A Yen for Ji-biiru

World class beer is not, necessarily, something that is usually associated with Japan, and certainly not with Korea, but a recent 10 day trip to Seoul, Tokyo and various points in-between certainly opened my eyes to the delights of ji-biiru, otherwise known as Japanese craft beer.

Information on the Internet

Did you know that Japanese breweries won 10 medals, more than their counterparts from the Czech Republic, Holland and the UK, at the 2008 Beer World cup? I didn’t until I started doing some research on the Net in preparation for a week’s holiday in Japan.

I knew that there are four major, or macro, breweries in Japan; Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory and Asahi but I didn’t know that the first brewery in Japan opened as late as 1876. I was also not aware that craft, or micro, breweries first took off in Japan in the mid 1990’s, following a change to the law regarding the minimum size of a commercial brewery, and that there are now @ 250 craft breweries in operation.

By far the best source of information I found about Japanese beer and breweries, and I’m not just saying this because I met Glenn Scroggins in the Baird brewery tap in Tokyo, is the bi-monthly Brews News. Here is the place to find out about the history and development of j-biiru, get information on forthcoming festivals and details of pubs/restaurants that serve quality beer from Japan and around the world.

Also well worth a browse, IMHO, is the web-site for Baird brewery.

Information on beer in Korea is somewhat limited but I was able to establish that the Platinum micro-brewery has two pubs in Seoul.

The cost of Ji-biiru?

Japan does have a reputation as being an expensive place to visit and for British tourists the pound’s recent slide against the yen has been seriously bad news. I was fortunate enough to buy my 7 day J-Rail pass, good value at £145, when the exchange rate was 200 yen to the pound. Even at the 130/135 rate in early January 2009 sub-way fares across Japan were cheaper than in London and a decent hotel in Kyoto was cheaper than the equivalent in, say, Cambridge. Sadly, beer is expensive! You will need to be prepared to spend @ £7 for a pint so, unless you’re reading this article in Norway, a few beers in Japan is going to cost considerably more than a few beers back at home.

Drinking in Tokyo

Baird Taproom in TokyoThe first pub I visited in Tokyo only opened on the 11th of May 2008 but I’m sure that if I lived in Tokyo, or anywhere near Tokyo, I’d be a regular visitor to Baird’s Nakameguro taproom. First, it’s really easy to find – which is not always the case in Japan – see the web-site for a map and second, 9 beers are available all the year round along with 6 seasonal beers. At 900 Yen for a pint I was disappointed not to be served in a lined glass but I certainly wasn’t disappointed with the quality of the various beers that I tried. An eponymous Nakameguro bitter, 3.8 abv, was a good starter with a fresh, soft palate and a citrusy nose and I really enjoyed a Teckoko IPA at 5.8 abv which wasn’t really like other IPA’s I have tried with, again, a soft palate, a floral nose and a lingering semi-spicy after taste. A Jubilation ale, at 7.0 abv, didn’t really drink it’s strength for me but had a lovely smooth, soft – again –and figgy feel and my favourite was the Yabai Yabai Strong Scotch ale, 7.4 abv, with a rich, malty body and a gorgeous Christmas cake nose.

John Bush with Aoki-San at the Popeye ClubThe brewer’s interest in beer styles from around the world is demonstrated by the use of yeast from the Rochefort brewery in a Dubbel style beer and that 40% of the malt used in the Smoke Dark lager is sourced from Bamberg. Sadly, I didn’t try either of these beers, having to catch a bullet train back to Kyoto, but would very much welcome the chance to try some more Baird beers in Tokyo or at the original Fishmarket taproom in Numazu.

A couple of days later I was back in Tokyo and made my way out to Ryogoku a handy 4 stops, although you have to change lines, from the central station. Ryogoku is home to the excellent Edo-Tokyo museum, well worth a visit to learn more about the edo and meiji periods of Tokyo’s history, and to the famous Ryogoku sumo stadium. It is also home to Japan’s premier location for ji-biiru, the Popeye club, which is only a 3 minute walk from the station. See here for lots of information and a very useful map.

70 beers at the Popeye ClubAs can be seen from the photo this fine establishment now serves @ 70 beers on tap from breweries all over Japan. Prices are not cheap, particularly as a half pint is 9 fluid ounces and a pint is 16, but when in Rome … amongst the beers I tried was the 5.9 abv Divine Vamp IBA – I believe this is a “ house “ beer – which packed a punch with an IBU of 60. The burnt nose initially reminded me of Ellezelloise’s excellent Hercule and although, to me, it wasn’t quite as memorable as that classic Belgian beer it was certainly very good. Other highlights included a 5.0 abv Hakusekikan Scottish Smoked Ale, if I had closed my eyes I could almost have been savouring a draught rauchbier in Bamberg’s Spezial brewpub albeit this beer had a higher level of carbonation, and a 5.0 abv Sumida Brewing Porter which had a coffee nose and a smooth, cold coffee body. It is clear that the pub attracts a lot of beer aficionados from around the world, the proprietor, Aoki San, advised me that the late, great Michael Jackson had visited 5 times, and I received a very warm welcome. A photo shows me, having sampled a few beers, standing behind the bar with Aoki San.

There are a number of other pubs that I would like to have visited. I was fortunate enough to meet Glenn Scroggins, a regular contributor to “ Brews News “, in the Baird Taproom and he recommended the Aldgate and the Bulldog together with the Cheers bar in nearby Yokohama. You might want to have a look at ratebeer.com for further reviews and recommendations.

Mixed fortunes in Kyoto and Osaka.

Beer Belly bar in Osaka - ClosedOsaka is only 15 minutes by bullet train from Kyoto and I had read a number of positive reviews, and received a recommendation from Glen Scroggins, about the Beer Belly pub in Higobashi. It wasn’t the easiest place to locate, I ended up getting some directions from the friendly staff in the local YHA, but I did eventually find the pub which is a couple of minutes walk from a science museum and a strange looking gallery of modern art. The museum and the art gallery were both closed as it was the day after a bank holiday so I whiled away an hour in a local coffee shop eagerly awaiting an opportunity to try some beers from the local Minoh brewery and other ji-biiru delights. Sadly, it turned out that the Beer Belly was closed as well and in the absence of a plan B I headed back to Kyoto. I can advise that it’s actually very easy to find the Beer Belly, take exit 3 from the Higobashi metro which brings you out by the APA hotel then turn left and walk for about 150 yards and you will seen the sign as shown in this rather dull photo! There are various other options for ji-biiru in Osaka, which are detailed on the brews news web-site.

Kyoto is a city of high culture, with an amazing 17 Unesco World Heritage sites and over 1600 Buddhist temples, and a really interesting place to stay but, sadly, it does not appear to have much in the way of a “beer” culture. I wasn’t able to find any pubs that specialised in craft beer but did manage to buy some interesting bottles of beer in the Isetan store at Kyoto station.

From the Kizakura brewery I was able to sample Blue Nile, White Nile, and Ruby Nile beers. The 5.0 abv Blue Nile had lively carbonation, a semi-hazy body and a fruit – peach / apricot – nose. The 5% abv White Nile had less carbonation, a much clearer body and a sharper taste. The 7% abv Ruby Nile was my favourite with an amber appearance and a spicy, warming and lingering taste.

I was also able to try 4 beers from the Kyoto Craft Kinshimasamune brewery. Their Gosho beer, 5.% abv, is described as being a Kolsch style but it didn’t remind me of any of the Kolsch beers that I have tried in Cologne. Nevertheless, it was quite a nice bitter with the taste of a fruit similar to a greengage. The 4.0 abv Kauro had been brewed for the brewery’s 10th anniversary, by 2 lady brewers, and seemed to me to be very similar to the Gosho. The 5.0 abv Heain beer is described as being a Schwarz style but was the least impressive of the 4 beers as although it was a dark beer with a burnt nose the predominant taste was still that of a greengage. In contrast, the Hanamuchi, also at 5.0 % abv and described as being of an Alt style was a tasty best bitter and the fruit taste was considerably less pronounced.

I would have liked to try these beers in a pub, or two, rather than in my hotel room but was glad to have the opportunity to sample some local beers in Kyoto.

Busan

Busan is a large, bustling city on the south east coast of Korea with an interesting fish market, and a ferry service to Hakata in Japan, but what does it offer to the discerning drinker? If my, admittedly very limited, experience is anything to go by the answer is not a great deal.

The Barony Brauhaus is reasonably easy to find, being in the street behind the back of the large Lotte department store, and drinks there are certainly cheaper than they are in Japan at 4,000 won a half-litre, around £2.50, but the two beers on offer are not overly exciting. The first beer I tried was described as a Kolsch but was more like a wheat beer being hazy, rather sweet and having vanilla tones. Quite refreshing but not a beer I would like to spend an entire evening drinking. The second beer was described as an Alt and had a dark brown colour, a neutral aroma and caramel tones but with a disappointingly thin taste.

Seoul

Seoul is a buzzing city with lots to see and a really good metro system. Sports fans can visit the World Cup Stadium and Park and the Olympic Park, the Changdeokgung Palace is a World Heritage Site that is well worth visiting and there are some great saunas. But what of the beer?

Platinum Beer Factory in SeoulThe two Platinum brew pubs offer the same range of seven beers at 5,000 won for 360 cc. My overall impression was that the brewery is perhaps trying to “be all things to all people” and not always fully succeeding but you have to admire their ambition. A 4.1 abv Cream Stout was pleasant but not overly creamy, the 4.5 abv Platinum beer was quite crisp and hoppy, with an amber body but lacked any depth of flavour. A 4.7 abv Wheat beer was rather good, although served too cold in my opinion, and the 4.7 abv Pilsner was pleasant without being overly exciting. A 5.1 abv Belgian White was overly sweet and rather thin and the 5.5 abv Brown Ale had a pleasant burnt nose and sweet finish but was also rather thin. My favourite beer was the 8.4 abv Morphine, a strong – obviously! but surprisingly drinkable Belgian style blonde that reminded me of a Villers Triple.

So, if you’re a regular drinker of Ji-biiru and / or are an aficionado of German, Belgian or Czech beers I doubt that you would rave about the Platinum beers but if you find yourself in Seoul they’re certainly worth sampling.

John Bush - Feb 2009

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