This past winter season, there were several beers from the major Japanese brewers that were quite interesting for various reasons. Of course, I had to put in a couple of great craft beers, one from Rogue in the U.S. and the other from Swan Lake in Niigata.
Asahi Lager Beer 1892 Reproduction (all malt, 5.5% abv). I doubt they were able to completely replicate a beer brewed 120 years ago, but after tasting one, I think they may have come close. Golden bronze with an off-white head, heavy body, with a faintly caramelized flavor and good bitterness. I can only imagine that they were brewing in kettles heated by direct flame, which tends to caramelize the malt sugars to get a rather rich and slightly astringent flavor. Sold at the normal 215 yen per can price, I thought it offered quite a change from the usual Super Dry, and I went back a few times for more. Sort of reminded me of Kirin Lager of the late 1970s. You may find a few left in your local store.
Sapporo Kaitakushi Bakkushu Premium (all malt, 5.5% abv) This one was not really as interesting in flavor as the Asahi 1892 Reproduction, but still much more interesting than the average can of Sapporo. Medium gold, thick ivory head, with a rich malty flavor and a very soft, understated bitterness. Sort of a stronger, richer version of today's Sapporo, with a longer, richer finish.
Rogue Yellow Snow IPA (Oregon, USA; all malt, 6.2% abv) Hazy orange gold, thick ivory head, striking hop aroma with sweet malt in the background. Brisk bitterness greets you, and continues to linger, overpowering the comparatively light body while the hop bitterness makes the mouth water, creating an even more creamy texture in the beer. Apart from these points, the beer is reasonably complex, and while a bit too strong to be a session ale, continues to hold your interest as you find yourself opening another. Thanks to Phred K. for this beer.
Swan Lake Imperial Stout (Niigata; all malt, 10% abv) Opaque black, medium brown head. This one is formidable, and entirely world-class. Lovely complex aroma with streams of roastiness and fruitiness that interweave on your palate. Strikingly rich and bitter flavor with an array of roasty coffee, chocolate and nutty flavors combined with rich, fruity and sweet flavors of toffee, prunes and dried ripe fruits, all topped with a strong and distinctive hop bitterness. Astonishingly long finish of massive complexity. Overall, it is very smooth and surprisingly drinkable for such a strongly flavored 10% alcohol beer. Thanks to Ed T. for this one.
Suntory Fukami no Ippin (all malt, 6.5% abv) Deep gold, white head. Aroma of good malt and bitter hops, in good balance. The flavor is malty rich and slightly sweet, but balanced nicely by well-defined hop bitterness. Surprisingly long finish for a mass-produced beer, and interesting complexity all within the pale malt framework. All in all, it was far more interesting than I had expected, and I went back several times from December through January to buy more. At 238 yen per can, I thought it delivered some rich and interesting flavors for the price. This beer, like The Royal Bitter reviewed next, was only available at 7-Eleven convenience stores.
Suntory The Royal Bitter (all malt, 6% abv) Medium gold, off-white head. Fine malty aroma highlighted by hop bitterness. There is a sharp initial bitterness, but thanks to the moderate malt body it has a smooth texture that makes it more of a session beer style drinker. At 215 yen per can, it offers a lot of good flavor for the money. By March 7th it was already gone in my area's stores, but check your local 7-Eleven to see if there is any left.
|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.|
Goodbeer Faucets opened across the street from the Bunkamura entrance on the edge of Shibuya in December of last year, and it has already developed a good reputation for its great forty-tap beer selection and some of the best food ever served in a craft beer pub.
A Tokyo outpost of the fabulous Otaru Beer brewery in Hokkaido, The Beer Horn is a great little beer bar in Akasaka, serving mostly German-style brews.
On tap since the middle of February is Smoke Horn, their own style of Rauchbier, which is beer made with smoked malt, a specialty of Bamberg. It is lighter than the Schlenkerla style, but still with an assertive smoke flavor all its own.
This month's specialty is an Olde German Style Mead that they call Honey Horn. It is fairly fruity in flavor, and quite unlike anything that has ever been served at The Beer Horn.
Coming up in April will be a cherry beer called Cherry Horn, which is expected to be a continuation of the unexpected in beers, and somehow appropriate for the cherry blossom season. Rather than stick to only German Reinheitsgebot (Law of Purity) Beer, since Beer Horn is not being held to this requirement (being in Japan) they have decided to continue to put out non-German Beers which are not sold under the Otaru Beer name.
Slated for May is a return to German-style beers in the form of a Helles beer called Golden Horn. Their version will be hopped using Tettnanger, Hersbrucker and Perle Hops and is said to have a nice malty character in keeping with the Helles style.
In any event, plan to drop by The Beer Horn and try some of their unusual offerings this spring.
Sunday, April 8, 2012, 11am-6pm
Akiba Square in Akihabara
Y3,800 in advance; Y4,000 at the door
This annual event now celebrates its seventh year in a new, larger location. It should be emphasized that the original Tokyo Real Ale Festival is also rolled into this event, so imagine the spring real ale event combining with the fall craft beer event.
Billing itself as Japan's largest "authentic beer" celebration, the NCBF 2012 will be participated in by some 48 small breweries in Japan, along with four importers.
Advance tickets are available at 7-Eleven and Lawson convenience stores, a ticket service (www.cncn.jp/NCBF/ ) or at a number of craft beer pubs throughout Japan (see http://www.craftbeerfestival.org/ticket.html for a list, or ask at your favorite local).
There is a small English section on their website.
Tuesday, March 27 from 8 pm.
Tokyo's English-speaking beer group, the Beer Enjoyment, Education and Research Society (BEERS) will be holding their March meeting at Popeye in Ryogoku.
Scott Brimmer of Brimmer Brewing is slated to give a talk about his beers, and luckily this is around the time his first beers will be released. It will be a great time to try all his beers.
To make your reservation and get more details on the event, send an e-mail to Tim Eustace at tokyobeers "at" yahoo.co.jp.
Saturday, May 26 from 5 to 9 pm
Bois Cereste in Akasaka, Tokyo
Held four times a year, this event offers remarkable savings on Belgian beers in the cozy, comfortable atmosphere of Bois Cereste in Akasaka. The next event is slated for Saturday, May 26, from 5-9pm.
The Y3,500 admission gets you 10 tickets, and most Belgian beers require only two tickets, representing a significant savings over regular prices. You may also use the tickets for food - just one ticket for fried potatoes, for example. Directions and more information.
March 3, 2012 from 5 to 8 pm in Akasaka
This event turned out to be immensely popular and quite well attended. At first I was apprehensive about the lack of table space and the huge number of people, but things ran very well. The Biervana staff made the rounds to collect plates and bowls from those of us who managed to make several trips through the buffet line to stuff ourselves with BBQ pork, chili con carne, chicken, and salads prepared under the direction of Jerry "The Sauceror" Brady.
The other half of this great event was the collection of great and interesting beers lined up by importer Andrew Balmuth of Nagano Trading. While I was pretty much content to draw beers from the Lagunitas IPA and Stone Pale Ale taps, I did cross over into some very interesting territory with servings of Coney Island Pilsener, Chocolate Imperial Stout (10% alcohol) and Racer 5 IPA. Basically, there were more different kinds of beer served than I could reasonably handle, though the all-you-can-drink policy helped me continue trying.
Good news: There will be a repeat of the BBQ on Saturday, March 31, this time featuring the brews of Baird Beer in Numazu, Shizuoka. It's Y5,500 in advance, and Y6,000 at the door. Contact Biervana for more details.
By Lee Reeve
Last week I had the pleasure of tagging along with my friend, Ry Beville of Japan Beer Times, to visit Yoho Brewing in Karuizawa, Nagano, makers of award-winning Yona Yona Ale, and perhaps my favorite Japanese dark beer, Tokyo Black Porter. The mission: to interview Yoho Brewing's president and CEO, Naoyuki Ide, and head brewer, Shohei Taguchi.
It was a frigid -3 C when we arrived at Sakuradai Station; snow and ice blanketed a bleak and quiet view. A twenty-minute taxi ride brought us to the brewery, where Taguchi-san welcomed us inside. After exchanging hellos and the customary pleasantries, we were led upstairs to their meeting room.
Once the interview started, I watched and listened as Ide-san answered Ry's questions with sincerity and verve. He talked about the history of Yoho Brewing, its brewers, and its line of regular and seasonal beers. He spoke candidly of the many years it took and the difficulties they faced while establishing their business. I was particularly surprised when Ide-san, asked if Yona Yona had ever experienced a failed beer recipe or brew, responded no but then admitted that their initial attempts at canning had met with far less than success.
And then, as if by luck, Ide-san told us they were in the middle of canning and wished to give us a full tour. So we put on hairnets and rubber boots and followed Taguchi-san into the brewery.
We walked past giant mash tuns, which didn't strike me as impressive until I realized they were two stories tall, down a narrow flight of steps into the shivery confines of jacketed conditioning tanks. They were in the process of chilling, visibly obvious by the numerous iced pipes we saw. With every step we took, a delicious aroma of Centennial and Cascade hops lingered in the air.
When we finally entered the canning room, I was astonished by its sheer size and the amount of work going on. A seemingly endless row of cans of Belgian Dark Ale were being pushed along upside down and cleaned, then turned right-side up, only to wind up at the end of the line in six-packs ready to be boxed.
Afterwards we were shown their fermentation tanks and pilot system, as well their grain mill (and the largest hopper I've ever seen). Then we were taken out back to sneak a peek at the next day's grains - bags and bags of pale ale and caramel malt all lined up and ready to go.
Taguchi-san, by the way, was a homebrewer before turning pro and eventually head brewer. It didn't all happen right away, he was turned down several times. I asked him what had been the hardest transition to make, expecting him to say something about water to grist ratios or efficiency calculations. His answer? "The mash paddle is a lot bigger." Funny bloke, no joke!
It was an amazing tour and invaluable experience, thanks to everyone who made it possible, including Kentaro Hara of Yoho Brewing's marketing unit, who not only sent us off with Yona Yona souvenirs, but also drove us into town for lunch. Arigato gozaimashita! Otsukaresama deshita!
[Lee Reeve is a beer enthusiast and homebrewer who publishes a beer blog called Abrewcadabrew - Magical Craft Beer from Japan. ]