Brews News #65
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Brews News #65 - February / March 2006
All articles by Bryan Harrell unless noted.

Beer Here

Beer Lovers Club at Bois Cereste

Saturday February 25, 3 to 9 p.m.

Every few months, Bois Cereste holds this special event, offering most of its Belgian ales in a more casual format. Buy a book of tickets for Y3,500 and use them to purchase beers at roughly 30% less than normal prices. Tickets may also be used to purchase light foods off their menu at corresponding discounts. Bois Cereste has by far the largest selection of Belgian ales in Tokyo.

Bois Cereste, 2-13-21 Akasaka B1, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Phone 3588-6292

Also check out the monthly Belgian Beer Dinner on Wednesday, March 8th from 7 pm. A light meal will be served with courses matched with quite a good quantity of various Belgian ales. Cost is Y7,350; please reserve by March 3rd.

Bar Beat

A Tale of Two Hokkaido Breweries

By Glenn Scoggins

Hokkaido has been the home of "Japan's oldest brand" (of beer) since 1876, when Sapporo Beer was established as a project of the Meiji government. Beer is the drink of choice even in winter among the hardy denizens of the Frozen North. The record-breaking snows of December did not discourage me from venturing northwards to check out the first craft brewery on the island, Okhotsk Beer in the sub-Arctic city of Kitami. I also checked out Hokkaido's newest entry into craft brewing, Tezukuri Bakushu (literally Hand-made Beer) in Sapporo. The two present a study in contrasts, but the common factor was the warmth of the welcome a frostbitten visitor receives when he walks through the door.

Kitami ("look north") is Hokkaido's forgotten city, ignored by the travel guides. It lacks a coastline to experience the ice floes in January and February. It is too far from Lake Akan and Lake Mashu to profit from their vistas and onsens. It doesn't even have a maximum-security prison, nearby Abashiri's claim to fame.

All that may change if the recent elevation of the Shiretoko Peninsula, northeast of Kitami, to UNESCO World Natural Heritage status sets off a boom in tourism to this corner of the island. Presently, Kitami is a town of frank and open-minded frontiersmen, descendants of the pioneers who first settled here a century or more ago. They welcome outsiders and speak their minds with refreshing candor, all in contrast to the usual stereotypes about Japan, yet typical of rural Hokkaido.

It was here in 1994 that Okhotsk Beer was set up as Hokkaido's first microbrewery, with generous financial backing from a local construction company and technical support from Sapporo Beer. In the first wave of the craft beer boom in Japan following the 1994 deregulation of brewery size, owner Mr. Mizumoto head-hunted a brewer straight out of the local university. Sakauchi Jun'itsu was a mere graduate student at Kitami Institute of Technology, but he was given free rein to set up the brewery and accompanying restaurant, now a local landmark.

The gleaming, well-maintained German equipment bespeaks a professional operation with no dearth of support from Mizumoto Construction's coffers. A floor-to-ceiling glass window separates the brewhouse, with three large vessels, from the bar area and a long counter with porcelain taps, each displaying the current temperature of the beer on an LED screen. The restaurant is spacious, with tables seating 80 on the ground floor and a second-floor balcony area overlooking it with space for 45 more. There is another semi-private enclosed terrace (and an outdoor terrace in the summer) plus two rooms for private parties.

Altogether the restaurant can seat more than 230 guests, on a frigid Sunday night before Christmas it was echoingly empty, with six attentive waitstaff hovering over just twice that number of diners. The menu features an extensive array of German-style bar food plus Hokkaido specialties, with attractive prices: a selection of sausages for Y620, for example and a generous assortment of hors d'oeuvres for Y800 per person that could easily suffice for a full meal. (The full menu takes up seven pages on the website.)

There were six beers on tap when I visited (all at Y450 per glass), including the usual five and a seasonal Christmas ale, based on the mild stout but without the spices one would associate with the season. The ale (both filtered and unfiltered) and the mild stout were competent and workmanlike, unspectacular but good session beers. By contrast, the pilsner and weizen were disappointing, without much to distinguish the pilsner from an ordinary Japanese mega-lager, and the weizen entirely lacking in kick or aroma. This struck me as odd, given that the original orientation of the brewery (and the source of its equipment and some of the brewmaster's training) were all German; yet it was the English styles at which they excelled. Which was their current priority, and why and how had their direction changed? I had the chance to satisfy my curiosity when Sakauchi himself made an unscheduled visit (on his day off) to look in on his beer before bedtime.

Asked whether he focused more on German or English styles of brewing, Sakauchi made a diplomatic evasion: "We're not obsessed with beer's origin; we just want to make good beer, whether it's originally English or German." Alluding to the generous backing that enabled him to use top-of-the-line equipment, he continued: "We're fortunate to be in a position to make excellent beer to satisfy our customers. My brewing model is the modern American brewer, who is not constrained by European traditions to make only a single style of beer. Like the top brewers of the U.S., I want to make good beer, regardless of style."

I couldn't argue with that, but I left with the impression that Sakauchi and his operation were too comfortable in a niche market to be very adventurous. His beer is readily available in bottles in the Kitami area but cannot be found in Sapporo, much less in Honshu, aside from the festivals he faithfully attends. If his model is American brewers, perhaps it is a small regional craft brewery rather than Samuel Adams or Anchor Brewing.

In stark contrast to Okhotsk's deep pockets and decade of experience is a shoestring business in Sapporo started only three years ago. Known variously as Sapporo Tezukuri Bakushu (Hand-made Beer), Taiken Kobo (Hands-on Experience Workshop), and Canadian Brewery (the last name, soon to be jettisoned, in reference to the origin of the second-hand equipment and the brewers' training in Vancouver), this establishment offers amateur brewers the chance to brew their own beer in semi-professional surroundings with expert advice, sort of like Home-Away-From-Home Brewing.

This is called Brew on Premises (BOP) and was a new idea only to me, it seems. Open to anyone with three hours to spare and 45 days to wait, this MYOB (Make Your Own Beer) method is particularly popular with those who want to add a personal touch to wedding receptions and birthday parties. Often the bride and groom collaborate to brew and bottle the beer (with labels of their own design as well) to distribute as hikide-mono presents to their guests.

The brains behind this business belong to Sakaguchi Norimasa, who oversees the two brewers and the facilities, located in a 19th-century stone warehouse, a bit off the beaten tourist path in northeastern Sapporo. Sakaguchi-san is a soft-spoken, serious 37-year-old from Hiroshima, who worked as a salaryman operating golf courses in Tochigi and Gunma during the post-Bubble decade. Deciding that the salaryman life was not for him, he jumped the rails in 2002 to set up Tezukuri Bakushu, following his dream in Hokkaido, like so many other pioneers.

Sakaguchi and his two brewers also make their own beer, of course, serving it in the second-floor beer hall (and neighborhood bars that want to stand out from the competition). In December four styles were available: lager, ale, stout, and their first attempt at a weizen. The lager and weizen were both very drinkable and superior to Okhotsk's versions, and could even stand comparison to the best German-style craft beers in Japan. The ale was a rich and complex brew which suited the wintry environs perfectly, while the stout was lighter than expected yet very satisfying.

The beer hall, opened in 2003, occupies the loft of the warehouse, with tables seating up to 25 and a small counter. Paintings by a local artist hang on the walls, with soft jazz playing in the background. The whole effect is quite atmospheric, taking full advantage of the weathered stone blocks that make up the walls of the warehouse. Prices are reasonable, with a tasting set of all four beers (in generous portions) for Y800 and pints of each type at about Y500 each. Simple food is available, but outside caterers handle the larger wedding parties which sometimes book the beer hall.

While no one but a local person would stumble across Tezukuri Bakushu's location by accident on the typical tourist trail, it is well worth a special visit. The closest subway station is only a few stops north of JR Sapporo Station, but it is a world away in atmosphere, closer to the blue-collar roots of Hokkaido's industrial past. On my next trip North, I might give Kitami a miss, but I'll definitely stop by Tezukuri Bakushu for some great hand-made beer.

Okhotsk Beer (Brewery) and Okhotsk Beer Factory (Restaurant)
Open 11:30am to 10pm (year-round except at New Year's)
2-2-2 Yamashita-cho
Kitami-shi, Hokkaido 090-0037
Tel: 0157-23-6300
Web site: www.beers.co.jp
About 15 minutes on foot (longer in heavy snow) from JR Kitami station
Sapporo Tezukuri Bakushu
Taiken Kobo (BOP): Open 1pm to 5pm (by reservation)
Typical cost: Y27,500 for 50 small bottles of your own beer
Beer Hall: Open 5pm to 11pm (closed Mondays)
3-8, Kita 26-jo Higashi 1-chome, Higashi-ku
Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido 065-0026
Tel: 011-752-2550
Web site: www.2002cb.co.jp
About 10 minutes on foot from Kita 24-jo Station on the Sapporo Nanboku subway line, three stops north of JR Sapporo Station (or 10 minutes by taxi from the north exit of JR Sapporo station)

A footnote: Brews News readers with long memories may remember Okhotsk Beer's owner, Mizumoto-san, in another context, from his celebrated run-in in July 1999 with Ezo Beer's Phred Kaufman during the Sapporo summer Beer Garden in Odori Park. As president of the Hokkaido Microbrew Association (now much depleted in membership), it was Mizumoto who blackballed Phred and his Rogue Beer imports from participating in this lucrative event, after Phred had already invested in 4000 liters of beer which was already on its way from Oregon.

Phred had the last laugh, as you might imagine: to underline his exclusion and draw attention to the underlying xenophobia, he gave away the beer for free on several carefree Sunday afternoons in Odori Park, including 60-liter kegs of Buckwheat Ale. Although he took a financial bath, one can only hope that eventually Phred profited by the ensuing publicity. To refresh your memory, re-read Brews News Issue 19 from October 1999 for the full story.

Six Pick

A trio of bottle-conditioned beers, and a wide-ranging trio from Suntory.

Rating system:

! ! ! ! ! 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.

!!!! Maple Stout - Although Maple Stout is no longer made, there are still a few bottles kicking around up at Minami Aizu brewery in Fukushima. Recently, I was fortunate enough to sample a bottle with some friends. The bottle had long passed its expiry date and my friends were hesitant until they smelled the dark brown brew. Dark chocolate, caramel and a pleasant subdued maple aroma wafted from the nose. The body was surprisingly light, despite being around 7% abv. A very rich dark chocolate flavor embraced my taste buds, with only the slightest hint of sourness showing a sign of age.

Surprisingly, the maple flavor was almost gone and there was a moderate amount of bitterness that balanced out the beer nicely. The dry chocolaty finish was very pleasant. In the cold days of February this beer is sure to warm to you up. All of us that sampled this (including some people who usually don't drink beer) thought it was great beer and wished it was still in production. Luckily enough, John Schultz of Minami Aizu is still selling what he has left. Check out Minami Aizu brewery's website for more information. http://www.johnnylager.com/brews.html (these tasting notes by Tim Eustace)

!!!! Kirin Maroyaka Kobo (barley malt, wheat malt, hops; bottle conditioned, unfiltered, 5% abv). Dull cloudy pale yellow, loose white head, yeasty and tart "wheat beer" aroma with a faint funky whiff of wet straw. Very soft mouthfeel, very fine subdued carbonation that imparts a brisk sensation in the mouth. Hopping is low, with the tartness from the wheat malt balancing the sweetness, resulting in an interestingly refreshing brew. Loose "disassembled" malt structure, with a slightly lemony character marked by a kiss of sweetness. While most beers are malt-forward, and some are hop-forward, this beer is interestingly yeast-forward. This interesting beer is even more surprising in that it's a regular Kirin product sold in convenience stores. Certainly worth revisiting, as I did.

!!!!! Broken House Imperial IPA - A truly fantastic home brew from a reader. (Thanks CJ!) I'd describe it if it were available commercially, but since it isn't, I'll save you the anguish over reading about something you just can't get.

!!!! Suntory World Select Beer (100% malt from French and Canadian barley, Czech Saaz and German Hallertau hops, 6% abv) Very bright gold, dense off-white head, fine floral hop aroma with hints of malt and sweet spice in the background. Smooth creamy mouthfeel, with rich flavor that's initially a bit sweet but the sweetness quickly fades leaving a long dry, malty finish that slowly tapers, with faint hop bitterness in the background. This premium lager is quite a wonderful work from Suntory, which does limited production beers quite well these days. I wonder how it would be if it were unfiltered, and bottle conditioned. Five stars, perhaps?

!! Suntory Sawayaka Harunama (happo-shu; 25% malt, hops, barley, saccharified starch; 5% abv). When I saw the announcement for this beer on Suntory's Web site I was taken aback. According to Suntory, Sawayaka Harunama is a happo-shu brewed with at least 50% Cascade hops from North America. Wait, and they are late-addition aroma hops, too. What's going on here? Unclear on the concept, I know, but I just had to try this - a low-malt beer with a whiff of pale ale from an American micro? Not quite. I really wanted to like this beer just for the fact that it brings Cascade hops to the mass market. That was at least worth an extra star. However, the reality is this: bright medium yellow, dense white head, noticeable hop aroma. Thin body, faint grainy sourness bolstered by distinct hop bitterness. The Cascade character is a bit muddled and low-res, but at least recognizable.

! Suntory Mugi No Zeitaku (beer-cocktail alcoholic beverage categorized as a "liqueur"; made with beer, grain alcohol, carbonation, 5% abv). The can proclaims it brings "a new rich taste to your table in the winter season" - hmmmm, a 'seasonal heavy' low-cost beer substitute. Deep yellow, short-lived thick white head, virtually no aroma except for alcohol and some grain/sugar flavor components. Rich taste of some sort, non-descript but not foul, but not really tasty either. A rather generic flavor lacking in distinct hop and malt elements. Amazing that it comes from the same brewer as the quite tasty World Select (above) and even the can sports similar design elements. Well, it only cost 131 yen.

Beer Talk

On being a female beer enthusiast

By Molly Browning

I'm a girl and I like beer.

However, it's not the mainstream, excessively carbonated, flavour-depleted, yellow water cocktail that large brewing corporations beguiling call beer that I prefer. I have a passion, verging on irrational exuberance, for ale - the amber brew - whose character is felt after one sip, when an abundance of flavours, ranging from chocolate to honey to heather, leap onto the taste buds and explode in intricately timed released patterns.

Throughout recent history, ale has been typically labelled as the drink of men. For females, if the occasional beer was drunk, it was presumably either light beer or fruit beer. Indeed, whilst living in the United Kingdom and upon ascending to the hallowed age of twenty-one, one was more likely to find me drinking Strongbow cider rather than a strong barley wine before becoming enlightened to the beauty of ale. Such enlightenment belatedly came during my last week in the UK, when, led on a Cambridge pub tour by an assorted bunch of Cambridge gentlemen (one of whom happened to be studying brewing), I was forced to admit defeat and make friends with ale. It was either that, or be thrown into the River Cam. Quite wisely I chose the former, but, as it turns out, my brewing-student friend eventually got wet.

Naturally, some people, myself included, are surprised to find that a girl can have enthusiasm for beer, particularly craft beer. For me, I am still shocked that my Japanese female friend and drinking cohort has an affinity for stouts and barley wine. For the most part, though, I find being a girl and having a penchant for beer brings exceptional benefits. I am still constantly amazed as to how extremely tight-knit yet overwhelmingly welcoming the beer community is to any sort of unexpected new recruit.

Yes, only within this community would one see the love in being taken down dark alleyways in the seemingly derelict industrial centre/red light district of Sheffield, England to find, what has to be, the single best pub on earth (apart from Beer Club Popeye), The Gardner's Rest. Tied by sacred bonds to protect and share knowledge of local breweries and drinking establishments, beer connoisseurs are only too happy to spread the news about the best places to drink, new or rare brews, and festivals. Needless to say, such information has been gratefully received by a girl who was lost in the translation of Japanese conglomerate beer.

In many ways, I think that being a girl and fond of beer is no longer a rarity as it once was. For this, we have to thank the upsurge in microbreweries, which impart and impact their signature beer styles on an eager demographic of drinkers, who may have shied away from lesser quality beers. These microbreweries have not only encouraged more females to enjoy craft beer, but also have enticed many to become brewers themselves. In any case, there are times when I have found myself the lone female in the company of burly men. Yet, through the equality of beer, one can see the hard male demeanour disappear, revealing a softer side - especially when they compare the nose and body of a lovely Belgian.

News

Baird's New Brewery

On January 29, Bryan and Sayuri Baird held an opening party to show off their great new brewery, located about a 5-minute walk from the Fishmarket Taproom, which until now has been the center of Baird's brewing activities. The new brewery is remarkably larger, with a 10-barrel brewing system and quite a number of 1,000-liter conditioning tanks. With this huge jump in production capacity, it's no surprise that Bryan is now looking for extra brewing staff. Once in full operation, we should expect fewer "sold-out" disappointments at the pubs serving delicious Baird Beer. For details, see www.bairdbeer.com

BEERS Meeting February 21

The Beer Enjoyment, Education and Research Society (BEERS), and English-speaking group of beer enthusiasts, will hold their monthly get-together from 8 p.m. on Tuesday, February 21st in Tokyo. This month's venue is tentatively set at a small pub in the Hamamatsucho/Daimon area, but final plans have yet to be decided. If you're interested in attending, please send an e-mail to Tim (tokyobeers@yahoo.co.jp) and you will be sent final details before the event.

New from the Major Breweries

Kirin will be releasing an unfiltered version of its Ichiban Shibori beer on April 5th as a new entrant in its Chilled Beer series sold at convenience stores. For details see: www.kirin.co.jp/brands/index.html#chilled.

Sapporo will be releasing a new limited edition Helles-type lager beer on March 15th brewed exclusively with contract-produced malt and hops from 118 farms in Germany. Could be good. For details, see: www.sapporobeer.jp/hatake/.

Suntory is in the process of revamping its Malt's beer, tweaking it with a new recipe. The new version will go on sale March 14th. For details, go to www.suntory.co.jp/beer/malts/index.html.

Special thanks to Molly Browning, Tim Eustace and Glenn Scoggins for their contribution to this issue. We'd love your contribution, too, so send your story ideas (or story) to brewsnews at yahoo.com. Deadline for the next issue (April) is March 28.