Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Beers of Japan

It’s a cold crisp day and the kids and I are home from school for MLK Day.  I offer to buy lunch and they are all over going out for sushi, like we usually do when I’m buying.  We go to our local Japanese place called U Me Sushi and share several different rolls including Teka Maki (Tuna), Unagi (Eel), Alaskan (Salmon) and Californian, which is mostly avocado and salmon roe (eggs). 

I take the opportunity to try a couple of Japanese beers.  My first is Sapporo Premium which is like the Budweiser of Japan. It comes out of the bottle a yellow/gold and has a thin head like most American Lagers.  I can pick up a slight hop smell which becomes a pleasant floral taste upon first sipping it.  It is very light and drinkable with a bit of bitter after taste. 

Next, I order an Asahi which would be the Miller of Japan.  The pour and carbonation look identical to the Sapporo along with the hoppy nose.  The taste and even the lacing up the glass are similar.  So much so, that I feel I could be drinking another Sapporo.  The only difference I can detect is the slightly dryer finish on the Asahi.  Both beers go very well with the fresh fish and I declare lunch a success. 

It turns out that the similarity between these beers is not a coincidence: they have a connection.  The Sapporo brewery was opened in 1886 and combined with Asahi at the turn of the century.  The two were produced under the same parent company until the 1950’s when they were split off. They have remained separate since but, like the Macro beers of the U.S., they seem to be trying to appeal to the masses.
After lunch my son, who just got his license (lucky me), drives me to my local beverage center where I heard they have a beer aged in sake barrels.  This seems like a good day to pick one up and compare it to the Budweiser and Miller of japan.  Hitachino XH (Extra High) has an 8% ABV and is considered a Belgian Strong Ale.  It pours an auburn color with a thin tan head.  I leave the residue behind in the bottle because I don’t want to get a surprise from drinking all that yeast as I have in the past.  The residue at the bottom of the bottle smells a little funky.   I notice that the back of the label has some letters and numbers stamped on it: XH: 11: 09.  I hope this doesn’t mean that it’s good until Nov 2009.  I’ve been burned by expiredbeer as well.

The beer in my glass has a smell of fresh bread.  First sip: malty and smooth.  No noticeable sake taste.  More a slight whiskey after taste.  Now, after I sit a moment, a little tinge of sake hits me.  It makes for a pleasing combination.  Overall, my evaluation is: very smooth and very enjoyable.  It may have a relatively high ABV, but I don’t feel it.  The malt and sake tastes blend well as I sit back in my chair and let the sensations work on my tongue and the back of my throat.

Not to be outdone by the lagers, Hitachino has been produced at the Kiuchi Brewery in Naka, Japan since 1823.  They also brew sake and the popular shochu, which is a stronger version of sake used in mixed drinks.  The company’s web site features a dancing owl that first distracts, then annoys you, while you wait for the pages to load. 

What a different experience Hiachino is from the Japanese lagers I had earlier with lunch.  Whereas the lagers went down so quickly, this beer demands a slow, thoughtful consumption.  At $5.79 per 12 oz. bottle, it is also more economical to drink this beer slowly.  If you sit and contemplate the complexity of this Extra High beer, you will get many more smiles per gallon. 

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