 100 yen for 30 grams, plus shipping.
Contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Thanks for the latest 'news. Please keep me on the mailing list. I appreciate it. I have a comment about the temperature at which Bass et al are served in Tokyo. Maybe growing up on a diet of 'warm beer' back in England has spoiled me, but I don't see why they have to be served at the same chill as a mug of Sapporo nama. For example, I love a pint of Guinness, but not at the low temperature it gets poured here. (Call me weird, but when the weather gets hot, I love unchilled Guinness from the bottle to wash down a plate of spicy fried noodles.) I grumbled about this to someone recently who told me that you may now be asked in a British pub if you want your Guinness served chilled or normal, though I have yet to experience this myself. Do you have any thoughts/info on the temperature at which imported draft beers are served at pubs around town? Thanks.
Thanks for the feedback. A trip to Australia last December confirmed my suspicions that Guinness will do anything to sell beer. I saw a Guinness tap with the words "super chilled" on it. I asked the barman "Super-chilled Guinness? What's the point?" and his only reply was a bemused look. First of all, the so-called "warm beer" of England has traditionally been cellar temperature - say around 10-12 degrees C. This is only "warm" to those who drink their beer at close to freezing. The thing about mass-produced beers like Guinness or Bass is that when deeply chilled they lose the characteristics that set them apart from mass-produced lager. So, again, what's the point? Why not drink something abysmally cheap since it all tastes the same in super-chilled land. My complaint about most all of the English-style and Irish-style theme pubs around town is that they serve EVERYTHING too cold. One nice exception was the pint of Old Speckled Hen served at perfect temperature at the Frog & Toad Pub (formerly the Roppongi Tavern; check them out at www.frogntoad.com ). What I suggest is just to go to your regular local, order what you normally like, then complain each time it is served too cold. They should gradually get the idea to at least have your favorite at two different temperatures, one for you and one for the punters. Since this approach takes months, I suggest you order a pint or two of your favorite, and during the time it takes to warm, drink something cold like a Sapporo.
Thanks for writing,
Your comments and questions are always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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