Reviews & info on some beers, bars & pubs in Japan (mainly Tokyo/Yokohama area) - with an extra large serving of nonsensical jibbbbah jabbah thrown in:

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Do not underestimate the power of the dark side

When most people think of beer, I suppose many think of light lagers.
Pale, almost transparent at times, mass produced examples of a truly ground breaking brew, first produced in1842, in the Czech town of Plzen by a Bavarian brewer. Well, that was relatively recent, by beer history terms. What most people don't realise is that before that pivotal moment, all beers were more or less dark beers. Europe has a long history of dark beers.
The most famous dark style in Europe is probably the German black or Schwarz beer.
In the UK, everyone  knows and loves pale ales, bitters, IPAs. These also are relatively new styles. Before the advent of coke, pale ale malt wasn't really possible. Most beers were made using variations of brown or dark or more heavily roasted malt. Also those malts were often roasted or kilned over fires and hence picked up smoky flavours from the fires. So in the olden days, people were often drinking dark, smoky, often acidic or even infected (no one knew much about sanitation back then) ales.
Everyone knows about the style known as stout. We all know Guinness.
Irish beer. Yes?
Well, the style of stout (sweet stout, oatmeal stout, imperial stout, oyster stout, Irish or dry stout, chocolate stout, coffee stout) is actually from the name 'stout porter' and  porter came from the UK or more specifically London, way back around the 18th century. Brown porter, robust porter, stout porter, baltic porter, etc.
The UK has a long history of dark beers.

Tonight, I'm going to sample three examples of the dark side of beer styles.
A German Schwarz bier, A British porter and a stout.

What all these beers have in common is not just their absorbant properties of most wavelengths of the visible light spectrum (their apparent darkness), but rather they all are brewed in Japan.

Some think Japanese beer is all lager.

In Japan, we have the big four breweries which control way over 90% of the market. Sapporo, Kirin, Suntory and Asahi.

Although Asahi makes an excellent 8% stout, Suntory make a pretty good black Suntory malts and Sapporo make a reasonable Munich Schwarz in the Yebisu black, if you are looking for decent dark ales or lagers, you have to look at the craft beer market.

Craft beer in Japan is coming on leaps and bounds. Craft beer bars especially are opening up at fantastic rates, almost one per week at times. New breweries are coming into existence. Not as many breweries as bars, though, as it is much easier to acquire a bar license than it is a brewery licence, but changes are coming none-the-less.

I recently was fortunate enough to be a judge in a national beer tasting event held at the legend that is Craft Beer Bar Popeyes.  6 tables of up to 6 judges each, blind tasted many styles of Japanese craft beer and selected just one supreme champion from among them.
After the event, I was able to procure a few bottles of Japanese craft beer that wasn't consumed during the judging or the excellent after party.
I tried to choose the best of what was available. From among the 10 bottles I brought home (insert smiling emoticon here), 3 were of the dark variety.

Next, I'll attempt to sample then (I really mean drink the  buggers!) all and try my best to provide some tasting notes on each one.
I selected a schwarz, a porter and a stout. I feel a good representation of the dark styles of beer.

Ok, without further ado, I shall introduce tonight's brews:

Left to right: Isekadoya stout, Swan Lake porter and Shonan Schwarz.

Shonan schwarz:

Pours with a nice velvety light brown head.
Colour is a deep, dark brown, gentle black with ruby highlights when held up to the light. Good clarity.
Nice legs down the glass, when swirled.
Nice toasty, roast, malts, chocolate, caramelised sugar in the nose.
Flavor: Smooth, toasted dark malts with chocolate and a hint of liquorice. Light to medium bodied, smooth and delicate.Bitter chocolate finish with a hint of coffee. 5% alcohol.
Very nice.
One of the best Schwarz in Japan.
Also check out Harvestmoon, Bayernmesiter and Baeren, among others for fine examples of this style.

Next up was Swan Lake porter:
Pours a dark black, with an off white, tan head. Thin but lasting head.
Aromas of liquroice, chocolate, figs, alcohol. 6% alcohol.
Flavour: Alcohol, roast malts, deep, dark chocolate. Medium bodied, creamy mouth-feel and toasty, coffee, dark caramel, liquorice, plum flavours coming into play. A slight bitter after taste, like bitter chocolate.
 In my opinion, best drank in a UK pint glass for just 950yen at The Aldgate British pub in Shibuya.
 You could also get it at the official Swan Lake Pub Edo for 1,000yen  a pint (plus cover charge).
One of best porters in Japan.
Also check out Baird Kurofune robsut porter, Isekadoya imperial smoked porter, Shiga kogen porter and the newly established Brimmer porter for some other very good examples.

Final beer for tonight is the Isekadoya stout:
Pours a deep, deep brown-black, opaque. Light makes no difference to the colour. A big billowy, foamy off white cream head.
Aroma: Black sugar, coffee, roast and caramel.
Flavour: Dark roasted malt, light coffee, dark chocolate. Light bodied. Almost astringent bitterness from the black malt but it mellows into a lasting, roasted bitterness. I detect coffee like notes.
Some cola type flavours too, but more like dark, watery black toffee caramel molasses.
A thin to medium body and mouthfeel. Good, lasting, roasty bitterness.
5% alcohol.

Some other good stouts to consider: Isekadoya oyster stout, Baird Shimaguni dry (Irish) stout, Beahern stout (a tad yeasty), Shinano Kurohime stout (now stopped but it was awesome - some kegs still around) and Iwate Kura oyster stout.

Well, all three are excellent beers and fine examples of their style.
I hope you get the chance to try these beers and appreciate them.
Please, don't just stick to light lagers.
Do not underestimate the power and flavour of 'the dark side'.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

I gotta sickness & the only cure is more pils(ners)!

How are you? You okay?
Why don't you just lay back and relax and let me tell you a story about the wonderful beer style known as pilsner.
I might be right, I might be wrong.
I probably will be wrong (most certainly drunk) but I'm gonna tell it anyway...

The year is 1842. The town/city was Plzen, in the kingdom of Bohemia. The city had founded a brewery in  Bürger Brauerei (Citizens' Brewery - now Plzeňský Prazdroj) after angry citizens continuously complained about the changing quality of the beer (in 1938, they dumped whole barrels into the streets in anger!).

The famous Brewery gates in Pilsen/Plzen.
...and at night, with a drunk Welshman.
The new brewery wanted to brew in the Bavarian tradition and so they brought over a brewer from Munich called Josef Groll, to help them do that. Using his brewing technniques, together with the soft water of Plzen, the saaz hops from neighbouring Saaz (Zatec) and the famous pale coloured moravian malt, he produced a pale coloured, bottom fermented beer (most beers at that time in Bohemia were darker and top fermented, like ales).

So began the world's first Pilsener or pilsner beer. 

In 1898, it was named Pilsner Urquell, from the German for "the source of the pislner"
This amazingly clear, golden lager took the world by storm.
It remains today, in one form or another, the most widely made/imitated style of beer - from the first Pilsner Urquell, to the more commonly found Budweiser (the less worthy American version)

Today, I'm gonna talk to you about 3 excellent examples of some of the world's finest pale lagers (I just also happen to be drinking them! Win win!).

So, let's start with the original:
Pilsner Urquell. A nice beer.
Color:  A wonderful sgolden straw. Very clear. Nice foamy off white to white head.
Aroma: Good aroma of saaz hops in here. Bitter and aromatic with malt tones.
Flavour: Dry, hoppy, crisp. Good beer. These green bottles might be slightly skunked though. Brown would be better but they have their silly image to thnk of (marketing team like the image the green bottle has generated and won't change to brown bottles).
I pick up a little cardboard flavor and it's lacking freshness a bit but still not bad. 
I love the malty flavor I get from it on tap. Nowhere near as good as the real orginal, brewed way back in 1842. 
Tip: If you ever got o Prague, take the bus/train to Pilsen and take a tour of the brewery. go to the underground cellars and try the real unfiltered, unpasturised Urquel pilsner from the oak barrels. GORGEOUS!!
Great stuff and my best ever pilsner.
Bloody lovely!

With the success of Pilsen's golden beer, many others started brewing their own versions of this wonderful pale lager. Dortmund in Germany started brewing pale lager in 1873. They became famous for their  Dortmunder Export.
Soon after, in 1894, pale lager finally came back to it's roots (arguably!). Munich.
Spaaten of Munich made their own pale lager which they called helles. This is German for 'light coloured'.
a helles lager is not as up front hoppy as a pilsner, nor as dry. Instead, it is a much gentler, lighter, maltier tasting beer.
Spaaten made the original helles and their still remains one of the most delicious and easy to find examples of the style.

Spaaten premium lager.

Color: lighter than pilsner, golden. clear and bubbly. Nice foamy, white head.
Aroma: Good malt aroma wiht a hint of hops.
Flavour: Nice crisp, light taste. Malt in the back end ooer! Again green bottle grrrr!
A little dry but nice malt flavor in here. Not as dry or bitter or hop forward as the pislner. A good light alternative. Made for quenching ones thirst with.
Good beer.

Now I'd like to come back to the orignal style concerning this post, the pilsner. I'd also like to handily combine the Czech style of pislner with the country which spawned it's brewer, Germany. Let's talk about German pislner.

Especially true in the north of Germnay, pilsners tend to become drier and quite hoppy. Utilizing the German noble hops, these are actually some of my favourite flavoursome lagers. Jever is probably one of the most famous. Becks might be another one (first German company to use those bloody green bottles).

for my example, I decided to go north, really North!
The most Northelry brewing town in Germany, in fact. Flensberg.

Felensberger beer makes a wonderfully dry but malty and hoppy pilsner.

Some of you may have noticed the cool flip top bottles these guys push out. You might also have noticed the slightly hefty pricetag. It's worth it. They make an excellent pilsner, among many other brews. Still a small company (about 120 employees), it remains one of the last nation wide breweries not owned by a larger group (Becks being a great example of the huge scale).

Colour: This one looks great, kind half way between the two previous. Huge, billowy, white head.
Aroma: Malty aroma with hints of sweet paper? Damaged?
Flavour: Tastes not great and may be skunked slightly? Dry but with paper tastes or carboard flavors evident in small amounts. A good dry finish. Lots of malts in here but those hops might be skunked. Not sure. Not as bang on as I know this beer can and should be.
Brown bottle. Oxidised? Getting butter in the back (ooer!) - daicytel?  Weird. Never had a Flensburger this bad. Typibloodycal. Chuwy curse.
I like the dry finish tho. A good dry pilsner. A little thicker bodied than I remember though. Not bad but not my favourite today.


I'll just have to try them again. How about you?
Why not try the variad pilsners out there, Czech, German, Australian, Japanese, American, etc.
See if there is  a particular 'style' within the style that you like.

In Japan, one of the best Czech pilsners is made by Nihonkai Club Ishikawa, by a Czech brewer, no less. Excellent full bodied and hoppy but good pilsner malt flavours to back it all up.
German pilsner, I highly recommend Bayern Meister Bier, brewed by Stefan Lager (yes, his name is Mr.Lager!), a real German Brau Meister (think of it as a beer Professor) from Germany, living and brewing in Fujinomiya. Both great beers.

If you have any recommendations of your own, please comment!
for example, I haven't had a single American pilsner yet that I've liked. Not one.
Do you know of any good ones? Noble pils, no thanks. Doesn't do anything for me.

Thanks for reading. hope this post was of interest.

Go grab a beer!