All articles by Bryan Harrell unless noted.
Sapporo International Beer and Food Festival
June 22 (Friday) through June 24 (Sunday) June 2007
By Glenn Scoggins
Two summers ago, Sapporo-based beer importer, bar owner, Santa Claus look-alike, TV star, and all-around impresario Phred Kaufman organized Hokkaido's first international beer and festival, featuring premier brews from across Japan and around the world while also providing a venue for Sapporo's array of multi-cultural restaurants to showcase their cuisine. The result was a success in many ways: great beer, cool and sunny early summer weather, a relaxed atmosphere, a spacious hill-top location, and a chance for Japanese and foreign participants to mix together in pursuit of a common pleasure. In addition, due to Phred's other role as board chair and head cheerleader of Hokkaido International School, the festival raised significant amounts to fund scholarships for needy students.
This June, head north for the sort-of-annual sequel: The Return of Son of Phred Strikes Back! This year's version will feature an even wider range of craft beer from Japan and the US, along with Belgian, Czech and Irish favorites. Live entertainment, door prizes, and eclectic food will complete the festival atmosphere. Escape the steamy smog of summer in Tokyo for Hokkaido, where the rainy season doesn't penetrate. Combined plane-hotel package deals make a weekend (or week) in Hokkaido surprisingly affordable. The famous wide open spaces of the Great North extend to the festival venue, in direct contrast to the claustrophobia-inducing crowds at the JCBA's Great Japan Beer Festival, to be held the previous weekend at Ebisu Garden Hall. After the festival ends each night, head over to Phred's iconic bar, Mugishutei, now celebrating its 27th year as the center of imported and craft beer in Hokkaido.
Beer: Craft beer from seven Japanese breweries, Murphy's Stout, Pilsener Urquell, Chouffe, Chimay, and 15 kinds of craft beer from the USA, including Alaskan, Deschutes, Rogue, Sierra Nevada and more.
Food: Australian, Chilean, Chili Beans, French, German, Indian, Paella, Tacos, Thai and Turkish.
Festival information, see: http://www.ezo-beer.com/foodanddrink/details_e.html
Dates and Times: Friday, June 22, 4 to 9 pm; Saturday, June 23, 11 am to 9 pm; Sunday, June 24, 11 am to 7 pm
Admission: Free (Food and Drink tickets sold in 3,000 yen blocks)
Venue: Hokkaido International School
Address: 19-155 Hiragishi 5-jo, Toyohira-ku, Sapporo 062-0935
Five minutes on foot from east exit of Sumikawa station (Subway Namboku line)
Beer Inn Mugishutei
Address: B1 Onda Bldg., Minami 9-jo, Nishi 5-chome, Chuo-ku, Sapporo 064-0809
Open daily from 7 pm to 3 am
Three minutes on foot from north exit of Nakajima Koen station (Subway Namboku line)
2nd Annual Style Selection Fest at Beer Club Popeye
July 1, Sunday, 3 to 6 pm
Various porters and stouts will be served for comparison.
Admission: 1,000 yen (includes two beer tickets), extra beer tickets available.
Tickets now on sale at Popeye; phone Miyazaki-san for details at 3633-2120.
Malt meets Malt: Whiskey + Beer event at Beer Club Popeye
July 15, Sunday, 2 to 4 pm
Admission: 5,000 yen (4,000 yen for Popeye club members)
Lots of single-malt whiskies and craft ales will be served for comparison and enjoyment.
Tickets on sale at Popeye; phone Aoki-san for details at 3633-2120.
"Why Can't I Get a Decent Beer in Nagoya?"
The Bar Hunter Whines, Moans, and Nags
By Glenn Scoggins
Ambience is a vital part of the total drinking experience. Half-timbered Tudor architecture with the eight-point antlers of a mighty stag mounted above a roaring fireplace can enhance your pint of bitter down at the local, although they cannot compensate for the disappointment of a fizzy Bud Lite. Faux-rustic Japanese inns, thatched roof and all in the heart of the city, do this up quite well: for example, you can escape the grit of Ginza for the gentle Niigata countryside at Swan Lake's Kura-Rin Lounge (see Brews News #67 ).
While the beers from Fujizakura Kogen and Ise-Kadoya can stand on their own quality, surely no one would object to quaffing a Weizen in the shadow of Mount Fuji or downing a Pale Ale next to the 2000-year-old grand shrine of Shinto. Baird Beer tastes even better at the Taproom, when you're gazing out the window at the Numazu harbor fish market. The perfect accompaniment to a stroll along the Otaru canals is a stop at Otaru Beer's stone warehouse for a fresh Dunkel. As with real estate, location is key.
What about the major brewers? Sapporo Beer has a greater share of the most memorable drinking environments than of the domestic market: along with the Biergarten and the Factory showplace attractions in its home town, think of Ebisu in Tokyo or better yet Ginza, with its venerable Lion Beer Hall. Kirin Beer Village in Yokohama is a pleasant spot on an afternoon out for a beer or three.
Even much-maligned Asahi has built a gem of a brewery in the mountains near Hakone, designed by famed architect Kurokawa Kisho with acres of beautifully landscaped gardens, and maintains an even lovelier villa in the hills of Oyamazaki near Kyoto, complete with an art gallery. These cultural treasures lift the company's reputation and provide slobs like us with an exposure to the sort of good taste that doesn't come out of a barrel. Showcase breweries also often give expert brewing technicians the chance to make interesting in-house micro-brews and relieve the boredom of producing yet another mega-liter of Super Dry or Ichiban Shibori.
This synergy between commerce and aesthetics (not to mention free beer samples) seems such a win-win deal for the big companies and their customers that it's peculiar that it hasn't caught on in Japan's capital of capitalism.
Nagoya, bright spot in the long recession, where the bubble never burst, whose captains of industry never got lost during the Lost Decade! Nagoya, city of broad shoulders, broad avenues, and broader accents, where every broad has Big Hair and too much make-up and spends two hours every morning getting dressed, Dallas-by-the-Pacific! While Yubari and Atami sink in a chasm of debt and the rest of Japan muddles through, Nagoya (and its Toyota patron) has enough dosh to build a new airport, put on a world expo, and build a few skyscrapers too. This spring Toyota showed off its clout by opening its new headquarters, Midland Square, to celebrate overtaking both of its two great rivals: General Motors and Tokyo.
But with all this cash and testosterone flowing, where is an impressive venue to enjoy a beer? There is no lack of suitable beauty spots in this complacent metropolis, some with a breathtaking view of the well-conceived civic architecture and surrounding mountain ranges. Yet the provincialism of the local burghers is on display when the only craft beer on sale to tourists at the observation tower features Nagoya's trademark aka-miso, an acquired taste that most outside the Tokai area never intend to acquire. (The equivalent would be marketing "natto" beer to overseas visitors.)
Gone and sadly missed is Nagoya's homage to Brussels, the Disneyesque reconstruction of the Grand Place town square way out in the eastern suburbs, operated (although constantly in the red) by Konishi Shuzo, an old-line Hyogo sake brewer that also happens to import Belgian beer. Down by the harbor is an ersatz Italian village, complete with canals and gondoliers, with plenty of good wine but no beer of note. Hida-Takayama and Kinshachi, two regional craft beers, are on sale at Takashimaya in the JR station building, but not served at any of the hundreds of restaurants in the massive twin tower complex.
Sunk in gloom and depression amidst the bright lights of beer-less prosperity, I read with elation of my deliverance: in a Japanzine review of Nagoya's best beer gardens, first place was awarded to Koyo-en, a three-story restaurant and garden run by Sapporo Beer on its former Nagoya brewery site. I hastened to its unprepossessing location, next to an expressway and an Aeon-Jusco supermarket. Along with the predictable Genghis Khan grilled lamb and classic bar food, Koyo-en has its own micro-brewery producing Pilsner, Weizen, and Pale Ale, stored in three giant tanks visible through a glass partition (although no actual people ever seemed to work back there during my visit).
I ordered the enormous pasta set lunch, value for money at Y830 with refills of bread, rice, salad, soup, and coffee, and sat back to enjoy the sampler of three micro-brews (Y1030 for 220 ml each). Except for a slight variation in color, they all tasted exactly alike! Each had the same thin head, lack of body, and unmemorable taste. Just as I was grumbling that Sapporo could do better (and has done) and that this sort of dumbing down gives craft beer a bad reputation, I noticed the result of that reputation: everyone around me had ordered Yebisu, and they were all in a much better mood than I was. So I did the same and salvaged my afternoon. Would I go back? On a steaming, sweaty August night (Nagoya does this kind of weather really well), I'd sit with my mates outside in the beer garden swilling Yebisu and scarfing sausages and the local "kochin" chicken delicacies, and no one could be happier. But forget the craft beer: small beer it may be, but micro-brew it is not.
Kirin Plaza Osaka
By every measure of civic success, Nagoya outperforms its rival Osaka. The Kansai economy is perennially in the tank, with unemployment, gang-led crime, pollution, urban squalor, and official corruption all at positively un-Japanese levels. Nagoya is well-run, respectable, buttoned-down, and squeaky clean. Somehow or other, folks in Osaka seem to enjoy themselves regardless.
On one barometer, Osaka beats Nagoya hands down: stylish places to drink interesting beer. While the Kansai craft beer boom shows no sign of abating (see last month's Brews News #77), there's also an iconic brewpub with well-made beer and a familiar name: Kirin Plaza Osaka. The location is hard to beat and impossible to miss, on Ebisu-bashi bridge over the Dotonbori canal (where rabid Tigers fans dive in to celebrate Hanshin championships, once per generation) in the heart of Namba and Shinsai-bashi.
The building itself is also an architectural marvel, all right angles and contrasting light and shadow, like a spaceship that landed in Osaka from Planet Geometry, and it has anchored the bridge since award-winning local architect Takamatsu Shin erected it in 1987 (on the site of Kirin Kaikan, a classic post-war beer hall). Its six floors hold a tiny brewhouse, a casual cafe overlooking the canal, a full-service restaurant with an inventive menu, an art studio, and a gallery for local avant-garde artists.
The four brews available (each served in the proper glass) are classic versions of Pils, Weiss, Pale Ale, and Stout, representing four European traditions, putting Kirin's resources of manpower, equipment, and training to work and giving the company's technicians some leeway to apply their experience and ambition. While the Stout is a bit pasty, and the Pale Ale suffers by comparison to Japan's best (think Baird Rising Sun, Yona Yona, Ise-Kadoya, or Tama no Megumi), the Weiss can hold its own against Fujizakura or Hida-Takayama. Not surprisingly, Kirin's ace is the Pils, a bitter and refreshing upgrade that owes nothing to Ichiban Shibori. The combination of taste, ambience, location, and price brought me back a day later, and I'll be there again.
Osaka is brash, noisy, exhausting, and in-your-face all night long, while Nagoya is a good place to kick back and chill out. Each could learn something from the other: Osaka might profit from acquiring Nagoya's civility, while Nagoya could take lessons in style and spirit from Osaka. But then both cities would lose their inherent charm and distinctiveness, which sets them both apart from Tokyo and makes a trip to either one a welcome change of pace. Here's a challenge to Brews News readers nationwide: if I've treated Nagoya unfairly or neglected other great drinking cities, prove it by writing your own travelogue-review. Tell us all the best places to drink the kind of beer that you can remember a week later. I'll be in your debt-which I'll re-pay by buying a round of drinks the next time you're in Yokohama.
Sapporo Nagoya Brewery Koyo-en
Chigusa-ku, Nagoya 464-0858
Open 11:30 am to 10:00 pm daily
Ten minutes on foot from Exit 6 of Fukiage station (Nagoya subway Sakura-dori line) or a more pleasant thirteen-minute walk through Tsurumai Park from Tsurumai station (JR Chuo line or Nagoya subway Tsurumai line)
KPO Kirin Plaza Osaka
Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0084
Open 11:00 am to 11:00 pm daily
Three minutes on foot from Exit 14 of Namba station (Osaka subway Midosuji line as well as private railway Kintetsu and Nankai lines) or five minutes from Exit 6 of Shinsaibashi station (Osaka subway Midosuji and Nagahori Tsurumi Ryokuchi lines)
Kirin Plaza Osaka also hosts tours four times every Monday along with a series of seminars on beer tasting, pairing beer with food, and related topics.
Almost Heaven, Dogenzaka
Apparently meaning "heaven" in Flemish, Hemel is the name of Shibuya's newest Belgian beer joint, located west of the station halfway up Dogenzaka, on the edge of Japan's largest agglomeration of short-time hotels. Hemel isn't quite heaven, but it's close. Things are quietly civilized here, and there are plenty of great beers to choose from in this cozy bar with a wood interior and large glass-doored refrigerator, more than suggesting a similarity to Shibuya's wildly popular Belgo. And, Hemel is open every day from 5 pm to 3 am. The food is tempting, mainly Belgian and European with a lot of fresh fish dishes and just a bit of Japanese influence. Don't miss their handsomely designed website with great photos. Better yet, pay a visit - it just may be your kind of place.
Hemel Belgian Beer & Food
2-16-8 Dogensaka, B1
Open every night from 5 pm to 3 am
Baseball beers, hops and more...
Benchwarmer Porter (Cooperstown Brewing, USA; all malt, 6.5% abv) Deep dark reddish brown, thick and viscous tan head. Inviting coffee and flowers aroma with a touch of vanilla (but no chocolate!). Tart and roasty initial flavor that unfolds in your mouth into a fairly dry porter, with bitterness emerging at the finish. Take care not to drink this too cold - lightly chilled is best.
Old Slugger Pale Ale (Cooperstown Brewing, USA; all malt, 5.5% abv) Faintly hazy orange bronze, fruity malt aroma. Smooth full taste, with bitterness kicking in around the fifth inning and lingering until the end. Tangy, nutty malt flavor with interesting burnt caramel taste. My very clever daughter suggested "Cracker Jacks?" Come to think of it, she's on target, right down to the hint of candied peanuts. Take this beer out to the ball game?
With their nifty baseball motif caps, these "baseball beers" may be the thing for ball fans as the season shifts into high gear. Although I am a sports illiterate, I still like these beers. There are six varieties altogether, and they are available at Tanaka-ya in Mejiro; to find other locations, write to the importer: andrewbalmuth [at] naganotrading.com
Suntory Malt Selection - English Malt (100% barley malt, hops; 6% abv) Very bright amber, sudsy loose tan head. Fruity malty aroma with little hop character, sort of a lager version of Bass Pale Ale and about as exciting. Clean flavor, sweet good-quality malt, but little hop excitement. Read the fine print and you wonder why they bother: "English Roast Malt (over 10% of total malt used)." So why showcase a malt that you use so little of?
Sapporo Sugomi (happoshu; malt, hops, barley, sugars; 6% abv) The can proclaims "Bitter & Sharp" and the taste is surprisingly unlike a happoshu. Deep yellow, white head, hop-dominated aroma with dry malt aroma in background. Very sharp and quenching sensation, some malt flavor, but hops and alcohol dominate in what is essentially a really dry beer with a very quick finish. The whole show is over in a hurry, before the deficiencies of happoshu can emerge. This is a pretty good drink-from-the-can-on-a-long-train-trip beer, and likely goes down well with a cheap bento. Similar to "malt liquor" beers in the US. Could this be a poor man's Duvel?
Flensberger Malz (non-alcohol, 0.8% abv or less; malt, sugars, artificial sweetners, citric acid; only 16.5 calories per bottle!) Looks nice, deep dark brown, foamy tan head. Sweet syrupy aroma, minimal hop aroma. Sweet initially, then dark lager flavors emerge, followed by a shift to a soda-pop taste. You can feel the sugar/citric acid/carbonation trinity go into battle with the beer flavors. In a word, disappointing. The most incredibly delicious non-alcohol beer I ever had was an Issumer Alt from Dusseldorf, which was so superbly crafted that it was hard to tell it was less than 0.5% alcohol. It was a dark beer, with the roasty flavors masking the lack of alcohol. I was expecting something similar with this Flens Malz, this one, but had failed to read the ingredients (which are listed in German only). It does earn one star for its curiosity value. If you drink a lot of diet soda, it won't seem so weird to you. English site: http://www.flens.co.uk/
Yebisu The Hop (from Sapporo; all malt, 5.5% abv) Bright gold, sudsy off-white head, hoppy aroma with dry malt behind. Smooth and easy drinking, malty initial taste, punctuated by dull bitterness with a bit of hop sharpness emerging in the finish, which is heavy and dry, centering on malt. Sort of like Yebisu with a bit more hops.
Comparison with Yebisu: The Hop is lighter, with better balance between Yebisu (), which has a more cloying malt flavor and less alcohol at 5%. I think that Yebisu the Hop is really what normal Yebisu should taste like since it is not as hoppy as you would expect from the name.
Comparison with Kirin Golden Hop: Now why didn't I notice this before? The labels are surprisingly similar; particularly the lighter to darker gradation in green from top to bottom. In Japan, the act of copying a product usually results in a shrug, while in the US it usually results in a lawsuit. But beyond that, The Hop has less in common with Golden Hop (, 5% abv), which is unfiltered, giving it a faint haze and a remarkably distinct hop bouquet that is both herbal and grassy, with highly defined hop flavors running through the brew all the way to the finish. They are priced about the same, but Kirin's Golden Hop (which came first) is clearly the winner.
Special Report - Baird Seasonals
Baird's April 26 release, Four Sisters Spring Bock, really pushed the reset button for me. The night I had a bottle (purchased at Osakaya in Shinjuku) was, by coincidence, the same night my brewing buddy Steve had Four Sisters on tap at Ushitora. We both agreed it was possibly Baird's best beer ever - fantastic by every parameter, and a taste to remember. I can't speak for Steve, but for me it made me think that every beer I drink should thrill me as much. A dream, of course, but not an impossible one. The Baird 60 Shilling (another seasonal released at the same time) I drank a few days later was merely superb by comparison, ranking a scant four stars out of five. (I think I need to make a separate ranking scale for Bryan Baird since he's pretty much maxed out on my existing scale.)
A few weeks later, I had another new Baird seasonal, Saison Sayuri, and was similarly impressed. With the thought of limiting myself only to beer of this quality, I was again reminded that there have been quite a few Baird seasonals I have missed over the years. Right there I promised myself to keep closer track of Baird seasonals, which isn't hard if you regularly visit their Web site. While you're there, sign up for the free Baird Beer e-News: www.bairdbeer.com
Think I'll sit this one out this year...
In Tokyo, June is the month of a mad rush of beer festivals, most notably the Great Japan Beer Festival, a two-day event put on by the Japan Craft Beer Association (JCBA). I've attended practically every year since this has been held, with the exception of 2005 when I spent a year in California. Last year's event was noted for its huge attendance, particularly on Saturday. This resulted in long lines for beer, and turned an otherwise fun party into an ordeal. A few of my friends even left soon after arriving, forfeiting the price of the ticket for a more relaxing beer session someplace else.
Fortunately, the JCBA redeemed themselves in September with their Yokohama event, which was one of the most pleasant of their festivals I have ever attended, thanks to smaller crowds, a stellar layout, the beautiful architecture of Osanbashi Hall and some incredibly good weather.
So will I give up the June event in Ebisu for the promise of a more pleasant one in Yokohama in September? Not exactly. At this point, the Ebisu event is less than three weeks away, and I can already tell you I probably won't go. But the crowds and lines are only part of it. I may not go to the Yokohama event either.
To be honest, I am getting tired of having too many kinds of not-quite-good-enough beer. In early May, I sat at home one evening and opened a bottle of a new Baird release, Four Sisters Spring Bock. This one really rocked me - it was what I thought one of Baird's best beers ever. So good, in fact, it inspired me to think that every beer I drink should impress me this much. Every beer should be enjoyed in a comfortable, relaxing environment, either alone or with a small number of friends. And every beer should satisfy me so much that I don't soon reach for another.
Drink less, and drink slower, but drink better. That's the mood I'm in now. No telling how long this will last, but it will be fun to see.
June 13, Wednesday, 7 pm, Belgian Beer Dinner at Bois Cereste. Featured this month are witbiers, such as Hoegaarden White, with several food courses to match. The cost is 7,500 yen, and reservations must be made by Monday, June 11; phone Yamada-san at 03-3588-6292. Bois Cereste is a short walk from Akasaka Station on the Chiyoda Line; see details and map
June 20, Wednesday - Summer "Craft Beer Campaign" kicks off at nine pubs. This monthly event has been organized by the Good Beer Club to promote craft beers from 10 participating breweries. On 6/20, 7/18, 8/22 and 9/18, customers who purchase beer from one of the breweries will have a chance to win drink tickets and beer sets. Participating pubs are The Aldgate (Shibuya), Beer Club Popeye (Ryogoku), La Cachette (Iidabashi), Cheers (Yokohama), Craft Beer Bar (Kannai), The Green Sheep (Yokohama), Kura Kura (Shimokitazawa), Sal's (Saginuma) and Ushitora (Shimokitazawa). Participating breweries are Baird, Echigo, Fujizakura Kogen, Hakusekikan, Hitachino Nest, Isekadoya, Iwatekura, Mihoh AJI, Swan Lake and Yona Yona. To participate, be sure to pick up a sweepstakes entry card at one of the pubs.
June 20, Wednesday, 8 to 10:30 pm - BEERS meeting at YLS near Tokyo station. This month's theme is German-style beers brewed in Japan. For more information on this event, send an e-mail to "tokyobeers at yahoo dot co dot jp". BEERS (Beer Enjoyment, Education & Research Society) is an English-speaking beer club that meets monthly. Meetings are open to everyone.
Mark Your Calendar
Great Japan Beer Festivals - http://www.beertaster.org/gjbf/date.htm (in Japanese only)
Tokyo GJBF at Ebisu Garden Hall - June 16-17
Osaka GJBF in Umeda Sky Bldg - August 11-12
Yokohama GJBF in Ohsanbashi Hall - September 15-17
German Beer Festivals for 2007 -- http://www.nihon-oktoberfest.com/
Matsumoto (July 25-29), Sendai (Aug 28 - Sept 2) , Shimizu (Sept 12-17) and the biggie, Yokohama (Sept 28 - Oct 8)
Nippon Craft Beer Festival 2007 - September 30 in Asakusa, Tokyo
Online Beer Sales
Brews News contributor Nevitt Reagan has just finished a superb resource on buying beer online, which also includes a comprehensive listing of web sites for craft breweries throughout Japan.
Special thanks to Glenn Scoggins for his 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 July issue is Monday, June 25.