A while back we did a review of Dortmunder/Helles beers that included the excellent Baeren Classic, so this is our second Dortmunder/Helles review. From Japan we’ll look at the Aqula Akita Bijin no Biru, the new Nagisa Heaven, and from Germany the Weltenburger Barock Hell.
Aqula Akita Bijin no Biru (あくらビール・秋田美人のビール)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Very pale straw gold, cloudy and fizzy but not much head
Aroma – Slight dirt, yeast, tang, malts
Flavor – Tangy biscuits, slight citrus and bread finish, fizzy texture but goes flat very quickly, becomes a bit watery
Aqula, based in Akita, are another one of those breweries with mostly German roots but without a strong German stylistic bent. For example, their best beer is probably their Kiwi IPA, followed closely by their Kodaimai Amber Ale, neither of which are particularly German. The Akita Bijin no Biru, though, is part of their regular lineup and might be called their flagship beer, so let’s look into it a bit deeper.
First of all, the name of the beer basically means the beer for Akita beautiful women (the characters 美人 literally mean beautiful person but is generally only used for women, with a handsome chap being referred to as a binan (美男), which is beautiful man. A strange name for a beer, you might say – but the ad copy on the label itself is all about collagen. I don’t remember collagen being talked about so much in the US but in Japan it’s everywhere in terms of skin care, and apparently collagen intake can somewhat mitigate the skin aging process.
Of course, the next question is what does that have to do with beer??? It turns out that polyphenols, which are chemicals found in hops, have a stabilizing effect on collagen. Unfortunately for our skin, while hops have polyphenols and beer has hops, polyphenols themselves have a bitter astringent taste and therefore are mostly removed from the final product during the brewing process. However, fear not – Aqula claim to have hit upon a brewing process that manages to leave the polyphenols without affecting the taste, meaning that both you and your skin can enjoy this beer. Let’s see what that means in practical terms.
The Aqula Akita Bijin no Biru isn’t the world’s most exciting beer. Initially it’s pleasant enough with a bit of citrus tang to go along with its bread and biscuits, but it quickly goes flat and becomes a bit bland as time passes. The citrus aspects are quite unexpected for a Helles, so that was a nice touch. If they could manage to keep the beer from going so flat so quick or compensate for that with adding a bit more complexity as it warmed up they may have been on to something there, but as it is it kind of falls apart somewhat quickly. As for those polyphenols, there certainly isn’t much bitterness of any kind here, let alone astringent bitterness, so if the polyphenols are still there I certainly didn’t notice anything.
Aqula are capable of making some good beers, though, so this one definitely falls in the disappointing category. I found this one at Le Collier, and it’s also commonly at Nomono but hard to find otherwise. It’s pretty rare on tap as well, but given that it’s not the most well-executed beer out there it’s probably not worth tracking down. Let’s see if the Nagisa offering does any better.
Nagisa Heaven (ナギサビール・ヘヴン)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Also very pale straw color, lots and lots of foam
Aroma – Malts, crackers, a bit of sugar and lemon as well, dirt
Flavor – Clean malts, just a hint of lemon, a surprisingly earthy hop bitter finish
Nagisa Beer is a relatively minor brewery based in Wakayama. The origins of the brewery are steeped in a family tradition of being businessmen – the grandparents ran a ryokan, the parents ran a barber shop, and when it was their turn the Manabe brothers decided they would rather start up a brewery! They’re mostly American-style, but really as they output so few products they haven’t really established a style. However, they’re starting to become more active and brew more different kinds of beer, and the Heaven appears to be the first lager they’ve released.
The Nagisa Heaven is actually quite a nice Helles, with a few different things going on. It is, as you would expect from a Helles, quite malty and bready and biscuity, but there’s a slight splash of lemon in the aroma and flavor that’s a nice touch. More interestingly, it has the earthy hops on the finish, quite similar to what you would see in a pilsner but perhaps less common in Helles beers, which downplay the hops. I suppose at a certain point there’s a fair amount of overlap and shared history between the pilsner, Helles, and Dortmunder, so perhaps it’s just a matter of Nagisa not sticking too closely to style guidelines (although their marketing specifically points out that a Helles will be less bitter than a pilsner), but nonetheless, a pretty good beer.
Unfortunately, even though it’s a quality beer, they don’t get around much – I’ve never seen them on tap anywhere at a bar, and I’ve only seen their bottles for sale at Liquors Hasegawa, which is where I purchased this one. You may see them at craft beer events here and there (I remember they were at the Isetan craft beer festival), but Liquors Hasegawa is your best bet. If you do find it pick it up – it’s a good Helles, and at 430 yen quite cheap as well.
Weltenburger Kloster Barock Hell
Package: 500mL bottle
Pour – Very gold in color, lots of foam and bubbles
Aroma – Very earthy, but also lemon crackers
Flavor – Earthy and dirty from the start, slight malts as well, tangy throughout and on finish, bready crackers on finish as well
Finally, we come to the Barock Hell by Weltenburger Kloster (which means monastery in German), which is another one of those German monastery breweries that have been around since basically the beginning of time. The monastery itself was founded in the 7th century, and they date the origins of the brewery to 1050. In fact, they claim to be the oldest monastery brewery in the world (for those who are curious, Weihenstephaner beats them for the oldest brewery in the world by a mere 10 years).
The Weltenburger Barock Hell actually has a pretty similar flavor profile to the Nagisa Heaven – earthy, bready, and with kind of a lemon tang to it. In general it’s a good beer, and it has a good range of flavors. There isn’t much to complain about, but if I were to nitpick I would say that the tanginess to it is bit strong, and begins to stand out a bit too much. In some ways the strong earthy hops balance that out, but after a while those two aspects of the beer begin to take over quite strongly. It may depend on your point of view (and perhaps also on what you expect out of a Helles, which in theory has more of a malt emphasis), but I felt that it could to well with allowing the malts have more presence. In that sense, it was closer to a pilsner than a Dortmunder/Helles, and while that in and of itself isn’t a terrible thing I did find myself wishing for a bit more malts in this one.
So overall, the Nagisa Heaven and Weltenburger Barock Hell were both quite nice – I prefer the Nagisa for its balance of malt and hops and grass and citrus, but you couldn’t go wrong with the Weltenburger either. The Aqula Akita Bijin no Biru, unfortunately, is not a beer I can recommend. A good tasting overall, though, and I’m happy to find another solid local Japanese beer. The Baeren Classic is still better in the Dortmunder/Helles category, but the Nagisa Heaven is not far behind and I consider it quite a find!