Saturday, May 7, 2016

Isekadoya Microbrewery: Adventures in Recursivity

As you cannot step twice in the same river, you cannot twice experience the same place, or the same beer. This rings especially true with the artfully crafted and subtly traditional brewery of Isekadoya, nestled in the heart of the charming village of Ise, Japan.

Ise Jingu on a Rainy Day
Both Ise and Isekadoya have both seen much change in the world during the course of their existence. The main shrine at Ise is rebuilt every twenty years using fresh pine from the surrounding hills – this has happened at least 62 times, with the next scheduled rebuilding of the shrine to take place in 2033. This puts the age of the shrine at 1240 years old. Legend has it that Ise-Jingu was in fact first constructed in 4BC. Christianity and Islam did not exist when this temple was built. The Roman empire was at its peak, as was Han China. Columbus had not visited America, the renaissance was still well over a millennia away. And yet the temple and its grounds are manicured and maintained with such precision that the hard work needed to maintain the timelessness of this breathtaking location is truly something to behold. Perhaps this is the tradition of Ise, that of constant perfection and maintenance.

This approach resounds with the history of Isekadoya Microbrewery. To quote the brewers themselves, “Endeavors worth doing always bring with them certain ups and downs, mistakes and miscalculations and surely a lot of hard work. Yet, if we pay close attention, there is a lot to learn from our missteps—starting Ise Kadoya Brewery is proof positive of that.”

The Road Leading to Isekadoya
The name Isekadoya is an amalgamation of the shrine’s name, Ise, and the traditional family company name of Kadoya. Kadoya is still across the street, and has been for 430 years! They specialize in kinakomochi, miso, and soy sauce. They expanded into brewing in 1993 and have met a level of success that even they did not expect.

Isekadoya has won multiple World Beer awards, including the world’s best Brown Ale in 2010 (I am partial to the Kagura IPA and Sinto lager, myself). They also won the best brewery in Japan award in 2009. Perhaps this is in part due to their open fermentation tanks, a difficult method of fermentation that can produce a smooth, easy-drinking beer. Open-fermentation also produces more variability without extremely tight controls, as wild yeast, microbes, and other particles in the air can now enter the beer and give it a distinct, old-world flair. This means that reiteration is likely a better term than reproduction for each beer brewed in such manner, with a very slight uniqueness imparted into each batch. 

Isekadoya Microbrewery Taproom and Restaurant
The brewpub location itself is easily missed if you do not keep your eyes open – a small beer bar abuts the main pedestrian walkway in town. You can grab a pint and a kakifraigushi (fried claims on a skewer) right on the street and watch the world pass by. Or, walk past the small counter into the bellows of the taproom and find yourself a seat. You will be treated to a historic Japanese atmosphere with a direct view of the meandering Isuzu river. 

Have some beers, fried oysters, and explore the town and temple. Think about where you are at, where you have been, and where you are going as you watch the river pass, knowing that the river, your beer, Ise, and you yourself won’t be the same the next time around.

Fried and Roasted Oysters - their Speciality! Multiple Beers to Wash them Down in the Background.
Isekadoya Microbrewery:

Ise Travel Information:

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Death of Nikko Brewing

Today I made a daytrip to the ancient Japanese town of Nikko to take in some of the obligatory historic sights and enjoy the countryside. One of the notes in my margins pointed out that Nikko was home to a small brewery- Nikko Brewing. I found my way into one of the many local shops that peddled local wares in order to secure myself several bottles. Alas, all I could find was a bottle of Mugi Taro from the neighboring Toshigi prefecture. The shop-keep then told me the short and sad story behind the death of Nikko Brewing at the hands of the Tohoku Earthquake.

Toshogu Shrine Complex in Nikko
 “A few months ago,” he started, “You never would have found [Mugi Taro] in Nikko. The people here were very proud of Nikko Beer and drank it all the time.” He paused for a moment, perhaps caught in thought about how much things have changed in the last few months. “…but then the earthquake happened. The brewery was severely damaged, and the owners realized they had to shut it down permanently. Now we sell beer from Tochigi instead of beer from Nikko.” That was the end of the story. I purchased the Taro Mugi and sipped it as I walked down the street, thinking about what I had just heard.

A brewery, like any other local business, becomes a part of the community. It ebbs and flows with the heart and soul of the people who work there, who drink the beer, who derive a sense of pride and satisfaction from wares produced by local people using local ingredients. When a brewery dies, just like any other business that is so interwoven with the lives of those around it, a small piece of the community dies with it. People in Nikko will look back on the halcyon days when they sat at a small pub, sipped the local brew, and talked about work, their lives, their families...

Nikko Beer was proudly brewed using local water
I suppose like all things, Nikko Brewing came to pass. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and so on. But at the same time I felt depressed and dismayed, I was encouraged. Encouraged by the fact that the end of any one thing must necessarily be the beginning of another. I hope that when you sip your next pint from a local brewer, pops a bottle of wine produced with grapes grown in neighborhood vineyards, or evens enjoy some produce from your local farmers market that you stop and take a moment to think about how nice it is to have someone in your own backyard producing a little piece of where you come from and sharing it with you and the world at large. As a matter of fact, you can do one better and produce something yourself. For me, my negligible contribution is exploring and sharing the beer of the world in the hopes that people will find some treasures of their own. On that note, I’d like to review the Mugi Taro beer.

Mugi Taro is somewhere between pale straw and amber in hue. Aromas of slightly spicy clover hops are rounded out by honey malts. Hints of nutmeg and cinnamon become apparent when tasting it. There is a pleasant and soft texture to the beer, enough so to make me suspect that it was bottle conditioned. Overall, this is an easy-going, light, and friendly beer with a few subtle spices that make it more interesting than the average lager. I recommend this to anyone.

Mugi Taro beer
I would like to end with one of my favorite beer quotes. I remember asking someone at a bar once what his favorite beer was. He told me, ”The one I’m drinking.” The one I’m drinking, indeed, good sir. 

Mugi Taro was so tasty, a Hokkaido-Ken decided to help herself while getting pet

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Take One Down, Pass it Around...

Lying in wait beneath the electric hum of Tokyo lies a treasure trove of potable potions, elegant elixirs, and luxurious libations. I speak of Tanakaya- a truly world-class bottle shop in Mejiro. When I say world class, I don’t mean “oh it has a few international offerings” or “wow, the presentation is fancy-schmancy”. That is because both of those are understatements. This bottle shop offers an expansive selection of all varieties of adult beverages, stores its wares properly, and, perhaps most astonishing, is reasonably priced (for Tokyo).

The entrance to Tanakaya
Takanaya has been in business for over 60 years and even a cursory inspection justifies its long existence.  Sleek cedar lines the floors, ceilings, and storage spaces. All of the beer is stored in floor-to-ceiling high refrigerated coolers. A walk-in cellar hides hundreds of varieties of wine and nihonshu (sake for the English speakers). Innumerable offerings of whiskey, vodka, and whatever sort of liquor your heart desires adorn every square inch of this precious little store. But, as we know, my focus is the beer.
Several of the beer fridges
Over 300 varieties of imported beer and about 20 Japanese craft brews are available. All of these are amazing. For instance, only 300 bottles of Cantillon Fou' Foune make it to the US per year. There were 7 at Takanaya. Other amazing imported selections included Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast, multiple Russian River sours, Great Divide Yeti Oaked Imperial Stout, the complete St. Bernardus lineup, Triple Karmeliet… the list goes on. I walked out with a few of these and a few Japanese microbrews. I'll admit the Japanese craft selection was a bit less than I expected, but still it was the best I've found.

A peek into one of the fridges
 To get to Takanaya, take the Yamanote Line to Mejiro Station. Take a left out of the exit and walk until you see a McDonalds on your left side. Immediately before the McDonalds there will be a small staircase leadings downstairs. Therein lies Takanaya... and a small piece of my heart.

The sign's prophecy will be fulfilled

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Love at First Pint: Bakushu Club Popeye

We all find it in different places. The Holy Land. Mecca. Sitting underneath a Bodhi tree. Gazing into the endless velvet of the midnight sky on a warm summer night as the celestial fireworks ebb and flow like grains of sand on the beaches of eternity. Throughout time, people have found inspiration in countless places where they felt the presence of a larger and more mysterious reality than their earthly minds could fathom. For me, one of those places is Bakushu Club Popeye in Tokyo. For those in search of the Holy Ale, this is a good place to start questing. 

Where the magic happens: The bar at Bakushu Club Popeye
Anywhere from 40-70 taps are available at any one time. While the vast majority is devoted to Japanese ji-biiru (ビール; microbrewed beer), anywhere from 10-20 taps are devoted to eclectic selections from the US and Europe. As if that wasn’t enough, Popeye usually has about 3 real ales available on the hand pump. I’ve had too much variety here to catalog the full extent of my misadventures, but some prime examples include: Swan Lake Belgian IPA, Baird Kurofune Porter, Cantillon Geuze, Mikkeller Nugget IPA, Nogne 100, Great Divide Yeti Oaked Imperial Stout, Brewdog Paradox, and one of my personal favorites, the house Divine Vamp- an Imperial Black Ale. The variety is staggering by any measure.

An Oaked Yeti Imperial Stout
I have heard whispers among the townspeople of the legendary events this place holds: massive firkin fests, specialty US brewer events, and aged ale tastings. Bakushu Club Popeye was a major sponsor of the Tokyo Real Ale Festival 2011. The event was outstanding- 40 real ales available from throughout Japan all served from traditional firkins. Obviously Popeye is a motivating force behind the burgeoning craft beer movement not just in Tokyo, but throughout Japan and perhaps even the world.

Pourers at the Tokyo Real Ale Festival 2011
                          An Irish ditty performed by a Japanese bagpiper at the Real Ale Festival 2011.

Finally, all I can say is that if you are in Japan- go. Just go. This is hands-down one of the premium places for craft beer on the planet. Make the world a better place, support the craft beer cause, and suckle from the Bacchean teat of intoxication along the way. Cheers!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Sakura Still Bloom

                                  A shamisen player serenading passers-by in Ueno Park

Hanami (花見, cherry blossom viewing) provides a poetic allegory for the ephemeral nature of life: from a cold and desolate winter springs forth an abundance of warmth and beauty, only to quickly return into the nothingness from whence it came. Since times long before our own, hanami parties in Japan have been an opportunity for joyous revelry. Young lovers, elderly couples, emperors, and townsfolk alike would gather together under a ceiling of fragrant pastel to share poems, company, food, and drink. 

Given the tragedies that have unfolded this year, hanami has taken on a more reserved tone. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government offices have made an official request that the parties be limited in scope. This is of course completely understandable. Nearly 30,000 people having lost their lives and hundreds of thousands of people are now without a home to call their own as a result of the twin disasters of the Touhoku Earthquake and Tsunami (please follow the link below to donate to Japanese relief efforts).

However, Touhoku-based sake and beer brewers have pleaded that people still have a drink or two under the cherry blossoms. Purchasing alcohol from Touhoku, while not as direct a method of providing relief to Japan as donating money, certainly provides an economic boost to these devastated communities. Your best options for a Touhoku-based beer are the offerings provided by the Ginga Kougen Beer Company ( and the Hitachino Nest line of beer made by Kiuchi Brewery ( While the Ginga Kougen is only available in Japan, Hitachino Nest is available at most craft brew stores in the United States.

I recently visited Ueno Park in Tokyo in the spirit of supporting Touhoku and doing some hanami of my own. A quick visit to Ueno at the beginning of April certainly confirms its fame as a prime spot for hanami parties as the park is flooded with people sipping suds and eating bento under a sea of fully bloomed cherry blossoms.

While many of those at Ueno had chosen to drink the ‘sakura seasonal’ Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory, I stayed away. As best as I can tell, these beers are nothing but the normal fare with a cherry-blossom label slapped on in the hopes of making people think something special was waiting to be imbibed just beyond the decorative exterior. Instead, I went with a Ginga Kougen Weizen- both to support Touhoku, and because it’s a damn tasty beer.
Hanami viewing parties in Ueno Park
The crowded sakura-lined central walkway of Ueno Park
Ginga Kougen Weizen brew pours a rich, cloudy, golden hue and is topped by a with a frothy cloud-white head. Little to no lacing clings to the glass. The appearance is very true to the style. The aroma of this beer is also very true to the hefeweizen style. Rich and bready smells are present but an acutely powerful clove aroma pierces through. A mild yeast funkiness is also apparent. Taste-wise, this beer is rock solid. As the aroma would indicate, strong banana bread and clove flavors dominate. The clove is just a bit stronger than it should be, but does help cut through the thick malty flavors. The texture of this beer is a bit thicker than many hefeweizens and with a bit less carbonation than usual. All in all, I could drink this beer on a hot summer day or a cold winter night and be satisfied with either. Its light alcohol content (5.0% abv) lends itself to being a session beer, but the complex flavors makes just a pint capable of producing a contemplative experience.

Ginga Kougen Weizen (or as I call it, the deer beer)
Speaking of contemplation, I know it’s been a while since I posted. For once, this is not due to my laziness. Given the nature of the circumstances in Japan over the last month I had decided it would be in bad taste (even worse taste than a Chelada) to post on drinking beer while so many suffered in this nation that has been indescribably gracious to this awkward gaijin. If you can find the time and the money, please donate to Japan relief efforts here: One hundred percent of the money donated goes directly towards aiding relief in Japan. Until next time, weary brewerists.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


In between exploring the labyrinthine markets, notorious nightlife, and alluring tropical beaches of Thailand, you might end up wanting a beer. Unfortunately, you’re not going to have many options. Light lagers rule the day in this SE Asian nation. However, if you go off the beaten path you might be able to find something a little more special… and eccentric.

Leo on the beach in Ko Samet
The sweltering and muggy climate of Thailand is certainly conducive to a light beer. Whether you choose Singha, Chang, Leo, or Beerlao, you’re going to end up with a light and sweet lager. Most of these were a bit too sugary for my everyday consumption, but as the old saying goes, “Any port in a storm.” 

I couldn’t tell much of a difference between Singha and Chang. Both went well with hot curry and are decent thirst quenchers, but are relatively devoid of flavor and remind me of some sort of sugary barley water as opposed to a beer. However, the Leo and Beerlao were slightly better. Both had a bit more of a malty background than their competitors and a slight roastiness that helped cut away from their sweetness. However, Leo had something that really went a long way with me- hops. As in, I could taste them. Not an overpowering amount, mind you, but just enough to make me realize they were hiding in there somewhere. Leo on draft is definitely my choice for a widely available beer. That doesn’t mean one can’t go off the beaten path…

Xylophonists performing at Tawandang German Brewery
And off the beaten path I went. To Tawandang German Brewery, located about 30 minutes from central Bangkok by taxi. For risk of sounding like an artifact of the 1960s, this place was a trip (I know, I’m a regular Cyrano de Bergerac over here). Much akin to authentic German beer hall style, everyone sat at long tables and watched the evening’s entertainment while eating typical drinking food while guzzling copious amounts of beer.

Another view from inside Tawandang German Brewery
A note about the ambiance is in order. Various singers, dancers, and even master xylophonists (you heard me right) rotated sets throughout the night. None were bad. Most were quite good. And all were very uniquely Thai. They crooned Thai love songs, performed traditional dance, sang with members of the audience, played refashioned ancient but with electrical instruments- all to the audience’s delight. I watched this all unfold while eating Thai prawns in sweet chili sauce and sampling the three house-brewed beers.

Tawandang brews 3 beers: a lager, a hefeweizen, and a dunkelweizen.

Tawandang Lager
The lager was incredibly pale with floral hop aromas. Definitely sweeter than most lagers but some hops provided a nice balance. A better option than the more commercialized Thai lagers.

Tawandang hefeweizen
The hef was so-so. It was incredibly light but too sour and vinegary to be representative of the style. My least favorite of the bunch.

Tawandang dunkelweizen (sorry for low pic quality... I drank more than a few)

The dunkelweizen was my favorite beer at Tawandang. It had rich malty and caramel flavors with the same floral hops used in the lager. It was thick but not syrupy. A surprising treat.
My experience in Thailand was great- but not necessarily because of the beers. I recommend trekking out to Tawandang if you have some spare time for the experience, if nothing else. Considering it’s 40 minutes from the city center, your time would probably be better spend sightseeing at the local markets and temples- but if you really want a good brew, that’s your best bet. Till next time, where I’ll explore izakayas (Japanese pubs) in the Shinbashi district of Tokyo. Cheers!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Japanese Science, Egyptian History, and European Styles- The 3 Niles

The River Nile has long held a poetic and revered place in the hearts of peasants and kings alike. Blessing its banks with a touch that sways from gentle and loving to harsh and destructive all in a single moment, it has  nourished and ravaged empires for millennia. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that countless scientists routinely search the serpentine banks of the Nile for the remains of people forgotten by time, long since buried beneath the shifting sands and ebbing waters. Among these scientists are archeologists and plant geneticists from Kyoto University and Waseda University. Unlike their peers, who pick and chisel for ancient artifacts, these scientists search along the Nile for a more glorious and worthy pursuit: beer! Specifically, to revive the now extinct wheat strains used in beers of Egypt.

That is where Kizakura Brewery ( steps in. Kizakura is a medium- sized craft brewery located in Fushimi, towards the southern end of Kyoto Prefecture. Partnering with Kyoto and Waseda Universities, Kizakura has produced three distinct beers based on types of wheat grown along the Nile in time immemorial. They have produced the White Nile, Blue Nile, and Ruby Nile. I had the pleasure of sampling these craft beers after picking them up from a small supermarket in the Kyoto JR Station on my way out of town.

White Nile
The White Nile is a wheat-infused take on a saison. The beer is low in alcohol for the style (5.0% ABV) but decent. The beer had the appearance of a lager but with the head and lacing of a hef. Aromas of sun-dried hay, lemon rind, phenols, and a slight but noticeable yeast funk are present. The taste is light and buttery with damp and earthy pine hops backed by the barnyard yeast funk characteristic of saisons. There is slightly more carbonation than normal for a saison, but I liked this. This beer is not a traditional saison in that it has wheat in it, is low in ABV, and the flavors are fairly light. That being said, I would still call this a session beer at the end of the day and recommend it to my friends.

Blue Nile
The Blue Nile doesn’t fit into any categories very well. It’s a Japanese witbier that uses until-recently-extinct Egyptian wheats, Caribbean coriander rinds, a European style, and Japanese yuzu. It’s also advertised as ‘low malt’… I didn’t notice that. The appearance was a little cloudy but a bit more pale and transparent than most witbiers. The smell was similar to the White Nile as far as the sweet buttery malts, but a hint of banana and a medley of sweet tropical fruits snuck in to join the party. The taste was quite good! The buttery malt edge and tropical fruit notes (banana, mango, pineapple) really come together nicely. The beer had a full, well rounded mouthfeel. This was my favorite beer of the bunch.

Ruby Nile
Finally, I enjoyed the Ruby Nile. This is labeled as a ‘traditional ale’, but it brought to mind several red ales when I drank it. It was ok… keeping in mind red ales aren’t my favorite. The color was coppery and sanguine with a small but persistent tightly laced head. Fragrances of cherry, dulce de leche, smoke, date, and phenols were apparent. The finish was a bit metallic and phenolic for me but considering the 7.0% ABV, acceptable. The mouthfeel was rich and full and wasn’t afraid to stick around for awhile. I’d say this beer is ok but not my choice of the bunch due to its metallic finish.

Beers incorporating ancient ale techniques and ingredients always excite my imagination and are even more intriguing to me when they are done right. These were done right. I don’t know if I’d put any on par with Midas Touch (an ancient ale made by Dogfish Head), but they are all still much better than the watery-beer maze I’m navigating out here.

BTW, next week, I will take a brief departure from Japanese beer as I go on vacay- Thai beer spots to be blogged about shortly!