Tag Archive: Back In Japan!


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 Back In Japan!: The Japan Drinking  Scene.

So Japan and beer. Not words that you tend to see together in the international press. In fact from conversations I have had, a lot of Japan doesn’t seem to know they have a growing craft beer scene. Now Japan and Whisky, the world has got its head around that. After quite a few awards you would have to work very hard not to notice it. Their local beer however is still a well-kept secret for the most part.

That is however changing.  So here we have, based on my short visits, an outsider’s view on the Japan drinking scene.  For any locals of Japan who read this, feel free to correct any mistakes I make. This is based purely on what I saw during my travels and I claim no great expertise.

The first thing that seems odd to an outsider is the opening times. In the UK the lunchtime pint is a thing of tradition, going around America I found places serving at ten in the morning and the refrain, “Its five o clock somewhere!”.  In Japan most craft beer bars didn’t seem to open until 17:00/18:00 hours. On the other hand they did then run to obscenely early o clock in the morning, so it is a trade-off.  You will find some bars, usually brew pubs, doing a short lunch open, but for the most part I would advise to keep bar drink hunting to the night and plan to other things in the day.  You will be in Japan therefore I will presume that this will not be in any way difficult. Continue reading

Trappist Logo

Now, one of the things I love about tasting notes and beer reviews is the conversations it starts and where they lead. In this case a conversation that started in The Craft Heads bar in Tokyo. Despite my limited Japanese skills (Seriously, I realized days later that I had used the same completely the wrong word at least six times), I had a very fun chat with a fellow patron in a mix of Japanese, English and mime over some shared Hair Of The Dog beers.

The reason I bring this up is we ha a short debate on what Trappist breweries exist. We both agreed on Achel, Orval, Westmalle, Westvleteren, La Trappe, Chimay and Rochfort. The classics. He mentioned an Austrian Trappist Brewery existed, which I looked up and confirmed as of a year ago Stift Engelszell was approved as a trappist brewery. I have the feeling someone mentioned this a while back and I completely forgot, but I concede he was right about the existence of the eighth brewery and look forwards to trying their products.

The reason I am writing this article however is to ask for assistance on the still disputed point. He mentioned a ninth Trappist brewery – Saint Joseph’s Abbey.

Now there are Saint Joseph beers, most relevant seems to be a Belgium Blonde and Bruin from Lefebvre. However those I would qualify as Abbey Ales as they are not made by trappist monks, but rather by a secular brewing organization that uses the name (see http://www.brasserielefebvre.be/fr/page/3/accueil). It was these beers I initially presumed we were talking about during the discussion.

However he mentioned the Trappist brewery was American so I did some searching and found (http://www.trappist.be/nl/pages/nieuwsbrieven), an announcement of an American monastery be recognized as an authentic Trappist product maker. However they seem only to be recognized for preserves and vestments. I checked their website just in case they had released an update (http://www.spencerabbey.org/work.html) but found similar information there.

So, without further information I presume the Saint Joseph beers to be unrelated to the Trappist Abbey and so Abbey Ales rather than Trappist beers. However I am open to the fact I could be wrong, and since we have a huge amount of beer fans in my audience – Does anyone know about any Trappist Brewery apart from the eight agreed on above? Especially any from Saint Joseph? If you know, e-mail me or drop a comment please.

Oh and if the man I was having this discussion with is reading this, thanks again for helping to make my last day in Japan so much fun and thanks for putting up with my mangled Japanese! かんぱい!

(EDIT: Nearly Forgot: he also mentioned Abdij Maria Toevlucht – I had a look and it seems they are working on a brewery: Trappistenbrouwerij de Kievit: but best I can see it isn’t planned to open until end this year. I shall watch with anticipation to see what happens with that)

(EDIT 2: Bloody Hell: you lot work fast: Just got info by e-mail, apparently Saint Joseph is working on building a Brewery and training up monks to brew. So, if it is completed we may be looking at a new Trappist Brewery in the USA. Thanks to everyone involved in this little information hunt)

Just a short one. Heading home today, normal tasting note updates will resume shortly, and a final thoughts on the Japan drinks scene article some point in the next two weeks (probably). Been a hell of a trip. Thanks to everyone in Japan who have put up with my struggling language skills and helped make the experience so great. Hope to return one day.

Takefu

So, jumping a fellow travellers mobile wi-fi as we head on the shinkansen (Bullet Train) back for our final night in Tokyo. A few thoughts just to pass the time. I noticed in the supermarkets and corner shops that a lot of beers advertised themselves as “Pure Malt” or “All Malt”. This seemed odd to me, it seemed like advertising a hotel as “Containing oxygen”. I mean, it is possible that few wouldn’t, but they would be the exceptions, not something so common that you would advertise not being that.

I was wrong. Slight background. Best I can pick up there seems to be a tax break for beers containing less than a certain amount of malt. Therefore there is a quite insane of beers, usually advertising their “Smooth taste”, that are made with many…other…ingredients.

So, in the reasons of research I decided to grab one of these ridiculous crimes against nature, in this case Asahi: Honnama: Draft. Based on our tour leaders comments I prepared myself for something epically bad.

What it was? Just very dull. Couldn’t even be bothered doing a tasting note. Short version. Very smooth, tasted kind of like a watered down Budweiser that had a faint red kidney bean taste about it.

That was it. Nothing more than a grain clear colour, faintly lager like smell , and red kidney bean touched water body and finish. Not Tesco Value Lager level obscene. Just very, very dull. Not even worth trying for amusement value.

Why

Anyway, we just left Takefu. From the swarms of kids that seemed to pop up frequently, fascinated by the strange foreigners amongst them, I’m guessing they don’t get many tourists. It was nice seeing less touristy Japan, a quieter town, away from the main streets it seemed nigh deserted. Did some Takefu knife sharpening and left with my fingers intact. I left drinking until after that experience for some reason.

Also Karaoke, well its Japan, I kind of had to. Was very surprised to see Lamb of Gods’s Laid To Rest as a choice. My voice really hurts now. The selection of far more fun than in the UK, with a good chunk of metal and punk amongst the usual cheesy pop dross.

Anyway, one more day in Japan. May get chance to put out another update, if not, see everyone when I’m back in the UK. Been a hell of a trip.

Welcome Kyoto

When you are in Kyoto, check out the train station on the night, no seriously, no sarcasm. The place is bloody excellent, it is like a mini city all in itself. There is a shopping area in the lower two floors, lightshow on the stairs, a view of the city, skywalk area, glowing dancing water to music, restaurants. Oh and trains, but who cares about them?

Done a bit of beer hunting, found a brewpub on the outskirts that worked with several universities to try and recreate old styles which was cool, but the main story of recent days has been nihonshuu (sake) hunting.

There’s a sake bar build into the Jam hostel which has an impressive and very reasonably priced range of nihonshuu. The staff are knowledgeable and picked sampling flights for us based on our preferences, and very helpfully, had very good English language skills.

Now some of you who have tried your average supermarket available sake are probably wondering what the deal is. Sake, it’s that clear liquid you heat up and has a vague alcoholic taste, right?

Sake

Not here my friends, the vast majority of the liquid was served slightly chilled and the flavours varied from dry and crisp, full textured on the unfiltered, fruity and big bodied, or madeira and fruitcake on an aged version.

I went for the fruity flight and had one which was citrus filled into a grapefruit finish, one that was tangerine and plums, and one that was a mix of pear drops and marzipan. The unfiltered had aniseed and liquorice flavours, and the dry came with light banana notes. This is the good stuff. A flight of three cost between 1000, to 1,200 yen, and even the ten year aged glass came in at a reasonable 700 yen (so, roughly 8 quid for a flight, five quid for the aged). Most sake in restaurants and bars seem nowhere near this good, even in Japan, so if you are in japan, seek out a specialist Sake joint, and get the advantage of local knowledge to find something you will enjoy.

Finally, we rounded out the day in a capsule hotel, very sci fi looking, like a mix between cyber punk dystopia and the game Portal. An odd experience, tucked away in one capsule against many. Heading out to the next destination today. Will update everyone when I next get wi fi.

Capsule Hotel

Beer Local

Today reminded me why I love beer hunting. No, not just because of the beer. I’m in Kyoto and decided to hunt down the Tingaara Bar, home of Ichijoji Brewing. Mainly because they don’t bottle so it was the only chance I would have to try them, and also because their beers sound weird.

Anyway, these guys are pretty far out of Kyoto town centre and since Kyoto buses are evil (Well, everyone tells me they are simple and intuitive. I just cannot work the bloody system out) I spent my time walking up there, then over to the Yamaoka Sake Shop Which was on the opposite end of the city. Between the two I walked a good chunk off city most tourists don’t see and talked to a lot of people.

While the beer is good, this is the stuff you remember years on.

Aching feet on the other hand are soon forgotten .

While we are on various forms of transport, Kyoto taxis seem a lot ruder than most in Japan. It isn’t all, but a few seem actively surly to tourists, which is the first I have encountered in my time here.

Anyway, back on topic. The beers at Ichijoji made me think about the Japanese craft beer scene in general. There was a lot of * infused beers there. Cinnamon, coffee, lemon and honey, etc, and looking at their website that seems to be their modus operandi. Almost calling back to the traditional ales where hops were not used, but with the ingredients as an addition rather than instead of. I’ve seen a lot like this around Japan. Tomato ales, Grapefruit beers, beers kind of like you would expect but with a unique twist. This seems a very Japanese thing. I’ve seen salad pizza, curry doughnuts, they seem to take every foodstuff and make it their own.

Now, that isn’t to say they don’t do your standard beer styles, they are taking the American craft beer style and running with it, but these oddities really stand out as them making the craft beer scene their own. I’ve tried a bunch but usually after I have finished reviewing, now I wished I had reviewed more.

For more traditional craft ales Yamaoka had the best selection of Japanese craft beer I have seen so far. Tanakaya had a better selection overall, but a much smaller selection of local beers. It is a tiny place but well worth picking up a few bottles from

Finally in today’s dose of culture. I checked out a temple with 1001 Buddha statues, and statues of the temple guardians. No photos were allowed inside so you will just have to imagine, but it was quite the sight to see. If you are in Kyoto check it out.

Ganesh

So we are in Matsumoto now, and , to my surprise this is a pretty good place for beer hunting. The Shiga Kogen brewery is not too far away, so it has some presence. The train station has a set of canned beers which turn out to be alternate names for some Yona Yona ales (Train stations surprisingly seem to have better than average access to good quality beer, which is odd) and Tobacco shops have a small, but interesting mix of craft beer.

What is exceptional however is oddly not the local beer available, but the Belgium selection. There is a local bar, right next to the train station called Ganesh (Shown above) This has a quite extraordinary amount of Belgium beers to fit in with its Belgium themed bar, and a smattering of USA, UK, etc. Now, for me, I was sticking to their rotation Shiga Kogen tap (a very tasty Buckwheat based beer which I have grabbed a bottle of for review), as the prices are a lot higher than I would pay in the UK. However considering the distance they had to travel, it is quite a treat for anyone in Japan where such beers are not as common. They also had a rotating guest tap but that was dry while we were there.

With less interesting beer, but a lot of character, there are bars tucked away with winding maze like alleys and cubbyholes inside. You get assigned a little alcove to perch in and order snacks and drinks by a phone next to the table. Very nice atmosphere which earned it the nickname “Ninja bar” for all the places to hide.

Finally, at the nearby Daio Wasabi Farm there was a Wasabi beer. Now, spoiler warning for the review, it was a tad crap, but what intrigues me is they didn’t list the brewery that made it. Now after a few discussions I think that it wasn’t a custom made brew, but a pre-existing beer they had just ditched wasabi in. Best guess would be Kirin Ichiban, but I’m not sure. If anyone knows any background on this beer, please let me know. Thanks.

Finally, in a touch of culture there was the Matsumoto black castle in the heart of the city, a great sight and with an excellent volunteer English speaking tour guide. A very pretty and informative tour, well worth a look in between beer hunting.

Next up: Kyoto!
Wasabi Beer

Hello Kitty

Hello again, been out in Togarinozawa Onsen the past couple of days, a remote area of farmland, so beer experiences have been thin on the ground. To keep your interest I am now in Matsumoto, which is very close to the Shiga Kogen brewery, so I am expected beer now to pick up.

However for anyone who gets a chance, Togarinozawa Onsen is an oft overlooked but wonderful part of Japan. The Shikisainoyado Kanoe Ryokan organised working on the local farm, then they produced meals with those freshly harvested ingredients. You really could not get fresher or more delicious. They also made a wonderful Umeshuu (plum wine), you could only have it fresh, not bottled. It tasted like a mix of grapefruit, spiced blood orange, marzipan and plums. It was lovely. Possibly the best I have ever tasted. Tart, spiced and sweet. It was heavenly. If you ever get the chance the area is beautiful and you can go from bright green landscape to four metre high ice walls on the hills in a matter of minutes by car which was breath-taking.

Anyway, as mentioned, we should have beer news again soon rather than just my ramblings. Hope you enjoyed the improvised umeshhuu tasting note!

Oh on a random note, our tour leader bought us some Locusts to try. Not actually that bad.

CraftHead

So, last day In Tokyo, don’t know what internet will be like at the next hotel so may be some radio silence for a while.

After many mix ups involving wrong opening times, I finally managed to reach a small bar called Craftheads, just outside Shibuya. This place is great. Not as wide selection of taps as Popeye, but has a quality pick, and a bottle selection to die for. Three Floyds, Hair Of The Dog, including the legendry reputation owning Hair Of The Dog Matt (hmm, tasting note nine hundred is coming up shortly…coincidence?). I didn’t get a chance to properly peruse their bourbon selection, but as you can probably see from the photo above, at first glance it looks pretty impressive.

Very much the most American style bar I have been to here in Japan, probably the craft beer scene influence. There was even a tip jar, which is nigh unique for Japan!

Popeye is better for the local Japanese craft beer scene I would say, but Craft Head has those rarities you will just not find anywhere else. Both are great!

Anyway, quick other notes. Sushi using Sashimi from the fish market right next door is probably the best I have had in my life. The raw fish just melts and it was made with just the right amount of wasabi. If you get the chance, that is the way to experience sushi.

Before I go I shall leave you with large men slapping the crap out off each other.

Sumo

Green Tea

Not much beer news today. Spent yesterday hammering huge Taiko drums, which was awesome, then went to the Hama-riku garden and drank some green tea. On top of the ritual of drinking which was intriguing, the green tea was unlike any I had tried before. Much more cloudy, a frothy texture on the tongue an much more flavoursome. A great experience in the middle of the day with water surrounding me.

Green tea is a drink, that means I am vaguely close to being on topic for this blog, but not quite.

The food here is excellent as well, had some fresh fish tempura yesterday that just fell apart in the mouth. Had warm it was like it was melting.

Anyway, yes beer.

Tried, but didn’t tasting note Kirin: Heartland yesterday on tap. Short version. Meh. Body was much thicker than standard kirin, and had some nice light banana like flavour which was pleasant, but the finish felt chemically and really brought the entire thing down. Had a free bottle of Kirin Ichiban on the night as well, much less flavour than Heartland but the finish didn’t irritate me as much. Not terrible, but a bit bland. May be psychosomatic, but the version here seems less gassy than the UK version which I think is brewed under contract in the UK rather than imported. I could be wrong though.

Anyway, there, beer notes. My job is done!

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