Sunday, February 3, 2013

Imbibing in Tokyo

I’ve just returned from five super weeks in Tokyo. It’s a great place to do some drinking and the Japanese are pretty sensible about it too - as long as you don't do it and drive or make a complete nuisance of yourself. The regulations for craft beer production, taxation and wholesaling are all reasonable too. It sure makes me wish that India was more progressive about such things, including consumption, but I digress...

Most of the department stores in Tokyo have a decent selection of libations (and an incredible selection of food) in their basement. Sebiu in Ikeburko, Takashimaya in Shinjku and Tokyu in Shibuya are my favourites. Hasegawa Liquors also has a great sake bar / bottle shop in Tokyo station (behind the ticket gates). 

I always seem to drink a lot of Dassai sake when I’m in Japan. Even though this can be bought in the US and might not have the exotic cache of some of the high-end brands that are not exported, it’s really tasty and very well made. Certainly the best I’ve had when it comes to value-for-money. They also make several variants that are generally not available in the US. I've never seen their 49, 45 or sparkling Nigori (unfiltered) state-side. The number refers to the amount remaining of the rice after polishing. The inner core of the rice is where all the subtle flavor is. Removing the protein-rich outer layer makes for a more delicate, refined sake. Interestingly, Dassai has a very modern approach to sake-making and is the only smallish, craft sake brewery (kura) that I know of that uses a centrifuge to clarify. This year I discovered another sake I really like, Kojima-Sohonten's Toko from Yamagata. It's a Junmai (no additives) Ginjo (less than 60% polishing to the rice by law) and is also a Hiya-oroshi (special autumn-only release). It was a very reasonable ¥1365 too. I was told that this one is made with 100% Dewano-sato rice. I think I was lucky to get a bottle. When I went back for another a few days later, it was history. Speaking of history, this type of sake has a long one and goes back to the Edo period. Back then the finished product was stored in large wooden tanks that were used for fermentation and maturation, unlike the stainless steel and enameled tanks used today. It was also only pasteurized once unlike other types of sake. This tradition of single pasteurization continues in contemporary Hiya-oroshi's. Sake that is not pasteurized at all is also made. It’s called Nama-zake or just plain ole Nama and should be stored and consumed cold.

Some interesting facts about Sake; It's an old drink. The first mention of it in Japanese written history is from 712 AD during the Nara Period. Prior to 1960, it out-sold beer in Japan, but not anymore. And while the Japanese are drinking less of it, they are drinking more of the good/hi-grade stuff. The very best sake's (Daiginjo grade) are usually served cold. Sake is also the most complex alcoholic beverage (as measured with a gas chromatograph) which means it has more organic chemical components than other alcoholic beverages. This in-turn makes it more difficult to taste subtle differences, especially when compared to beer or wine. When sake is being made, the conversion from starch to sugar and fermentation happens simultaneously, unlike beer brewing - where one precedes the other. Sake brewers use/add the Aspergillus Oryzae mold (an unwanted pest in the Western world) to convert the rice starch to sugar, unlike beer brewers that have natural enzymes contained within our malted barley to do the task for us - provided we activate them with the correct temperature. Sake yeast (kobo) produces more alcohol than any of the other yeasts that humans use to ferment things. It can easily go to 20%, while beer yeast quits at about 10%. If you are looking for more alcohol than that, a still will be necessary. Some beer makers have used sake yeast - which is really just the same Saccharomyces Cerevisiae that we use in the beer world but selectively bred for special flavour characteristics and to produce more alcohol. I'd like to give a sake strain a go in Bangalore sometime but sadly we are not allowed to brew anything stronger than 8% so I will have to be careful if I do. Sake also ferments slower and colder than beer. It's then aged for several more months prior to filtering and bottling. John Gauntner provides a lot of great information about sake Here for those that want to know more. And Here is his list of the top izakaya (cozy sake pubs) in Tokyo.

If you like whiskey you must check out Hasegawa's two other shops in Tokyo station's Yaesu shopping mall. You'll most likely be able to buy a bottle of any single-malt that you're curious about here and maybe even get to taste it first!  One of the stores offers 10ml. samples for a very reasonable fee (most are ¥100-¥200). Bottles available for tasting have the price in red on the neck. It's a great way to taste things side by side for a little palette educating but note, there is a limit of two-at-a-time and I don't think they really want to run a bar here. The idea is more, try-before-you-buy. I had a few interesting tastings, Ardbeg Uigeadail vs. Ardbeg Galileo (better but too expensive), Lagavulin 16 vs. their 1995 Distillers Edition (better but not worth the extra ¥), Suntory Yamazaki 18 (my preference) vs. Suntory Hakushu 18 and lastly, Glenfarclas 21 vs. their 25 (both very good but I bought the 21). Kurashima san at Hasegawa was very helpful with my endeavor to bring a couple of choice bottles back to Bangalore. 

Here is another excellent Tokyo drinking guide for whiskey fans. 

I was very happy to learn that my old client, Minami-Shinshu Brewery in Nagano has fired up their Mars Distillery after a nineteen year slumber and is making whiskey again!

One place I always check-out when visiting Tokyo is Ebisu. Two big reasons, the Photography Museum is there and one can grab a couple of beers at Sapporo's old brewery site/museum afterwards. It's just a short walk away. There's not much to the museum and no brewing happens there anymore but there are some great old beer posters and company history on display and you're not likely to taste a better Sapporo from their extremely clean draft beer system. I'm partial to the Cream Stout myself. It's a little on the light side but very smooth and chocolatey. They do a tour (for a small fee) but it's more of a presentation on company history and a crash course in the Sapporo way to pour a beer. Years ago the tour was a little more interesting, one could don some virtual reality glasses and walk through/tour a virtual brewery. The best part was that you could crash into a fermenter, penetrate the steel tank wall and swim around with billions of yeast cells actively doing there thing (eating sugar & fermenting).

Sapporo's Old Ebisu Brewery

I wonder if these old wooden beer storage tanks at the Ebisu brewery were lined with pitch or something else. If not the beer would have probably had a very interesting character and been something of a challenge to keep microbiologically stable. There is a type of sake made today called Taru-zake that is aged in Cryptomeria wood. It sure has a very interesting and distinctive character that I'm quite fond of.

I was very happy to find myself down at Kokugikan (the sumo stadium) three times this trip and discovered that one can get a great bowl of Chanko in the basement for next to nothing. Chanko is a super-rich soup that is much favoured by the wrestlers and if you eat enough of it you will start to look like them! The recipe is provided by a different sumo stable or wrestler group and changes each basho (tournament). Another great thing about Kokugikan is that you can bring in your own libations without being treated like a suspected terrorist. There are no pat-downs, searches or alcohol seizures - which in this day and age, is very refreshing. Many of the seats even have bottle openers dangling off the arm. It's all very civilized. There are six basho's per year and each lasts two weeks. Three are in Tokyo and the others are in Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka. Each of these alternate with Tokyo. The action starts on the second Sunday in January and every other month afterwards. It's great fun and is streamed live: Herestarting at 8 AM (Tokyo time) but the heavyweights (Makuuchi division) go from 3:45 to 6 PM.

I finally made it to Swan Lake Brewery's Pub Edo (a fine name) that opened since my last visit. It was good to see my old friends again and enjoy their excellent beers on-tap. The Belgian IPA was tasting particularly good. I was also lucky to be in town for the Japan Beer Times beer festival in Yokohama. 16 Japanese craft breweries poured 36 beers and one mead. A bunch of imported beers were also on offer. Fujizakurakougen’s Hefeweizen and Rauch were tasting quite good as were the Baird beers.

The Draft Beer System at Swan Lake's Pub Edo

Windmills Craftworks Update
A new batch of Porter is on-tap. It was fermented with a different yeast strain and is a bit drier than the last batch - which also happens to make the hop character stand out a little more. Ajay and I had it side by side with the last batch and we both thought it was an improvement. Winterfest is also on-tap. It's a big (17.8° plato) amber mouthful of malt and hops that packs quite a punch. A new shipment of malt has arrived from Germany and I brewed a batch of Hefeweizen with it yesterday. And remember, the quickest way to find out when something new is pouring at Craftworks is to follow @Bangabrew on Twitter. Kanpai...

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