Minoh Godfather 5 Red Lager / Johana Beer Ore no A.J.I – MASAJI THE GREAT

Today we’ll look at a couple of beers from this year’s crop of Masaji Beer Project beers. First we have the Minoh Godfather 5 Red Lager, followed by the Johana Ore no A.J.I pale ale.

Minoh Godfather 5 Red Lager (箕面・Godfather 5 Red Lager)

minoh_godfather5_redlager

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 5.0%

Availability: Winter

Package: 330mL bottle

Review:

Pour – Vivid red, cloudy with some sediment, creamy foam

Aroma – Very slight caramel malts, a bit of dirt and pine

Flavor – Sweet caramel candy malts, some pine in the middle, sweet and bready bitter on the finish, more bready overall as it warms up

Last year we managed to look at 3 of the annual Masaji Beer Project beers (quick summary of the project here, which is basically in memory of the founder of Minoh Beer Ohshita Masaji, who is considered the godfather of modern craft beer in Japan) , covering the decent Iwate Kura Bravo! Masaji R-IPA, the excellent Tamamura Honten W-IBA Masaji The Great, and the somewhat mediocre Minoh Godfather 4 Belgium Stout.

The last few years they have gone with that Godfather Belgian Stout (with yuzu) as their Masaji beer, but beginning with this year they’ve decided to brew a new beer every year. As such, this year’s fifth edition of the Masaji Beer Project for Minoh brings us this red lager, with red being the color most associated with Ohshita Masaji. Their brewing notes say that they’ve tried to tone down the hops and emphasize the malts more, so let’s see how this year’s Minoh Masaji Beer Project offering works.

The Godfather 5 Red Lager definitely does emphasize the malts over the hops, and it plays as bread and sweet for the most part. There’s a little bit of piney hops in there, but the caramel sweetness is a bit artificial and ends up being too much. This isn’t a terrible beer, as does have some flavors present, but it isn’t a very well-balanced beer and definitely needs some work to limit the sweetness and bring the hops a bit more.

I purchase mine at Liquors Hasegawa for 560 yen, which is probably a bit more than I’d want to pay for this beer but is about the going rate for a not-spectacular one-off beer. Minoh seasonals are usually carried by Liquors Hasegawa, Tanakaya, and Deguchiya, so those would be your best bets in terms of finding it.

Johana Beer Ore no A.J.I – MASAJI THE GREAT (城端麦酒・俺のA.J.I – MASAJI THE GREAT)

johana_orenoaji2016_paleale

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 5.5%

Availability: Winter

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 35

Review:

Pour – Pale orange, a touch cloudy, lightly carbonated

Aroma – Prominent dirty tropical fruit hops, pine

Flavor – Lots of tropical fruit, grapefruit, finish is very mellow fruity hops, pine, finish is a bit harsh on the bitterness, resiny at times

Johana is a fairly minor brewery based in Toyama-ken, and we’ve only reviewed one of their beers before here on BeerEast. However, the one beer that we did review was the excellent Kagayaki Wheat Seven, which very well might vie for the title of best regular IPA in Japan along with the North Island IPA. , so hopefully some of that Kagayaki magic rubs off on this pale ale.

This beer has a fairly strong and direct connection to the Masaji Beer Project – when Johana was expanding their brewery a few years ago, they were able to acquire some secondhand brewing equipment from Minoh. For the very first beer they brewed on that equipment, Johana collaborated with Minoh to make a pale ale in the image of Minoh’s own pale ale, which is easily one of Minoh’s best beers. In terms of actual brewing notes, the only minor mentions I want to make are that the recipe notes tea leaves in the ingredient list, and the ABV is listed as 5.5% on the product page but 6% on the bottle.

A quick note on the strange name – A.J.I is a reference to the official name of the Minoh brewery, which is actually not Minoh but エイ.ジェイ.アイ.ビア (or A.J.I.). “Aji” is also, of course, flavor or taste in Japanese (味), and A.J.I was the original name of Minoh in order to signify their intent to make beer with flavor. Of course, over the years, they became more known as Minoh, and eventually they changed the name of the company to Minoh but kept the A.J.I name for their brewing subsidiary.

Overall the Ore no A.J.I – MASAJI THE GREAT is an easy-to-drink pale ale. It’s initially quite fruity, and as it warms up it becomes more piney. I really like the bold grapefruit and tropical fruit, although eventually some of elements begin to go overboard a little bit – the bitterness becomes harsh, and the pine overloads into resin. It’s a decent pale ale bordering on good, but it does require a bit of refinement.

Purchasing note – I bought this one at Tanayaka for 548 yen, which is not bad (but also the same price as their much better Kagayaki W7 IPA). Johana beers are actually quite rare in bottled form and I’ve only seen them at Tanakaya and Liquors Hasegawa, so that’s where you want to be if you’re interested in giving this a try.

So overall this year’s Masaji Beer Project tasting had two similar beers in that both the Minoh Godfather 5 Red Lager and the Johana Ore no A.J.I were not bad flavor-wise, but overdid certain components. My personal preference is for the Johana, which attained higher peaks than the Minoh. Many Minoh Beer Project beers don’t change from year to year (the Johana, Tamamura Honten, and Iwate Kura beers are always the same), but we’ll keep an eye out for anything new we see next time around. Certainly Minoh should be releasing something new, so hopefully they can come up with something a little more satisfying.

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North Island Weizen / Mojiko Retro Weizen / Tuatara Weiz Guy

With the abundance of weizens in Japan we’re still working our way through some of the standard weizens here. Today we have the North Island Weizen, the somewhat-less-common-but-still-regular-offering Mojiko Retro Weizen, and from New Zealand the Tuatara Weiz Guy.

North Island Weizen (ノースアイランド・ヴァイツェン)

northisland_weizen

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 5.0%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 330mL bottle

Review:

Pour – Very foamy and creamy, gold but slightly dark for a weizen, relatively clean

Aroma – Spicy banana, lemon, wheat

Flavor – Initially somewhat tart, fair amount of lemon and wheat in the middle, finish is banana cream, loses bite as it warms up

While we like North Island quite a bit, they really get most of their kudos for their bolder beers, such as their IPA or their Coriander Black. Their weizen doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, and the only brewing notes I can really find mention their use of  “haruyutaka” wheat for this beer. That’s also the same wheat they use in their Coriander White, and it’s a locally grown wheat in Hokkaido that’s used for bread and noodles around the area.

The North Island Weizen is a solid weizen that’s quite flavorful at first. It becomes watery as it warms up, but if you catch it early there’s a good amount of flavor in there. Overall it is quite heavy on the wheat and banana, but also has some lemon tartness in there that is a nice touch. It’s not spectacular, but one of the better regular lineup weizens available in Japan.

Of course, it does suffer from the high price associated with North Island beers. I purchased mine for 590 yen at Liquors Hasegawa, and while the higher price for some of their beers may be justifiable for the more interesting ones, I can’t recommend this decent but not world-beating weizen at that price. Try it if you like, as the quality is OK, but I personally can’t recommend it at the standard North Island prices.

Mojiko Retro Weizen (門司港地ビール・ヴァイツェン)

mojikoretro_weizen

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 5.5%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 10

Review:

Pour – Unfiltered cloudy, creamy foam that settles quickly, pale gold

Aroma – Nicely balanced aroma of cloves, banana, and wheat, more banana aroma as it warms up

Flavor – Creamy texture, light but not watery, pepper, cloves, and wheat are strong, slight banana on the finish

This is our first entry on Mojiko Retro, so let’s take a quick look at the brewery. As you might guess from the name, the Mojiko Retro brewery is situated in Moji Port in Fukuoka. Mojiko Retro itself is the name of a redevelopment project based around the port and Mojiko Station to create both a historical site and a revitalized commercial/tourist district. One of those old sites is the Moji Mitsui Club, whose claim to fame is that Albert Einstein stayed there when he visited Japan in 1922 with his wife shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

The brewery itself, which actually in Japanese is called something like Mojiko Local Brewery (門司港地ビール) rather than Mojiko Retro (which as I mentioned above refers to the port development site) was started in 1998. The inspiration for the brewery was, according to company lore, a trip to Tacoma, WA, where the founder was impressed with the quality of the craft beer there. He figured that if that small port city on the other side of the world could make great beer, then certainly they could approximate that port craft beer experience well enough over here.

As far as their beer goes, like many other breweries that got their start in the first craft beer boom in the mid-to-late-’90s, they make a hodgepodge of styles. Their regular lineup consists of a weizen, English pale ale, and a Vienna lager. They’re pretty minor as far as Japanese breweries go, and you almost never see their beers around either on tap or in bottles. However, we did manage to get our hands on this weizen so let’s give it a go.

The Mojiko Retro Weizen is an interesting take on the weizen, with a lot more pepper and spice as opposed to banana. The most interesting thing about it, though, was that while it was extremely light in touch and feel it wasn’t bland or watery at all. I liked the creamy texture, and I liked how it did still manage to touch all of the required weizen bases even though it was pretty mild overall. It isn’t the boldest weizen out there, but highly drinkable and well-made.

As I mentioned before it’s hard to find their beers, but I found this one at Tanakaya for 525 yen. They normally stock it together with the Mojiko Retro Weizen Strong, which is there decently-rated weizen bock. I’ve also seen their beers at Le Petit L’ouest in Shimokitazawa, so those would be your best bets for tracking down this beer.

Tuatara Weiz Guy

Tuatara_WeizGuy

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 5.0%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 15; hops – Pacific Jade

Review:

Pour – Super cloudy with lots of sediment, very pale yellow, not super-foamy

Aroma – Good banana, malts, wheat as well

Flavor – Very spicy initially, wheaty and malty in the middle, banana is quite restrained given the aroma, finish has some cloves but also more malts, fairly malty overall, loses a lot as it warms up

This is also our first look at Tuatara, which is a brewery located in Wellington, New Zealand. It’s another example of a successful craft brewery sold out, having been purchased by DB Breweries (a New Zealand macro-brewery owned by Heineken) in 2017. They were founded in 2000 with a view to providing a contrast to macro-beer, so it’s just another example of mindless hipster craft beer marketing speak before taking the money.

On a more fun note, the brewery is named after the tuatara, which is an ancient reptile native to New England that dates back to the Jurassic era. Although it looks like a lizard, it belongs to a different order (Rhynchocephalia in case you’re interested), and as the only remaining species of that order is very popular for research studies. The name tuatara comes from the Maori language and means “peaks on the back”, which is an apt enough description for it. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the tuatara is that it has a third eye on top of the head, which doesn’t quite “see” in the normal sense but is sensitive to light and may be used to help detect temporal or seasonal changes. Here’s a great video of a baby tuatara being hatched and looking for food.

As for the beer itself, the one brewing note that catches my eye is the use of the Pacific Jade hop. I’m not familiar with this hop, but it’s a descendant of the Saaz hop (famous for Czech pilsner usage) and is supposed to be rather spicy with also some citrus.

The Tuatara Weiz Guy is indeed very spicy, especially at first. The spice effect wears off relatively quickly though, leaving you with on the whole a malty weizen. It does not have as much of a banana effect as you see in many weizens, which was a bit surprising here given that the aroma was pretty strong on the banana, but it was clear on the tasting that this weizen was mostly about the malts and wheat. I personally didn’t think it was put together all that well, with a somewhat bland aspect to the weizen that expanded into a real wateriness. In short, this wasn’t terrible but didn’t quite come though on the flavors to make this a standout weizen.

I’ve actually had decent Tuatara beers before, so this one was definitely a disappointment. On the plus side, it’s pretty cheap (only about 400 yen at Tanakaya), but then again, on the down side, that’s most likely a result of them having sold out, which allows them to have more widespread and cheaper distribution. In fact, I’ve been seeing their beers around a lot more recently at reasonable prices, which isn’t all bad news, but given the mediocre nature of this beer and the brewery ownership I can’t really recommend it.

So if we have to pick a winner today, I’d probably call it a draw between the North Island Weizen and the Mojiko Retro Weizen, with the Tuatara Weiz Guy bringing up the rear. The North Island has stronger flavors at first but thins out some, and also has a higher price. The Mojiko Retro is milder to begin with, but well-balanced and offers enough flavor even without that punch. It’s also a bit cheaper, although still not that cheap necessarily. I’d say they’re both worth a try at least once, although for regular drinking you may stick to the nice standard and limited weizens (another plug for the Mandarina Bavaria) that Fujizakura Heights conjure up very nicely.

Baird Bakayaro! Ale / Stone Bourbon Barrel-Aged Arrogant Bastard

Today we’re looking at two American strong ales with names that are essentially personal insults – the local Baird Bakayaro! Ale and the import Stone Bourbon Barrel-Aged Arrogant Bastard.

Baird Bakayaro! Ale (ベアードビール・ばかやろー!エール)

baird_bakayaro

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 9.0%

Availability: Winter

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 90; hops – US Sorachi Ace, Warrior, Summit, Columbus, Centennial, Amarillo

Review:

Pour – Cola brown, good creamy foam

Aroma – Very hoppy aroma, lots of citrus hops, also mild sweet malts, nice combination

Flavor – Smooth texture, initially strong malts, then floral and peppery, very nice earthy nuttiness on finish, hoppy throughout, hides alcohol very well

The American Strong Ale isn’t a style of its own per se as more of a catch-all for, well, American strong ales. This might include beers that share characteristics of barley wines, imperial IPAs, and old ales but can’t really be classified wholly as such (maltier than most IPAs, hoppier than most old ales). Naturally it follows that there’s a lot of variation here, and as long as it passes the 8-9% ABV mark, is dark but not black, and isn’t referred to as an IPA or barley wine by the brewer it can go here. Let’s see how the Baird version slots in among these guidelines.

The Baird Bakayaro! Ale is a very good effort from Baird, and packs a lot of flavor into the beer. It’s got a big does of both malts and hops, which is nice, but also has good spice and earth to add a bit of variety in there. It hides the ABV quite well among all of the flavors, and is very nicely balanced. I particularly appreciated how this is not very sweet, as many of Baird’s strong beers tend to be, and I would say overall that this is probably one of their best beers.

So obviously the recommendation here is to go give it a try – it’s an annual winter release, and you can find it wherever they stock Baird seasonals. I purchased mine at Liquors Hasegawa for 550 yen, which is a reasonable price to pay for an excellent beer like this one. Go find it!

By the way, if you’re curious about what “bakayaro” means, it basically just means idiot. Here’s a famous memed clip from Death Note with handy translations in multiple languages if you’d like to explored the subtleties of the usage of bakayaro in conversation.

Stone Bourbon Barrel-Aged Arrogant Bastard

stone_bourbonbarrelagedarrogantbastard

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 8.1%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 12 fl oz bottle

Review:

Pour – Dark ruby-red, relatively clear, standard foam

Aroma – Malts, soft aroma of bourbon

Flavor – Spicy, malts in the middle, lots of oak, slight hint of hops, bourbon on the finish, quite oaky overall

This is our first review of a Stone product here on BeerEast, so although I’m sure you know all about them we’ll go over them quickly. Based in Escondido, they’re one of the San Diego group of brewers that have gone on to really popularize the notion of West Coast beers, including other industry stalwarts like AleSmith (1995), Ballast Point (1996), Coronado (1996), and Green Flash (2002). Stone are currently the 9th-largest craft brewer in the US, and they’ve managed to build that scale and increase international operations without selling out to any other larger partners or investors (see Ballast Point and Constellation).

In fact, Greg Koch, their legendary founder, has been quite adamant that they will not sell out, and really want to keep the craft part of craft beer meaningful. And even further, to put their money where their mouth is, they started a program called True Craft where Stone essentially committed to starting with a fund of $100 million to invest in small breweries to help them get off the ground and grow without needing to sell out to AB Inbev and the likes.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they won’t use some of the same tricks, or even the same staff! Mitch Steele, who was their head brewer from 2006 to 2016, famously came from Anheuser Busch and was always very quick to point out the high level of quality brewing that AB did, even though of course most craft beer people don’t actually like the resulting product. They’ve even co-opted the marketing trick of having sub-brand, with Arrogant Brewing being the product line based around the Arrogant Bastard Ale.

While Arrogant Bastard marketing probably sums up what lots of people hate about how craft beer is marketed (bold and rebellious and etc.), the beer itself has always been one of their most popular and has come to kind of become a stand-in for Stone Brewing itself. In that sense perhaps it is perfectly normally that now it has grown unchecked into its own thing, but it does reek of a marketing trick, which it undeniably is.

As for the origin myth of the beer itself, the first Arrogant Bastard was apparently borne of a brewing mishap during the brewing of the Stone Pale Ale. Since then it’s fathered in lots of variations on it, including today’s Kentucky bourbon barrel-aged version, an oak version, and a much stronger Double Bastard version among others. Let’s see how our bourbon version today fares.

The Stone Bourbon Barrel-Aged Arrogant Bastard is surprisingly easy to drink, and while it is a pleasant beer it is somewhat dominated by oak and bourbon. However, the beer overall feels quite relaxed and certainly not arrogant, which is a testament to the skill of the Stone brewers. I would have liked to have seen a little bit more contribution from the hops and malts, but I can’t complain – this is a very very nice bourbon beer which brings out the bourbon nicely without it being too aggressive, which often happens with these whiskey beers.

So this one also is a definite winner, and although it’s a pricier at 691 yen (from Deguchiya), it’s also a reasonable price to pay for a quality bourbon beer. You don’t really find great barrel-aged beers so much in Japan, so I’d definitely say this is worth purchasing if you can find it. Deguchiya usually carries it, and as we discussed earlier Stone actually has great scale, so you’ll find them at lots of places around Tokyo.

In any case, both of today’s beers were definite winners. It’s hard to directly compare the two since the Stone offering was bourbon barrel-aged whereas the Baird was not, but they are both great beers, so do give them a try.

Iwate Kura Weizen Bock / Schneider Weisse Tap X Marie’s Rendezvous

We came across this somewhat uncommon weizen bock from Iwate Kura, so we’ll try it along with another Schneider Weisse weizen bock offering, the strong-ish Tap X Marie’s Rendezvous.

Iwate Kura Weizen Bock (いわて蔵ビール・ヴァイツェンボック)

iwatekura_weizenbock

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 7.0%

Availability: Winter

Package: 330mL bottle

Review:

Pour – Creamy foam, straw gold in color

Aroma – Fair amount of banana and cloves

Flavor – Very creamy texture, somewhat watery and thin, a little bit of banana but not much

Iwate Kura make some very good beers (see Oyster Stout and Egoma IPA), but aren’t really known for their German-style beers. In fact, their weizen is quite poor, and I haven’t had anything else of theirs besides this Weizen Bock that traces its roots back to Germany. There isn’t much information out their about this beer, so let’s go straight to the test.

The Iwate Kura Weizen Bock is a bit of a disappointment, and just doesn’t have much flavor to it. While initially the texture is creamy it thins out, and without much punch to it just feels very watery. The best weizen bocks will have fruit, malts, caramel, and even some bitterness, so to have a weizen bock without any of those elements isn’t going to make for a great beer.

Again, there just isn’t much going on here, but if you’d like to pick one up I found mine at Izuya, which is an interesting little craft beer shop near Ebaramachi on the Oimachi Line. It isn’t that well-known, and while they don’t carry tons of stuff the local beers they do have tend to be pretty good and harder to find. For example, I picked up the excellent Fujizakura Heights Rauch Bock winter seasonal there (didn’t see this anywhere else in Tokyo!), and in addition to these Iwate Kura seasonals they also were carrying bottles of Rokko, which isn’t all that common. The prices are no different from other places, and this Weizen Bock set me back 560 yen, which is fine for a Iwate Kura seasonal but not worth it in the sense that this beer isn’t any good. In any case, if you can’t make it there, Le Petit L’ouest in Shimokitazawa is also stocking it, and Tanakaya also carries Iwate Kura seasonals from time to time.

Schneider Weisse Tap X Marie’s Rendezvous

schneiderweisse_tapx_mariesrendezvous

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 10.0%

Availability: Limited

Package: 375mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 27; hops – Hallertauer Tradition, Cascade and Ariana

Review:

Pour – Ruby-red amber, hazy, not much carbonation

Aroma – Lots of fruit, very heavy on apple, cinnamon, pine

Flavor – Very sweet with lots of honey, cloves, peppermint, pine, malts also there, also boozy, sweetness becomes less harsh as it warms up

We’ve reviewed a couple of Schneider Weisse beers here before, with both the Aventinus weizen bock and their Unser Original weizen being very very good beers. That’s not surprising, given that they are one of the most respected German beer producers out there, so it was a nice surprise to see that they had just released this limited edition Tap X weizen bock in 2016.

The Tap X was actually brewed for the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot German beer purity law (is this anniversary really a thing?), which was indeed adopted in Bavaria in 1516. The beer is named after Anna-Maria Schneider, who by marrying the original Georg I Schneider (the founder and patriarch of the brewery) and bearing children made it possible for this brewery to stay in family hands for now 6 generations and counting. This beer is stronger than its regular Aventinus counterpart (10% ABV compared to 8.2% ABV) and uses different hops – the use of Cascade hops is especially interesting, as that hop is fairly piney and citrusy and normally used more in American-style pale ales and IPAs.

The Schneider Weisse Tap X Marie’s Rendezvous in some ways plays more like a wheat wine than a weizen bock (although they classify it as wheat doppelbock, same as their Aventinus), with the high alcohol content and a strong emphasis on the sweet malty aspects of it. However, it does still have the ester fruitiness that you might expect out of a weizen bock, although that sense is amplified greatly by all of the honey and pine and peppermint happening here. You can see the effect of the Cascade hops there with all of the pine and the fruit, but the overall impression is one of boozy sweetness. I wouldn’t necessarily say this is a well-balanced beer, and while the variety of sweetness is a nice touch ultimately it’s a bit too dominated by its sugars.

Comparing with their awesome Tap 6 Aventinus, the Tap X Marie’s Rendezvous is very very fruity and sweet, while the Aventinus was much more dark caramel. I personally thought that the Marie’s Rendezvous was a bit too much in sweetness and preferred the roast and spice of the Aventinus. The Tap X also is somewhat pricey, at 880 yen (at Tanakaya) for a 375mL bottle, whereas the Aventinus will only set you back about 650 yen for a 500mL bottle. In my opinion that gives you a better beer for a better value no less, but regardless, the Tap X Marie’s Rendezvous is certainly worth a try – it doesn’t lack flavor, and you might like this more in-your-face approach better than I did. I can say with certainty that the Iwate Kura Weizen Bock is very poor and not worth seeking out, so hopefully we can find a nicer local weizen bock next time around.

Kobushi-hana Kurono Ikoi / Founders Breakfast Stout

Today we have a somewhat rare local coffee stout in the Kobushi-hana Kurono Ikoi, and we’ll try it along with one of the more famous coffee stouts out there – the Founders Breakfast Stout.

Kobushi-hana Kurono Ikoi (こぶし花ビール・黒の憩)

kobushihana_kuronoikoi

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.0%

Availability: Limited

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 40

Review:

Pour – Very dark, moderate foam that sticks around

Aroma – Chocolate nutty roast, a bit of bread

Flavor – Dark malts at first, slight burnt coffee on the finish with the roast

This is Kobushi-hana’s first dark beer release as far as I can tell, but it does stick to their tradition of traveling-around-Europe-inspired beers, with this coffee stout being modeled on an Irish foreign export stout. Their other beers have included an English IPA, a Belgian Tripel, and a German Maibock, among others, so in addition to being a new style for them it ticks off another country of origin in their product list as well.

The basic concept behind this release was to produce a beer that could be sipped and enjoyed slowly, rather than just a more expensive Asahi-like lager to be guzzled down. In keeping with that theme, they chose to call this beer Kurono Ikoi, where “ikoi” (憩) means rest or relaxation. The watercolor label, which is also a first for them in that their other labels don’t have any artwork on them at all and just have text essentially, also depicts a nice soothing scene with a young woman and a bunny rabbit reading books, so if that doesn’t inspire you to slow down and sip a coffee stout then I don’t know what will.

The only brewing note regarding ingredients that I’d like to point out is that in this age of provenance where brewers usually like to highlight which particular coffee and/or roaster they’re working with (see the recent Tamamura Honten coffee beers for example), Kobushi-hana rather modestly list just “regular coffee” as the coffee they use. While it does make me wonder if they are just using Folgers here, it could also just as equally be a valiant blow against the hipsters who care about such things like where their coffee comes from.

So on to the beer! The Kobushi-hana Kurono Ikoi is at least an enjoyable beer, regardless of where the coffee is from. In fact, the coffee actually doesn’t contribute a whole lot here to either the aroma or the flavor, and overall it is quite mild for a coffee stout. I liked the burnt bitterness on the finish, and it has good roast qualities. To be a truly great beer it would need to coax some more out of the coffee, but as it stands it’s a decent coffee stout. I don’t think it’s something that I would constantly seek out, but I do think it’s good enough to be worth trying. I’ve only seen it at Tanakaya, and only a couple of times at that, so if you do come across it it’s certainly worth picking up once.

 

Founders Breakfast Stout

founders_breakfaststout

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 8.3%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 12 fl oz bottle

Misc: IBU – 60

Review:

Pour -Black, nice layer of creamy foam

Aroma – Very rich coffee and chocolate smell, really nice

Flavor – Very smooth and creamy, mild coffee that gets stronger and gains more roast, becomes very full chocolate and coffee on the finish, bitter but not harsh, also some spicy plum in there at the end

Founders Brewing Company of Michigan, while of course famous for their beer, also bought themselves some notoriety a few years ago when they sold a 30% stake to Mahou San Miguel of Spain. Part of the controversy was whether they would still be considered a craft brewer or not, as the Brewers Association defines an independent craft brewer as one who does not have a larger than 25% stake owned by another non-craft alcohol producer. This leads to cases where companies like Oskar Blues can still be considered a craft brewer because they sold out to a private investment firm, whereas Founders is not because they sold out to a large (terrible) beer producer.

That Founders sellout in 2014 was one of the earlier ones, and while it wasn’t the first big shocker (that would probably the Goose Island acquisition by A-B InBev in 2011) it was followed by a spate of M&A activity in the craft beer space, with news following shortly from respected brewers like Elysian, Firestone Walker, and Ballast Point. Of course, the Founders move would not have made so much noise if people didn’t like their beer, and this Breakfast Stout (along with its barrel-aged Kentucky Breakfast Stout sibling) is perhaps their most beloved offering.

While Founders didn’t invent the coffee beer, they were pretty early to the game and developed the beer way back in 2001, after being inspired by a customer who gave one of the co-founders a chocolate-covered espresso bean, which he tried on the spot with a porter that he happened to be drinking. It’s been a favorite ever since, and in addition to the chocolate and coffee also has oats to smooth out the beer. In case you’re wondering about coffee provenance, they use local coffee roaster Ferris Coffee & Nut.

One interesting label note – the classic label (the one pictured above) has a baby spooning cereal into his mouth, but there was a period where they had to actually remove the baby from the label in certain states (including their home state of Michigan) because of regulations regarding the use of images of minors in selling alcohol. Somehow they managed to sort this out and the baby’s back on the bottle, which despite its creepiness is an iconic beer label.

The Founders Breakfast Stout is quite an impressive beer, with the smooth creamy texture belying the punch of this beer. It’s a very full texture, and has lots of coffee and chocolate to really give it a strong backbone. It’s also sufficiently bitter, and just very very rich. One of its best features is that neither the aroma nor flavor thin out as it warms up, and keeps its coffee, chocolate, and bitterness in equal proportions. Whatever reservations you may have about their selling out to Mahou (and I also share those reservations), it hasn’t affected the quality of their brewing operations, as this is a beer that is worthy of the praise it receives.

The reach of the acquisition is making itself known in Japan though, as you can see Founders at a lot of different place now. In addition to the usual beer specialty shops (such as Deguchiya, where I bought this Breakfast Stout for 788 yen), I’ve even seen some Founders products at the local Aeon Style, although it’s limited to cans and doesn’t include the Breakfast Stout. If you dofind it and don’t mind the Mahou connection, give it a try – a great beer indeed.

Daisen G Bock / Mönchshof Bockbier

Although we have reviewed plenty of sub-categories of bock beers (like weizenbock, maibock, rauchbock, etc.), but we actually haven’t yet reviewed a straight-up traditional bockbier. Daisen G just released one, so we’ll take this opportunity to take a look at this still and review the Daisen G Bock together with the Mönchshof Bockbier from Germany.

Daisen G Bock (大山Gビール・ボック)

daiseng_bock

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.5%

Availability: Limited

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 30

Review:

Pour – Black, lots of creamy rich foam

Aroma – Caramel malts, also a bit of plum, more roast as it warms up

Flavor – Plum and cherries, malts, roast on the finish, as it warms up it becomes a great combination of roast, nuts, and cherries

For some reason the traditional bock isn’t a beer you see around as often, even though you’ll see quite a few weizenbocks and maibocks and such. Of course, all of those subcategories of bockbier are derived from the traditional bock, which originated as an ale in the 13th century in the town of Einbeck, Germany. Over time it evolved into a strong lager instead of an ale, and as it migrated to Munich the name of the beer (taken from the city of origin) mutated from “Einbeck” to “ein bock”, which actually translates as “one goat”. Hence the prevalence of goat imagery on bockbier labels!

Stylistically, the bock is a strong dark-ish lager. As such it can be expected to be rich, malty, and toasty. We shouldn’t see a lot of hop contribution here, and it may also be a bit boozy (typical ABV will be around 6% to 7%). That said, there’s a fair amount of variation within the style so our experience may not line up exactly with the BJCP definitions.

While Daisen G have of late been doing a lot with Belgian beers, they haven’t been doing as much of note with their German beers. In fact, they acknowledge as much in their brewer’s notes here, and there’s a few interesting tidbits in there about this beer. First off, although in the past they’ve made a few sub-types of bock beers (they mention their Weizen Bock, Rauch Bock, and Maibock), in their 20 years of brewing this was the first time they had brewed a straight-up standard bock. They brewed it first for their beer subscription club, and as it was well-received they decided to brew it again for a wider release. That makes this the first official bottle release of the Daisen G Bock. Perhaps the most interesting note there is that like the rest of the craft beer world they’ve regained an interest in the recently downtrodden lager, and are looking to brew more lager-based brews, which definitely should be interesting.

As for this beer, the Daisen G Bock is quite a good brew, with lots of different things going on there. First of all, it is appropriately malty, although certainly not too malt-heavy. It has a lot of plum and cherry flavor to it, and while initially I thought perhaps it was a bit much as it warmed up the roasted chocolate and nuttiness caught up to it and made for great balance. The finish is also strong on the roast, but comes back full circle to a bready maltiness. The only thing I would dock it for is that as it continues to warm up it begins to thin out, and the texture really fades to leave it a bit syrupy. It’s a noticeable minus, and perhaps leaves some room for improvement for what is otherwise a very nice and complex beer.

Mönchshof Bockbier

monschof_bockbier

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.9%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 500mL bottle

Review:

Pour -Very clear dark red, good creamy foam

Aroma – Cherry candy quite strong, some malts as well

Flavor – Malty at first, sweet, develops into something kind of like flavored cough syrup, herbal/medicinal aftertaste, malts get more strong and sweetness less sickly as it warms up

Mönchshof is a very old brewery in the city of Kulmbach in Northern Bavaria that traces its history back to a monastery founded in 1349. The word “Mönchshof” actually means monastery, and with the establishment of that monastery the brewing tradition on Kulmbach was also established. In fact, Mönchshof is part of a brewing corporation called Kulmbacher Brauerei, which was formed by the well-known breweries in Kulmbach (EKU, Kapuziner, Kulmbacher, and Mönchshof) to strengthen their collective distribution muscle. Mönchshof’s original beer is a German pilsner, although they’re actually more known for their schwarzbier. Relative to the age of the brewery, their Bockbier is quite recent, having been first introduced in 1994.

The Mönchshof Bockbier is not a super-enjoyable beer in my opinion. Sure, there is a good amount of maltiness there, but the sweet aspects of the beer to me taste very artificial and render this beer somewhat unpleasant. If you were generous you could call this herbal, but personally I would use the word medicinal to describe it. It does improve as it warms up though, as the malts begin to overpower the sweetness and render it less cough-syrupy, but those aspects do still remain and make this not a great beer.

I may be being a bit harsh on it, but after the better balance of the Daisen G Bock this definitely feels far inferior. Whereas the Daisen G had lots of roast character to it, the Mönchshof had very little (although to be fair most bocks are not as black as the Daisen G and not as roasty), and while they both exhibited fruit characteristics the Mönchshof was somewhat artificial tasting and too sweet. In some ways the Daisen G is probably a bit out of character for a standard bock with its heavy roast, but it certainly made for a much better beer. If the Mönchshof had managed to keep its maltiness and not have that medicine-syrup feel to it it would have been more successful, but as it stand I wouldn’t really recommend this beer.

As part of the Kulmbacher Brauerei group they do get pretty good distribution, and I found the Bockbier at Bon Repas in Naka-meguro along with some other Kulmbacher products (I picked up a Kapuziner Weissbier as well). It isn’t a great beer, but at 550 yen for a 500mL bottle it isn’t a terrible deal, so if you’re curious by all means give it a go, although again I think you’d be much better off with the Daisen G Bock.

Daisen G are really proving themselves to be a top-notch brewer in Japan, with a pretty good run of limited beers, including this Bock, and their recent Belgian IPA and Dubbel. This Bock could use a bit of improvement especially in how it holds up over time, but it’s still a good beer, and we look forward to seeing what else Daisen G have up their sleeve.

 

Iwate Kura India Pale Ale / Kobushi-hana IPA / Brooklyn Brewery East IPA

While of course the American IPA is quite popular here in Japan, the English-style IPA doesn’t get quite as much love here. In fact, there aren’t that many examples of them, but today we’ll look at a couple of the better-known ones here – the Iwate Kura India Pale Ale and the Kobushi-hana IPA. For some context we’ll try them together with the Brooklyn Brewery East IPA.

Iwate Kura India Pale Ale (いわて蔵ビール・インディアペールエール)

iwatekura_ipa

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.0%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 330mL bottle

Review:

Pour – Orange-gold, very cloudy, lots of sediment, initially frothy but settles down

Aroma – Very earthy and dirty, bready malts

Flavor – Taste is also malty and bready, lots of yeast, finish is earthy bitter with some sweetness, crackers again on finish, very nice overall, gets a bit sweet as it warms up

With the American IPA being so dominant in the craft beer scene, sometimes it’s hard to remember that the IPA is actually English in origin. As with most origin stories the one about the India Pale Ale being brewed with more hops to survive the voyage out to India is hotly contested, but the fact that the IPA did originate in England is basically well-accepted. Stylistically they’re actually not as far apart as you might think, at least in concept – they both take the pale ale and hop it up to really showcase the hop character.

Of course, you can clearly taste the differences in the two styles, so of course there are some differences in the kinds and amounts of ingredients used, with most of that being in the hops. The English-style IPAs traditionally have generous amounts of Goldings hops, but won’t be overwhelmingly bitter and will focus on producing a floral, earthy hoppiness. As you probably know their American siblings tend to go fairly nuts with the hops, and the more commonly used hops (the C-hops, Simcoe, Amarillo, etc.) will produce a noticeable citrus effect and really ramp up the bitterness.

As far as Iwate Kura goes, while they don’t specifically have a particular stylistic heritage that they profess to adhere to, they do have a strong English bent to them. In addition to this IPA, their Pale Ale, Red Ale, Stout and Oyster Stout are all English-style, with the latter two being very well-made beers. Of course they also make some not-so-great German style beers like their poor Weizen and Weizen Bock, so let’s see if how their take on the English IPA does.

The Iwate Kura India Pale Ale is a very nicely balanced English IPA, with a good variety of bold flavors. It is quite malty and bready, so if that’s not your thing you may not enjoy this one, but it does also have a good amount of yeast and dirt and earthy hops, and even a hint of citrus, especially on the finish. I quite liked this one, and I think the combination of bread and crackers with the bitterness was a good one. It does get a little bit on the sweet side as it warms up, so you might have to dock it some points for that. Overall, though, this is a good, flavorful beer that really nails the English IPA style very well.

Kobushi-hana IPA (こぶし花ビール・インディアペールエール)

kobushihana_ipa

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.5%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 40

Review:

Pour – Hazy orange gold, foamy

Aroma – Hint of earth, some citrus hops, as it warms up very grassy

Flavor – Quite mild, sweet malts in the middle, grainy, finish is malty bitter, thin overall

Kobushi-hana, in our experience with them, are a very inconsistent brewer in terms of quality. Splitting up the beers we’ve reviewed from them by style, they are most successful with their Belgian-style beers (the nice Grand Cru and solid Belgian White), while the German-style beers were on the whole a bit less successful (the decent Marzen and pretty poor Maibock). As you can see from that list right there they are all over the map stylistically, although they generally stick to classic European styles rather than trying bolder American-type beers. You might call them rather conservative in that way, and that word might also best describe many of their beers we’ve tried before, so probably best to temper expectations on their English IPA take as well.

The Kobushi-hana IPA is not the most exciting IPA out there, even if we’re just looking at the less-heralded English IPAs. It’s very thin, and it doesn’t have much to offer besides some malty graininess to it – it could definitely use more earth/grass/yeast to give it some character, and the hops are also a bit too muted here. Fundamentally it just doesn’t have much flavor and doesn’t leave much of an impact, and we can’t really recommend this beer. While we didn’t necessarily expect a whole lot out of this one, this would still have to be categorized as a disappointment.

Brooklyn Brewery East IPA

brooklyn_eastipa

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.9%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 12 fl oz bottle

Misc: Hops – Summit, Celeia, East Kent Golding, Centennial, Cascade, Amarillo

Review:

Pour – Gold in color, lots of creamy foam

Aroma – Tropical fruit and bubble gum

Flavor – Sweet and fruity, bubble gum on the finish, some malts in there but mostly fruity, some hop bitterness on finish but surprisingly light

Brooklyn Brewery is at the same time fairly ubiquitous and fairly anonymous, with most people having heard of them and had their beers but not being super excited about them. They certainly don’t have the cache of the newer and bolder breweries, but they’ve been a fairly steady presence in the craft beer world for a long time now. They also have a strong affinity for more traditional styles, with their Brooklyn Lager take on the Vienna lager being their flagship beer. This East IPA, which rather unexpectedly for an American craft brewer is an English-style IPA, was one of the early beers developed by brewmaster (and brewing legend) Garrett Oliver for Brooklyn, and while the Lager is by far their best-selling beer the East IPA is their number 2 beer in terms of sales.

The Brooklyn East IPA is very heavy on the tropical fruit and bubble gum, and given the ABV surprising how little bitterness it carries. It’s actually also surprising how little maltiness it carries, and really the bubble gum and tropical fruit sweetness are most prominent. In that sense this beer is perhaps a little bit of a cross between an English IPA and an American IPA, with a lot more fruit and pine then you would typically see in an English IPA, but also with a very restrained bitterness which would be unusual in an American IPA. The ingredients also reflect that kind of hybrid approach – the hops used do include East Kent Golding, but also include typical American IPA hops like Cascade, Centennial, and Amarillo, among others.

Putting all three of them together, for me the Iwate Kura India Pale Ale is the clear winner here. Not only does it adhere pretty closely to the style, it does so while bringing out those various flavor elements quite nicely and with good balance. The Brooklyn East IPA was also an interesting more hybrid English/American approach, and while it was certainly pleasant enough to drink it didn’t have a whole lot pizzazz to it. Bringing up the rear was the poor Kobushi-hana IPA, which while you could see the attempt at stylistic faithfulness to the English IPA didn’t really succeed on any level.

So with that a rare victory for the local contender over the overseas heavyweight! The Iwate Kura is actually not very easy to find, though, so if you can’t find it the Brooklyn East IPA (which is paradoxically much more readily available, thanks in part to Kirin’s 25% stake in Brooklyn Brewery) should do just fine, even though it won’t really give you a 100% accurate representation of the English IPA style.

 

Rokko Porter / Harvestmoon Christmas Porter

We haven’t reviewed a porter in quite some time, so today we’ll go with a new brewery for us in the Rokko Porter and try it along with the Harvestmoon Christmas Porter.

Rokko Porter (六甲ビール・ポーター)

rokko_porter

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 5.0%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 17

Review:

Pour – Very dark brown-black, very low carbonation

Aroma – Nice strong roast chocolate and burnt coffee

Flavor – Initially strange seltzer quality, a bit of roast in there in the middle, ends with roast plus medicine

Rokko Beer is a new brewery for us as far as reviews here on BeerEast go. They’re basically a quite little brewery located in Kobe, and although they’ve been around since the first wave of craft breweries in 1995, they aren’t really an influential player in the craft beer scene over here. Their stated goal is to make beer that fits the Japanese palate, without regard to adhering to a particular brewing tradition. As such, they aren’t really an English-style or German-style or anything-style brewery, and their standard lineup consists of a pilsner, English IPA, and porter. There isn’t a whole lot of information out there about either the brewery or this particular beer, so the only note I’d like to point out is that they are quite proud of their grain mill, which they designed and developed themselves! It’ll probably be very difficult to tell if this is going to lead to higher quality beer, but let’s see what the Rokko Porter is all about.

The Rokko Porter has a very nice aroma, but the flavor unfortunately doesn’t live up to it, and is quite an odd-tasting and not super-tasty beer. It has a lot of seltzer to it, which usually doesn’t portend good things, and while it does eventually have a bit of roast and chocolate to it the seltzer persists throughout and dooms the beer. To top it off it gets a little medicine-y at the end of it all, and makes for a fairly poor tasting experience.

The above review probably isn’t going to make you want to rush out and go find this beer, but if you are interested in trying it you can find their beers fairly regularly at Izuya, which is where I purchased mine for 560 yen. That puts it in the pricey range given the quality of beer, but I’ve also bought their beers before at Tanakaya for less than that, so that’s probably the best place to buy it if you can find it there – Tanakaya doesn’t always carry their beer though, so you’d have to check periodically.

Harvestmoon Christmas Porter (ハーヴェストムーン・クリスマスポーター)

harvestmoon_christmasporter

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.0%

Availability: Winter

Package: 330mL bottle

Review:

Pour – Cola brown, decent carbonation but not too foamy

Aroma – Slight whiff of plum, almost nothing (is that caramel?)

Flavor – Initially a bit sour and nutty, soft chocolate roast in the middle, some plum on finish, quite thin and watery especially as it warms up

Harvestmoon isn’t a brewery that we normally get too excited about, besides the fact that they’re located right next to Disneyland. We’ve been conditionally but mildly impressed with their Barley Wine and Black Barley Wine, but for the most part they’re a somewhat forgettable brewery from our experience so far. With that in mind, the brewing notes don’t shed too much more light into what we might find with their Christmas Porter, other than the fact that despite the fact that people don’t eat turkey here and Christmas turkey is definitely not a Japanese tradition, they expect this beer will go well with Christmas foods such as turkey.

The Harvestmoon Christmas Porter probably would not go so well with turkey, and is a bit of a strange porter, especially with a little bit of a sourness in there. I wouldn’t necessarily say the sourness works here, and I’m not even sure that it’s intentional. It does have a bit of roast and nuts and plum, but it kind of gets canceled out by an overriding thinness to it that gets much worse as it warms up. I’d say that this one is definitely not a winner and certainly not very Christmasy, so if you are going to fire up a turkey then you might be better off with a nicer holiday beer (the Hitachino Nest Commemorative Ale is certainly much tastier and might do the trick).

So today we had a couple of uninspiring porters, and while the style itself is perhaps a bit staid what with all of the crazy stouts coming out these days, these two particular examples were both quite poor. That doesn’t mean there’s no hope for the Japanese porter – in fact, we’ve already found a great one previously in the Baird Kurofune Porter, so hopefully we can find other local examples that are worthy of pointing out.

 

Shonan Beer Chocolate Porter / Baeren Chocolate Stout

Today’s theme is local winter seasonal chocolate dark beers that don’t actually have any chocolate in them –  the Shonan Beer Chocolate Porter and the Baeren Chocolate Stout.

Shonan Beer Chocolate Porter (湘南ビール・チョコレートポーター)

shonan_chocolateporter

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.0%

Availability: Winter

Package: 300mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 14

Review:

Pour – Black, initially foamy but dissipates quickly, good lacing

Aroma – Lots of roast chocolate, some plum as well

Flavor – Chocolate, roast, plum, lingering nuttiness and bitterness on finish, decent mix of flavor but somewhat mild overall

If you’ve read some of our other Shonan Beer reviews here, you’ll know that we love them in general but their bottles are hard to find, and their awesome beers are even harder to find in bottles. Their Belgian Stout might the best beer of any kind in Japan, and their Imperial Stout, W-IPA, and Black IPA are all very very awesome but basically impossible to find, whereas you might come across their less exciting beers that hew to their German brewing roots (like their Alt or their Schwarz) every now and then.

This Chocolate Porter, though, is one you can actually find relatively reliably, mostly because it’s released every Valentine’s day. If the concept of a Valentine’s Day beer sounds a little bit unusual, we’ve got it covered here. And since as always labels are the single most important factor in a beer, they’ve got a special heart-shaped Valentine’s label:

Shonan_ChocolatePorter_FrontLabel

They started brewing this beer for Valentine’s Day in 2006, and they’ve continued to release it every year since. Although it’s called the Chocolate Porter, as we mentioned in the introduction it contains no chocolate or any other adjuncts. Given how well they do with their Belgian and Imperial Stouts, let’s see if this lighter dark beer holds up in comparison.

The Shonan Beer Chocolate Porter is a solid porter, with a good variety of flavors in there. There’s a fair amount of standard stout-y stuff, like the roast chocolate and nuttiness, but you also get the plum and dark fruit that you often see in much heavier dark beers, so that was nice to see in a normal ABV porter. There’s actually some bitterness there as well, so in terms of the kinds of flavors here this beer does a good job. Unfortunately, all of those flavors mentioned above are pretty mild, and this beer would be a very very good beer if not for that mild nature holding it back. The Shonan Imperial Stout and Belgian Stout are also bursting with flavor and are much fuller in texture, so certainly they know how to bring out that kind of texture with the flavor, so if they could replicate that in a lower ABV dark beer this would be an unconditional success. As it is though, I’d say it’s relatively well-made and worth trying, but it may not knock your socks off.

Baeren Chocolate Stout (ベアレン・チョコレートスタウト)

baeren_chocolatestout

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.5%

Availability: Winter

Package: 330mL bottle

Review:

Pour – A very fluffy and foamy black

Aroma – Nuts, burnt coffee, a bit of fruit

Flavor – Very smooth creamy texture, very good roasted chocolate, finish is mixture of faint plum with dark bitterness, rich

While the Baeren Chocolate Stout doesn’t have the fancy Valentine’s label (although there is a conspicuous red ribbon on the label), this is also released as a Valentine’s beer. However, Baeren go to great lengths in their ad copy to make sure that they are credited with being the first chocolate beer in Japan. Brewed since 2005, they refer to it as Japan’s “元祖チョコレートビール”, which amounts to calling it the Godfather of Japanese chocolate beers (or the OG Japanese chocolate beer, if you prefer a somewhat more modern reference).

They also emphasize the fact that a lot of the chocolate beers here use additives, like cacao powder and such. This is only partially true though, as we saw above with the Shonan Chocolate Porter and also previously with SanktGallen’s Imperial Chocolate Stout. There certainly are some beers that add cacao, such as the Ise Kadoya Chocolate Porter, so you do see both kinds of chocolate beers around.

Given Baeren’s strong German brewing tradition, it’s also a bit unusual that they were the first to really introduce this style to Japan. They characterize the Chocolate Stout as English style, but it’s one of the few beers that they ship that is not a German-style beer. However, even though I personally think they make some very very good German beers (my favorites are their Classic Dortmunder and their Ursus weizen bock), they don’t get much buzz around here, and you almost never see their beers on tap at the more exciting beer places in town. They might be feeling a little bit of pressure to branch out, as their new beer is actually a saison, and they’ve also been releasing their Iwate Yuzu Wit Belgian witbier every year. It’ll be a shame if they focus less on putting out excellent German beers, as Baeren and Fujizakura Heights are the only ones really doing that a very high level here, but in the meantime let’s see how this Chocolate Stout works.

 

The Baeren Chocolate Stout is a very rich beer, and I really liked this one. It has a very full texture, which puts it over the Shonan offering, and it also has very strong flavors. There is of course a lot of roasted chocolate, which is quite nice, but it also has the plums and the bitterness, which isn’t something you would always see in a regular stout like this (OK, it’s a bit stronger than the usual 5% ABV standard stout here, but nothing close to the 10% ABV you might see in imperial stouts these days). As it warms up the bitterness fades a bit but the fruit and toffee flavors really come out more, and it all combines to make a really good beer.

Despite our desire to see Baeren continue to put out good German beers, they’ve definitely shown they have the chops with other kinds of beer as well. The Baeren Chocolate Stout is not only a very good beer, it’s actually quite affordable at 450 yen (at Liquors Hasegawa, probably cheaper at Tanakaya). I wonder if they would consider releasing this year-round, as this is a quality beer that is low enough ABV to be a regular purchase. The Shonan Chocolate Porter is also not bad, but the Baeren definitely takes this one.

Baeren also release an imperial version of this beer called the Chocolate Stout Vintage, so hopefully we can get a review of that one up soon as well.

Tamamura Honten x Gigantic KAGAMI-BIRAKI IPA / Songbird x Liquors Hasegawa noir de cairdeas

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

TamamuraHonten_KagamiBirakiIPA

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.5%

Availability: Limited

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 65

Review:

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:

“最近流行りのアレを、意識していないとは言わないことにしておきます。”

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)

Songbird_NoirDeCairdeas

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 8.0%

Availability: Limited

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: Hops – Nugget, First Gold, Saaz

Review:

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:

Songbird_NoirDeCairdeas_Back_2

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!