Shimane Kokutou Imperial Stout
Bottle, 8.5% ABV
2013 was the year I discovered Japanese beer.
Of course, I'd had beer from Japan before but somehow, I don't think Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo really count.
There had also been the odd treat from Hitachino Nest but only a summer trip to Japan could succeed in opening my eyes to the richness and diversity of the the country's nascent microbrewing scene.
Of course, Japan has a long way to go to catch up with Britain or the States - particularly in terms of the number of breweries and ready availability of microbrewed beer - but there is a sense something special is happening over there.
Particularly in Tokyo, the number of new bars popping up and existing bars expanding their range of Ji Bīru (the Japanese phrase for microbrewed beer, literally translated as 'local beer') is quite staggering. Heck, even BrewDog are about to get in on the act.
In a country where it is illegal to home brew any beer over 1% ABV, it's impressive to see so many new, dedicated craft breweries opening their doors given the absence of essentially anything resembling a grassroots structure.
The new brewers include natives, American immigrants who have settled in Japan (in the case of both Baird Beer and Brimmer Brewing) and even traditional sake breweries inspired by the worldwide upsurge in microbrewing.
Shimane Beer Co itself comes from an area famed for its rich history of sake production, largely due to the suitability of the local spring water. The Kokutou Imperial Stout is perhaps the brewery's most lauded beer, made using a special type of unrefined brown sugar from Tokunoshima, an island in the Amami archipelago to the south of the country.
Given its strength and the use of brown sugar, you might expect this to be a rich, sticky stout but it springs something of a surprise.
Pouring deepest black it gushes, rather than slinks, out of the bottle, creating a small, loose tan head that quickly dissipates.
The nose is fairly light for an imperial stout but aromas of weak coffee, cocoa powder and burnt toast linger faintly in the glass.
It's strangely light bodied with a reasonably firm, foamy carbonation and the taste is intially dominated by black coffee and roasted malt, while dull cocoa lingers behind. Eventually, a light sweetness begins to build but it's more reminiscent of lactose than brown sugar, like a slightly watery cafe au lait.
A little more sweetness comes through in the finish, which is dry yet marked by flavours of milk chocolate and, latterly, brown sugar.
It's surprisingly easy-drinking for an imperial stout, as a result of its comparitive lightness when put alongside heavier sippers. Not exactly the best example of Japan's new brewing talent but an enjoyable beer all the same.
The third and final part of Beer Battered's adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Kyoto proved extremely difficult to leave, such is the allure of the place.
Its tremendous sense of history and richness of culture, coupled with a modern pragmatism, make it the kind of city with which it's easy to form an emotional bond.
To soften the blow of my departure, I treated myself to a couple of Ji Bīru from the department store underneath the main train station, both from Kinshi Masamune.
Strangely, given Kyoto's own rich cultural heritage, both beers were based on traditional German recipes - one a schwarz, the other a Kölsch - and although they were far from terrible, they did confirm a previously-concocted theory. If your microbrewed beer has a bottlecap like that below, it's unlikely to be particularly thrilling.
These caps are pretty common across the board but, in my experience, tended to point to a corporate-owned microbrewery playing largely to type rather than a wildly innovative upstart. Look at Hitachino Nest's iconic owl as an example of how bottlecaps should be done.
Our next stop, Hiroshima, appeared to be light on any kind of microbrewed beer, however, regardless of the bottletop. This despite a clear European influence throughout large parts of the city's culinary and cultural experience.
Perhaps it's a result of the warmer weather and proximity to the coast but cafe culture appears to have taken off here more so than anywhere else. The prevalence of Italian and Spanish eateries, quirky coffee shops and street dining came as a bit of a shock, particularly given the destruction dealt to Hiroshima by the West in years gone by
Aside from an American-style diner with a fridge full of Black Isle, the only place I stumbled on where beer was more than an afterthought was a little pub tucked away on a side street near our ryokan.
Spotting a row of BrewDog bottles lined up in the window out of the corner of my eye, I darted across the street and headed straight into Beer Pub Phi's to see what else was on offer. Imagine Cheers set in Japan, with the equivalent of Norm and Cliff propping up the bar, each bizarrely with a bottle of St Peter's Pale Ale, swapping jokes and stories with anyone who would listen.
Despite a disappointing lack of Ji Bīru, the larger than life owner did boast a huge range of imports, although most required a second mortgage prior to consumption. My bottle of Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA came in at 1,900 Yen (around £13), which caused the tight-fisted Mancunian inside me to immediately slap the beer geek around the face.
After that, it was back to Tokyo and onwards towards the best beery experiences of my trip.
I have previously mentioned the indelible fingerprints America has left all over the modern Japanese beer scene and nowhere is this more evident than in the success of Bryan Baird and Scott Brimmer. Both are American expats now living in Japan and both have set up successful microbreweries, generating a huge buzz among seasoned drinkers thanks to an impressive variety of high-quality beers.
A graduate of the American Brewers' Guild brewing science and engineering programme, Bryan initially arrived in Japan to help train native brewers on how to use their shiny new equipment but instead ended up establishing Baird Brewing with his wife Sayuri in 2000. From their brewery in Numazu, they have grown to establish four successful taprooms in the Tokyo area and have begun to export worldwide, with some of their beer beginning to find its way to English shores. Catch it when you can!
We visited their Harajuku taproom (pictured right), which offered the entire range of Baird standards and a handful of seasonal specialities, along with a range of simple but tasty Japanese izakaya-style food. Still feeling peckish after a less than satisfying meal earlier in the evening, we ordered a plate of gyoza dumplings and two types of yakitori skewers to go with our beer sampler set, which wasn't bad value by Japanese standards at 1000 Yen (around £7) for three 140ml glasses.
Knowing my girlfriend has a much lower tolerance for in-your-face, hop-forward beers than myself, we initially opted for a combination of the Numazu Lager, the Wheat King Ale and the Single-Take Session Ale, all of which neatly balanced the salty food.
Surprisingly, given my usual lager apathy, the Numazu Lager (5%) was my favourite of the trio, an amber coloured Vienna-style beer, which combines sweet, bready malt with a variety of fruity hop aromas and flavours. There's a touch of soapiness but what really surprises is the amount of tropical fruit that comes through, mango, pineapple and lychee adding to the undercurrent of lemon and grapefruit.
The Single-Take (4.7%) was fairly average, a hoppy golden ale fermented with Belgian yeast, where citrus and straw mingled with yeasty spice leading to a dry, slightly tart finish. Meanwhile, the Wheat King (4.2%) is a refreshing, gluggable wheat ale, creamy and doughy with a light touch of zesty lemon and an even lighter touch of clove. In fact, the esters weren't quite powerful enough for my own taste so I actually preferred the Wheat King Wit (4%), which had a similar citrus character well complemented by a wave of spice and a dry finish full of soft butter shortbread.
However, the true pleasures were to be found on the small, yet perfectly-formed, list of seasonal specials. Destination Ale (5.5%) is a beautiful golden peach-coloured ale made with sumomo, or Japanese sweet plums. The fruit is far from overpowering though, providing soft aromas of stone fruit in the nose and an immediate sweet zing on the palate. Tangy plum skin and lime add to the tartness but firm biscuity malt restores balance before a dry finish speckled with a tingling sweetness.
The Wabi-Sabi Pale Ale (6.5%) was another fascinating brew with plenty of native character, a Japanese take on the humble IPA made with whole-leaf green tea and wasabi. It starts sweet, like a teaspoon of golden honey, but quickly develops into a hoppy collaboration, elements of earth and citrus joining forces over a background of leafy, bitter tea. The wasabi kicks later on, providing a fresh heat that fades as the dry, bitter finish gathers momentum, a touch of sourness lingering at the back of the tongue.
Given the quality and quirkiness of the beer, coupled with an easy, relaxed atmosphere, it's not hard to see why Baird's taprooms have prospered. The other American abroad, Scott Brimmer, might operate amid more humble surroundings but appears set for similar success.
Scott started life as a brewer at Sierra Nevada, having worked his way up from pot washer in the American craft beer goliath's own taproom. After marrying a Japanese exchange student, he headed across the Pacific and set up Brimmer Brewing in Kawasaki in 2011 following a spell working for native brewers Gotemba Kogen.
His Tokyo tap, Brimmer Beer Box in Omotesando (pictured left), is... well... a box. It's a strange, two-level pop-up with a small bar on the ground floor and a tiny outdoor seating area on the level above. But drinking in a box has never been so enjoyable. Trust me.
There are only four beers on tap, Brimmer's Golden Ale, Pale Ale, Porter and a seasonal special, but each are available for the knockdown price of 500 Yen (£4) for what appeared to be a 400ml glass - that's nothing short of a minor miracle in Tokyo.
The Pale Ale (5.5%) was a proper easy-drinking pale with plenty of caramel malt and grapefruit but my highlight was the Imperial Red Ale (6.5%) - that classic balance of sweet, roasted malt and punchy hops being something I can never resist. This delivers on taste big time, an early blast of grapefruit and pine underpinned by caramel before the rest of the malt character is let loose, toffee, chestnut and brown bread coming through strongly. That citrusy zing never fades, however, and it finishes with a superb spicy bitterness.
My final few days in Tokyo couldn't pass without picking up a few choice beers for the journey home, so I ventured to the Tanakaya bottle shop in Mejiro. This underground bunker of beery brilliance has a stunning selection of imports from around the world and a good handful of Ji Bīru supplemented by shelves of sake, shochu and assorted spirits.
The owner wasn't overly confident in his English but still managed to recommend a truly outstanding sake from the Kinoshita Brewery, ironically brewed by an Englishman, Philip Harper. Sweet yet tart, fruity and dry, it put me in the mind of a good New Zealand Marlborough white wine.
I also picked up a bottle of Shiga Kogen IPA (6%), which is something of a staple in the Japanese craft beer scene - a well-balanced IPA with juicy flavours of orange, lime and grapefruit, causing a bitter finish and a lingering sweetness.
The Daisen G Gougin (6.5%) is more of a traditional Belgian-style ale packed full of yeasty funk and fruity esters, like a Pink Lady apple, fresh from the ground, dotted with cloves and drizzled with honey.
The sheer variety of Ji Bīru was perhaps what surprised me the most. Given the microbrewing industry is still in its formative years, I expected a fairly formulaic offering across the board but was instead confronted by a more mature scene, unafraid to experiment and add splashes of native cultural flair.
You still have to be pretty committed to find good, microbrewed beer outside the major cities but demand appears to be growing and it shouldn't be long before the rest of the world is able to appreciate some of the treats on offer in Japan.
Strangely, after escaping Tokyo, I began to have more luck on the bottle front.
Two brief stop-offs in Nagoya, either side of a trip out to Gifu, yielded a good stash of hotel beers to ease those tense moments in between the discovery of suitable bars and pubs.
My initial flying visit to Nagoya was scuppered somewhat by a national holiday, which had been rude enough not to announce its presence to me in advance. Autumnal Equinox Day meant I was greeted by a ghost town as I wandered the city streets searching for a bottle shop found using the very helpful Craft Beer Japan app.
Predictably, the shop was closed but I did manage to find a few beers that weren't brewed by one of the big four in the basement of a nearby Mitsukoshi department store. Variety isn't the easiest to come by in Japan so you quickly come to the realisation that the subterranean depths of the country's huge department stores are often your best bet for escaping the death grip of bland, dry lager.
After meandering like a wide-eyed kid through the aisles of weird and wonderful foodstuffs (with a firm emphasis on the wonderful), I happened upon a handful of beers from Nagoya's own Kinshachi Brewery. By far the best of the bunch was the Red Miso Lager (6%), a deep reddish-brown beer made with akamiso or fermented red soybean paste, a Nagoya speciality and source of great local pride.
It would be easy for such a beer to descend into the realms of novelty but it is well-crafted enough to avoid any such accusations, striking a surprisingly good balance between the salty, savoury miso and rich dark malts. The aroma is simply unique, almost like what you'd expect to get if you threw roasted malt, a bar of dark chocolate and miso soup into an oak barrel and mashed it all up with a few raisins, sour cherries and plums.
It sits heavy on the palate, full of the kind of flavours you'd expect from a rich fruitcake - raisins, dates and cherries accompanied by a sweet nuttiness. Some toasted malt comes through just prior to the salty miso, which tastes a little like a hearty bowl of ramen. The finish is warm and ever so slightly astringent, smoothed by another handful of raisins and a few squares of dark chocolate.
My introduction to Kinshachi's beers proved more than a little misleading though. The IPA and Golden Ale were both pleasant, full of fairly typical light citrus and floral hop flavours, but far too inoffensive for my liking. The Mitsuboshi Pale Ale was a bit 'meh' too, watery and fizzy with soft notes of caramel, orange and hay.
Two days in Gifu proved to be similarly barren, only a solitary pint of Erdinger weizen interrupting the tedium of Japanese lager, but my second visit to Nagoya proved a seminal moment (well, for me at least).
Returning to the aforementioned bottle shop recommended by the Craft Beer Japan app, Okadaya, I was greeted by an open door and a fridge full of bottles from Baird, Hitachino Nest, Minoh, Tamamura Honten and Sankt Gallen among others. I felt like a proud father as I carefully wrapped up each bottle and packed them into my rucksack.
Although the 'award-winning' Minoh Stout (5.5%) was a disappointment - too watery and light-bodied despite notes of chocolate, vanilla and roasted malt - the rest more than made up for it. Minoh's W-IPA (9%), an assertive, hop-forward double IPA that tastes of mango, lemon, lime and grapefruit drizzled with honey and caramel, was better if a little unrefined.
However, Baird Beer's Suruga Bay Imperial IPA (7.5%) was exactly what the doctor ordered, reawakening my lapsed beery senses and whipping me into an intense fervour after simply popping the cap. It was impossible to resist the juicy aromas of pineapple, lychee, gooseberry and grapefruit that fizzed out of the bottle and whooshed on the mainline straight to my brain's pleasure receptors.
The first sip unleashed a medley of sherbet fruits, carried on a wave of malty caramel. I'm talking big, bold flavours of pineapple, mango, nectarine, lychee, passion fruit and pink grapefruit with a clean, bitter finish. A reassuring stickiness hangs around in the mouth to provide a constant reminder of the delights you've recently experienced.
Sankt Gallen's Kansha No Nama (5.5%) certainly looked the most impressive of the haul, a minimalist black bottle covered in golden Kanji script, but its contents were not quite as stunning. It's a stout that pours dull black with a small, off-white head and gives off good aromas of roast coffee beans and chocolate but delivers too little in the taste. Fairly light-bodied and slightly over-carbonated, it offers salted liquorice, treacle, roasted malt and a little coffee followed by a light, mouth-tingling spice. Drinkable, if not memorable.
Both Hitachino Nest beers hit the mark, particularly the Espresso Stout (7%), which is beautifully smooth and oily, full of sweet toffee, milk chocolate with a well-time black coffee kick. The XH (8%), which is matured in Shochu casks for three months, has received criticism in some quarters for packing too little punch but remains a tasty, well-layered beer. Treacle and salted caramel mingle with rich orange marmalade, yeast, pine and spicy white pepper, rounded off by alcohol freshness and oak in the finish.
Tamamura Honten's Yama-Bushi Saison One (6.5%) was another triumph. It's brewed with sake rice and presented in a stunning wine bottle decorated in a traditional Japanese style, neither of which is surprising given Tamamura Honten started life as a sake brewery in 1805. Pouring a cloudy yellowish straw colour with a generous frothy white head, it has a lovely nose of banana, ripe peach, funky yeast and wild rice.
This is one saison with no shortage of aromatics, all underpinned by malty notes of fresh dough and grainy cereal. First to hit the palate is a splash of lemon but the tart citrus is well balanced by crisp apple and pear, topped off by sweet, ripe banana. A little sourness creeps in, some spicy hop and a lasting bitterness that accompanies the dry finish.
At the risk of spending all my time drinking in my hotel room, on arrival in Kyoto I made it my mission to seek out some decent drinking dens. Thanks to a couple of recommendations from @tania_nexust and @_aka_hige and the help of my trusty Craft Beer Japan app, I found a couple of gems.
Tadg's is an Irish bar but not in the soul-destroying, 'silly hats and shamrocks' sense of the phrase, more in the sense that it's a bar owned by an Irishman. Tadg McLoughlin clearly has a passion for good beer, one he pairs with a knack for creating hearty, homespun comfort food - the chicken pot pie I gobbled my way through was damn tasty, if a little small.
Even when armed with the address, it isn't particularly easy to find. With space at such a premium in Japan's crowded cities, it's common to discover good restaurants and bars tucked away on the upper floors of many a high-rise building and such is the case with Tadg's. What this does mean is great views over the Higashiyama mountains and the Kamogawa river, which makes the setting even slightly romantic when the candles come out at night.
Although its self-proclaimed title as 'the home of craft beer in Kyoto' might be over-egging the pudding a bit, it does offer a good variety of Ji Bīru and exports on draught and in bottle. They seemed particularly proud of the fact they now have a permanent tap dedicated to Punk IPA.
My aim going in had been to try some Ji Bīru from Kyoto, which had appeared in short supply elsewhere, and the Syuzankaido Amber Ale (5.5%) did the job. Initially sweet and fruity, with hints of plum jam, damson and an underlying bready malt, it progressed through layers of spicy hop and chestnut while a dull oakiness thudded away in the background. A robust, bitter finish was accompanied by a strong, lasting malty character.
However, my favourite drinking experience in Kyoto came in a tiny bar that didn't even serve beer. Sake Bar Yoramu (pictured left) is a fascinating place tucked away on a back street a few blocks south of the Imperial Palace.
You'd barely even notice the place in passing, never mind realise what's hidden inside and, given it consists of a nine stools lining a small bar, you wonder how it actually survives as a business. But it's an experience you'd be unable to recreate anywhere else.
Upon taking a seat at the bar, you're greeted by the quietly-spoken yet charismatic Israeli owner, Yoram, who gives you a quick quiz on your favourite flavours before offering a sampling set of sake to suit your tastes. Forget the hot, characterless stuff served up in Japanese restaurants across the UK, this would give any fine beer or wine a run for its money.
Explaining my penchant for hop-forward IPAs, Yoram selected two particularly outstanding varieties, one which was dry and fruity with a big bitter kick and the other a delightful balance of sweet and sour, full of sharp citrusy notes.
Four samplers later and we were the last people left in the bar, so Yoram even invited me to share a beer from his personal collection, cracking open a bottle of Sankt Gallen's Yokohama XPA (6%), which was full of grapefruit, floral hop character and a strong biscuity malt.
Although deliberately vague about how he ended up selling sake in Kyoto, Yoram is clearly devoted to his work and only too happy to share the benefit of his considerable experience, chatting at length with me about the similarities of the brewing processes in beer and sake.
I could have returned the following night but Hiroshima was calling...
Check back next week for the final part of my Japan series, including two very different taprooms run by Americans in Tokyo.
Japan is a country renowned for its culinary capability.
The delicious simplicity of yakitori, peerless precision of sushi and delicate artistry of kaiseki are all testament to a proud tradition of gastronomic excellence.
Inherent to this approach is a deep understanding of the necessity for combining quality, seasonal ingredients with well-studied execution - yet this understanding hasn't always found its way into Japanese brewing.
The big four of Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory still loom large. Peruse the beer selection in any convenience store or supermarket and you'll soon find the selection basically boils down to endless variations on the same mass-produced lager. Your average Japanese drinker has a real penchant for crisp, malt-forward beers devoid of anything but the slightest hint of hops. I suppose that's the reason for the reason for the 'fear' in the title.
But the times they are a-changin' and 'craft beer' has increasingly become a buzzphrase in the Land of the Rising Sun. My recent trip to Japan revealed a surprising proliferation of self-procliamed craft beer bars, brewpubs and microbreweries.
This movement isn't as prominent as in the UK but, particularly in the bigger cities, it does seem to have caused a minor fracture to appear in the hegemony of the big boys. It's not yet significant enough to constitute a major threat to the status quo but the availability and popularity of Ji Bīru (the Japanese phrase for microbrewed beer, literally translated as 'local beer') continues to grow.
At the very least, the discerning drinker will never have to make do with Asahi Super Dry again.
The roots of the microbrewing boom can be traced back to the mid 90s, when the government relaxed the oppressive tax laws governing breweries. Previously, only those operations producing two million litres a year qualified for a brewing licence but this was reduced to 60,000 litres in 1994, opening the door to a new influx of smaller breweries.
However, to complicate matters further, it is still illegal to home brew any drink higher than 1% ABV, which doesn't exactly facilitate the growth of a strong grassroots movement. Consequently, many of the 200 small breweries in existence today are, in fact, corporate-funded ventures churning out passable beer to traditional German or English recipes.
This faddishness has even infected the brewing goliaths and, shamefully, my own Japanese beer journey started in Asahi's own brewpub on the banks of the Sumidagawa River.
I'll put it down to a combination of jet lag and unfamiliarity but as we stumbled back to our Asakusa hotel after a thoroughly exhausting first day, this was the only place I could find that might serve me intoxicating liquor.
It's an odd four-storey building next door to the company's imposing Philippe Starck-designed headquarters - topped by the infamous 'golden turd'- and incorporates a cafe, beer hall, restaurant boasting food and beer pairings, and whisky bar.
They are at great pains to point out that beer is actually brewed on site, with a mass of gaudy copper sat behind the bar (seen left) and a series of shiny fermentation vessels on display behind a viewing window near the toilets, but perhaps it'd be better to keep that particular fact a bit quieter. The three brews on offer did little to invigorate my fast-fading body and mind.
Best of a pretty bad bunch was the Sumidagawa Weizen, which was drinkable without offering much in the way of fruity esters, save for faint background notes of banana. The watery Sumidagawa Stout merely hinted at the presence of coffee and roasted malt and the Asakusa Ale, bizarrely served in Kwak's iconic glassware, was oversweet and lacking in body, a bit like weak orange squash.
After such an abject start it could only get better. Luckily, Tokyo offered plenty of opportunities to make amends.
The city has become something of a beer geek's paradise, with a huge variety of brewpubs and beer bars dotted across its vast expanse, offering the kind of choice that cannot fail to induce crippling indecision.
But rather than showcasing a unique Japanese take on the humble watering hole, most of these venues have taken their cultural lead from the West. America, in particular, has left its unmistakable fingerprints all over the Tokyo bar scene, yet there is also a distinct European presence aside from the typical Guinness-serving, shamrock-smattered shame dungeons.
The city boasts three branches of Belgium's famous Delirium Cafe and I even discovered the anomalous presence of a Franziskaner bar on the top floor of the posh Marunouchi Building near the Imperial Palace.
Popeye, however, falls into the former category and wouldn't seem at all out of place if you moved it brick-by-brick across the Pacific. Widely regarded as one of the finest pubs in Japan, never mind Tokyo, it boasts more than 70 draught lines consisting of largely native brews infiltrated by the odd offering from the likes of Rogue, Stone and Great Divide.
The prices are pretty eye-watering at upwards of £4 for a 200ml serving but it's well worth a visit as long as you time it right. Unfortunately, we didn't!
After watching the sumo wrestling at nearby Ryōgoku Kokugikan, we tottered up to Popeye slap bang in the middle of Saturday night happy hour. With punters packed tighter than a sumo wrestler in hotpants, the best the staff could offer us was a place on the pavement and a makeshift table that seemed to resemble a set of bathroom shelves from Ikea (pictured right).
Undeterred, I finally got my first taste of Ji Bīru on Japanese soil in the shape of some good, old-fashioned 'real ale'. The CAMRA boys would be proud.
Unfortunately, the Yona Yona Pale Ale from Yo-ho Brewing (5.5%), which appears to be a staple of the craft beer scene in Japan, fell a little short of expectations. Although it provided wonderful tropical aromas of pineapple, lychee and mango, it failed to properly deliver on flavour. Sticky, chewy hops delivered a soft fruitiness but, overall, it just felt a little too sweet and unambitious, lacking the presence of enough contrasting bitterness.
The Hidatakayama Weizen (5%) was an improvement though, offering a timely reminder what really good beer can taste like, especially in the wake of Asahi's underwhelming attempt at the same style. It was slightly quirky interpretation that flooded the palate with a burst of intense esters, bold notes of banana, passion fruit, lemon and orange. Following this fruity wave was a touch of clove in there too and a further layer of herbal flavour, primarily coriander, which gave it a bit more zing than your typical hefeweizen.
At that point, my tasting session was cut short. The more it became clear we were unlikely to progress from the pavement, the quicker my girlfriend's patience waned. The arrival of a group of obnoxious Americans determined to drink nothing other than US beers proved to be the final straw, so I left feeling I hadn't made the most of my visit to Popeye.
Disappointing as that was, the rest of my Japanese adventure proved far more fruitful. Keep your eyes peeled for part two coming soon.