For as much as Belgian beers holds a certain kind of status among some beer drinkers here, there aren’t many local brewers that attempt abbey ales. A local abbey triple is quite rare here, and since we’ve managed to get our hands on one of the few you can find bottled here, today we’ll introduce the Kobushi-hana Grand Cru. We’ll pair it with the widely available Chimay Triple to see how Kobushi-hana does.
Kobushi-hana Grand Cru (こぶし花ビール・グランクリュ)
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 28
Pour – Gold, slightly on the dark side, cloudy, light carbonation
Aroma – A bit of wheat, cloves are quite strong, some cherry
Flavor – Initially lots of banana and malts, transitions very slowly to a slightly sweet finish, where eventually you get bits of plum and cherry, more spice as it warms up
As I mentioned in the introduction, there aren’t too many Japanese brewers really trying to brew Belgian-style beers, especially traditional Belgian beers. You do, of course, see lots of witbiers and sometimes even Belgian stouts and Belgian IPAs, but Belgian doubles, triples, and quads are pretty rare here. Of course, even Kobushi-hana, which makes the triple that we’re about to try, is nowhere near a traditional Belgian brewer, but it’s certainly nice to see them try.
So as this is our first abbey beer review, let’s do a quick overview. This blog post here has a great little introduction, although there is no consensus on exactly how the single – double – triple – quadruple naming convention came about. Basic gist – they increase in alcohol as you go single – double etc., as you would expect. Historically, the single (which isn’t referred to as a single much of the time) is basically the house beer that the monks would brew for themselves, and is of fairly low alcohol content (generally less than 5% ABV and often lower) so that the monks could go about their daily business without being too trashed. Many monasteries don’t even make their singles available for sale, so they’re not as common in terms of the beer marketplace. The stronger beers (namely the doubles, triples, and quadruples) generally were sold to the outside public, with the proceeds being used to fund the activities of the monks. Even though of course now many non-monastery breweries make these kinds of beers, the naming rules still hold for the most part.
Of course, while Kobushi-hana describe their beer as a Belgian-style triple, they’ve named it Grand Cru. Grand Cru, while not so unusual nowadays in the beer world (AleSmith and Rodenbach are two of the better-known Grand Cru beers), is a term that originates from the wine industry, where it basically indicates either a vineyard or, increasingly commonly, a wine of the highest quality. The phrase “grand cru” in French translates to great growth, and is now often used the designate the most premiere wine that a particular winery has to offer. It’s used in a similar fashion for chocolate and cheese now, mostly in a marketing sense to offer some minimum guarantee of provenance and authenticity.
The Kobushi-hana Grand Cru is a fairly interesting beer, with a lot of fruit and spice character. At first, especially out of the bottle, the sweet malts are most noticeable, but the plum and cherries, the cinnamon, and the yeast really begin to make themselves known soon enough. I didn’t get quite as much out of the aroma, as the cloves tended to be the strongest, and it did become a bit blander as it warmed up, but overall it was a pretty good effort.
Especially considering that an abbey triple is a rare sighting here I think this beer is well worth trying. I purchased mine at Liquors Hasegawa for 540 yen, which isn’t bad, and as Tanakaya also stock Kobushi-hana from time to time it’s quite possible that they may have had it as well. I use the past tense because this beer is only released once a year (on April 29 every year, although I don’t know the backstory behind that date), and I’m not sure if they’ll have any left at the time of writing. If they do, though, pick one up – a rare style locally, and a solid crack at it as well.
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Amber, fair amount of sediment, foamy and creamy
Aroma – Lots of cinnamon, plum, yeast
Flavor – Lots of spicy malts at first, then a refreshing hop bitterness in the middle, followed by a bitter tangy citrus finish with hints of plum
There probably isn’t too much of a need to go into the details of Chimay, as they are, well, Chimay, but I suppose we can do a short recap. They’re one of the original six trademarked Trappist breweries, and have been brewing at Scourmont Abbey since 1850. Chimay release only the four abbey style beers, with the Gold being the single, the Red the double, the White the triple, and the Blue the quadruple. Incidentally, while the most common name for the Chimay Triple is the Chimay White (it does have a white label), the label just says Triple, and since two names for the same beer is never enough it is also marketed as Cinq Cents. This blog post here as a bit about the naming history, and the lowdown is that the name was changed from White to Triple to avoid getting it confused with Belgian witbier, and the Cinq Cents name was tagged on when they used the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the town of Chimay to release and market a 750mL bottle of the beer.
The Chimay Triple is a very flavorful beer, and quite well done. It’s got a lot of stuff happening there, and has all of the basic beer flavor components in abundance – there’s lots of malts, lots of hops, and lots of fruits and spices. As with most nice beers they present themselves in an orderly fashion, and you start with a lot of malts in the beginning, but aided with a good does of spice. Next you get to the main program of hops, and this wash of bitterness is surprising but excellent, and the bitterness carries over to the finish, where you get a lemon tartness and slight plums added to the mix. Excellent!
It’s a very wonderful beer, and given that this is Chimay this is certainly not a surprise. Obviously their beers are pretty widely available in many parts of the world, including Japan. Compared to local craft beer it’s actually not even expensive, and I paid less for this than I did for the Kobushi-hana Grand Cru (497 yen for the Chimay at Shinanoya, although I’ve seen it for less at other places as well).
Perhaps it’s not necessarily fair to compare a local Japanese brewery (and by no means one that is necessarily regarded that highly in general) with Chimay, but we’ll do it anyway. Unsurprisingly, Kobushi-hana can’t quite compare, and you can really tell the difference in maturity with both the boldness and the balance of their relative creations. Kobushi-hana has weaker flavors (and no bitterness really to speak of from the start), and as a result of that they don’t have a strong flavor profile that can play the elements off of each other. The Chimay, on the other hand, has a lot of strong flavors, and they form a nice progression that works really well. Respect to Kobushi-hana for trying, though, and hopefully we’ll see more brewers in Japan give the abbey-style beers a go. In the meantime, though, find a Chimay if you can!