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Japanese ale fans caught in Net

Growth of small breweries continues at a dynamic rate

The shirt boldly announced, "Campaign for Real Ale: twenty-five years," but its occupant was enjoying a Belgian-style ale in broadly the mode of De Koninck. I had a wheat beer along the lines of Hoegaarden.

We were both eating Belgian-style chips. We appeared to be in Brussels' Grand' Place, but my newfound buddy, Ichiri Fujiura, was clearly Japanese. All this travel can be disorienting...

Ichiri, an engineer in the printing industry, told me he had been a homebrewer for 18 months. He had, coincidentally, received his CAMRA membership a few days earlier. How did he know about CAMRA? "Through the Internet!" he announced triumphantly.

I took another drink and pondered the impact of the communications super-highway.

We were, indeed, drinking in the Grand' Place, right down to the Brewers' House in the corner, but it was a film set.

This astonishingly-convincing, and very beautiful, facsimile of the square's facades, presenting an illusion of life-size, has been built round the walls of a 1960s warehouse to create the brewpub "Grand' Place" in the motor city of Nagoya (home of Toyota and, briefly, Gary Lineker).

A block away, I found myself beerily one step closer to home but gastronomically farther away when I sank a pint of a rather malty, chocolatey bitter in the Komi brewpub, in a stylish Italian (to be precise, Roman), restaurant. (The beer was designed by a brewer from Ghana who won a scholarship to Japan and sampled his first cask-conditioned ale in my local in London).

From Nagoya, I headed northwest to the town of Gifu, on the Nagara river, where cormorants are trained to catch a trout-like fish, then half-throttled until they release their catch for human consumption.

At the Nagara brewpub, I sampled a Pilsner with a good Saaz hop accent, a lemony, sherbety Weizen and a spicy-tasting Altbier.

The fish were out of season, so I settled for a squid-ink black pudding.

This church-like brewpub was built by a timber company, and spectacularly features its products from its parquet floors to its towering pine pillars.

This combination of private and public owernship is known as the "third sector", and is quite common among small breweries.

The town also has a share in the brewery. This combination of private and public owernship is known as the "third sector", and is quite common among small breweries.

Farther west at the historic lake port of Nagahama, another rather church-like brew-pub has been built in an 1820s rice warehouse, by the owner of a liquor retail business.

I was puzzled by the name Nagahama Roman. It turned out to imply "romantic". At Nagahama Roman, I sampled duck stew with local ferns and an ale with all the Cascade hoppiness of something from Seattle or San Francisco.

It has been only a year since I was last in Japan, but the dynamism of the beer scene more than justified a return.

In spring of 1996, there were 20 small breweries, with 40 or more forecast by year's end. Now, there are about 80, with a prediction of twice that many by Christmas.

Many producers of sake have added small beer breweries to their portfolios, but the industry is also attracting entrepreneurs with no background in drinks.

A manufacturer of underwear took the Hungarian word Csarda ("inn") as the name for his brewpub by the earthquake memorial park in the fashion city of Kobe. There, I was served another malty, but better balanced bitter; a licorice-tinged brown ale; and a beautifully-rounded sweet stout containing lactose.

South of Osaka, I ate beef with pickled local horseradish at Kinokuni Nohan ("Woodland") brewery in the town of Katsuragi, gateway to the Kouya-san mountain country.

There, the wood was cedar, with sake barrels for seats. The best beers were a well-balanced Helles and a maltier Dunkel, branded Gunkan, after a Meji-era warship.

Mountain resorts are favourite spots for brewpubs.

Mountain resorts are favourite spots for brewpubs. I turned back and headed northeast, through the Japanese Alps. The pretty, wooded, mountain town of Komagane is a base for hikers and climbers.

It also has a whisky distillery, with ornamental pagodas, making a lightly spicy single malt. The distillery has now expanded to include a 20-hectolitre micro-brewery.

Down the road, the same company owns a chalet-style building that accommodates a farm shop. Upstairs is a gift counter and the Ajiwai-kobo restaurant, with a tiny, two-barrel brewhouse for experimental batches.

I enjoyed a liqueur-ish Dunkelweizen and a tangy, tobacco-ish India Pale Ale before dining off raw horsemeat.

When I got up to leave, I was pressed to take something from the gift counter. I somehow departed with a packet of grasshoppers in sugar and jars of edible worms and bees. "In the mountains, we have to find our protein where we can," explained my host.

Farther north, and readying itself for the Winter Olympics, the imposing, purpose-built, ski resort at Arai is owned by Hideo Morita, son of the founder of Sony.

The Morita family's original business is sake, and Hideo gave me a sample of his plummy-tasting Bakuhatsu Musume ("Wild Girl").

He has also installed a micro-brewery, in an Alpine building of stone and pine. The resort hotel has a beer hall and there is a bar at the top of the chair lift, presumably for those in need of Dutch courage. Actually, they are fortified with Belgian-style ales - fresh, appetising Blonde and a crisp Dark.

"Let's meet at the top of the mountain before breakfast proposed Hideo.

"Love to", I replied, "but I have a long journey to Tokyo."

On the right lines

Sitting in the former ticket hall of Takashi Honjo told me how his latest brew came about.

"Some brewers were in Prague and we really enjoyed the dark beer at the U Fleku brewpub. This is our attempt to produce something similar. We call it Praha Dunkel."

The beer was very dark brown in colour, light-bodied but remarkably smooth, licorice-tinged in the finish, and very drinkable. Definitely in the right vein.

Takashi is in charge of the kettles at the new brewpub at Ryogoku railway station, near the sumo stadium in Tokyo. This is one of a chain of beer halls in railway premises, a joint venture between a Tokyo restaurant company and the Sapporo brewery. Ryogoku's other beers include a lightly dry Pilsner and a banana-ish Weizen, made with an ale yeast. The sushi is good, too.

Round the corner is the Popeye pub, specialising in Japanese micro-brews.

While there, I re-acquainted myself with the smooth, rounded, licorice-tinged Stout of the Uehara/Echigo brewery and tasted the hazy Koelsch from the Kuninocho micro, plus the lightly dry ale of Satsuma.

While in Tokyo, I also visited the very Amerian-style Sunset Beach brewpub, in the Decks shopping centre, in the bayside Daiba quarter. The view was terrific but the beers were disappointing.

Published Online: APR 24, 2000
Published in Print: MAY 1, 1997
In: What's Brewing

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