Altbiers, while not so popular globally in the craft beer world, are relatively common in Japan in comparison. While people don’t drink them so much, a fair amount of local breweries make one, so today we’ve got the Cyonmage Alt and the Baeren Alt. For comparison we have the Uerige Alt Nicht Filtriet, which is the unfiltered version of the more common Uerige Alt.
Cyonmage Alt (チョンマゲビール・アルト)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Very dark red, cloudy, good carbonation but settles quickly
Aroma – Caramel malts are strong, chocolate as well, quite nice
Flavor – Fizzy, malts are there but not too sweet, slight tartness, bready on the finish with some sweetness, more caramel as it warms up
This is our first altbier review, and as I mentioned in the overview, they’re more common than you would expect in Japan, given that overseas you almost never see microbrewery altbiers. I suspect that the reason why you see more of these beers in Japan is because a lot of the independent breweries here sprang up not as craft brewers per se but as local brewers (the whole 地ビール vs クラフトビール dichotomy). A lot of those local breweries make beers in the German tradition, and so you have a lot of small breweries here that turn out less common styles like the altbier or the kolsch, with it almost being a requirement to brew the standard German beers like the weizen or the pilsner. Most of the smaller breweries in the US exist for the purpose of being craft beer, and are focused on the bolder, more name-catching styles, which for a long time was the hoppier IPAs and such but more recently has shifted to saisons and sours.
While it is true that the altbier does not have a reputation for being super exciting, let’s turn to our trusty German Beer Institute to get the details on what we can expect from our altbier. The first thing to note that this is an ale and not a lager, like most of the traditional German styles (think pilsner, helles, schwarz, marzen – all lagers). In fact, the word “alt” means old in German which is a reference to the fact that ales were the first type of beer invented until the advent of the lager in the 16th century. It’s a bit strange, since we tend to think of ales as new and exciting and lagers as old and boring, but actually ales came first.
In terms of actual beer characteristics, one of the most salient factors is that although it is an ale and therefore uses top-fermenting yeast, altbier yeasts ferment at lower temperatures compared to other ale yeasts. In addition, altbiers also use a bit of caramel/roasted malts for coloring, and also tend to be hopped quite heavily. This makes it something of a cross between a typical ale and a lager, with a strong malt presence like a lager but also with good bitterness and dryness like an ale. Of course there’s still a range within altbiers, so let’s see where our examples today fall along the spectrum.
First up is a brewery that is new to us – Cyonmage Beer, which is actually the beer label name of the Yamaguchi Hagi Beer company. Established in 1996 in Yamaguchi-ken, they’re basically unheard of in Japan. I’ve never seen them on tap, and this is the first time I’ve seen their bottles for sale. They essentially only make four beers, with a pale ale, weizen, pilsner, and this alt forming the basic lineup. They are also a ponzu company though (ponzu is a common flavoring sauce), so I suppose you could also include ponzu in their lineup if you want.
The name of the brewery Cyonmage is basically the Japanese word for the samurai topknot (more commonly romanized as “chonmage”), and is a nod the history of Hagi, where the brewery is located. The Hagi Castle was an important castle back in its day, and of course while all of this stuff died with the Meiji Restoration the “chonmage” lives on on the bottle caps of Cyonmage Beer. OK, enough history, on with the beer!
The Cyonmage Alt is decent enough, but the flavor never lives up to its aroma. The aroma promises lots of roast caramel and chocolate, and while you get a little bit of that it is mostly malt and bread heavy. It has enough sweetness and even a bit of tart to keep it interesting, though, and I was actually pleasantly surprised. Given that they are an almost totally unknown local brewery, expectations pretty low, and they did manage to at least beat those low expectations.
Where can such a rare beer be found? I purchased mine at the old Tokyo Liquor Land for a bargain basement 382 yen. Tokyo Liquor Land has since reopened and rebranded as びあマ, and I haven’t checked it out since the reopening. I don’t know if they still carry their beers, but I’d be curious to try their other offerings and see if they are decent as well.
Baeren Alt (ベアレン・アルト)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Nice deep amber red, mild carbonation
Aroma – Soft caramel malts, quite mild
Flavor – Very chewy and malty, not very sweet, a slight pepper aspect on the finish, some bitterness at the end as well
While we like Baeren as generally a very good German-style brewery, the Alt is often overlooked, although it forms part of their regular lineup. In fact, it’s the newest member of their regular lineup (which only consists of three beers – this one, the Classic, and the Schwarz), and I suppose with the lower profile overall of altbiers perhaps it is inevitable that is less loved than their other regulars. Of course, the Classic is a world-class Dortmunder and the Schwarz is one of the better examples of that style in Japan, so the Alt certainly has a lot to live up to – let’s see if it can do it.
The Baeren Alt is a pretty solid effort, like most of their beers. I really liked the full malty texture of it, and while the flavor is a bit subdued due to not being too caramel heavy the pepper and hop accents combine very well with the malty base. It does a good job of playing up the malts and pepper without being too sweet, and the combination of malt and bitter gets very close to the definition of what an altbier should be. It isn’t quite as nice as their Classic or Schwarz, if you’re looking at their regular lineup, but again, a very solid effort from Baeren.
Uerige Alt Nicht Filtriet
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Brown ale-like in color, very cloudy, not too much carbonation
Aroma – Faint roasted nuts aroma
Flavor – Sweet caramel, malty, very syrupy sweet finish, gets a lot more hop bitterness as it warms up but also gets watery
Uerige, located in Dusseldorf (the home of the altbier), traces its history back to 1862, when a man called Wilhelm Cürten bought a house and tavern and then installed a brewery there. Legend has it that he only left the house on Sundays to go to church and otherwise did nothing except brew his altbier. Uerige is pretty much synonymous with altbier, and except for a weizen they essentially just brew the Alt and variations on the altbier (the Unfiltered, which is what we have here, the stronger Sticke, and the even stronger DoppelSticke). The unfiltered version isn’t as common as the regular Alt, but since we’ve managed to get a hold of one we’re going to try it here.
The Uerige Alt Nicht Filtriet is a not so exciting beer, with nothing that really stands out in terms of the flavor profile. I suppose you could say that it ends up relatively bitter for an alt, but by that stage it’s also quite watery, which somewhat cancels that out. Initially it start out as very sweet and syrupy, and it’s not a well-balanced beer at any stage of its progression. Cross-checking on RateBeer, the unfiltered version doesn’t do anywhere near as well as the regular Alt, so next time we do an altbier review we’ll try to find the regular version. Overall very disappointing though, especially given how famous Uerige is for their altbiers.
Actually, in Tokyo, even the regular Uerige isn’t easy to find, and this unfiltered version even more so. I found mine at Tokyo Liquor Land (as with the Cyonmage Alt) for 591 yen, so it’s not super pricey but also not that great of a beer. For today’s tasting, the Baeren Alt is the clear winner, with the Cyonmage taking second and the Uerige Alt Nicht Filtriet bring up the rear. However, as I mentioned before, the regular Uerige Alt does score much better on RateBeer so we’ll definitely try to round up one of those soon. Japanese altbiers are relatively common so we shouldn’t have too much trouble rounding up other examples – Tazawako has one, Tainai Kogen makes one, and even Baird produces one, so we look forward to trying some more of these soon.