Inspired by Myoko Kogen, Japan
A week or two in Japan is a long time, but never nearly enough. It’s a country of broad contradictions, over the course of just one week you can discover the beauty of a country that offers beaches, forest and mountains, you can immerse yourself in some of the most distinct and well-preserved traditions that still exist today, whilst overloading your senses with neon lights, busy streets, imposing high rise cities and modern living at it’s finest. If you’ve ever been to Japan and used a bathroom, you’ll know their toilets alone have enough buttons and settings to make NASA proud.
It’s a country established on regional diversity. Food and ingredients tend to be fresh, local and seasonal, provenance is important and things are prepared to order, generally taking time and care in their preparation. Coming from a country where seasonality isn’t widely valued and where we expect everything to be done in haste, it can be both refreshing and frustrating in equal measures.
This focus on provenance, quality and time is abundantly clear in two of Japan’s most widely celebrated products, saké and whiskey. Not unlike the regional variances that you might expect from grape or hop varieties, rice and barley offer their own distinct character and influence on these local favourites. In saké particularly, not everything on offer is outstanding, however combing locally sourced ingredients with varied milling techniques and incremental levels of distillation, the drinker is provided with a range of unique flavours and generally a clean, distinctive finish.
So how does this translate to beer? Again it’s only fair to say that this is going to depend on your palate and personal tastes. Having previously discovered some incredible craft beers, available from vending machines at bargain prices (Captain Crow Extra Pale Ale has been a personal favourite in the past), this recent trip saw me disappointed in the overall quality and finish to a lot of the beers we tried. Maybe I had set my expectations too high, or maybe the UK and associated markets have surpassed our Asian counterparts. What made this revelation even more surprising was that the quality of their widely distributed macro lagers with full bodies, complex flavours and clean crisp finishes generally far surpassed the bland, thin and flavourless offerings we’ve come to expect on tap across our home turf.
Some of the beers we found were using interesting ingredients (like Sudachi, a tart Japanese citrus fruit) and they offered a range of styles from Hefeweizens and Pale Lagers to Dark Lagers, IPA’s and Stouts, but the common thread was that they were lacking a lot of the hop character that we have come to expect from modern craft beers and they finished too early, lacking the body and mouth feel that we expect from a more balanced, well-rounded brew.
Given the commonality it may be that the beers we had on this trip were more suited to the Japanese palate and these were bang on for the local drinker, but it felt more like the beers were underdone and representative of a region or industry in its infancy, still trying to find its feet. Criticism aside, we found some really enjoyable brews and finished off most nights with saké, whiskey or both. Kampai! Karaoke anyone?
Just a selection of the beers and Sake on offer at Myoko Kogen Brewery in the Niigata Prefecture.