Monday, August 1, 2011

I Think I'm Turning Japanese

Kirin, Sapporo and Asahi—The beery offerings of every sushi joint and hibachi-style steak house from Tokyo to Toledo. For decades Japanese beer, outside Japan, has been relegated to rice-solid, adjunct lager, made by a handful of breweries. What else is there to drink between pieces of spicy tuna roll, as an onion volcano spits sparks into the air? Coors Light? C'mon you'd just make yourself mad! The clear choice is obviously Kirin, Sapporo or Asahi.

Maybe not for that much longer though, thanks to a squat bottle with an odd little owl on it's label.

Who you lookin' at?
B. United International, of Redding, Connecticut has begun importing (into the U.S.) the amazingly named Hitachino Nest, line of beers. Brewed by one of Japan's two hundred microbreweries, Kiuchi Brewery. Making them one of the first Japanese craft breweries to export it's beer, outside the island nation. Now, you might ask, how in the world, can an upstart microbrewery—from a country not particularly know for it's beer—compete with Japan's largest breweries—let alone in the international market?

First off, Kiuchi isn't quite as upstart as it may sound. They opened their doors in Naka, Japan, back in 1823, producing both beer and sake. That's right, 1823. Just so we're clear on this, that's 65 years prior to the debut of Kirin Lager; 29 years before Anheuser-Busch opened; and 22 years before messrs Fuller, Smith and Turner founded the Griffin Brewery in London. Needless to say, Kiuchi has figured out the brewing process. That being said, Japan digs it's taxes, and in Japan, beer and it's lower alcohol cousin happoshu, are taxed on their percentage of malt content. One of the reasons that Japan's big four breweries became so popular, was that it was unaffordable to brew full strength (4-5% ABV) beer, unless you were an established macro brewery, thus allowing the big four to tie up the marketplace. In fact, at one time, you couldn't even get a license to brew, unless you produced more than 500,000 gallons a year. In 1994, Japan relaxed it's caste system-like tax laws, allowing smaller breweries to be able to affordably produce smaller batches, and boom went the microbrewery dynamite.

Secondly, the beer is just good.

Tradition and heritage play an important role in Japanese culture, and the Hitachino Nest beers are no exception. While European and American styles are the basis for the Hitachino Nest brews, they also make sure to add a nod to Japanese culture. Their Red Rice Ale, is a sake infused concoction, spiked with Chinook and Hallertau hops; while their Japanese Classic Ale is a bottle-conditioned IPA, aged in cedar shōchū barrels. The epitome of this homage to all things Nippon has to be the Hitachino Nest Ancient Nipponia. It's an historic mash-up of an heirloom Japanese/European barley variety (not grown for 50 years) and the Asian phenom hop, Sorachi Ace. Kiuchi's Hitachino Nest is a perfect example of what Japan has done since the days when Perry parked his ships in Edo bay. They take something good and make it better—first Samurai movies, then cars and bullet trains, now beer.

Of Kiuchi's ten Hitachino Nest beers, I've had two—their White Ale and Real Ginger Brew*. I intentionally chose styles that showcased a European effort and one that had a decidedly Asian bend. A Belgian Wit is about as European of a style as you can get, while ginger is... Well, what evokes Asia more than fresh ginger root? The white ale poured a hazy wheat gold with a negligible head. All of those classic Wit hallmarks, were there; the slightly citrusy, yet grainy aroma; the crisp, dry, wheaty notes with a phenolic, bubble gummy edge. It leans a little pear-ish rather than the more traditional orange, which is a nice change of pace, for a Wit. Hitachino Nest nailed those classic flavors, but the White isn't all that earth shattering. It's a good example of an interpreted style. The Ginger Brew is another story. I don't usually go for spiced beers—in fact, I outright dislike spiced pumpkin brews all together. This one is different, right down to it's color, a hazy and rusty terra cotta. Yes, there is a pronounced ginger flavor, and a spicy, candied ginger aroma. I figured that going into it. It's both sweet and dry with a slight apple tartness. What surprised me were the subtle nutmeg and cardamon flavors that brings everything together, especially as the beer warms. I have no idea if either of those spices are used in making this beer, but it sure presents itself that way, and I thank Kiuchi for it!

I'm not usually a food and beer guy. I love both, but I usually find there to be a convolution when I mix and mach the two. Again, this beer has shifted my outlook. Hitachino Nest's Real Ginger Brew begs to be eaten with Asian cuisine—Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean. You name it, this beer is honestly the perfect match for eel and cucumber rolls or shrimp Pad Thai or even a pint of greasy old General Tso's.
It's not very often that a beer gets me to change my opinion, twice during the drinking of a single pint. Kiuchi must have figured something out over the last 188 years—I hope they keep it up.

Anybody in the mood for sushi and Seven Samurai on Blu-ray?

* I'm not sure if "real" is akin to the British term real ale, or "real" as in not ginger ale soda. I suspect the later.

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