Chasing the elusive Yona Yona Cask Porter at Helmsdale
It's good-news-and-bad-news time, folks. The good news came in an e-mail from Yona Yona Ale brewmaster Toshi Ishii, who wrote to tell me that the first kegs of his cask-conditioned Porter were on their way to Helmsdale, near the Red Cross Hospital between Hiroo and Aoyama. Helmsdale is actually a single-malt whisky specialty bar, but to their credit, they have great ale on tap.
A week later I dropped in and enjoyed an astonishingly lively jet-black porter with the loveliest texture imaginable. It had a faint aroma of dark pumpernickel bread. The first sip was like soft velvet, with the light natural carbonation somehow making the liquid seem less heavy than it really was. Once settled on the tongue, complex aged port-like flavors with plum and prune highlights slowly melded into the roasty toffee and dark-roast coffee flavors. Interestingly, hops were subdued resulting in low bitterness. The finish was light with no lingering sweetness, but what did linger long were the echoes of the entire flavor profile. Four and a half stars.
So what's the bad news? Well, only 70 kegs of this beer were brewed, and the allotment sent to Helmsdale was expected to last at least until the end of the year. Unfortunately, by Christmas the beer was all gone. Luckily, I've heard that another batch is in the works. In the meantime, the cask-conditioned version of Yona Yona Ale will be coursing through the beer engine (hand pump) at Helmsdale by the time you read this.
These Yona Yona real ales at Helmsdale are so good that Robbie Swinnerton, food writer for the Japan Times, included them in his Best of 2003 column last December. See the whole story at
7-13-12 Minami-Aoyama 2F
Open until 6 a.m. they say!
New Belgian Beer Paradise in Shimokitazawa
Actually, it was the words "try a freezing Belgian beer" that raised more than
an eyebrow. The ad was for Pierrot 2, a new Belgian beer bar above a well-regarded
French bistro in Shimokitazawa. On my first visit, to my pleasant surprise, the
beer wasn't any colder than one would find at Belgo, Frigo or any one of the Brussels
joints. But to my greater surprise, it was more than just a Belgian beer bar,
it was a friendly and fascinating drinking place spanning three small floors,
decorated with antique French maritime bric-a-brac and outfitted with comfortable
The 2nd floor features a cozy bar that seats four or five people, and leading
away from that is a small living room style area. On the 3rd floor are various
kinds of seating arrangements and a miniature billiard table which may be used
if you ask nicely. The 4th floor, though, is a real eye opener. Accessible by
exiting the back door and climbing up a steep, narrow staircase, it is rooftop
tent kept warm in winter with space heaters, and opened up during warmer seasons.
From here you can see the Shinjuku skyscrapers, the Roppongi Hills megalith and
Like many of the small drinking places that make Shimokitazawa such a great destination,
Pierrot 2 is loaded with character, has reasonable prices and draws an interesting
and friendly group of customers. What makes it of special note to Brews News readers
is their small but well-chosen selection of Belgian Beer. Particularly good values
are the Chimay Red (Y950) and White (Y1,000), and the Westmalle Dubbel (Y1,100)
and Tripel (Y1,200).
Of even more interest are the Unibroue microbrews from Quebec, Canada. These are
some of the most interesting beers being brewed in North America, and Pierrot
2 is the only establishment I have found in Tokyo which serves them. On the menu
are the Maudite (strong red ale), Raftman (made with some whisky malt), Eau Benite
(abbey style tripel), Fin du Monde (spiced strong blonde ale), and Blanche de
Chambly (a witbier similar to Hoegaarden White). All are 900 yen.
While the words "freezing Belgian beer" indicate a need for a copywriter, I found
myself warming up to Pierrot 2 after my first visit.
Check out the menu and the interior at www.trocadero.jp
Hooked On Homebrewing
By Steve Lacey
I made my first home brew in 1978 at the age of 15 with a kit I'd bought my father for a birthday present. He wouldn't use it, so I did! For his consumption, of course! He and his mates liked the first batch, but the second was infected, so that was the end of my brewing exploits at the time.
I began again around 1990, after settling down into married life. Like most home brewers in Australia I started with a kit: a fermenting pail, a 1.8 kg can of hopped malt extract, 1 kg of sugar to boost the alcohol content, some generic dry yeast, and a few other rudimentary bits and pieces to get 22 liters (28 x 750 mL bottles) of home brew. At a cost of about $12 per brew it worked out to only A$0.43 /bottle, you can see the appeal. I made beer this way for a few years, but if you have ever tried beer made with this approach you will understand what I mean when I say that it's (how shall I say this politely?) total and utter crap! Thin in body and cidery in taste, it has a passing resemblance to beer and will give you an alcohol buzz, but that's about all you can say for it.
Then around 1997 I discovered that you could make beer using unhopped malt extract by adding your own hops and specialty malts and boiling the whole batch. Coupled with high quality liquid yeast, full-tasting beers in a wide range of styles could be made. Then I discovered you could start with raw malted barley, just like the pros do, but on a much smaller scale. Called "full mash brewing," this takes a bit more equipment and a dedicated approach, but once setting down this path there is almost no turning back; you are hooked for life.
I went on to hone my skills, started impressing friends and family, and won a few prizes in amateur brewing competitions. But home brewing in Australia has always been associated with the aforementioned cheap and nasty kit + kilo of sugar approach to getting a cheap source of alcohol. This is a far cry from the artisanal approach that full mash brewing entails.
A few fellow brewers were similarly peeved with this state of affairs and we eventually settled on trying to promulgate the word craftbrewer to be associated with any brewer who cares passionately about pursuing quality ahead of quantity and price. And so the Australian Craftbrewer movement was born. It now has a very strong on-line presence with the Australian Craftbrewing website and email discussion list.
So what conditions to you need to have to make beer at home? First of all, many people are of the misconception that you need warm conditions to brew beer. When you prove bread, you put the dough in a warm place. Yeast like warmth, right? So if you want to brew beer, you likewise need things to be pretty warm to give those yeasties a boost, right? Wrong!!
The fact is, if kept warm yeast will certainly reproduce rapidly and quickly ferment out a finite supply of sugar. But when they do this too quickly, they operate at such high metabolic rates that they also produce a lot of nasty bio-chemical wastes that bring undesirable flavours to the finished beer. It is most important that yeast is used within its optimum range.
The world of yeast is divided into two major types: ale yeast and lager yeast. Ale yeast is what is used to make English style ales, American ales, German koelsch, alt and weizen, Belgian abbey beers and the like. Lager yeast, as the name would imply, are used to make lagers, just like all those pale coloured, light bodied pilsener-inspired nondescript beers produced in virtually every country in the world. Original Czech pilsener, of course, is heaven on earth with its wonderful hop driven spiciness and assertive bitterness. The Germans also make some lovely darker or full-bodied lagers such as Oktoberfest, Bock and Schwarzbeir.
Now, the curious thing is that ale yeast and lager differ quite remarkably in their optimum fermentation temperatures. While ale yeasts prefer temperatures between about 18 to 22 degrees Celsius, lager yeasts are much happier in the range of 8 to 14 degrees. Unfortunately, most home based brewers do not have access to fancy controlled refrigeration for controlling their fermentation, so the low tech approach to brewing great beer all year round is to switch between brewing ales in the warmer months and lagers in the cooler months. The only real challenge to temperature control is how to stop your ale ferments from getting too hot in the middle of summer. Perhaps that is what I will write about next time in Brews News.
Steve and I would like to meet other homebrewers in the Tokyo area who are interested in the group purchase of pale malt in large quantities at low cost. Sound good? Then drop me a line at brewsnews -at- yahoo.com - Bryan
From Canada, Germany and Japan
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.
+ Aventinus Weizen Eisbock from Schneider & Sons (Germany, 12% abv, all malt, unpasteurized and unfiltered) This meter-pinning brew just has to be the very best wheat beer I have ever had in my life. The standard Aventinus doppelweizen is widely recognized as one of the world's finest beers, a reputation well deserved. However, this limited bottling (mine was #002200) Eisbock version kicks everything up as far as possible. So while normal doppelweizen beers are a treat, this one is twice as strong, three times as heavy and quite possibly four times as flavorful. The strong, concentrated body and flavor are created by making a very strong and heavy beer to begin with, then freezing it to remove excess water. What remains is an astonishing nectar unlike barleywines in the same class. The difference is the use of wheat malt, which is lighter and zestier than barley malt. (My estimate for this beer is about 60% wheat malt and 40% barley malt.) Available at Tanaka-ya in Mejiro. The story of the original version is at http://www.schneider-weisse.com/bynb/produkte/aventinus.htm
Divine Vamp II Smoked Porter from the Echigo Brewery (Niigata, 6% abv, all malt, unpasteurized and unfiltered) Opaque brown-black in the glass, with a thick deep tan head the color of natural leather. Rich and full bittersweet chocolate aroma with hints of foamy latte and vanilla, and only an extremely faint aroma of smoke. Thick and creamy texture with the flavors being a seamless continuation of the aroma with just a tiny hint of smokiness similar to that encountered in a mild Islay single-malt whisky. Very fine and subdued carbonation provides just the right counterpoint for the rich roasty malt flavor profile, with hops staying mostly in the bitterness and not the aroma. The limited edition bottling has been sold out, but it is still available on tap for 800 yen per pint at Popeye in Ryogoku, phone 03-3633-2120.
"1837" Strong Ale from Unibroue of Quebec, Canada (7% abv, all malt with spices) Very pale blonde, almost white. Rich yet tart aroma, flavor like a strong aged white beer, poly-aromatic Belgian yeastiness, with the tartness and acidity working to make this strong beer refreshing and not cloying. There is a great story about the history that inspired this beer at http://www.unibroue.com/products/1837.cfm
Also, be sure to check out the Unibroue Web site: http://www.unibroue.com/english.cfm
Suntory Table Beer "Half & Half" (5% abv, unpasteurized, all malt) The label says it's a blend of pilsner and "kuro-biiru" but the definition of the latter cuts such a wide swath in Japan that the distinction is virtually meaningless. Nevertheless, this limited-edition beer is far more interesting than average Japanese major beer, and more tasty than any "half and half" I've every had, so Suntory gets points for this. First, let it warm up to cellar temperature, about 10-12 degrees C, then enjoy the rich malty flavor that's straightforward without any hint of off flavors, followed by a clean dry finish that leaves only a trace of malt and hop flavors in good balance. Good work, Suntory. http://www.suntory.co.jp/beer/tablebeer/index.html
Kirin Ichiban Shibori Maribana (5.5% abv, unpasteurized; malt, hops, rice, cornstarch) Okay, I'm a sucker for any beer for which the hops are a major part of the pitch. Then, throw in the snicker factor: the word "maribana" (whole hop cones) sounds just a whole lot like the way "marijuana" is pronounced. I wonder if the general public knows that hops and hemp are related? Anyway, it's bright clear yellow, with a richly floral hop aroma in a light lager format, with a pleasantly tangy malt flavor. Overall, the hop flavors in this brew are surprisingly good and well defined, but so is the malt. Everything is noticeably nicer than regular Ichiban Shibori. http://www.kirin.co.jp/brands/maribana/maribana.html
Hokkaido Namashibori Toritate Hop (5.5% abv; a happoshu made from 25% malt, hops, rice, cornstarch and sugars) As a rule I no longer buy and rate happoshu, but the Hokkaido "toritate" (fresh-picked) hop sales point was hard to resist, even if they are Japanese hops which, to say the least, are not particularly prized by master brewers. It's a very pale yellow, with a complex musky hop aroma and a thin yet clean taste with no off flavors when cold. While it wasn't as hoppy as I hoped for, it had a surprisingly good flavor profile for a happoshu made with only 25% malt. www.namashibori.com
"2004: the year of Real Ale?"
Last year in Tokyo, cask-conditioned real ale moved from the category of "absolutely rare" to "can be found here and there." There are now hand pumps at several Tokyo pubs, but due to the delicate nature of cask conditioned ale, a few places are having difficulty achieving consistent quality. Nevertheless, a number of places have been doing it right, most notably Popeye in Ryogoku and Helmsdale in Minami Aoyama.
What is cask-conditioned ale? Quite simply, it is beer that is brewed and put into a keg and, with the addition of a bit of unfermented beer, is sealed and allowed to ferment just a bit more to produce a fine, natural carbonation. When the keg is tapped and served, the beer is pumped out with a handpump (called a "beer engine") rather than being pushed out by pressurized CO2, a process which renders the beer highly carbonated and "fizzy." Instead, the carbonation in a cask-conditioned ale is characterized by extremely fine bubbles that seem to lighten the weight of the liquid and make it creamy, while making for an extremely dense and creamy head. This is because the bubbles are a natural product of yeast fermentation, and the yeast is still living because it has not been killed by pasteurization nor removed by microfiltration.
The very creamy heads that come on draft Guinness, Boddingtons and the like are not a result of cask-conditioning. Rather, they are a result of a process that attempts to recreate the texture and head of cask-conditioned ale. The secret is using nitrogen gas blended with CO2 gas to push the beer from the keg, through the lines, and out the tap. Nitrogen gas dissolves in liquid like CO2, but comes out of liquid rather quickly in about a minute. When a Guinness is drawn, you can see the gas shimmer upward in waves as it changes color from tan to black. The downside of nitrogen gas is that many believe that it masks aromas, and therefore masks the sensation of the flavors on the palate.
There's no trick to appreciating cask-conditioned ale served on a traditional handpump. In fact, I have taken people who profess to know little about beer to these places and they are invariably blown away by how smooth, drinkable and delicious the beer is. You don't need to be any kind of "beer expert" at all to taste the difference between cask-conditioned real ale and their modern replacements.
This traditional style of serving beer creates a product so precious that it inspired the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in the UK back in the 1970s, when real cask ales were being replaced by cheaper, more stable beers served on pressurized CO2 systems. With the advent of commercial craft brewing in Japan in 1995, it was only a matter of time before a Real Ale group would spring up here. The initial organizing has already taken place, and a board of directors has been selected by a group of enthusiasts. Tentatively called the Real Ale Club, the group is expected to create a lot of enthusiasm for this style of beer in the coming year.
Mini-Microbeer Festival on Jan. 9 (Fri.), 8:00-10:30pm. at Yaesu Language School
across the street from the Yaesu exit of Tokyo Station. Sample 15 to 20 microbrews,
including some of the new Baird Beers, and enjoy lots of hearty snacks. It's only
3,000 yen per person, all food and drinks included. Reservations are recommended.
Phone 03-5255-3090, or e-mail beer(at)kokusaika.org.
The Baird Bottle Beer Launch Party at the Fishmarket Taproom last month was a rolling success, with bottled product soon to be sold through their Web site for home delivery anywhere in Japan. My favorites were the Rising Sun Pale Ale (tangy, juicy and better than ever!) and the rich, clean-tasting Red Rose Amber Ale, a low-bitterness ale that is fermented at colder temperatures for an extended period of time to give it a peculiar smoothness. But all six bottled beers are fantastic - there's one for every taste. For details, visit www.bairdbeer.com or phone the Taproom at 055-963-2628.
Nitro Shakespeare Stout has been sighted at What The Dickens in Ebisu. Before you make a special trip, though, call to confirm that it's on tap at 03-3780-2099.
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