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
video
                          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

video
                                  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 (www.gingakogenbeer.com/english/index.html) and the Hitachino Nest line of beer made by Kiuchi Brewery (http://www.kodawari.cc/?en_home.html). 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: www.directrelief.org. One hundred percent of the money donated goes directly towards aiding relief in Japan. Until next time, weary brewerists.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Appe-Thai-zing?


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 (http://www.kizakura.co.jp/ja/en/area.html) 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!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Kyoto: Out with the Old, in with the Brew

Like old home movies of your embarrassing childhood moments, Kyoto is proof that sometimes you can’t escape history. Kyoto is home to more UNESCO World Heritage Sights than any city on earth. One can hardly walk down the street without bumping into a dramatic Heian period castle, an austere Shinto shrine, or a lush yet obsessively maintained Zen garden. Amidst all this history, a small but dedicated group of individuals are crafting something new to Kyoto: a microbrew scene. 

While my time in Kyoto was admittedly short, I managed to squeeze in 2 beer trips of note: Tadg’s Irish Bar and Restaurant (known for its selection of local craft brews) and the Kyoto Machiya Brewery.

Tadg’s  (www.kyotoirish.com)  is an Irish ­­bar located in the Pontouchou nightlife district of Kyoto. Situated on the 8th floor of the Empire Building, Tadg’s offers gorgeous, sweeping views of the tranquil Kamo River and western Kyoto. A small jazz trio played silky and sumptuous grooves while I sipped some local brews.

There were about 7 local craft brews on draught when I visited. I tried the Shuzan Kaidou amber ale and the Hino A.J.I. Weizen hefeweizen.

Shuzan Kaidou amber ale
The Shuzan Kaidou amber ale was amber/mahogany in color yet was clear enough that I could see through it. Roasty and burnt caramel notes were initially strong but dissipated quickly. The beer’s body was surprisingly light for its somewhat heavy taste. This beer could have used more malts for a thicker mouth feel and a more balanced follow-through, but all in all it was pretty tasty.

Hino A.J.I. Weizen
The Hino A.J.I. Weizen was more like a lambic than a hef. I didn’t pick up any of the traditional banana or bubblegum esters that are characteristic of the style. Instead, this beer was light yet sour and acetic. Perhaps I was unfair by drinking a Paulaner Hefeweisse-Bier side by side with this hef and comparing the two, but I think this brew could use some work. It certainly wasn’t horrible and I drank it without a cringe, but it just was not how a hef should be.

The following day I made a trip to the Kyoto Machiya Brewery (www.kinshimasamune.com). The brewery was quite the pleasant surprise. It’s insidiously difficult to find as its tucked away in an unsuspecting residential neighborhood. The small tap room is attached to the Horino Memorial Museum. The brewery is an offshoot of the 250+ year old Kinshi Masamune sake brewery. The beer here is all brewed by just one woman and she does a fantastic job.
Kyoto Machiya Brewery
A few bottles of beer tucked away into the corner of Kyoto Machiya

All of the beer was served by a kindly old lady who took pride in the beer and sake the brewery produced. She was extremely helpful in answering questions about the beer and was quick to offer her recommendations and thoughts on the beer. Her hospitality certainly put a welcoming and friendly face on this tiny brewery.

On to the beer! The brewery offers 3 varieties: a dry stout, an alt, and a kolsh. All were delicious, but the alt and the kolsh were amazing.

Kyoto Machiya dry stout
The dry stout had a thick white head that took a long time to sink into the dark abyss below it. Rich roasted malts and coffee flavors dominated the palette. A smooth and creamy finish made this beer a treat from beginning to end. My only criticism is the body was a little light for a dry stout, but that surely didn’t keep this from being a solid beer.

Kyoto Machiya alt
The alt was very good. Flowery malts and toffee were present from beginning to end. The body was a little thick and stayed around, but not for too long. I give this beer a hearty recommendation.
Kyoto Machiya kolsch
And last but certainly not least, the kolsch. The kolsch was exceptional; perhaps the best of the style I’ve had. A beautiful and lingering head provided heavy lacing on the glass from beginning to end. The beer itself was straw colored and crystal clear. The beer was light, sweet, and a little sour. Faint notes of strawberry crept in. This beer alone makes the trip to Kyoto Machiya a sure win.

All in all, Kyoto beer impressed me. While the beer culture there is a little hard to find and out of the way, it’s well-worth the effort. I hope I have provided a few fellow brewrus with helpful info. Cheers!