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Japan's beer turns turtle - even in the land of Ninja

The beer revolution's newest frontier is Japan. In a country where government has long cosied up to big business, the four national beer-makers were protected from competition by a law forbidding small breweries.

In a burst of deregulation a couple of years ago, the law was repealed, since when about 20 micros and brew pubs have blossomed and same are making beers in the most distinctive of styles.

In much the way that "real ale" became a buzz phrase in Britain, and "micro-brew" in the United States,ji-biru ("local beer") is now a magical incantation in Japan.


The answer is that ji-biru echoes a phrase used by producers of sake, the traditional rice brew, which does enjoy local loyalties.


In a country used to mass market beers, how can consumers so easily turn to the parish beer pump? The answer is that ji-biru echoes a phrase used by producers of sake, the traditional rice brew, which does enjoy local loyalties.

Beer has for years been cutting into sales of sake, and now the rice brewers see a new opportunity to fight back. Without abandoning sake, they are joining the micro-brew beer movement.

Although the drink is thought to have originated in China, sake permeates Japanese history. In Japan, it may have first been made around the old capital, Kyoto.

Just south of Kyoto are the cities of Osaka and Kobe. In this region, the Itami, a short ride from Osaka, is an important centre of sake brewing.

In this town, Shintaro Konishi's family has made sake since the 1600s. He first became seriously interested in beer when Itami was twinned with Hasselt, in Belgium.

Although Hasselt is better known for jeneuer gin, Mr. Konishi's visits to Belgium soon exposed him to the delights of the country's beers.

In 1988, he began to import Belgian beers like CantilIon, Duvel and Westmalle Tripel, then in 1995 decided to do some beer brewing of his own.

"Our premises suffered some damage in the Kobe earthquake, and we had to make repairs. It seemed a good moment to do something new, he told me. "And I thought that perhaps a brew pub would cheer people up." He restored a 300-year-old warehouse, adding a museum, a mini sake brewery, and a restaurant making its own beer. The restaurant has bare brick walls, Radio 2-style music, and ladies-who-lunch gossip over beer.

In the evening a younger crowd enjoy a comfortable place for a brew.


The small Belgian brewery Sterkens provided technical advice, and trained two sake makers to turn their hands to beer.


The copper-clad brewbouse is behind brass railings in the entrance lobby. The small Belgian brewery Sterkens provided technical advice, and trained two sake makers to turn their hands to beer. This thirtysomething duo greeted me with obvious pride in their brewery.

The establishment is called Chojugura (Long Life Warehouse), but both the sakes and beers bear the brand-name Shirayuki (White Snow).

"I know all snow is white, but we Japanese like to be poetic," Mr Konishi observed. The snow is a reference to the company's emblem, Mount Fuji.

The beers are top-fermenting ales in broadly the Belgian style: a sweetish, fragrantly fruity Blond and a deep reddish-amber Dark that is malty and creamy, with a lightly spicy, almost cocoa-powder tinge.

There are some Belgian-Oriental notes to the food (beef stew in beer, with Chinese vegetables, for example). A smart shop next door offers the beer in flagons, along with Belgian specialities In the Fushimi quarter of Kyoto, I visited a similarly ambitious establishment called Kizakura Kappa. The first word means yellow cherry blossom, and a tree of that persuasion stands in the courtyard outside a restored building in the traditional architecture of Kyoto.

The second word indicates a mythical creature resembling a human with a turtle's shell. A sake brand-named Kappa is made by the owners of this brew pub, which has a gallery of art devoted to the creature.

The brew pub's interior is almost church-like, though it has a bustling clientele for its barbeque and beer I tasted an Alt that was a little fruity, thin and spritzy for the style. A Kolsch was also a little too fruity. A beer curiously called Kolsch Mild was sweeter and yet fruitier.

This was due to using a cike yeast. The brewer is a former sake producer.

Just off the highway from Osaka I found the Sandaya Count Beer brew pub, in an unlikely location: the corporate HQ of a restaurant chain and smoked meat company.

The company's owner is a passionate beer lover, and does the brewing himself, even roasting the malt in a wok. The beers, all unfiltered, are assertive and idiosyncratic. I tasted an astringent Pilsner, a reddish, malty Festbier, a roasty-tasting Smoked Beer, and a treacly Black Beer - in the old Bavarian style that has long been made in Japan.

The brew pub operates as a buffet and there are, naturally, sausages and smoked meats. The owner of Sandaya now plans a brew pub at the Osaka baseball stadium.

My most offbeat journey in this area was by train, a couple of hours eastward to the town of Ueno and into the mountains, in Ninja country to the hamlet of Nishiyubune.

In feudal Japan, the original Ninja were a sort of SAS, carrying out spying and sabotage forbidden by the samurai code. Ninjitsu is a martial art deriving from that period.

Despite such excitement, or perhaps because of it, the hill country has been losing population. Local farmers responded by starting a co-operative to raise pigs, process ham, make sausages, grow barley, make their own malt (in a tiny, mechanised, teer and the co-operative is called Moku Moku, after the Ninja warriors' technique of vanishing into smoke screens). The enterprise serves its products at a barbecue restaurant about a mile from the brewery. There is also a tasting bar at the brewery, which is in a wooden chalet in a mountain glen.

A wide range of robustly yeasty beers has been produced. They include a full coloured, spicy Pils, a toffeeish, very fruity Amber Ale, an earthy-tasting Smoked Ale, made with peated malt from Scotland, and an orangey-tasting Biscuit Weizen. The latter is made with "biscuit" malt from Belgium.

As I left the brewery, I noticed an odd-looking track running into the glen, and asked what it was. "That's where we race our pigs," I was told. "Race them?" I asked. "Yes, the local people breed Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs for racing. The tourists bet on them. It 's family entertainment."

Where to drink Chojugura. Chuo 3-4-15, Itami. Kizakura Kappa, 228 Shioya-machi, Fushimlku, Kyoto. Sandaya Country Beer, 2-99 Naral, Yamaguchicho, Nishlmaya, Hyogo Prefecture. Moku Moku. hamlet of Nlshlyubune, in the municipality of Ayams. in Mie prefecture.


Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: MAY 1, 1996
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Beer Review - Beer Styles

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