What’s brewing in Japan

When you think of Japanese beer, the rice-driven lagers from such breweries as Sapporo, Kirin, and Asahi, are often the first to come to mind. While these certainly are nice beers for their respective style, they hardly represent the ingenuity and expressive flavors that come from the smaller Japanese brewers. Look for Japanese beers in the area and there are two breweries that you will most likely encounter: Hitachino Nest and Coedo Beer. There are a few other ones occasionally out there, like Baird Brewing Co, however these two are most widely available on a consistent basis.

An easing of the law around microbrewing in 1994 made craft brewing a possibility for smaller organizations and dreamers in Japan. Coedo Brewery began as an organic farming initiative over forty years ago. Wheat was one of their crops in the 1980s which sparked their interest in brewing. There was a lack of maltsters in Japan so they were unsuccessful in malting wheat however they later experimented with sweet potatoes. They officially opened a brewery in 1996 and today, one of their signature beers is Beniaka (“crimson red”), an imperial amber lager made with sweet potatoes to give it a starchiness that smoothes the caramel malts. Their flagship beers are all named after a different shade of color. Ruri, a pilsner, is Japanese for the “color of clear blue skies.” Shikkoku (“jet black”) is a nice example of the roasty yet light schwarzbier (black lager) style. The brewery works closely with German brewmaster, Christian Mitterbauer IV, giving their flavorful beers a sharp balance reminiscent of the Germanic style of brewing.

One of the most popular and renowned Japanese brewers is Kiuchi Brewery, which produces the Hitachino Nest line of beers. Hitachino was an ancient province in Japan where the brewery is currently located. The sake brewery was established in 1823 and started brewing beer in 1996. It is still owned by the same family which is now in its 8th generation of ownership. The White Ale is the most common brew found in the US. In addition to the traditional coriander and orange peel, this beer uses a small amount of orange juice and nutmeg to give it a crisp spiciness. The Espresso Stout is brewed with coffee beans, providing a smooth but strong roasted note to the brew’s firm bitterness. One of their more unique beers is the Red Rice Ale which uses an ancient red rice in the brew. It has a delightful pink color and a soothing aroma of berries and peach with a hint of rice-like graininess.

Hitachino Nest XH (Extra High) is easily one of my top ten all-time favorite beers. This strong (8% ABV) Belgian amber ale is aged in Shōchū casks, a traditional Japanese distilled spirit. Shōchū is often referred to as distilled sake however it can be produced from a variety of ingredients including barley, rice, buckwheat, sweet potatoes and other sources of fermentable sugars. The beer has flavors of fresh cut strawberries and caramel apple with an acidity that keeps it bright and delicate. The shōchū barrel gives it a soft sake note and a distinct feathery mouthfeel. XH represents the elegant balance and imaginative flavors that Hitachino Nest brings to each one of their brews.

Of rice and barley

While there are a range of different traditional fermented rice beverages, some dating back millennia, by far the most well known of them is sake. While we tend to refer to is as sake wine, because of its higher alcohol content, it is a grain-based fermented beverage, making it more similar to beer than wine.

There are some similarities and differences between the production of beer and sake. Grains like barley and rice contain starches that first must be converted into fermentable sugars by enzymes before the liquid can be fermented. In beer brewing this enzymatic conversion and fermentation happen in separate steps however in sake these two processes occur in parallel. Barley is malted to activate the enzymes however in sake the rice is polished, removing the enzyme-containing husk, to expose the starch-rich “heart”. Sake brewers then use a mixture of steamed rice and the native mold, kōji, to provides the required enzymes. An initial batch of kōji is blended with yeast and allowed to ferment, with kōji and steamed rice being added at staggered times for a process that lasts about 2-3 week in total. The final mixture is pressed and the liquid is separated from the rice mash.

While certainly parts of the process have been mechanized, the handmade touch remains a common standard for high quality sake. A quick note about milling though. The percentage given refers to the the size of the kernel when compared to its original size (eg 70% milled rice has had 30% of its kernel polished off). Lower numbers refer to a greater degree of milling so high-end sakes will use rice that has been milled to at least 50% whereas more pedestrian sakes will use 70% or higher milled rice.

Navigating the label

There can be a lot of confusing terms on a sake label however all those letters start to make sense with a little guidance. Futsuu-shu, or “regular”, is the most common sake, constituting about 75% of sake production, and is considered household sake. Most of the the generic “Hot Sake” you order at restaurants are going to fall into this class. Honjōzō-shu and Junmai-shu are the next grade of sake. These styles use a minimum of 70% milled rice. Junmai is a common term that you will see on sake labels. This term indicates that the sake has been brewed only with rice, kōji, water, and yeast, and has not received any additional alcohol before pressing.

The practice of adding alcohol was first started during WWII when Japan was rationing rice. The addition of alcohol during the mash resulted in less (to even zero) rice being used in the process. It was found that the ethanol aided in extraction and produced a more fragrant, lighter-tasting brew. After the war, the practice remained and continues today, albeit with less alcohol added. While in other beverages the addition of grain alcohol is a sign of lesser quality, in sake it simply is a matter of preference between the heartier junmai style or the lighter honjōzō style. In general, as sake progresses in quality the term honjōzō will sometimes precede the distinguishing term (eg honjōzō daiginjō-shu) however junmai is always included on a sake that has not received the addition of grain alcohol.

If you see the term, Tokubetsu (“special”), before either of these terms then it implies the brew has been made with additional care, however there is no official definition that distinguishes this from their base-level sake. Ginjō-shu is the next grade and requires a rice that has been milled to a minimum of 60%. Daiginjō-shu is the top-end sake, with a minimum of 50% milled rice, however the milling will often go as low as 35%. There are generalities and grey areas to be made between the different styles when comparing brands however higher quality sake tends to get more lighter, complex and delicate as the quality goes up. There are more terms like genshu (undiluted), nama-zaken (unpasteurized), or nigori-zake (unfiltered), among others, that you will encounter on sake labels however these are the main styles of sake.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, November 7, 2017

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