We’ve reviewed a fair amount of Belgian witbiers here at BeerEast, but today we’re a little more amped up than usual. Today’s round of Belgian witbiers has two of the most highly rated local witbiers in Japan in the Minoh Yuzu White and the Hitachino Nest White Ale, and perhaps the best witbier from Europe that you can find in Japan, the St. Bernardus Wit.
Minoh Yuzu White (箕面・ゆずホ和イト)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Creamy foam, cloudy yellow gold
Aroma – Great combination of wheat, cinnamon, and sweet citrus
Flavor – Very tart, lots of banana wheat in the middle, followed by a dry finish with pepper and zest
The Minoh Yuzu White is one of Minoh’s signature beers, and is currently ranked #38 on RateBeer in the witbier category. It used to be strictly a limited winter release, but they’ve committed to releasing this beer more often due to its popularity. As far as brewing notes go, they are, of course, adding yuzu peel to the mix (in place of the usual orange peel), in addition to coriander. The yuzu that they use is actually sourced locally from the Minoh area. One other note with the yeast – as with most witbiers they are using Belgian yeast, but if you recall the excellent Hideji Hana no White Weiss used weizen yeast, so just something to keep in mind as we compare Japanese witbiers.
One note on the name of this beer: while in English it is simply Yuzu White, in Japanese the “White” part of the name is actually written as 「ホ和イト」. If you look carefully you’ll see that most of the word is written in katakana, as is expected, but the kanji 「和」 is hiding in there in place of the katakana 「ワ」! They mention this on their product page, but they wanted to use the 「和」 (which means calm, but also can stand for Japan, as in 和食 = Japanese food) to highlight the yuzu Japanese twist on this classic Belgian style.
The Minoh Yuzu White is an interesting beer, and one of Minoh’s better efforts. The yuzu effect is quite restrained overall, and is definitely not as upfront as it was in the Baeren Yuzu Wit. It does, however, give the beer a very nice tartness to it, and it comes out wonderfully in the aroma as well. The most prominent aspects of this beer are actually banana and pepper, and overall it’s a satisfying beer. However, I did find that the banana was a bit overdone, and could have done better with some more balance from the yuzu.
So overall, a good beer, but not spectacular, and the rating overall from others seems a bit high to me.
Hitachino Nest White Ale (常陸野ネストビール・ホワイトエール)
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 13; hops – Perle, Celeia, Amarillo, Styrian Goldings
Pour – Very very cloudy pale gold, very very foamy
Aroma – Very subtle dirty spice smell (is that the nutmeg?)
Flavor – Very tangy texture to it, quite subtle spice and wheat flavors, soft orange and herbal finish, slightly bitter as well on the finish
This is only our second Hitachino Nest review, following our look at their excellent Commemorative Ale. The White Ale is one of their most popular beers overseas and sells quite well, serving in essence as kind of a flagship beer for the export market. In fact, the White Ale has done a lot for Hitachino Nest’s visibility abroad, and they are expanding in a big way. They’ve even set up a brewing operation in Korea!
The Hitachino Nest White Ale is a pretty top-notch witbier, if a bit different – a quick look at the ingredient list reveals that it contains nutmeg, which is normally not part of the witbier landscape. In terms of flavor, first of all, and perhaps what I like most about it, is that it doesn’t give anything away – it’s a very subtle beer, and while the spice effect (probably the nutmeg, but a somewhat herbal yet tangy effect) is the strongest, it really doesn’t offer up anything too immediately. Given a bit of contemplation, though, there’s quite a lot in there – the citrus is there, you get the herbs, you get some wheat, and you even get a bit of bitterness on the finish. It’s wonderfully balanced, and I really enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t in your face about any of the ingredients, and brought everything together nicely. Actually, this beer doesn’t really resemble a witbier really, but it’s a great beer no matter what you classify it as.
As mentioned above the White Ale is a standard-bearer abroad, but also does quite well domestically. You rarely see it on tap but bottles can be found quite easily, even making their way to Aeon supermarket shelves. I purchased mine at Le Collier for a very cheap 400 yen, which is about the standard price for Hitachino Nest beers around Tokyo. A great bargain, so give it a try if you find it – it’s good enough and cheap enough to drink on a regular basis.
St. Bernardus Wit
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Gold, cloudy, some foam, resembles foamy apple juice
Aroma – Wheat, banana, yeast
Flavor – Finish is fantastic, citrus tang, dry, wheat, banana, yeast, more lemon as it warms up
St. Bernardus, while not one of those European monastery breweries that has centuries of history to its name, nonetheless still has quite a fascinating past. Located in Belgium just kilometers from the French border, it was originally set up in 1904 as a refuge for French monks from the Mont de Cats Trappist monastery (which was just across the border) escaping from the anti-clericalism of the day in France. St. Bernardus was actually the name of the church in the Mont de Cats abbey. In the 1930s the environment in France for the monks softened a bit and the monks returned to Mont de Cats, and a famous cheesemaker by the name of Evarist Deconinck took over the St. Bernardus location to use as a cheese factory.
So how did this cheese factory get into brewing? It turns out that Mr. Deconinck happened to know some powerful people at the Westvelteren St. Sixtus monastery (yes, that Westvleteren of the world’s best beer), which was in the process of looking for someone to outsource their commercial brewing operation to. Thus St. Bernardus took over the brewing of Westvleteren beers, and as the monastery also became a partner in the new brewery they brought over their recipes, expertise, and even yeast. This arrangement eventually ended in 1992, and Westvleteren now brew and sell their own beers (albeit in extremely limited quantities), but St. Bernardus essentially make the same beers under their own St. Bernardus brand, including the Abt 12 based on the legendary Westvleteren XII.
But naturally as now a separate brewing entity they also started developing their own beers, and that’s where the St. Bernardus Wit comes in. They developed this beer together with Pierre Celis, the godfather of the Belgian witbier, who we mentioned briefly in our Hoegaarden review regarding his role as founder of Hoegaarden. Of course, that makes the St. Bernardus Wit only the umpteenth witbier with Pierre Celis’ imprimatur on it – there’s the original Hoegaarden, the Celis White he brewed in Texas after selling Hoegaarden to InBev, the Michigan Brewing Company version of the Celis White brewed after a brand sale to Miller, the Van Steenberge edition of the Celis White after yet another sale, and the Two Roads version of the Celis White being brewed in the US now. We’ve probably left out a few, but today we’ll focus on the Pierre Celis-approved St. Bernardus Wit, which, by the way, is also brewed with the Westvleteren yeast.
The St. Bernardus Wit is, in a way, the mirror image (polar opposite? evil twin?) of the Hitachino Nest White Ale – it’s got a lot of different components that balance nicely, but they present themselves quite boldly. The citrus zest makes itself known, the wheat is present, the banana is there, all of them are fairly prominent but in good balance. I really enjoy these kinds of beers, the ones that are flavorful and bold but without being too overwhelming, and this is a good example of that kind of philosophy. It also holds up very well over time, in that as it warms up the lemon becomes stronger rather than the beer becoming watery, which happens pretty frequently with witbiers.
So looking at all three of them together, it’s safe to put the Minoh Yuzu White last here – it’s actually a good beer, but I prefer both the Hitachino Nest White Ale and the St. Bernardus Wit to the Minoh. As for picking a winner between the Hitachino Nest and the St. Bernardus, let’s cop out and call it a split decision – the St. Bernardus is it if you’re looking for a traditional witbier, but the Hitachino Nest takes it if you’re looking for something a little bit different. They’re both quite good, though, and I’d love to have a tasting where we also bring in the Hideji Hana no White Weiss to see how they all compare directly.