It’s not quite Christmas yet, but it’s definitely Christmas beer season! Today we have the Minamishinshu Christmas Ale and since it’s Japan, a New Year’s brew from Hitachino Nest called the Commemorative Ale (2015).
Minamishinshu Christmas Ale (南信州ビール・クリスマスエール)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Murky fig brown, slight carbonation that stays
Aroma – Malts, caramel, sugar, a bit of plum
Flavor – Very sweet, the sugary malts are quite strong, very noticeable alcohol on the finish, not much hop presence, becomes a bit watery once initial sweetness wears off
The brewing of special beers for Christmas is certainly a popular trend these days, but the origins of it go way, way back to the Middle Ages. The Scandinavians especially deserve some extra credit here – they had been brewing up Juleøl (Yule beer – Danish beer fans will recognized the “øl” as in “To Øl”) even before Christianity really took hold and offering up to their Norse gods. Introducing Christianity was seen as no reason to stop brewing special beer for the season, so the winter brew made a nice transition to Christmas beer over time, and is now looked forward to by many a craft beer drinker. In fact, Great Lakes Brewing Co. says that their Christmas Ale is their second best-selling beer, despite being available for only 8 weeks a year!
Although modern Christmas beers vary greatly stylistically, one of the most common threads is the use of spices. In the early early days of brewing (the Juleøl days, if you will), hops were not yet used in beer, and so spices were used both to flavor and stabilize the beer. That aspect of Christmas beer has been essentially preserved, and the BJCP style guidelines for Christmas beer basically say spices must be included.
Of course, in real life many Christmas beers do not have spices, and the Minamishinshu Christmas Ale is one of them. RateBeer lists it as an English Strong Ale, which is a common categorization of Christmas beers that are not brewed with spices. Perhaps they should have thrown some spices in there, because this beer could be much improved. Initially it is very sweet and malty, and the sweetness really is a bit much. That’s followed by a pretty openly boozy finish, and as it warms up the alcohol stays but the sweetness get bogged down into a watery feel, which ends up making it somewhat unpleasant.
We looked at the Minamishinshu Oktoberfest beer not too long ago, and going over that review again I can see some similarities with the Christmas Ale – an emphasis on sweetness that hits a bland patch along the way. They haven’t really impressed so far, but we won’t give up on them just yet (although their most highly rated beer is the Dunkel Weizen, and while we haven’t reviewed it officially here yet my old tasting notes mark it as sweet and boozy).
As far as purchasing goes, I picked this up at Tanakaya for a low low price of 515 yen – Tanakaya tends to have Minamishinshu seasonals on tap. The most reliable place to get both regular and seasonal Minamishinshu beers is at the Shinshu Osake-mura near Shinbashi, which as a bonus also has very good prices.
Hitachino Nest Commemorative Ale (常陸野ネストビール・賀正エール)
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 28
Pour – Reddish-orange-brown, not much carbonation
Aroma – Very striking mix of hops, malt and spice, also oak aroma that gets stronger as it warms up
Flavor – Very strong wood and yeast initially, then combines with the spices nicely for a spicy brett woody finish, also slight hops on the finish, warmth from the alcohol but well-hidden flavor-wise
Surprisingly, this is our first Hitachino Nest review. While they do a lot of exporting abroad and everyone here knows who they are, they’re not really one of the breweries that people really pay attention to here. We’ll go into more detail when we get around to doing a proper brewery review for them, but I am genuinely surprised that this is the first beer of theirs that we’re reviewing on this blog.
In Japan, Christmas is just purely a consumer holiday, and New Year’s Day is the holiday with meaning where people go back home to spend time with their families. Christmas isn’t even an official holiday here, and most companies don’t give their employees Christmas off. Accordingly, Hitachino Nest’s holiday season beer is brewed in celebration of the New Year (正月), and used to even be called the New Year Celebration Ale. They’ve since changed the English name of the beer to a more generically celebratory Commemorative Ale, but in Japanese it’s still called the 賀正エール, which basically means New Year’s Ale.
In order for it to be ready to ring in the New Year, they brew this beer a year in advance. The one we’re trying is labeled as the Commemorative Ale 2015, and it’s marked as having been brewed in December of 2014 with an expiration date of 2015. Although they brew it in December of the previous year, it generally does not get sold at shops until it’s the next holiday season – I bought mine at Liquors Hasegawa in October of 2015. You could, of course, undertake the aging yourself (or even drink it fresh, for the bolder among you), as the official Hitachino Nest web store is selling the 2016 edition now.
So what about the beer itself? Overall, very nice – one of Hitachino Nest’s best brews, in my opinion. The aroma is a fantastic mixture of all kinds of things – the hops, the spices, the malts, and brett. As far as I know there is no brett in this beer, but the combination of wood, yeast, and spices bears a remarkable resemblance to brett, and it’s quite a prominent feature of the beer. Hitachino Nest themselves categorize this beer as a Belgian Strong Ale, so the brett-like aspects could be a combination of Belgian yeast and the spices, but whatever it is, I’m liking it.
As for the spices used in this beer, the ingredients list coriander, orange peel, nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla beans. That’s quite a potpourri, but to my taste buds the only ones that I can pick out are the cinnamon and vanilla, although again, the general spiciness to it is quite nice even if it is difficult to pick out the individual components. Combined with the brett and the slight but present hops on the finish, it’s a wonderfully balanced beer.
There’s another interesting brewing note, which I can’t verify from an official Hitachino Nest website but is mentioned on the product description page on the B. United (their U.S. distributor) – apparently this beer is brewed using the eisbock traditional technique of making stronger beers by taking advantage of the fact that alcohol has a lower freezing point than water and freezing off the water, leaving the stronger brew behind to be collected (eis means ice in German, if you haven’t guess already). If you’re interested, this link here has a great (probably apocryphal) story about how the first eisbock was made. Perhaps the eisbock technique has something to do with it, but the Commemorative Ale does a good job of hiding the alcohol while still giving you its benefits (warmth and, well, drunkenness).
Overall, the Hitachino Nest Commemorative Ale is a great beer – definitely worth of seeking out. As with all Hitachino Nest beers, it’s quite reasonably priced – I only paid 510 yen for this at Liquors Hasegawa, which I view as a bargain. The Minamishinshu Christmas Ale didn’t work out so well, but Baird and North Island also release Christmas beers, so if we can get our hands on them we’ll put up reviews of them as well – in the meantime you won’t regret trying the Hitachino Nest Commemorative Ale.