Collaboration beers have taken a bit longer to catch on in Japan than in the West, but we’re starting to see a lot more of them recently. Today we’ll take a look at a couple of rather special collaborations – Tamamura Honten’s KAGAMI-BIRAKI IPA collaboration with Gigantic, along with Songbird’s noir de cairdeas collaboration with Liquors Hasegawa (that’s right, a collaboration with a liquor store!).
Tamamura Honten x Gigantic KAGAMI-BIRAKI IPA
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 65
Pour – Super cloudy and milky pour, thick, the color of grapefruit or peach juice, same density as well, moderate but creamy carbonation
Aroma – Very fruity, lots of grapefruit and tropical fruit, pine as well
Flavor – Piney at first, big grapefruit also throughout, very grainy and yeasty, finish has a dollop of fruit with bitter pine finish, overall quite restrained and smooth
Although I mentioned in the introduction that Japanese breweries have been a little bit slow to focus on beer collaborations (or perhaps the world has been slow to find Japanese breweries to collaborate with?), Tamamura Honten have been the most active collaborative brewer here by far. They’re very proactive in terms of trying to build relationships with brewers overseas, and this has led to mostly excellent collaborations with a lot of very well-known brewers such as Nøgne Ø, Pizza Port, Dieu du Ciel, and Hair of the Dog, not to mention some interesting coffee beer collaborations with Nagoya coffee-head bar/roaster Trunk Coffee.
The collaboration we’re looking at today, though, is with Portland brewer Gigantic, who have, depending on how you look at it, either a fresh and unique approach to brewing or a faux-edgy hipster approach to brewing: the only beers they brew regularly are their Gigantic IPA and more recently the Ginormous Imperial IPA, with everything else they make intended to be one-time only limited brews. Given that most of their beers were intended to be one-offs, they actually went so far as to publish all of their recipes online here as a handy reference for home brewers. But alas, as rules are meant to be broken, they do actually re-release their beers, whether they are periodic releases such as their barrel-aged version of the IPA known as Pipewrench or formerly one-time-only seasonal releases re-brewed for special events such as their 5-year anniversary (moral of the story: no matter how much straight talk you hear about straight talk there is no such thing as straight talk).
Given that Gigantic’s flagship beer is a West Coast IPA and the Tamamura Honten themselves have a strong affinity for West Coast IPAs you would naturally think that this collaboration would also be a West Coast IPA. But of course we wouldn’t write that sentence if it actually was just a West Coast IPA – no no, in this case, they’ve come together to make a New England IPA! In fact, this isn’t even their first collaboration together, and that first collaboration turned out to be a jasmine rice lager called the OKI LAGER. So this time around they’ve come a bit closer to their respective histories and brewed a hazy, cloudy, juicy New England IPA, despite Gigantic’s casual dismissal of what NPR reports as the “haze craze“. Tamamura Honten also seem to be aware of both the hype around the haze and Gigantic’s previous stance on the style, as they refused to name the style while still acknowledging it:
In any case, as Japan is a long ways away from New England, some of you may be wondering what a New England IPA actually is. We haven’t actually seen too many New England IPAs yet in Japan, but you’d be looking for an IPA that first of all is very cloudy and hazy in appearance, and very fruity on both the nose and the palate. Even though it does usually employ a fair amount of hops, the bitterness will be not be anything like you would find in a standard West Coast IPA, and again the fruitiness should be much more prominent than the bitterness.
As for how to achieve this haze, there are a lot of factors that go into it. Certain yeasts will create a hazier beer, as does dry-hopping, which New England IPAs make heavy use of. Of course these beers are not filtered or pasteurized, which will allow the beer to remain as cloudy as possible. However, there are also some dark arts spoken of when it comes to how to haze up a beer – there are whispers of less-scrupulous purveyors adding superfluous ingredients like flour or applesauce to produce the desired milky appearance, although nobody will verify or deny these claims. The use of adjuncts such as wheat (wheat beers tend to be cloudy) is fair game though, as long as they are not there just to add haze but also are perceived to add flavor.
That brings us back to our KAGAMI-BIRAKI collaboration, which uses sake rice as an adjunct. The rice used is, in fact, Tamamura Honten’s own homegrown Miyama-nishiki (美山錦), which is something of a Tamamura Honten favorite and appears in many of their beers that make use of sake rice, including the excellent No. 10 Anniversary IPA, the also excellent saison one, and the not-quite-as-excellent-but-still-interesting Miyama Blonde. Sometimes in the West (I’m looking at you, Budweiser) rice is used to lighten beer, but many of the rice beers in Japan are somewhat cloudy. I’m not entirely sure they added rice to this IPA specifically for hazing it up, but it’s certainly possible that the rice is contributing to the haze.
The other brewing peculiarity of note here is that they’ve aged it in sake barrels. As Tamamura Honten originally got started as a sake maker in 1805, it was a natural choice to use their own sake barrels for aging. You can see that the barrels used in the KAGAMI-BIRAKI brewing process have “縁喜” (engi), printed on them, which is the branding that they use for their nihonshu. Incidentally, the name for this beer also was conceived from the sake barrel-aging – the word kagami-biraki (鏡開き, which literally means opening the mirror) originally refers to a New Year traditional ceremony where the kagami-mochi is broken open on an auspicious day to herald in the New Year. Now, though, the ceremony is performed at any kind of opening where good auspices are required, like weddings and things like that, and quite often now it is a sake barrel that is being opened as part of the ceremony – hence the name KAGAMI-BIRAKI for this beer.
With all of that, let’s see what the beer itself has in store for us. The Tamamura Honten KAGAMI-BIRAKI IPA is quite a flavorful New England IPA, and definitely ticks off the style check boxes. Overall texture-wise it is very smooth and creamy, and the flavors are very very fruity and piney, with lots of tropical fruit and grapefruit. The hop bitterness is certainly there on the finish, but it is very moderate and restrained, which is of course in line with a New England IPA but somewhat unusual for a Tamamura Honten beer, who tend to go pretty much all out with their hops. The sake rice and barrel-aging add just a touch of graininess to the beer, and while the effect isn’t too pronounced you can definitely pick it out.
It’s quite an interesting beer, and certainly lives up to the high standards that Tamamura Honten have set for themselves over the years. However, there isn’t much chance you’ll find this beer now – this was most likely a one-off collaboration brew, and the online sales of this beer were pretty remarkable. They had announced an online sale start time of 8pm, and when I clicked confirm order at around 8:05 it was already sold out! It would have been nice if they could have reduced the maximum order size from 12 bottles to something like 4 bottles to let more people have a chance at it, but I did manage to find it at Liquors Hasegawa eventually though. If they ever do release it again make sure you get on it early, as it’s a great beer and definitely worth the effort to track down.
Songbird noir de cairdeas (ソングバード・ノワールデカーディス)
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: Hops – Nugget, First Gold, Saaz
Pour – Very thick and oily pour, almost no carbonation but has chocolate imperial stout lacing
Aroma – Lots of peat and medicinal gauze
Flavor – Very flat, little bit of toffee, very heavy on the peat and gauze, burnt sugar on the finish, also very slight roast and bitterness on the finish but mild
Our next collaboration is even more unusual than the Tamamura Honten x Gigantic sake barrel-aged New England IPA, especially given that their collaboration partner is the liquor store Liquors Hasegawa! This isn’t just any old liquor store, though, as it is something of an institution here in Tokyo – they actually got started as a stall in 1950, before shortly hitting on the liquor store idea and moving into its current location in the Tokyo Station Yaechika underground labyrinth in 1964. They’re well-venerated as not just a liquor store but as experts in the field of booze – and all kinds of booze, while they’re at it, even garnering a best-of mention in TimeOut Tokyo. They’re actually most known as single-malt whiskey specialists, and their main store near the Yaesu exit furthest south in the complex is stocked with lots of different kind of whiskeys and other hard liquor.
Of course, we wouldn’t be discussing them on a beer blog if they didn’t also sell beer! While their main focus is on whiskey, they actually sell lots of everything, with their main store having small quantities of nihonshu and craft beer and their satellite branch (close to the Daimaru in the same underground complex) selling all of the above plus a pretty healthy selection of wine. In terms of craft beer, they don’t necessarily have tons of quantity, especially with regard to Japanese craft beer, but the items they do stock are definitely well-curated. They always carry Tamamura Honten limited releases (main store – that’s where I found the KAGAMI-BIRAKI IPA above), Baird limited releases (main store), and Ise Kadoya limited release (also main store), and also stock sometimes harder-to-find breweries like Swan Lake, Kobushi-hana, North Island, Nagisa, and Harvestmoon (all in the satellite branch).
However, the one brewery they consistently stock that you almost never see anywhere else (maybe actually never?) is Songbird, a relatively young brewery based out in Chiba. We’ve covered Songbird beers before, and while we have yet to be impressed with their execution in any single beer so far they do have some creative ideas for mostly Belgian-inspired (but with sometimes wacky ingredients) beer, and they’ve always had a close relationship with Liquors Hasegawa. In fact, Liquors Hasegawa have been big supporters of them and have regularly stocked their beers at the main store for quite some time now, despite their relatively high prices (usually 700 yen plus for their more interesting-sounding brews) and slow sales pace (at least from what I can tell by my frequent visits to Liquors Hasegawa those Songbird beers don’t really fly off the shelves and you can see the same beers languishing there for months).
So while it is indeed unusual to have a beer collaboration with a liquor store rather than a brewer, it makes a certain amount of sense here – this beer is essentially an expression of gratitude towards Liquors Hasegawa for their support and friendship. Here it is in their own words:
The name of the beer (“noir de cairdeas”), while clumsily translated into English as “Black of Friendship” on the back label, is also a nod to the two distinct tastes of the involved parties – the “noir” of course is French and refers to the Belgian style of Songbird and their penchant for giving French names to their beers, whereas “cairdeas” is the Gaelic word for friendship and naturally brings to mind Scottish whisky (there is actually a single-malt Scotch called Cairdeas released by Laphroag).
If you read their brewing notes further they detail how the various aspects of the beer are intended to represent both Songbird and Liquors Hasegawa. The nominal style of the beer listed on the label is a peated black IPA – Liquors Hasegawa really like dark bitter beer, so hence the black IPA, and peat is of course strongly associated with whiskey. From the Songbird side of things they’ve naturally gone with a Belgian yeast, and added rosemary and sage as well to the ingredient list (I mentioned Songbird’s tendency to use unusual ingredients, as in the past we’ve seen ginger, oyster, and blueberries in the few beers we’ve reviewed here alone).
So what does this hybrid Belgian-style brewer and single-malt whiskey liquor store beer actually taste like? The Songbird noir de cairdeas is, like many of their beers, an interesting concept and attempt but ultimately fails on its execution. On the face of it, a peated black IPA sounds awesome, but with this beer you get the peat and not much else. There is almost no contribution from the perspective of the black IPA, minus a very slight roast bitterness near the end of the flavor profile. It could definitely use more of the roast bitterness throughout the beer, and is so dominated by the peat and medicine that not only is it one-note but that one note is harsh and off-tasting. In addition the very thin texture to the beer makes matters worse, and again you wish that Songbird had the execution chops to be able to bring these beer concepts to reality in a more balanced fashion. I will say one positive thing in its favor though, which is that as it warms up the medicinal qualities fade just enough to give the roast and toffee more room to operate, so this beer does benefit from being given more time to breathe. There is also the issue of aging, and as the official expiration date on this is November 30 2018 it’s possible that aging it longer would have softened the peat (although also would have killed the hops) and allowed some more non-peat complex flavors to develop.
It’s too bad that this collaboration didn’t really work, as it certainly sounded like it might be an interesting brew. Then again, as I’ve mentioned numerous times, this is rather unfortunately par for the course for Songbird – nice idea, not so good beer. Tamamura Honten, on the other hand, are almost always spot on with their execution, and it shows once again with their very successful New England IPA collaboration with Gigantic. Actually, Tamamura Honten also just released a “standard” (non-sake-barrel-aged, non-collaboration-with-anybody) New England IPA called the New Engi-land IPA to celebrate the opening of their new taproom called The Farmhouse, so we’ve got high hopes for that one and will be looking at it soon as well. In the meantime if you do come across a stray KAGAMI-BIRAKI IPA either in a bottle or on tap definitely take it!