23 January 2019
Day 3. Kyoto
There’s a craft beer place literally 20 meters from the hotel. But, chance would have it, the place is fully reserved by a group tonight. So, I ended up with nothing but the second part of the Don Quijote clutch of cans. Fortunately, the nose seems to be getting a little better. Though the glassware isn’t - all I have available is a delicate hand-crafted glazed ceramic tea cup. Rather beautiful, but opaque. Still, the shape looks ok.
Pours light golden (as best I can judge). Aroma is fruity - sweet citrus, tangerines, and a little on the herbal side. Bitter and grapefruit on the palate with some pine notes. A fairly robust malt body, which plays out to a bitter and slightly boozy finish. Feels like a bolder version of their Pale Ale. And equally drinkable.
Dark body, dark firm head that dissipates quite quickly (maybe due to the unfair glassware). Malty and slightly herbaceous on the nose. Complex, deep roast flavours, with some slight tannins and acidity. A lengthy dark and bitter aftertaste. The lightness of the body contrasts with the seriousness of the roast, and keeps me coming back for another sip.
Day 4. Kyoto
A cold and rainy day prevented much of an outing in the evening. But chance threw a few catches in my net for enjoyment back in the room this evening.
The first has no English labelling at all. But the amazing Untappd app came to my rescue with a quick scan of the barcode - and what a pleasant surprise, style-wise.
Yet another Yo-Ho, whose beers I’ve been enjoying. And this one a saison. Pours a very light yellow (though I still don’t have glassware to get an accurate sense of the colour). Small head clears quickly. Some Belgian yeast hints on the nose, but light and sweet, fruity, even a little floral. In the mouth it is a little thin but with a firm bitterness at the back of the palate. There’s a distinctly earthy note, but no funk. It also seems a bit under-carbonated. Very dry, refreshing, but lacking some sparkle and punch in the flavor department.
Pours mid-gold with a light head. What I'm smelling is unfamiliar. It is sweet, fruity and quite thick, like a mix of honey and citrus marmalade - I’m guessing this is the Yuzu in the name. And that strange mix continues into the mouth where the bitter marmalade develops and lingers long after the beer goes down. There’s a strong maltiness behind a fruit and honey sweetness too, but that pithy bitterness cuts through everything. This is very different, a truly modern take on the IPA, but it holds together. It’s a serious drink, and very enjoyable - not heavy but bursting with flavour and depth.
I subsequently found out more about this brewery online here (google translate does a reasonable job). An interesting project providing work for people living with autism in a micro-brewery.
I hope you won’t mind me indulging myself with the following novelties.
Was a little surprised to stumble across this in a department store basement - and, yes, I realize that it isn’t at all Japanese, but the label was irresitible. Pours mid yellow. Head dissipates quickly. Malt and a little booze on the nose. On the palate, it’s mainly malt again, with a slightly herbaceous/minty hop edge, but really not much in the way of bitterness. Is this the Bass I remember from a couple of decades ago in the Midlands (UK, not Japanese)? I don’t think so, but then I’m not sure how much memory, nostaligia and the legend are interplaying with reality here.
Whilst we’re on the non-Japanese retro cick... Pours dark with a light brown head. Coffee / dark chocolate on the nose. There is some of that coffee as it hits the mouth but the taste very quickly moves to something far more toasty and dark, with an acridity in the finish and a touch of sourness on the edge. This is about roast barley, about well-fired grain. While it is fairly light in body and mouthfeel, with some herbal hoppiness if you look hard for it, there’s no getting away from its burnt flavors and dry finish. Bitter to the end.
Day 5. Kyoto
Was almost going to skip interesting ales for the day, after a few dinner-time lagers, with the aim of turning in early on another cold night. But I stopped in the bottle shop round the corner from the hotel and found it to be full of interesting beers - especially imported ones - at not unreasonable prices. So, to match the cold, I’m going international today, with a couple of breweries which have long been on my todo list. First to the US for some hops, then to Scotland. Hope you’ll pardon, again, this intermission.
Pours golden with a thick white head. Malt, light fruit and pine on the nose, with a touch of caramel/butterscotch. Bitter citrus, pine and a malty sweetness combine well as it hits the tongue, following through to a mid-bitter finish of grapefruit tinged with sweetness. Medium-bodied but with some presence, inviting another swig.
Dark brown with a big creamy head. A little cocoa and booze on the nose. Full bodied, and almost immediately fills the mouth with a rich caramel sweetness with suggestions of raisin and slight booziness. It finishes with a hint of something woody and herbal, leaving a lasting bitterness. For a beer on the sweeter side, that’s really quite quaffable.
Black, with a cream head which quickly subsides. Milky coffee and chocolate on the nose. Dark chocolate and roasted malts fill the mouth. Fairly full-bodied and smooth with a sweet finish but leaving a lingering roasty bitterness with a mild herbal touch.
Day 6. Osaka
Location for all the following was the excellent Beer Belly Brew Pub in Osaka. This turned, without planning, into a tasting of Minoh beers. My notes are underwhelming. But the beer was extremely on point. Very well made and served. Everything had restraint though. I guess that’s a positive.
Golden with a good inch of head. Mild hoppiness on the nose. An easy drinker with a medium malt flavour and a classic but light hopping. Delicate bitterness, very smooth, with a touch of sweetness coming though in the end.
Describes as a 2.5x IPA. This is all about booze, malt and fruity hops. But in good balance with some floweriness coming on the outbreath. The bitterness holds off until the finish. Surprisingly drinkable for the high abv.
Black with a solid head which lasts well and provides beautiful lining on the glass. Some chocolate on the nose. Exceptionally creamy mouthfeel with complex caramel and roast maltiness. Hopping is delicate and herbaceous, only showing through in the aftertaste. There’s a dark, toasty edge but overall this is supremely smooth drink.
Strong dark chocolate notes, medium bodied. Finishes fairly dry.
Very light and slightly cloudy. Sweet herbal scents from the glass. Delightfully sweet and grassy at the start of the sip with a bitterness and dryness way, way below. And nothing in the middle. Gently plays the upper and lower registers of the palate piano. Effervescent in every swish of the glass. Absolute perfection.
After the brilliance of the kölsch I thought I should try the pilsner. Good head. Slightly sweet aroma. Bitterness immediate and all front of mouth, top of palate. Quite a creamy body. Solid and refreshing.
Cloves, cinammon, nutmeg on the nose. Hits the mouth like a spice bomb - the whole spice drawer plus a little chilli. I think there’s malt behind there. And it is certainly boozy. But my palate feels ruined! It’s not bad though.
Day 8. Yokohama
A change of town, after a night in the mountains, and taking it easy in preparation for the Brewer’s cup tomorrow.
Light golden colour and very effervescent. The yeast aromas are immediately present on the nose. Very light bodied and quite sweet with gentle cinnamon and spice aromatics and a little banana towards the end. A little tame and sweet for my taste.
Hazy brown with a good, slightly off-white head. Caramel and chocolate wafting off the glass as soon as it was poured. Medium-bodied, with a forward dark maltiness, which resolves to a slightly more toasty bitterness in the finish with a herbal note to it.
Day 11. Tokyo
I wasn’t planning to take notes at all today, it being the last day. But habits die hard. So when we ventured into the Baird Beer Taproom in Harujuku for snacks and a rest, I jotted down the following.
Full, creamy mouthfeel with a clean, bitter hoppy finish.
From cask, only very slight carbonation. Deep malt base, plenty of hops but not particularly distinct, making this drink almost like a British ipa.
Light and slightly creamy mouthfeel. An edge of dry coffee and woody hops.
Rocky head. Fruit on the nose. Big hops in the mouth backed up by a solid malt. Extremely smooth mouthfeel.
Dark and smooth. Deep roast, but not harsh. In fact there’s a sweetness to it. Despite the high abv, there isn’t much alcohol on the palate. Exceptionally well put together.
22 January 2019
I suppose, then, we’ll begin in medias res. I’m currently in Japan. Osaka, to be precise. Avoiding the January cold in a tiny hotel room on a dark Tuesday evening, with a small bottle of sake by my side.
But I’m not planning to write about sake. Though I have enjoyed learning about the production and culture of that drink while here - and I’ve done my share of tasting too. Neither am I going to write about the local pickles - maybe I need to make a separate trip–or lifetime–to dig into that delicious side of things.
No. I’m here for beer. I’m headed eventually for the Japan Brewers Cup this Friday in Yokohama. But I thought I might be able to limber up with some local beer tastings in the preceeding week, and offer a few first impressions in this land where alcohol flows pretty freely.
I’m not sure how to present this. Since I don’t yet know how it concludes. But let’s shoot for a loose diary format with commentary thrown in. I’ve been taking notes up to now. I’ll try not to rewrite too much based on subsequent experience as I tidy them up and present them here.
Day 2. Tokyo
Towards the end of a morning wander through Tsukiji Market I spotted the little craft beer stall. Nothing fancy - a simple draft setup with 4 ales on tap, standing tables and a bench to rest your bag on. And a fan pumping hot air over the tables, keeping the cold market air out in the street where it belongs. An almost pefect starting place for this adventure.
Described as "Japanese White" with Yuzu and Japanese pepper. Cloudy yellow with a light head. Delicate citus peel nose and taste. Front of mouth bitterness with citric bite and a lasting herbal and peppery note. Refreshing and easy on the palate. I really enjoyed drinking this one late morning.
Medium gold colour with long lasting white head and constant effervescence. Not much on the nose. Bitter and citrusy from start to finish. Smooth mouthfeel. The bitterness lasts well after the mouthful has gone down.
Later that day, I was surprised to find a range of canned ales in the fridge at one of Tokyo’s many “Everything” shops (this one happened to be Don Quijote, Asakusa branch), carefully separated from the many lagers. In retrospect, my surprise was out of place, a scar from living in Thailand - as I soon came to realise, Japan’s retail shelves are well stocked with variety far beyond Asahi/Kirin/Sapporo. Anyway I picked up 4 cans, for later consumption.
In the afternoon, during a brief stop back at the hotel, I got to work on the first of those purchases, and put the others in the fridge.
At 99 yen (around USD1) for a 330ml can, this was by far the cheapest beer I had on the trip. Brewed by Sapporo, so big beer, but “Inspired by Belgian White Beers” with a “refreshing and fruity flavor”. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much from this, so cracked it open as a quick refresher back in the room. Lacking glassware, I poured a little into an opaque cup. Plenty of foam on a lightly coloured liquor. Not much on the nose. Somewhat sweet on the palate, with an aftertaste of malt and alcohol. Not getting much of the aromatics (it is brewed with orange peel and Coriander, according to the blurb, though that could be my blocked nose). Overall a passable beer, but not drinking like a Wit - too malty and boozy. I’ll maybe give it a try again next week when I’m recovered from this cold, and in better tasting form - it’s certainly cheap.
Evening found us enjoying the lights, sights and tastes (some excellent Chinese) of Shibuya. Which meant we were close to Goodbeer Faucets, and as the temperature dropped it proved to be a welcome break from the biting cold - though sadly for a short time only as it was getting late. I wish we could have stayed longer to explore the menu further, and, indeed, to visit some of the other local brew spots. But, anyway, time for two drinks.
Mid-amber with only a little head. Citrusy nose. Hits the palate hard with citrus and peachy sweetness, moving to mangoes and sweet tropical fruits. Soft, mellow bitter on the end. Extremely well balanced and drinkable.
Pitch black with solid cream head. Chocolate nose which reaches into the taste, mellowing and deepening to a rich smoky and, finally, bitter end. Creamy and filling with just a hint of fruit and vanilla on the side. I could manage a few more of these if we didn't have a train to catch.
Back in the hotel, after defrosting in the onsen, there was time for one more of those cans before bed.
Bright golden pour. Sweet nose. Thin-medium bodied, but malty, with a well-matched bitterness. Some grapefruit and a hint of flowers in the longer taste. Very suppable.
31 December 2018
It’s been an interesting year fermentation-wise. The learning, tasting and experimentation have provided a welcome ongoing alternative to inevitably ineffectual musing on the broader state of the world. And the sharing of the experience–and products–have cemented existing friendships and led to interesting meetings which bring hope and excitement for the future. Thank you microbes, yeasts, and human co-conspirators.
Without a doubt, my main focus in terms of energy through the latter part of the year has been upping my brewing game. Sparked by a discussion with friends and fellow brewers in March, I realised that all the barriers to brewing I thought existed were, in fact, nothing but flimsy mental constructs. From that day, I embarked on a program of regular brews across a number of styles, and the results have (I feel - and have been told) improved over the course. The learning journey reminds me of that of baking bread–there’s a great deal of scattered knowledge to acquire, sift and internalise, and beyond that so much lies in technique, process and attention to detail. Only with brewing the iterations take longer.
That first solo brew of the year back in late March was an English ordinary bitter. I wanted to start simple. Though, as with many such things, simple is often the hardest thing to pull off successfully. A basic grain bill and light hopping leaves nowhere to hide, and plenty of space for technical errors–or indeed blandness/emptiness–to show through. As the year moved into its final month, I was pleased to finally pull off–in a collaborative brew with fellow Sam Sahai–a light, hoppy pale ale that really worked: low abv, but not lacking in body, firmly bitter with good aromatics. A real summer session ale. I’ve finished the year with a bitter and a mild, both brewed with invert sugars (which, it turns out, aren’t too hard to make) in the traditional British way. They’ll be ready in a week or two, closing the loop on this year in ales: 30 solo brews, of which there were 12 bitters/pale ales, six saisons, three stouts, two each of porters, Belgian blonds and IPAs, a brown ale, a kölsch and a mild.
On the baking front, it’s a been a solid year in terms of naturally-leavened output. Nothing too creative or innovative, but I’ve been finding some good consistency in sourdough bakes, with at least a couple of loaves most weekends. And reassuringly few disasters–which probably means I haven’t really being trying hard enough. I built a new starter mid-year after accidentally defenestrating the previous one. The moment I reached in the fridge to pull out the starter for a bake and found nothing was profoundly unsettling, like that feeling of walking in a room to fetch something and then not being able to recall what that something was, an intimation of frailty or the onset of madness.
What has fallen by the wayside somewhat over the last 12 months is lacto ferments and pickles. Partly due to time, partly due to a lack of inspiration. Armed with a copy of The Noma Guide to Fermentation, I’m sure I can overcome the latter moving forward. And the former - well, there’s never really a shortage of time when desire is strong enough, right?
So I’m closing out the year with a simple brined carrot ferment, touched with rosemary and capped with orange, preserving the final moments of 2018 to be enjoyed in 2019. Though perhaps, in the broader picture, much of 2018 would be better left in the past.