Something I don’t quite understand about the craft beer industry in Japan is why so many brewers here feel compelled to produce a weizen as part of their lineup. Of course for solidly German-style breweries like Fujizakura Heights or Baeren that makes sense, but it mystifies me that brewers like North Island, Swan Lake, Hitachino Nest, etc. make weizens. If you look around at what’s on tap at craft beer places weizens are not all that common, but I have heard from a couple of different places that wheat beers are still the most popular. It’s also true that some brewers started out making German beers and morphed into something else (Shonan followed this route), but that doesn’t seem to be the case for most of these brewers. As an aside, Tamamura Honten released what they called a Fake Weizen (their take on a weizen using saison yeast instead of weizen yeast), even while alluding to their past poo-pooing of the style.
In any case, today we’re looking at weizens from two of the main German-style brewers in Japan – Fujizakura Heights and Baeren. The Fujizakura Heights Weizen actually tends to rate in the top 15 or so for the German Hefeweizen category on RateBeer (currently 12). Baeren also makes very solid German-solid beers, but this is the first time I am trying their summer weizen (they do also make one in winter). Finally, our foreign entrant today is none other than the venerable Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, from the oldest brewery in the world and generally acknowledged as the gold standard for weizens.
Fujizakura Heights Weizen (富士桜高原ヴァイツェン)
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 12
Pour – Pale gold, lots and lots of head
Aroma – Lots and lots of banana, sugar, yeast as well
Flavor – Banana is strong, also spice, but finish is yeast and grass, texture is quite creamy
Almost everything from Fujizakura Heights is at least good, and some stuff great, but this is their workhorse. Well-respected, made year-round, and widely available, this is the beer they hang their hat on.
One of the things you’ll notice on the ad copy for this beer is that it says it has at least 50% wheat – 50%! Is this a big deal? What’s so special about 50%? I’m glad you asked – it turns out, German labeling laws require that a beer must have at minimum 50% malted wheat to be able to call itself a weissbier, and most in Germany use 60-70%. So while in Japan those laws don’t exist and anybody and their brother can call themselves a weissbier, Fujizakura Heights here is proving their bonafides. Another way in which they claim their authenticity? Open fermentation – the traditional way of making German beer, this is pretty rare in Japan although as near as I can tell open tanks aren’t used so much anymore even in Germany. And finally, this beer also has live yeast – no pasteurization here!
Getting to the actual flavor of the beer itself, the banana effect is quite strong in both aroma and flavor. How do they get this extra ester action? By mistake, of course. Early on in their history, they brewed the weizen at a higher temperature than they wanted to (24 degrees instead of their target of 22), which led to more esters and therefore more bananas.
Overall I like how the beer is heavy on the spicy banana, and the creamy texture also makes it a very easy beer to drink. Let’s see how the Baeren compares.
Baeren Summer Weizen (夏のヴァイツェン)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Pale gold, also very fizzy, looks about identical to the Fujizakura
Aroma – Slight sugary banana, more cloves and yeast
Flavor – Malty, banana on the finish, and slightly peppery on the finish as well. More spicy than fruity. Smooth but not as creamy as the Fujizakura.
This is the first Baeren beer we’re reviewing here on BeerEast, so a quick word about them – a small-scale but well-liked German-style brewery based in Iwate, they rarely stray far from their German roots (although they do make a chocolate stout). They only have 3 regular beers – an alt, a schwarz, and a dortmunder called the Classic (which is their most popular beer).
The weizen, though, is also quite popular. Popular enough that they brew two different versions of it – one in the summer and one in the winter. Why not make it a regular? They say lots of people request it, but they’d rather make two different season-appropriate weizens that people can enjoy, even if it means there might be some months where it won’t be available.
Compared to the Fujizakura, the Baeren Summer Weizen is much more heavy on the spice rather than the banana. Nice smooth texture, overall nice, but I prefer the banana-y-ness of the Fujizakura to the peppery-ness of the Baeren. I can’t find much information out there in terms of brewing technique on this one so I don’t know what percentage of the malt is wheat (I am guessing less than 50% but that is just a guess) and what temperature it is brewed at (no doubt lower than the Fujizakura given the spicy and less banana-y nature of the beer), but I can tell you that it is pasteurized and that Baeren does not use open fermentation.
By the way, in terms of distribution, their bottles don’t get around so much – I bought this at Nomono, and I find Nomono to be the only place in Tokyo that I can rely on to find either their regulars or their seasonals.
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 14
Pour – Pale gold (like the others), foamy but not super-foamy
Aroma – Mild but balanced aroma of sugar, banana, malt
Flavor – Bitter for a weizen, floral, malty, slight hint of vanilla and banana but very subtle, dry and spicy finish, wheatiness lingers
Established in 1040, Weihenstephaner is said to be the oldest brewery in the world (although it’s now associated with the Technical University of Munich and as such employs very modern brewing techniques). It’s quite interesting to compare this directly to the Japanese weizens – to me, the Weihenstephaner is much more “beer-like” than the others – perhaps that is another way of saying well-balanced. It’s much more noticeably bitter than the others, and the malts, yeast, spice, and fruit come together nicely.
It is probably the result of the combination of flavors, but it’s the only one of the weizens today where I really felt the wheat aspect of it. Most likely it is due to the malts being much more prominent here, as opposed to the banana of the Fujizakura and the spice of the Baeren (according to this blog the Weihenstephaner ales are all fermented at 20 degrees C, which would at least explain the less banana-y aspect of it). This isn’t the first time I’ve had this beer, but comparing it directly to the others today does make me appreciate its overall balance, and I think it’s a great weizen for people who say they normally don’t like weizens. This has all the components that we associate with a weizen, but they all come together nicely in a well-balanced beer that is still very beer-like.
It would be quite interesting to be able to also try an unpasteurized one – it looks like you can get one if you go to the brewery, but it appears that bottles for export at least are pasteurized to ensure quality consistency. Speaking of export and distribution, I actually bought this one at my local Daiei (which is a bit like the Walmart of Japan), so I suppose for me the pasteurization is a worthwhile tradeoff for regular availability.
That’s probably a lot to digest, but basic recap – in general for weissbiers, at least 50% wheat is required in Germany, higher fermentation temperatures lead to more banana, traditionally open fermentation and live yeast in the final product were the norm but that has changed some. For the ones we reviewed here, the Weihenstephaner deserves its classic status, Fujizakura Heights is heavy on the banana, and the Baeren is heavy on the spice.
Because weizens are such a brewer’s favorite here in Japan, we’ll do more in the near future, but as Fujizakura Heights and Baeren are probably the top two German brewers here this is a good start. We’ll also try to bring in other foreign traditional and less traditional examples as well.
Also, for those who care about such things, apologies in advance for not using weizen glasses!