Brews News #72
Brews News #72 - December 2006
All articles by Bryan Harrell unless noted.
Have a Belgian Christmas
Belgian ales specially brewed for the holidays are surprisingly prevalent in Japan, but seem to disappear just weeks after hitting the shelves. Ever had trouble finding all you wanted to try? One good solution is to attend the Bois Cereste Belgian Christmas Beer Dinner, where quite a number are included on the tasting menu. My experience is that Yamada-san, owner of Bois Cereste, picks the best just for this event. This year it's on December 13, and by all accounts it should be better than ever thanks to the growing crop of Belgian Christmas ales being imported into Japan. Plus, there is a light dinner with courses matching the beer selections. Cost is Y7,500 per person. Please reserve by December 8th by phone. Bois Cereste, 2-13-21 Akasaka B1, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-3588-6292.
Osaka International Beer Summit
By Nevitt Reagan
The 8th Osaka International Beer Summit was held October 6-8 at the Wonder Plaza in windy, cool weather beneath the towers of the Umeda Sky Building. Typically drawing an estimated 30,000 attendees over three days, this is one of Japan's largest annual beer events. The festival features beer, ethnic food, beer, live entertainment, and more beer from noon until 10 pm over the three days.
To be honest, I approached this year's Summit without much excitement. After all, the most interesting beer I'd sampled there last year came from a large plastic jug, courtesy of a friendly A.J.I. Brewery employee -- and it turned out to be his homebrewed stout. In addition, the Summit seems to lose many of the more dependable Japanese craft breweries in each succeeding year. So, this year there was no Yona Yona (Nagano) booth, nor any representative from Toyama's Taiko Ale. Phred Kaufman no longer comes south from Hokkaido with his selection of marvelous Rogue beers. Each summit in the past drew at least one interesting U.S. micro; this time, however, not one among the more than forty booths.
However, this year's Summit did have something new: a substantially expanded selection of Belgian beers (both bottled and on tap) at several stalls. Also new were some of the more famous and innocuous Mexican lagers, such as Tecate, Corona, and Pacifico, promoted by a lively crew of young women; Kumamoto Craft Beer; and a large, busy stall staffed by Nishinomiya's Beer Cafe Barley, which provided an extensive range of German wheat beers.
Standouts that I managed to sample included A.J.I. Brewery (Osaka) Double IPA, and Hitachino Nest (Ibaraki) 8% XH Belgian strong ale, and the massively hopped Swan Lake (Niigata) IPA. Swan Lake regularly wins medals at the World Beer Cup for their porter, and the newer IPA seems a likely candidate for future honors.
There was also a degree of fairly wacky experimentation in the now-venerable tradition of Japanese happoshu, including a grape-flavored brew and a 14% strawberry-based one. Perhaps these are for the girls? Well, the woman I was with quickly turned up her nose at the grape one; we didn't even consider tasting the strawberry.
This year's biggest disappointment, however, was there was no chance to sample the full range of the annual JCBA (Japan Craft Brewers' Association) Beer Cup competition winners. In past years, a formidable line-up of mini-kegs containing many of the gold, silver, and bronze medal winners was available for sampling. Comparing the top entries in each category was, for me at least, the best part of the entire event. However, this year's JCBA competition was apparently held in May, and so only a small selection of the winning brews were available, and those only in bottles. They were submerged in three large tubs of ice water, and organized by price (500, 700 and 1,200 yen) rather than by style or by any other logical arrangement. Finding something worth tasting required pulling out near-freezing bottles one by one and examining the dripping labels.
In addition, the JCBA staff, perhaps simply volunteers rather than brewers, seemed rather unknowledgeable. One of them fished out a bottle and loudly explained to several people that it was a "henna Belgi biiru" (strange Belgian beer). When I asked him what was odd about it, he replied that it contained orange peel and coriander - both, of course, are common ingredients in Belgian wit beer. However, this relatively benign ignorance was more than made up for by another staffer, a spry old fellow, who freely dispensed highly discounted bottles (occasionally - especially to young women - completely free ones). On occasion, he scurried out from under his station table to chat and drink with attendees.
The hard-core cerevisaphile (beer aficionado) is probably destined to be at least partially disappointed at most events of this type. There is often just not enough of the real thing, the brews that we recognize in an instant as well made; or perhaps too much searching and sipping is required to find it. Of course, if it were easier, we'd feel somewhat cheated of the pleasure of the hunt. Nonetheless, it's always enjoyable to imbibe, compare, and discuss new beers and revisit old favorites. In that sense, the Osaka Beer Summit never fails.
[Nevitt Reagan is a full-time teacher and part-time home brewer who lives in the hills between Kyoto and Osaka.]
What Makes A Good Beer Festival? A Response
By Glenn Scoggins
Last month, editor Bryan Harrell posed the question above and replied with his list of priorities and non-essentials. I approached the same problem a bit differently at the first Great Japan Beer Festival in my hometown, Yokohama, on October 29: What if you went to a beer festival and didn't drink any beer? Pointless, one might reply, and who could argue with that? Nevertheless, minor eye surgery (successful, thank you) a few days before the festival ruled out alcohol, giving me the once-in-a-lifetime (please, sweet Jesus, please!) chance to experience a beer festival without beer.
No more would the hour before last call be a pleasant blur, no longer would I wonder how I got home, never again the shattered souvenir glass and the crumpled meishi of people I couldn't place! Instead of a hangover, I brought back crystal-clear memories of good fellowship with friends the length and breadth of the beer world, news and gossip from near and far, and information which would have taken weeks of research otherwise. Friendships were made and renewed, while embarrassing confessions were both audible and indelible (although proper alibis will be exchanged for a fair price). I also maximized my schmoozing time, since I didn't have to waste it going to the restroom.
Beer is a multi-sensory experience. Just as the blind develop enhanced hearing ability to compensate for their lost sight, those without functioning palates may appreciate their other senses more vividly. I encountered a rich panoply of colors in every glass, an amazing inventory of aromas and colors (yes, that was me sniffing your weizen). It helped, of course, that the venue at Osanbashi Hall was so well-suited for the occasion, with light flooding in from both ends and piercing each glass, illuminating the liquid inside.
The spacious floor and high ceiling contributed to the atmosphere. No crowds or long lines ruined the mood or interrupted the rhythm of drinking, and favorable acoustics rendered the uninspired background music to the background, leaving the foreground to conversation and biiru-banashi. Even someone with only one functioning eyeball could spot friends from a distance in the airy, well-lit interior of the wooden whale of Osanbashi Hall, which gets my vote as the best location yet for a beer festival (although at a rental fee of Y500,000 per day, it might be hard for the Japan Craft Beer Association to foot the bill next year without more paying customers.)
Some will remember this beer festival as the first to feature a view of the Yokohama harbor, the Bay Bridge and the Peace Boat sailing off on a round-the-world humanitarian cruise; some will remember the first time they drank beer from Greenland and Palestine (a pre-requisite for all future beer festivals, claims Tim Eustace); for some it may have been their first introduction to the exquisite romance of beer. For me it proved that the atmosphere of a festival depends on the shared passion of the people who produce and consume the liquid proof, according to Ben Franklin, that God loves us and wants us to be happy. That passion and commitment to excellence are what make the occasion festive, even for those who can't enjoy the essential ingredient.
P.S. You will be gratified (but not surprised) to learn that, mere minutes after the expiration of my doctor's orders, I was on my way to Numazu for the Baird Craft Beer and Pottery Festival. Ahhh, back to normal!
San Diego Beer Scene
by Glenn Scoggins, the Bar Hunter
Conventional wisdom has it that the heartland of American craft brewing starts in San Francisco and zooms up the Pacific coast, past its heartland in Portland, Oregon, continuing up through Washington to British Columbia. While you can head for the Cascade Mountains if you want beers with those distinctive Cascade hops, don't forget about the other end of the U.S. West Coast, particularly San Diego and its vicinity, which have turned into a hotbed of adventurous taste with beers that have attracted attention outside of the region. It should also be noted that San Diego area brewers snagged a total of 11 medals in this year's Great American Beer Festival, a number only exceeded by the STATES of Colorado, Illinois, Oregon and Washington.
What's more, the RateBeer.com website conducted a survey last year which placed three San Diego County breweries within the top ten worldwide: AleSmith, Stone Brewing and PizzaPort, sharing honors with such luminaries as Hair of the Dog of Portland, Oregon, and Dogfish Head of Delaware, not to mention Belgium's Westvleteren and De Doulle Brouwers. See for yourself at the ratebeer website.
Whatever one thinks of the reliability of such online polls, attention must be paid to the region that also inspired Yona Yona Real Ale and Tokyo Black. Their creator, the tireless evangelist for real ale and self-styled High Priest of Yeast, is Yoho Brewing's Toshi Ishii, who put in five years as an apprentice at Stone Brewing in its early days. On a recent visit to Yona Yona's modern and well-equipped brewery in Saku, Nagano Prefecture, I cornered Toshi and asked him where a craft beer enthusiast should spend a week in San Diego. Within minutes he had constructed an itinerary that would have taken me a month and a new liver to complete. With such lofty goals in mind, I set off for the Golden West, fabled land of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Beach Boys, and Dr. Seuss.
This popular brewery has recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with a move from its original San Marcos location to Escondido, another town in northern San Diego County. Their new 60,000-square-foot, $13 million facility is nearly three times the size of the previous headquarters. Even the new 8,000-square-foot refrigerator alone is bigger than the microbrewery where Greg Koch and Steve Wagner, who originally met at the University of California at Davis, started brewing Stone ten years ago. (Interestingly, Greg had lived in Japan a few years back in the early 1980s.) Greg and Steve grossed just $1 million in 1996, while last year's gross was $12.5 million, earned across twenty states (although not, sadly, in Japan).
The new site opened this fall, with its finishing touch being the mother of all beer gardens, Stone World Bistro and Garden, occupying an acre of land outside the brewery. The indoor seating area alone features 32 taps, tiered seating, and a real waterfall. Total capacity is 400 guests, divided equally between indoors and outdoors.
The first impression of Stone's operation is similar to their beers: ambitious, aggressive, and overpowering. These are big beers in every way, with IBUs shooting over 100 and massive use of malts. There's nothing petite or dainty, as symbolized by their gargoyle mascot (to appeal to the Satan-worshipping heavy metal demographic) and typical brand names: the popular Arrogant Bastard, joined by Ruination and Levitation. Details about the beers are available at Stone's comprehensive website, starting in the Tasting Room.
However, Stone Brewing's macho exterior melts when Toshi Ishii's name is mentioned: everyone at Stone has a soft spot and a heartwarming story to tell about Toshi's days when the brewery was getting off the ground. Indeed, most of Stone's employees have grown up with the company, donating their time for meager pay, and seem only now to be reaping the harvest of their dedication. While the new brewery is fully automated and much of the hard manual labor has now been eliminated, no one has been laid off, and the experienced craftsmen can now supervise the machines that did the work that once was theirs.
Stone shows an unusual devotion to spreading beer culture, going to the extent of publishing its recipes online and in Zymurgy magazine. Each year a new version of Vertical Epic is produced (with release dates of 2/2/02, 3/3/03, 4/4/04, and so on), after which Stone challenges homebrewers nationwide to copy its recipe and produce their own versions, which are then put to open competition. Marketing coordinator Chris Cochran candidly concedes that it's not unusual for Stone to lose the contest to amateur brewers who can out-Stone the original. Any takers from this side of the Pacific?
Another legend in the Southern California beer world is Karl Strauss, who turned 93 this year but is still inspiring the range of beers that bear his name, at five brewpubs in San Diego and across the county (and another in Los Angeles). Born in Minden, near Munich, and trained at Weihenstephan, Karl emigrated to the U.S. and eventually founded the Karl Strauss Brewery in 1989. The La Jolla branch where I sampled miniatures of six of his beers has an idyllic setting with every Southern California cliche (I could swear I heard the Eagles from across the street), and an extensive menu featuring wood-oven pizzas, with dough made from Amber Lager. That one was pretty good in the glass, too, but Stargazer IPA and Windansea Hefeweizen were my picks for the evening. Get the full line-up at www.karlstrauss.com, and on your next trip to San Diego spend a pleasant evening with great food and very drinkable beer.
I'd long puzzled over the name of Pizza Port, which didn't seem to promise beer as its central endeavor, but a laid-back road trip up Highway 101 in a 1967 Mustang convertible (if only) put me right in the mood for surf, sand, and the endless summer. The ocean view set the tone as I ventured up a bright coastal highway, cool breeze in my hair, warm smell of colitas rising up through the air...
From the outside, Pizza Port's Solana Beach outlet (there are two others further north in Carlsbad and San Clemente) looks like your average beachfront pizza joint, crowded with sunburnt customers on a weekday afternoon, with its awning promising Tasty Grub and Grog. My party attracted some attention as we entered, perhaps because we were actually wearing shoes. Friendly head brewer Greg Peters welcomed us effusively and made sure he set us up with pints of Swami IPA, Port Pale Ale, Hot Spots Hefeweizen, California Honey and a super-hoppy Lou P. Linn (get it?).
Pizza Port opened in 1987 and has been brewing since 1992, but has recently taken a big step by moving into Stone's recently vacated San Marcos brewery to expand their operations, under the direction of chief brewer Tomme Arthur. Each of the three locations has its own repertoire, and at Solana Beach Greg keeps eleven original brews on tap (in a rotation among his seventeen recipes), rounding out the menu with 16 mainly Californian guest beers, such as AleSmith and Ballast Point.
When we spotted the brew tanks in a capacious but inconspicuous basement, the mystery of where the beer came from was solved, and I had renewed admiration for Greg's subtle mix of brewing technology and down-home cooking. (The pizza, by the way, is to die for.) By coincidence, this Greg is another Greg who had lived in Japan for a few years, and is also a friend and fan of Toshi Ishii, so drop by and drop names for a hearty welcome. Check out www.pizzaport.com for details.
On your way back to Japan, get one last taste of Stone at the airport: the fourth-floor bar overlooking the international departures wing of LAX serves the powerful Pale Ale and IPA (although the Transportation Security Administration baggage screeners seem to have cornered the market on Arrogant Bastards).
Many thanks are due from Brews News to gracious hosts Dave and Mary Maycock for hospitality, transportation, companionable drinking, and the photographs that adorn this article. The Bar Hunter's next trip will surely feature a pilgrimage to top-rated AleSmith. Now if I could only get my hands on that 1967 Mustang convertible...
Stone Brewing Company and Stone World Bistro and Garden
1999 Citracado Parkway
Escondido, California 92029
Karl Strauss Brewing Company
(La Jolla Brewery)
1044 Wall Street
La Jolla, California 92037
Pizza Port (Solana Beach Brewery)
135 North Highway 101
Solana Beach, California
Brews in the News
Yoho Brewing 18th Century India Pale Ale (Karuizawa, Nagano; all malt, 7% abv) Light hazy amber, dense invory head, faint but very clean and brisk hop aroma. Wonderful juicy, tangy malt flavors, notes of honey and dried fruit, combined with bold and rich hop flavors. Overall body light despite high alcohol. Bought at Shibuya Tokyu Toyoko-ten basement liquor shop. A good value.
Kohaku Yebisu (all malt, 5.5% abv) Amber gold, tan head, fruity malt aroma, hops in background. Fruity ale-like initial flavor, followed by the quenching finish of a lager with excellent malt/hop balance. Very good quality hops (Saaz and Hallertauer?) used. I would have wanted just a bit darker color and a little heavier body, but this is quite a nice work. Sort of "Yebisu plus alpha." This is a limited edition version, so hurry if you're interested.
von Raven Birra Scura (Germany, all malt, 5.3% abv) Deep reddish brown, tan head, great forward hop aroma with brown sugar notes. Understated by fine-bead carbonation with quite a complex array of roasty/dark flavors. While this is a refreshing lager when it is cool, when it warms slightly it has a remarkably deep and complex back end of roasty dark toffee and brown sugar notes only slightly north of the black burnt flinty notes of Guinness. All of this for just Y198 per bottle at Yamaya, quite a feat despite the oppressive Y222/liter beer tax.
Sapporo Fuyu Monogatari (The Winter's Tale) (all malt, 5.5% abv) Very clear and bright deep yellow with an off-white head. So clear, is this perhaps filtered too tightly? Strong dry malt aroma with clean floral bitterness, perhaps a bit too simple tasting. Still, a good sturdy lager with great drinkability. It makes me think that standard Yebisu should taste like this. Available only in winter.
Kirin Brau Meister (malt, hops, rice, 5.5% abv) Medium yellow, off-white head, good malty aroma with hops slightly behind. Fresh, clean and light pils flavor. Simple but clean, and good texture with a touch of creaminess. Decent bitterness, medium-long finish, a good session pilsner. This is a beer with too many ironies in the fire; despite all the German imagery and ancient font, it is brewed with rice, a distinct no-no in Germany. The label says three kinds of hops are used, some of them being whole-flower hops, but the hop flavor lacks distinctiveness. One would expect a lot more German character in a beer so named.
Kirin Ichiban Shibori Toritate Hop 2006 (malt, hops, rice, cornstarch, 5.5% abv). Bright pale yellow, off-white sudsy head with somewhat pronounced hop aroma for this beer. Thin body, a bit watery, but good hop bite though flavors are undistinguished. Good malt flavor, very pale but with a tinge of sweetness. Same malt tangyness remains into the finish. When cold it is more drinkable and the hop briskness is more apparent. Said to be made with hops from the Tohno region of Iwate Prefecture.
This Ichiban Shibori Toritate Hop 2006 was later retasted in a ceramic pint mug from Robert Yellin Yakimono Gallery (see http://www.e-yakimono.net) and the results were surprising. First of all, the interior surface of the mug stimulates the formation of bubbles and the faster release of CO2, making the carbonation a lot finer, resulting in a creamier head. Somehow, it also elicits more aroma from the beer. Here are my tasting notes: Good hop aroma, some malt in background, very fine and creamy off-white head. Soft initial mouthfeel and a smooth malt flavors spiked with decent hop notes. These are not the finest hops in the world, but they are likely to be the finest grown in Japan. The mug gives a new dimension to this beer by making it softer, gentler and more yielding without the harsh glaring buzz of strong carbonation. Overall, the mug makes this mass-produced lager closer to a real ale in terms of texture. In this mug, I give it a score.
How Beer Has Made Me a Better Person
I used to be a stiff-necked, stuck-up, sarcastic square, self-righteous and sanctimonious, who looked down on the hoi polloi and suffered fools not at all. Then I discovered beer and the people who love it, both producers and consumers. This was the first step on my road to personality improvement. Beer has enhanced my better qualities and suppressed (usually) the negative ones listed above. Beer helped me lighten up and enjoy meeting people who in the past I would have merely tolerated. The beer world is a cross-section of humanity, and one can't help but encounter a wide range of personalities, occupations, ages, and interests, all linked by a common allegiance.
Beer is a natural aid to hours of conversation, as one can refresh a throat tired by over-use with a liquid relatively low in alcohol, supporting another few hours to exchange opinions and experiences. (Try that with whiskey and see where it gets you!) With conversation comes mutual understanding and appreciation. Just as every woman looks prettier with each drink I take, so every man seems much wiser - although many of them were pretty, or wise, to begin with, I hasten to add. Shared commitment comes with rubbing shoulders at the bar, so a heretofore stranger might give or receive a stock tip, a bar recommendation, or a taxi fare home.
Drinking in Japan has additional benefits. My Japanese fluency improves with inebriation (or at least its evaluation by myself and others improves). I'm also much more likeable in Japanese, it seems: a bit slow, eager to please, totally non-threatening. The cultural reserve felt around foreigners by many of my middle-aged salaryman peers melts away after a few beers.
One of the most admirable qualities of Japanese is their devotion to their hobby: if it's beer, rest assured that every precious holiday is spent on pilgrimage to Munich, Prague, Dublin, or Brussels, with encyclopedic knowledge the result. I've rarely come away from a casual conversation without a mountain of new knowledge. The longer I spend in the enchanted kingdom of beer, the more friends I meet who become part of an ever-widening circle of enthusiasts, meeting at festivals or a favorite bar. This stability is comforting for a long-term resident who has grown emotional scar tissue from bidding farewell to his foreign friends as they relocate around the world.
Sometimes I catch myself in a judgmental or pontifical mood, ready to condemn the world for not living up to my high standards. All I need is to walk through the front door of my favorite local, see the familiar faces and hear them call my name, and I'm home -- a better person because of the people around me.
December 5th, Tuesday, 8 pm - BEERS meets at Bois Cereste in Akasaka. To reserve for this event, please send an e-mail to "tokyobeers at yahoo dot co dot jp" by December 4th. BEERS (Beer Enjoyment, Education and Research Society) is an English-speaking beer club that meets in Tokyo on the third Tuesday of each month. Meetings are open to everyone, and to be notified of the next meeting place, write to the address above.
December 13th, Wednesday, 7 pm - Belgian Beer Dinner at Bois Cereste. This month's dinner will pair various Belgian spiced ales with several courses of food. See above.
December 16th, Saturday, 2 to 4 pm - Very Early Christmas Dinner prepared by Hiroyuki Fujiwara, publisher of Beer & Pub Magazine. The location is Sotokoto LOHAS Kitchen & Bar in the basement of the Maru Bldg. in front of Tokyo Station. Fujiwara's food-beer matching events are delicious, enjoyable and open to all. This meal pairs Shime-Saba (mackerel) in raspberry vinegar with Belle Vue Framboise, Lobster in Salad with Minoh Stout, Roast Chicken with Saison Regal and Chocolate Fruitcake with Fujiwara's own Espresso Porter brewed by Hitachino Nest. Cost is 7,000 yen per person; for more details phone Sotokoto Lohas Kitchen & Bar at 03-3216-1400 (in Japanese) To reserve, go to www.sotokoto.net/lohas_kitchen_and_bar/event02.html.
Real Ale Month is continuing in Osaka, with several real ales on tap for a week at selected locations. Iwate Kura IPA, Minoh Stout and others are being served at Beer Belly (06-6441-0717, http://www.aji-beer.co.jp/s1.html) through December 3. From December 4 to 10, Isekadoya Dry Stout, Hitachino Nest Extra Hi and Minoh Pale Ale and Double IPA are being served at Beer Belly Edobori (06-6445-6366). From December 13 to 22, Beer Cafe Barley (0798-65-6135, http://www.beercafe.jp/) in Nishinomiya will offer Swan Lake Porter, Yona Yona Real Ale or Tokyo Black Ale, Sankt Gallen Special Pale Ale and Ikspiari Brown Ale. Beer Cafe Barley is also having a special Duvel event on December 9, and a Belgian Christmas Beer Comparative Tasting on December 23; contact them for further details.
Beers of the Month Club - www.beerfesta.com is offering six Japanese microbrews delivered to your door each month for 3,000 yen. Future beers will be from such noted breweries as Baeren, Hakusekikan, Hida Takayama, Iwate Kura, Shiga Kogen and more. Visit their site for more details (in Japanese only).
February 11th, 2007 (Sunday) is the date of the 5th Tokyo Real Ale Festival. Mark your calendars for this annual event. Details in the January issue.
Special thanks to Glenn Scoggins, Nevitt Reagan, Åke Nordgren and Anonymous for their contributions to this issue. We'd love your contribution, too, so send your story ideas (or story) to "brewsnews at yahoo dot com" Deadline for the January issue is December 27th.