Craft Beer in Japan – Part 2
Welcome to the second part of my travel through the muddy waters of the Japanese craft beer scene. It’s by no means extensive, but hopefully it’ll sheds some light on what the hell is going on over there. Last time I was merely stumbling around Tokyo seeking out the few places where they sell the stuff. This time I go bankrupt in the biggest craft beer pub in Japan and head for the hills where something mysterious and delicious is brewing.
Before leaving the flashing lights of Tokyo behind there was one more place I had to check out. Ji Bīru (that’s craft beer, remember) can be hard to come by in Japan, but there is one place, a Ji Bīru mecca of sorts, where you can go to town on the best brews this country has to offer. Just remember to bring a large wad of cash. Popeye is the number one craft beer pub in all of Japan. Situated in Ryoguku, just two stops from geek heaven Akihabara, it claims to offer 70 beers on tap (their Twitter name is @70beersontap). Their menu was extremely confusing but I don’t think they had all their taps running when I was there. I don’t know if they ever do. They did however have a whole bunch of brews I’ve never heard of before. Looking at the prices makes your wallet cry in pain but luckily they offered tasting flights. I’m not a stickler for taking notes, and a lot of what I tasted is a blur, but here are a couple of highlights.
Number 1 – The weiss beer from Fujizakura Kougen, a slightly sour wheat beer which was crisp, dry and very refreshing. They love crisp and dry in this country. Might be because it’s so goddamn hot and humid most of the year. Number 2 – Hatchino Nest Espresso Stout. No stranger to most beer geeks as it’s one of few Japanese brews found outside their borders. This beer tastes like a full pot of coffee but without the usual sweetness that goes with a lot of stouts. Again, dry and refreshing, it’s the Japanese way. Number 3 – Shiga Kogen African Pale Ale – hoppy and with an almost lager like lightness. I asked why it was called an African Pale Ale and the waiter had to go away to ask someone. I think they called a staff meeting because he took his sweet time. When he returned he said it was because Africa was half way to India. So somewhere between an English pale ale and an Indian Pale Ale. How very contrived and strange, and perfectly Japanese. We wanted to carry on drinking, I especially wanted to try something from Baird Beer, but the prices threatened to put a halt to the rest of our trip. Most of the beers were an eye watering seven quid per half. So we traversed the busy streets of Tokyo back to the hotel. We needed a good night’s sleep before heading out see what what the rest of the country had to offer.
A couple of days later I found myself walking down a random street in Kamakura, a lovely seaside town just south of Tokyo. The last breath of summer was in the air. We were looking for the beach when we suddenly stumbled upon a congregation of red faced and smiling locals. It took me a couple of seconds before realising we’d come across a genuine local Japanese beer festival. A very small local Japanese beer festival. The venue of choice was a car park and they only had about six beers on offer. The sun was shining and we got in line to sample some brews. It turned out the choice was between several beers from Suntory, some dark, some light, or one of the more enticing brews from a local brewery aptly named Kamakura Beer Brewery. They’ve been brewing since 1998 and at the helm you’ll find something considered an anomaly in the brewing world – a female brewer. Suntory’s 50 shades of lager didn’t excite me much so I homed in on the local concoctions. The only information available in an alphabet I could decipher was the name of the brews. I had one called Enoshima, which tasted like a hoppy pilsner. It started out quite flat but after a few sips my mouth grew to really like it. A slow burner that ended up being really satisfying. The second one was a little number called the Star. This one was also dry like a lager but with a hint of wheat mixed in. It was more floral than hoppy and extremely refreshing. Both brews would be great session beers as I don’t think they were very strong.
Before leaving the little local beer shindig I managed to secure a bottle of a beer called Flower, also by Kamakura Beer. I put it in my bag and we went on our way, slightly more merry than before, still with a burning desire to find the beach. The sun was setting by the time we found it and people were loitering around, all waiting for that magic moment when another day dies a slow and beautiful death as it sinks down into the horizon. We took a seat and enjoyed the view. There were still a couple of surfers out there catching the last north pacific waves. I opened the Flower, took a swig and was instantly filled with an extra dose of happiness. It was a beautiful brown ale. I don’t know if the romance of being blanketed by twilight on this serene beach in a distant land had clouded my judgement. Or maybe it was just a perfect fit. Either way the Flower was absolutely fantastic. Dark and full of flavour, a lingering caramel bass at the bottom, yet refreshing and easy to drink. When it was finished I was filled with melancholy and sadness as I realised I’ll probably never get to drink another one again, ever. We had a fling, the Flower and me, and now I had to say goodbye. Tear. I think it’s safe to say that Kamakura Beer has a sensitive side that shines through all their brews. Whether or not this is down to a woman’s touch is unknown but I do wish there would be more women heading up breweries. In that sense Japan is one step ahead. If you want to read more about this excellent brewery check out this article from Japan Beer Times.
After looking at a massive Buddha and hiking through the forests of Kamakura we headed westwards, towards the Japanese Alps. Three hours north of Nagoya, on what is one of the most amazing and scenic train journeys you’ll take in your life, you’ll find a small village called Takayama. The train takes you further and further into the forest, past waterfalls and along narrow passages chiselled into the cliffs along deep ravines. Takayama is simply beautiful, especially with its absence of McDonald’s, Starbucks and massive shopping malls. Instead it has street after narrow street packed with small wooden houses, all painted black, occupied by sake breweries, cafes, street food peddlers and of course an endless parade of souvenir shops. Turns out that Takayama’s number one commodity is craft – crafted pieces of wood, lumps of clay, delicious sake and of course, craft beer.
The main brewery in Takayama is either called Hida Takayama Beer or Hida Takayama Brewing Agricultural Corporation Limited, depending on who you ask. Their labels sport a frightening clown being punched on both sides of his head by two flying fists. Their beer is readily available from one of the town’s many liquor shops. I had read up about them before coming here and had big expectations. Having been around since 1996 they’re one of the oldest Ji Bīru breweries in Japan and are distributed to craft beer pubs around the country. I secured myself a few samples from their range and started pouring it into my head. It’s worth noting here that if you, like me, is a western beer geek hooked on the strong shit, used to revel in the abundance of flavour present in all the imperial triple double aged hoo-ha streaming out of taps back home, you might find Japanese craft beer a tad on the light side. That was my impression for a lot of Hida Takayama’s brews. However, they were all very tasty. Their stout is sparkly with an effervescent treacle tickle. Still, it leaves your mouth malty for a long time afterwards, like it’s used it as a doormat to get into your body. Their weiss beer is full of sweetness and packed with banana, but a lot less gassy than a lot of weiss beer. They’ve also got something baptised a speciality beer, which was quite dark, but a bit too subdued to really blow me away. Then there’s the Karumina. Sometimes listed as a barley wine, sometimes as a Belgian strong dark ale. Whatever you call it, I just call it delicious. You know you’re in for a treat when what you pour into your glass has a brown head. Hello little brown head. It’s a good omen. The liquid is dark with a reddish hue and as it goes down it tastes of caramel, liquorice, a waft of yule tide and hello, what’s this? A hint of smoke? It was a real treat. And all of it made that much better due to the location of where I was drinking it.
A week after we left the panoramic landscape of Takayama I found myself sitting in the roof garden of the massive department store that is plunked on top of Hakata station in Fukuoka. Around me witches and draculas were lit by strobe lights while they were whizzing around, dancing and having their laughter drowned out by the beat of the DJ. It was Halloween and the department store had organised a party for all the customers. We were well and truly out of the woods and back to civilisation. On the table in front of me I had a selection of beer I had bought at the food court in the basement. If you read part one you know that’s where they keep the good shit. I had an IPA from Echigo (a brewery also featured in part one). This was a true humdinger. If you had given me this and told me it was a Mikkeller I would’ve believed you. It was hoppy to the tittle with bitterness to match. If I lived here I would keep this in my fridge at all times. The other exciting tidbit on my table was a beer called Sorry by Yo-Ho Brewing Company. The name comes from the brewer saying ‘Sorry, I don’t care what beer you like’. Only the Japanese would use an apology as a name for a beer. This stands as a stark contrast to all the ‘Fuck You’ names popular in the west, especially with a certain punk brewery. The reason for the apologetic name is that it’s brewed with sake, and it’s safe to say it was strange. But not in a bad way. Just different and difficult to place. The flavour was close to a wheat beer, but drier and with a strong herby flavour shining through. I would definitely want to try it again, so no need to be sorry Mr brewer.
This concludes my travel through the Japanese craft beer scene. Still, there’s so much more I could’ve mentioned. I could write about Amaou Brewmaster 2002, with their medicinal and overly sweet beer. Or the stout from Minoh brewery, which has won awards but tasted like black water. Or all the fruit and berry flavoured beer they’ve got over there. Or how we trekked far and wide in the rain to find a brewery in Takayama called Kurikuri, where the people were super sweet but their beer was nothing I would seek out again. There are over 200 craft beer breweries in Japan and most of them we’ll never hear about. They’re tiny and often only sell in their local area. And they seem happy to do so. I’m just glad I got to go around and taste a fraction of the beer this amazing country has to offer. I’ll definitely be back to drink some more. Until then Japan, sayonara for now.