September 18, 2013

The Interconnected Worlds of Japanese, Western Craft Beers


The Red and the White: Kagua beers on display with yuzu and sansho.

I didn't know we had Jimmy Carter to thank for the legalization of home beer brewing back in 1976. Yet we do, and it's why Brooklyn Brewery's maker-in-chief Garrett Oliver says of our often unappreciated former President, "He did all right by me."

Oliver had lots to say about beer, Japanese kaiju monster movies (which were the first thing about Japan he ever liked) sake, and many other beer and non-beer topics at a recent Japan Society event, "The Delights of Craft Beer & Japanese Cuisine."

Oliver pointed out that beer is by far the more popular drink than sake in Japan. There are 40 Belgian beer bars in Tokyo alone, and Japan is the fourth largest beer market in the world. The major Japanese beer companies, Kirin, Sapporo and Osaka Beer Company (later renamed Asahi) were all formed in the late 1800s not long after Commodore Matthew Perry cajoled Japan's doors open to the West.

Japanese beers have traditionally been made in the style of German wheat beers. Since about 2000 or so, however, the country's brewers, inspired by the wild craft beer goings on in America and the West, have been experimenting with beers that express distinctly Japanese characteristics.

Oliver warming up the crowd with thirst-creating stories and pictures.

Among the brews we tasted from eight Japanese or Japanese-style brewers, we particularly loved the Kagua Blanc and Kagua Rouge. Both are scented with yuzu, the beautifully aromatic citron (in this case from Kochi Prefecture), and sansho, the lemony pepper with the heat of its close relative the Sichuan peppercorn. The white beer is brewed with wheat and the red with roasted malt.

The beer, described as "Japanese scented beer," was dreamed up by Tokyo-based Nippon Craft Beer Inc., which sends the raw ingredients for Kagua from Japan to Belgium to be brewed by a a master brewer there. The bad news on this enticing beer is that it's not available in the U.S. just yet.

Other standouts that are available here included the Yoho Brewing family of beers, Yona Yona Pale Ale, Aooni IPA, and the luxurious Tokyo Black Porter. They not only tasted great, but had the most beautiful can design, too.

In one example of how American brewers have influenced Japanese styles, Oliver told the story of his own invention, Brooklyn Brewery's Sorachi Ace, made with a hop that was developed in Japan by Sapporo in the late 1980s. With its strong lemongrass flavor it was considered a dud at the time. Oliver stumbled upon the hop, love it, and created his beer. In the strangest chapter of the story, he boarded a plane with 11 pounds of the hops to reintroduce them to Japan, which was by then ready to embrace their own invention. Oliver returned home and found out from his supplier that the Japanese had ordered 800 pounds of the Sorachi Ace hop.