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Beer tops new heights up Fuji

Frontier spirit brought brew pub law change

Mount Fuji is such a dominant feature of Japan's main island as to be a sacred symbol of the nation. One of the best known bases from which to explore the mountain is the town of Gotenba (sometimes rendered in English with an "m"). The first time I visited Gotenba, about a decade ago, it was to see a whisky distillery. Now, Gotenba has a brewpub.

The Gotenba Kohgen ("Plateau") Brewery is in a complex with hot springs and two modern hotels (one Western-style, one Japanese), among cherry trees and pines. Try the Japanese-style hotel if you like dining in your bathrobe and sleeping on a futon.

The mood is broken by the brewery's exterior, which is in a half-timbered "Old German" style worthy of Disneyland. The hall-like interior is more credible, with a central barbecue preparing sausages, ribs and excellent steaks (served with rice). Behind glass, there is also a most impressive, well-kept, copper-clad, brewhouse.

A German brewer came on a short-term basis to fire the kettles and develop the range. He taught brewing to a Japanese who had previously made sausages.

The owning company, in the sausage business, went into brewing in a joint venture with the municipality. A German brewer came on a short-term basis to fire the kettles and develop the range. He taught brewing to a Japanese who had previously made sausages. When I visited, the Japanese had just taken over, and was enjoying his new job. I hope he can maintain the standard of the beers.

I tasted a Pils with a light but smooth maltiness and a good, late, hop bitterness; a Dunkel, actually more of a Vienna lager, with a touch of juicy maltiness; and a hazy, unfiltered, Weizen, smooth, dryish and gently fruity.

From Gotenba, it is 60 or 70 miles north-east to Tokyo. There I headed for the corporate headquarters of the Asahi Brewery, not to taste its infamous Dry Beer but to visit its new pub. In a complex of buildings designed by post-modernist Philippe Starck, a curiously cylindrical structure houses Asahi's Sumida River brewpub. On the third floor, two showcased red tanks serve a toffeeish Altbier, a mild Kö lsch; and a livelier Zwickelbier.

Also in Tokyo, a company called Hoppy Beverage has for half a century been making low-alcohol products. Now, with the cartel of national brewers broken by changes in legislation, Hoppy Beverage is finally producing real beer. I did not see the brewery, in the suburbs, but I did taste an unfiltered Pils (very syrupy, fruity, and rather distant from the intended style) and a beer called Kuro-Half ("Demi-Black," fuller, more toffeeish, and intended as a Munich-style lager).

I found these beers, incongruously, at a bar-restaurant that brings a touch of Japanese style to Canadian salmon and crustaceans: the Koji Vancouver, in the central Akasaka district. The Japanese owners of this restaurant also have a business in Vancouver, Canada.

Before I wonder too much at the Japanese having German and Canadian restaurants, I must remind myself that my local Fuller's and Young's pubs in London both serve Thai food, and that British evenings-on-the-beer are usually followed by a curry.

Another such forks-across-the-sea arrangement concerns restaurateur Mitsuo Iwamoto, who originates from Kyushu, the major Japanese island closest to China. Mr Iwamoto has in Tokyo a tiny Chinese restaurant and American-style brewpub, named in Swiss-German after Sankt Gallen, the town where the Irish monk founded a famously beery abbey.

Mr Iwamoto has a history of battling bureaucracy, and was an early campaigner for brewpubs in Japan. When told that his premises were too small legally to brew beer, he circumvented the law by adding tiny amounts of spices. His beers are thus rated as "sparkling alcoholic beverages."

Despite the spicing, the dominant flavours are American hops. These are shown to best effect in the bronze Spring Ale, with a scarcely perceptible spicing of lime.

Despite the spicing, the dominant flavours are American hops. These are shown to best effect in the bronze Spring Ale, with a scarcely perceptible spicing of lime. I also tasted a toffeeish Christmas ale (5.9abv); a New Year Ale (6.7) along the lines of an American IPA; and a sweeter St Valentine's Ale. Why the American emphasis? Quite simple: Mr Iwamoto's son has a similar establishment in San Francisco.

The Pacific Rim is more than a buzz-phrase. Britisher Richard Wrigley, who runs the Pacific Northwest bewpub in Seattle, recently sent a beer by sailing ship to Japan in an effort to recreate a truly seaborne IPA. The recipient was the Japanese brewpub Uehara/Echigo.

I was too late for this brew, but tasted Uehara/Echigo's excellent Weizen; a very hoppy, American-style, IPA; a perfumy Belgian Tripel, served from a gin crock, confusingly labelled Old Ale; and an orangey-tasting Ginjou (Sake Yeast) beer. I sampled these beers at an upstairs terrace cafe called Judith, outside the Jingumae metro station, in the Harajuku shopping area of Tokyo.

Brewery owner Seiichiro Uehara once worked as an actor and director in commedia dell'arte. His German wife helped further his beery interests, and the family's sake business gave him a taste for brewing. The Uehara brewery is at Makimachi, in the prefecture of Niigata, a sake region in the northwest of the main island. The pub is called Echigo, the old name for the region.

I flew over Niigata on my way to the major city of Sapporo, on the northern island Hokkaido. In Sapporo itself, I called upon Japanese-speaking American Phred Kaufman, who has for many years run the Beer Inn, a tiny cellar known for its 250-odd brews and clutter of breweriana. Pred has some beers custom-made by the Rogue micro-brewery, in Newport, Oregon. He offered me one flavoured with the tart hascup berry, which is found only in Hokkaido and Siberia.

From Sapporo, it is 30 or 40 minutes by train northwest to the town of Otaru. The route follows many small tunnels through coastal cliffs; it was here that rock fall crushed a coach, killing its occupants, earlier this year. Much as I kept telling myself that lightning does not strike twice, I was nonetheless glad to reach Otaru, where passengers are greeted at the railway station by a stuffed sea-lion.

Otaru has 300 years of history as a port city, shipping produce such as adzuki beans, the sweet seeds of which are used in desserts. Its warehouses were linked by cannals, some of which survive. A 70-year-old canalside warehouse has now been turned into a brewpub by Akio Shoji, a rancher who runs a chain of steak restaurants. Mr Shoji's brewers are Brian Dishman, from a ranching family in Oklahoma, and Johannes Braun, from a long line of beer-makers in Germany. Mr Braun has the rare pedigree of having studied at both Weihenstepan and Heriot-Watt, and worked for a time at the Caledonian brewery, in Edinburgh.

Mr Shoji, who had a friend in Austria, visited that part of Europe a decade ago. "In Bavaria, I noticed that every village had a brewery. I thought it was a shame that we did not have such choices in Japan. I talked to a banker friend here, and he knew the Minister of Finance. We business people in Hokkaido are always getting together and planning for the future. We have something of a frontier spirit. I think these discussions helped push things toward the changes in the law concerning small breweries."

I sampled a very hoppy-tasting Helles and a malty, subtly-balanced Dunkel, both delicious beers. I was sorry to have missed seasonal specials like a Rauchbier and a Kölsch.

The brewpub, called simply Otaru Beer, is modelled on a Franconian galleried tavern, and decorated with several generations of photographs and memorabilia from Johannes Braun's family and their various breweries. The open brewhouse is in the middle of the main floor. German malts and hops are used. I sampled a very hoppy-tasting Helles and a malty, subtly-balanced Dunkel, both delicious beers. I was sorry to have missed seasonal specials like a Rauchbier and a Kölsch.

Next day, there was loose talk of a five-hour train journey to the east coast of Hokkaido, on the Okhotsk Sea. Fortunately, the snowy weather cleared and it was possible to take a plane, which did the journey in less than an hour. The plane landed at Memambetsu. From there, it was a 20-mile drive south through farming country to the rather scruffy market town of Kitami. As part of the development of Hokkaido a century ago, malting barley was introduced to this region by an American consultancy project.

Around the same time, the Sapporo brewery was established in Hokkaido's main city. A year and a half ago, Sapporo helped in the start-up of a brewpub called The Okhotsk Beer Factory, in Kitami. I protested at "factory," trying to explain that it should be "brewery," but president Takaya Mizumoto couldn't quite grasp the point; he was in the construction business before building this smart beer-restaurant.

The beers I tasted were beautifully-constructed. A Black Beer had peaty, whiskyish flavours; a dryish ale had lingering hop flavours; and the wittily-named Bitter Pils was wonderfully creamy. It was not actually that bitter, at 23-25 BU, but reminded me all the same of the great Czech brews.

"Have you ever been to the Czech Republic?" I asked brewer Junitsu Sakauchi, imagining he might have studied there for a year or two. "Yes!" he exclaimed. "How long were you there? I pressed. "Three days," he beamed...

Where to drink

- Gotenba Kohgen brewpub: 719 Kamiyama, Gotenba, Shizuoka Prefecture. Tel 0550-875500. Susano exit from Gotenba-Tokyo motorway. Or 30-minute cab ride from Mishima staion (Japan Railways).
- Sumida River brewpub: Upstairs, 23-1 Azumabashi 1-Chome, Sumida-ku, Tokyo. Tel (03) 5608-5144.
- Koji Vancouver bar-restaurant: Basement of Kokusai Shin Building, in the Akasaka restaurant area of Tokyo. Tel (03) 3583-5414.
- Sankt Gallen brewpub: Donwstairs, 6-3-10 Roppongi, Minato-ku. (Roppongi is a nightlife area of Tokyo). Tel (03) 3408-0607.
- Judith Cafe: Gallery, Green Fantasia Building, 1-11-1l Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo.Tel (03) 3408-2414.
- Uehara/Echigo brewpub: 3970 Yamanaka, Makimachi, Niigata Prefecture. Tel 0256-72-0640.
- The Beer Inn: Basement, Onoda Building, Suth 9, West 5, Chuo-ku. Tel 512-4774. (Behind Excel Hotel).
- Otaru Beer brewpub: 5-4 Minatomachi, Otaru, Hokkaido. Tel 0134-21-2323.
- Okhotsk Beer Factory: 2-2-2 Yamashita-machi, Kitami, Hokkaido. Tel 0157-23-6300.

Published Online: SEPT 19, 2000
Published in Print: JUNE 1, 1996
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Beer Review - Brewery Review

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