We’ve had pretty good luck with the Helles/Dortmunder style in Japan, with the excellent Baeren Classic and the surprising Nagisa Heaven leading the way. Fujizakura Heights are throwing their hats in the ring, so we’ll try their Munchen Lager, in addition to the Aqula Nme Neiger. From Germany we’ve got the Paulaner Münchner Hell, so let’s get straight to it.
Fujizakura Heights Munchen Lager (富士桜高原・ミュンヘンラガー)
(No Ratebeer entry yet!)
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 20
Pour – Copper gold, very foamy and creamy
Aroma – Grassy with earthy hops, sweet malts come out as well
Flavor – Initially sweet with the malts, then a bit of grassiness, slightly bitter on the finish, smooth texture overall
As we’ve been pretty interested here in the Helles style recently, we’re excited to try the seasonal Fujizakura Heights Munchen Lager. However, even though they are hands-down the best German-style brewer in Japan, this is actually still a relatively new beer for them – it was first brewed last year in 2015, and this is only the second year they’ve released it.
The Fujizakura Heights Munchen Lager is a Helles that is pretty true to style – it’s creamy and malty, with a dry finish. It’s slightly darker than most examples, but basically it’s a faithful representation. That said, it’s not the most exciting beer, and could probably have used a little bit more an accent on the earthy hops to counteract the sweetness a bit. Overall it’s well-executed and I wouldn’t complain too much, but at the same time I wouldn’t rate it above either the Baeren Classic or the Nagisa Heaven. This would be a very good effort by any other brewer here, but falls short of the high bar that Fujizakura Heights have set for themselves.
Aqula Nme Neiger (あくらビール・旨ネイガー)
RateBeer (note – this is not the same beer as the aliased beer though)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Very pale gold, cloudy, not much foam at all
Aroma – Surprisingly a melon aroma, but a bit off like artificial melon-flavored candy
Flavor – Has that similar artificial candy melon sense to it, mildly bitter finish, some malts in there but the candy dominates (in not a good way)
We reviewed the somewhat mediocre Aqula Akita Bijin no Biru take on the Helles not so long ago, so it’s a bit surprising to find out that they actually have two different Helles beers as part of their regular lineup. So unusual, in fact, that RateBeer thinks they’re the same beer, but as they appear on the Aqula website with different ABV specs we’ll go with the assumption that they are indeed two separate beers.
Before we get to the beer itself, we’d be remiss to not talk about the unusual name of this beer. Unfortunately for music fans of the ’90s, Nme does not stand for the rock mag New Musical Express, but is most likely an idiosyncratic (local?) way of pronouncing “umai”with the male slangy inflection “ume~”, which makes sense given that the Japanese name of the beer contains that kanji 「旨」 for umai, which means delicious in Japanese. It’s a bit odd because even in the Japanese name of the beer they had to add the furigana 「んめ」, which certainly is non-standard (any child here will be able to tell you that according to the rules of shiritori there are no words that begin with ん).
So that’s the “Nme” part of it, but what’s this Neiger business? It turns out Neiger is a local Akita superhero-type character created in 2005 as one of those machi-tzukuri type of projects. There are 4 heroes in this universe, but our man Neiger here is the farming hero. That basically means he used to just be your average Akita farmer youth, but he was recognized by the local Namahage god to be a great friend of justice, and was thus granted special powers. To be honest, it makes zero sense to me either, and while this YouTube video won’t do anything to clear things up (or sell you on it), here you go.
The Aqula Nme Neiger is a bit of an oddity, and doesn’t really make the cut in any way. The melon candy is very strong in both the aroma and the flavor, and it just doesn’t work at all and kind of obliterates everything else in the beer. Yes, there is some bitterness on the finish, but it can’t quite wash away the off-ness of the beer. Hopefully this is just something gone wrong with this bottle or batch and it’s not normally so bad, but we can only go off of what we have.
Given how poor the beer is, we can say with some certainty that it is a different beer than their other Helles, the Akita Bijin no Biru. That beer wasn’t any great shakes, but certainly didn’t stand out in a bad way. Unfortunately the Nme Neiger is, quite frankly, a terrible beer, so if you have to choose between the two Aqula Helles go with the Akita Bijin no Biru.
Paulaner Münchner Hell
Package: 500mL bottle
Misc: Hops – Hallertau Tradition
Pour – Very straw gold, clear, moderate carbonation but mild
Aroma – Very very grassy, also with the earthy hops
Flavor – A slight sweetness at first, but then the grassiness really kicks in, earthy hops strong as well, very crisp, light fruitiness as well but becomes a bit unpleasantly sweet as it warms up
This is our second Paulaner review, and as we noted in our first review they are essentially Munich brewing royalty. Of course, they’re now part of a large BeerCorp, so although of course they have a storied brewing tradition (doesn’t every European brewer?) it’s not necessarily clear how hard we should root for them. Their Münchner Hell is, though kind of their flagship beer, and as such I suppose we should treat it with a certain amount of respect.
The Paulaner Münchner Hell is a pretty good version of the Helles. However, I find it interesting that it is a bit more earthy and grassy than malty, especially as they are one of the earliest brewers of the style. The malts are certainly there with a bit of sweetness at the start, but really it becomes grassy and earthy pretty quickly, and those aspect steal the show. As it warms up the sweetness increases a little bit, but the finish is still dry and bitter.
I think the Paulaner effort is quite good, although a different approach from what we see with Fujizakura Heights (I’m not going to include the Aqula Nme Neiger here), and also a bit different with the Baeren Classic and the Nagisa Heaven. If we do a quick comparison, I’d say that the Baeren Classic and Nagisa Heaven emphasize the malts but don’t forget about the hops and also have some citrus, whereas the Fujizakura is more malt-heavy with just a touch of hops. The Paulaner actually feels quite hop-heavy, and while I really like the grassy aspects of it it may have benefited by focusing a bit more on the malts.
So without the benefit of doing a direct comparison, I’d say that I rate the Baeren Classic and Nagisa Heaven as a 1 and 1a, with the Fujizakura Heights clearly behind those but clearly ahead of the Paulaner. Nothing against the Paulaner, and at a relatively affordable 429 yen for a 500mL bottle at Yamaya it qualifies as a good deal, but I actually prefer the Japanese Helles so far. There isn’t much more competition from Japan though – as far as I know this basically means we’ve tried most of the the Dortmunder/Helles beers readily available in Japan. I’m sure we haven’t covered them all, but there aren’t too many other obvious candidates out there. Actually, that means that Japan has a pretty good track record with Helles-style beers – out of six local versions we’ve tried, two have been excellent and one good but not great, so a hit rate of three out of six is pretty good! We like the style though so we’ll try to review anything in this arena that we come across.