Japan Eats

Japan Booze Blind: Nippon Craft Beer Festival (Part IV)

Christopher Pellegrini is joined by Teruya Hori of Laff International.

Happy New Year! In the final edition of our four-part NCBF 2010 series, Japan Booze Blind’s Christopher Pellegrini interviews one of Baird Brewing’s go-to engineers, Mr. Teruya Hori. Hori-san offers a unique perspective because his job is to make sure that beer is stored and poured under the best conditions possible.

While talking with us, he hinted at a challenge that was not mentioned in the first three parts of this interview series. Politely put: most bars and restaurants in Japan have little more than a vague understanding of how to care for and serve draft beer. Indeed, Japan Eats has seen kegs sitting out in the sun on landings and back balconies across this fair city. Granted, they’re normally cylinders of run-of-the-mill beer, but it is easy to imagine what might happen to a craft beer’s quality if it is forced to endure consecutive Tokyo summer days unprotected. Just like we heard back in part one of this series, “Bad Beer is the Enemy” rings true in the overall message of this interview as well.

What We’re Drinking: Daimaou Imo (sweet potato) Shochu

This was another bottle that I received in the mail. It’s one that I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while as I’ve seen it a few times before at Seiyu, so I was very happy to see the shiny gold label and foil when I popped the box open.

This is another decent imo-jochu from Kagoshima prefecture, but it surprised me a little because it doesn’t smell like an imo-jochu. It’s more refined than the imo-jochus I’m accustomed to drinking while carrying some light fruit on the nose. Before ever putting it in my mouth this shochu was living up to its deceitful name, “Great Devil King.”

Enjoying Daimaou neat, it has a round, medium-bodied mouthfeel. There’s a sweetness to it that is understated to the point of being dry. The yellow mold (essential to the process of breaking the potato starches down into fermentable sugars) used prior to distilling obviously has something to do with this sweetness. The effect is very pleasant. Yellow mold is what is used in the nihonshu brewing process and is somewhat less common in the shochu industry where white mold prevails.

There’s something about this shochu that reminds me of drinking brandy. Try it neat and see for yourself.

I also highly recommend this shochu on the rocks. It’s light, refreshing and easy to drink–definitely one of the better imo-jochus I’ve had that retails in the 1,600-1,800 yen range. And as I alluded above, Daimaou is distributed widely enough by Hamada Shuzo that you can find it in major supermarket chains such as Seiyu.

What We’re Drinking: Waseda Beer

Waseda, the lauded private university in downtown Tokyo that fields roughly 130,000 applications for admission each year, has a lot going for it–tradition, influence, and most importantly a very good baseball team.

One thing that it still needs to work on, however, is its beer.

Unfortunately, Waseda Beer (5% ABV)  is strongly yeasty from the moment you pry the cap off it. Then the yeastiness on the nose is backed up by an immediate and somewhat sour yeast dominance on the palate.

The result is a low-wattage sour middle that is not really all that welcome. This means that the hops are nearly undetectable. It would probably go down better, and feel more balanced, if the yeasty nose translated into a medium-bodied, bready mouthfeel.

I cracked two separate bottles to make sure that this was not an errant representative of the Waseda beer brand, but alas I cannot guarantee that they weren’t from the same batch since the same ‘drink by’ date (October 29, 2010) was stamped on the back of both of them.

Given the possibility that I drank two bottles of the real deal, I’m willing to acknowledge that it’s possible to get used to this beer, but it’s really not for me. The one thing that it has going for it is the somewhat dry finish that makes you nearly think the word “refreshing”. The only other plus I could come up with is the cool beer-pouring sound it makes on its way into a glass due to the stovepipe neck on the bottle.

In short, this beer does not do the proud history of Waseda University justice, and I will not be purchasing another one of them until someone assures me that a different experience is in store.

Waseda’s star pitcher, Yuki Saito, would surely be pissed off if he knew that this stuff was being served on campus.

More info about this beer can be found (in Japanese) here: http://waseda-beer.com/

What We’re Drinking: “Tokyo Beer” by Tama no Megumi

This bottle conditioned beer by Ishikawa Brewery out near Haijima station in Western Tokyo is an easy step up from what one normally consumes by way of Japan’s macro-breweries.

I’m not sure how much my bottle was shaken, but the pour was pretty hazy and could be best described as having a murky straw hue to it. The off-white head was thin and disappeared quickly on my pour from a 500 ml bottle into a pint glass.

The bottle was dated October, 2009. Not ideal, but within the realm of acceptability. Also of importance, it’s labeled as being 5.5% ABV.

Fresh out of the fridge, the mouthfeel on this beer was neither harsh nor special. It’s a medium-bodied brew that is perhaps a bit too shy on hoppiness, but at the same time balanced in terms of the light barley sweetness that highlights the start of the short trek from the front to the back of the palate. A few gulps later, once room temperature has started to assert its influence, a bit of breadiness starts to creep in and a bit of astringency (not unpleasant) colors the aftertaste.

This beer would benefit from a stronger hop backbone in my opinion, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. I suspect that, if you can get past the price tag, this beer will be popular with the Tokyo masses that wouldn’t mind something a little more complex than what is commonly found in the supermarket or convenience store cooler. Expect to pay around 400 yen for a half-liter bottle.

What We’re Drinking: Nakanaka Mugi (barley) Shochu

This bottle was a birthday present from my friend Karen who knows that I’m studiously perusing the range of barley shochu offerings available in Tokyo. It was a very welcome addition to my home bar!

This bottle, Nakanaka, is a good place to start one’s exploration of honkaku mugi shochu. When drinking it straight, Nakanaka starts with a slight, honey sweetness on the tip of the tongue before giving way to an assertive barley-alcohol twinge at the back.

With an ice cube or two thrown in this shochu loses a bit of the sweetness up front and experiences a slight drop in alcoholic bite as well. Taking a good drag of air to mix with a mouthful of Nakanaka will help revive the sweetness that is easier to find when enjoying this drink neat.

Most industry folks recommend that this drink be enjoyed either on the rocks or with a bit of warm water (oyuwari in Japanese). The latter is advised especially if you want to get more out of the nose. Cold water (mizuwari) is also an option.

Drinking Nakanaka straight is not to be discouraged, even though I seem to be the only only openly recommending that it be consumed that way.

At around 1,050 yen for a 720 ml bottle the regular stuff (it’s usually found in a brown glass bottle), you can’t go wrong with a bottle of Nakanaka.

World Cup Sake, Match 1

Hasegawa, purveyors of fine sake and savvy marketers of products such as the Tokyo Swallows baseball beer, have outdone themselves for the 2010 World Cup.

Rather than produce new libations, Hasegawa has repackaged some popular sake, shochu, and umeshu in fancy 2010 World Cup South Africa-themed bottles. While there were 13 different sake, two shochu, an umeshu, and a lemon liqueur thus bottled, we here were able to get our hands on six nice sake selections. Read more

What We’re Drinking: England vs. Germany

Yes, the 2010 World Cup is infecting Japan Eats, too. While we have a little Japan-centered FIFA-related tippling on the way, tonight England, home to a good chunk of our friends out there, take on Germany, also a quite Japan Eats-friendly country.

So, what’s on tap tonight is not only what’s on tap, but what’s in bottles: the least scientific head-to-head imaginable. Battle of the beers! Read more

What we’re drinking: Tokyo Swallows Baseball Beer

Beer endorsed by a bird with a bat.

This Tokyo Swallows Baseball Beer surprised me with its aroma. It reminded me, ever so slightly, of “Duchesse”, that beautiful Belgian ale that is becoming increasingly easy to find in Tokyo.

Poured straight from the bottle into a pint glass, this beer has a hazy straw color to it and a thin head that disappears quickly.

This is a light-bodied beer that has a bit of tanginess as it travels towards the back of your mouth. And the tanginess hangs around for a little bit at the finish. This would definitely be an acceptable brew for a hot summer day. It gives you a lot more to think about on the palate than the typical Japanese light beer while preserving the expected refreshingness and ease of drinking.

Weighing in at a rather modest 4% alcohol, this signature brew was a present from my friend Kyoko, who also entrusted me with this bubbly nihonshu not too long ago (click here for the full article.) According to the label, this beer is contract brewed by monster liquid libations producer, Kizakura, through an arrangement with classy Tokyo sake merchants (and Tokyo Swallows fans), Hasegawa Saketen.

What we’re drinking: Tokyo Swallows sparkling nihonshu (sake)

That’s right. The Tokyo Swallows may be terrible at promoting themselves, but they sell nihonshu with the team mascot on it. Although, to be clear, I don’t think that you can get it at or near the stadium–go figure. Big thanks to my friend, Kyoko, who gave me this bottle because she knew that the shock-value would be extreme. My jaw is still bruised from smacking the table in that bar.

This one is a junmai-ginjo with a seimaibuai (milling rate) of 55%. Definitely better quality than one would normally expect given the graphic on the label.

And although it doesn’t say so on the bottle, this is actually a sparkling sake that has a mouthfeel a lot like what you get with champagne. The body, however, is fuller than in a sparkling wine. Much of that is due to the fact that this nihonshu hasn’t been fully filtered. The Japanese word for this cloudier version of nihonshu is nigori, and indeed you can see a bit of leftover rice and sediment from the brewing process if you swirl it around. In the case of the Tokyo Swallows sparkling nihonshu, one could best describe it as being lightly nigori.

A little extra scouring of the label reveals that this is actually a “Toyo Bijin” sake with a bird on the front. Toyo Bijin is a brand brewed in Yamaguchi prefecture, and it is known for being quite dry. At first I disagreed with this, but my second and third sip revealed a sweet splash at the front quickly overtaken by an arid finish. I think maybe all the bubbles distracted me on my first attempt.

Out of fear that my palate is being unduly influenced by this bottle’s stage name, for the record I will say that this is not the best drink I’ve had this week. However, while I’m not normally one for sparkling nihonshu, this stuff is very drinkable. I like the fruit on the nose and palate even if this is the first nihonshu I’ve ever had that is reminiscent of a chu-hi .

I was told that this bottle can be purchased at Tokyo station, but I’m not clear on the exact whereabouts of the shop. If anyone knows, please leave a comment below. Apparently there’s a Tokyo Swallows beer out there as well.

What we’re drinking: Shirashinken mugi (shochu)

This is my favorite tipple right now. Shirashinken. Even if you can’t spell it, remember it.

And this one is very easy to find. I bought it at my local supermarket for about 1,200 yen. Just like all things Balvenie (thank you, Garrett), I will make sure to have a bottle of this in my bar at all times.

Tasting notes: the barley tingle on this mugi (barley) shochu is subdued because of the very pleasant honey notes at the front and in the finish. This shochu is quite long. It lingers for a bit after you’ve swallowed, and it is one that you absolutely must try ‘neat’. That’s right. No rocks, no splash of water, no nothing.

And you’ll thank me for it. I’m sure that Shirashinken is very pleasant on the rocks, the way that many people like to drink shochu, but the interplay between the prickly earthiness and the sweet notes is something that would be bludgeoned off the palate by a few innocuous ice cubes. Try it neat so that you taste what I’m getting at.

This bottle doesn’t get nearly as much love as some of the more famous mugi shochu such as Hyakunen no Kodoku, but I believe that it’s almost as good. Unless, of course, you happen to have a bottle of Hyakunen that is more than ten years old as Tsuruda-san does at my local bar. But that’s beside the point.

Cost-performance?

Fact: this is the best bottle of mugi shochu I’ve purchased for less than 1,500 yen thus far.