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Last word in ale in land of rising yeast

Esquire magazine used to run an annual feature called The Dubious Achievement Awards. A nominee in the beer world must be Japan's Asahi brewery, for having created, four or five years ago, its immensely successful "dry" beer.

After all beer should be wet.

White wet beer has a long finish (for people who like to savour their pleasures), the dry stuff, which is of the lager type, has "no aftertaste" (for those souls suffering from Fear of Flavour).

To its credit, Asahi feels that its customers should have a choice, to which end it has also introduced a relatively hoppy lager, with the strange name Wild Beat. You may have seen odd conjunctions like this on tee-shirts, in a language that should probably be called Jamerican.

The company's latest creation is even odder: a top-fermenting ale, golden in colour, that also manifests termination with extreme prejudice.

It is call Z - "because it is the last word in beer" a marketing man told me. Did this mean I would hear

no more of it, I asked?

In fairness, I quite like the idea of top-fermentation rising with the morning sun and using a zippy name to attract the young.

One never knows how long these things will last. For three years, the brewery produced a lager called Super Yeast. As I understand it, filtered beer was blended with controlled amounts of live yeast from the secondary fermentation.

"I liked it very much," a senior production person told me. Unfortunately, too few consumers agreed.

None of this prepared me, though, for Asahi's splendid Stout, which had somehow escaped my attention on previous travels in Japan. This is a high gravity (1064-8) top-fermenting Stout so extraordinarily traditional that it is pitched not only with a conventional yeast but also with Brettanomyces.

This is not a brewer's yeast, but one that seems to have occurred prominently in the British Porters and Stouts of the 1700s and 1800s, and to have been intentionally introduced when these styles were imitated in other countries.

It imparts aromas and flavours that have been described as hay-like, horse-blanket or a rather sensuous "fresh sweat" character. It occurs in Lambics, and I once met a German brewer who remembered having used it to make a Porter in Bremen.

Asahi Stout has an almost whisky-like aroma, a very soft, smooth body that is remarkably light for the gravity (it is fermented to 8 ABV), a huge depth of flavours, with sweet (Pedro Ximinez?) sherry and fruitcake, and a very warming finish. On the label, it is described as a top-fermented English type that has "satin smoothness" "Do you sell much of this?" I asked the senior production person. "Oh no," he replied. "We only brew it every couple of years. It is good for our brewers to have the experience of making beer like this. It keeps up their technique.

"Internally, we name each batch after the brewer who made it. When a new batch is ready, we sample it alongside its predecessors. We have a little 'Stout Festival' in the brewery.


Asahi took me to a brewery that could have passed as a space station, though the plant manager still maintains a Shinto shrine on the site.


Asahi took me to a brewery that could have passed as a space station, though the plant manager still maintains a Shinto shrine on the site. I bowed, clapped my hands in the approved ritual, and said a prayer for the continued traditionalism and enjoyment of Asahi Stout.

Tradition is, of course, genuinely important in Japan, for all the country's high-tech profile. Long may Japan seek to balance the two.

The first brewery making beer (as opposed to saki) in Japan was established in Yokohama in 1869 by the American company Wiegand and Copeland, on an experimental basis. This eventually became Kim.

A brewpub designed to evoke the architecture of Wiegand and Copeland has just been built in Yokohama, as part of a tourist "Beer Village."

Opposite the small, 1860s style brewpub - across a park of olive, camphor and juniper trees stands, with huge swan-neck vents reminiscent of the 1890s, an otherwise 1990s building, in silver grey and eau-de-nil, housing Kirin's newest full-scale brewery, capable of making three million hectolitres a year.

Visitors to the Beer Village can eat and drink at the brewpub; tour the main plant, stopping for a glass of fresh draught beer in the brewhouse; or dine in a maritime-theme restaurant with about a dozen taps.

All of this is well worth doing: none of Japan's speciality beers is easy to find in bars at large. (Kirin Beer Village, near Namamugi railway station, Yokohama. Tel. 045-503-8250. Closed Mondays).

In the brewpub, I tasted a firm-bodied, hoppy Spring Valley lager, made on the premises, and a malty Dusseldorf-style Alt-bier produced at another Kirm brewery in the holy city of Kyoto.

In various Kirin establishments in Yokohama and Tokyo, I sampled a wide variety of lagers, including Copeland ("the founders were American, and that is the accent of this beer," I was told), Heartland ("the very white head is meant to have a 'washed cotton' image"), Ichiban Shibori (meaning "first squeeze" - it is made without sparging), Kojo ("with a very fresh, 'hot springs' aroma"), Ad Lib (it comes at 10 per cent alcohol, served on the rocks, or diluted to your taste, and is a special feature of the Giraffe chain of bars), Black Beer (faintly smoky and liquorice-tasting), and Stout (full of treacle-toffee flavours).

Kirin, long Japan's biggest-selling brewer, has enjoyed less success with its whiskies. In much the same way, Suntory, the country's leading whisky distiller, has ploughed a hard furrow since branching into brewing into the

1960s.

Dash In a market where lagers do have at least a dash of German-style malt and hop character, Suntory began by emphasising the "Danish-style" mildness of its products. They were not a great success, and now the company is wondering whether specialities may be the key to the future.

Two or three years ago, the company carried out a remarkable test-marketing operation. It brewed a whole range of beers, produced a brochure describing them, and left it in off licences. Customers had to order the beer of their choice by mail.

So far, none of these beers has been seriously launched, but I sampled these and some newer products at the company's experimental Musashino brewery, in the horse-racing town of Fuchu City, near Tokyo.

The newer products included a self-describing lager called Light's, similar ones called Summer Beer and Vacances, a Biere Nouveau (made from the new season's barley) and a fruitier brew called Dynamic Draft, made with Canadian lager yeast.

Suntory's principal product these days is a well-balanced lager called Malt's, of which there is now a hoppier Super Premium version. There is also Ginjo, made partly from huckless malt (I mentioned a similar product last month).

The most interesting beers were the test-market range: a good, clove-tasting Weizen; a soft, lightly fruity Kolsch; a hoppy, golden Canadian-style Ale; a malty-fruity Altbier that to my palate tasted more like a Scottish Heavy; and a deliciously chocolatey Black Beer.

It is to be hoped that beers, from the various Japanese breweries, eventually establish a place on the market. Until then, for drinkers who fancy a change from the more conventional Japanese brews, some Czech, German, Belgian and British beers can be found.


Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: SEPT 1, 1992
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Beer Review - Beer Styles

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