Osaka had showed me that Japan’s beer scene is not to be ignored, but my brief time in that city was not enough to capture even a glimpse into the overall craft beer culture of the country. Lucky for me, our trip had just begun and there was much more to do, and more importantly, much more to drink.
Drinking by the River: Kyoto & Kinshi Masamune
Kyoto was the next stop on our whirlwind vacation, and we had two full days to take in much that the city had to offer. Jamie was our de facto group leader at this point, as she had been in Japan for almost a month. She had spent some prior vacation time in Kyoto, and mentioned that many young locals would head to the nearby Kamo River at night and sit along the banks to enjoy a drink or two.
Open liquor laws? No cops or other authority figures hassling and/or shaming you for doing something as “indecent” as enjoying an adult beverage on public land? I was so in on doing just that. Fortunately, I did not need to look too far for some local beer to take along on my river excursion. Our hostel was not to far away from the many shops of Teramachi, home to places like a staggeringly old knife store and a sweets shop that sold green tea flavored everything. I had assumed there would be at least one quality liquor store. Despite this wide offering of shops, their beer selection wasn’t what I had hoped for when compared to other stores. However, I managed to snag a few beers from Kinshi Masamune.
Kinshi Masamune, which is located in Kyoto, was not a brewery on my limited radar, but offered some decent options for seasoned craft beer enthusiasts. The first of which was Heian Beer, a supposed Schwarzbier. Schwarzbiers are very dark in color (hence the name), almost black with a bit of bitter chocolate and coffee flavors. This beer style feels like a cross between the lightness of a good German lager and a quaffable lower ABV stout. I couldn’t attest to Heian Beer’s color, since it was dark buy the time we were at the river, but it honestly felt too “light” for this style. By that, I mean that the expected flavors their density was lacking. Schwarzbiers should be on the lower end of the ABV spectrum, sure, but they should still be big on flavor. I’m guessing that the malt used in this recipe isn’t being properly utilized.
Still, both the Kamo River and the weather was beautiful, especially when enjoyed with friends. After my first somewhat disappointing Kinshi Masamune beer, I was hopeful that their Kyoto Machiya Hannari IPA would be better. If it was, better, which I’m still not certain it was, it wasn’t by much. If Japan is still behind on one thing in the craft beer scene, it definitely is the more hop-focused beers, especially IPAs. There are many theories on this from enthusiasts, and the two common ones are that a) Japanese beer drinkers tend more toward subtle flavors over bold ones and b) craft beer is still a very tiny industry and acquiring the hops needed to properly replicate certain styles may still be difficult. That being said, Kinshi Masamune’s IPA felt more like an English IPA than an American one. English IPAs tend to be less bitter than the American counterpart, instead focusing more on the biscuit-like malt characteristics. The hops used are usually far less citrusy. However, even if Kinshi Masamune was trying to mimic this style, they have a ways to go. Everything about the beer felt too subdued, almost flat. There was very little life in this beer.
Although Kinshi Masamune’s beers were a disappointment, the time spent drinking at the Kamo River in Kyoto was completely worth it, especially since I got to find out how good sake Kit Kats and Japanese whiskey can be. Of course, not at the same time though.
Hitachino Nest in the Heart of Akihabara
Akihabara always seems to be the first place anime fans think of when dreaming of traveling to Japan. Who wouldn’t? It’s featured heavily in anime and manga and is the proverbial “haven” for geeks in Tokyo. After our two day stay in Kyoto, our group took another quick trip on the shinkansen back up to Tokyo to complete our vacation. Although we had been in the city at the beginning, we weren’t able to fully explore much that city had to offer. So finally, we got to take Akihabara all in, with almost a half day dedicated to the neighborhood. Soon, a whirlwind of shopping would commence and afterwards, I would find myself one Evangelion Blu-Ray box set richer, while also 200 Yen poorer and very, very tired.
The pace at which we moved from city to city and neighborhood to neighborhood had finally caught up to me, about halfway through our trip. The pounding lights of Akihabara only made my fatigue worse. Luckily, there was a brewpub not too far out from the heart of Akihabara, run by Kiuchi Brewery, better known as Hitachino Nest. If Japanese craft beer has any semblance of an American face, it is most definitely Hitachino Nest. I would say that beyond the macro brewers of Japan (Asahi, Sapporo, and the like), most people are only aware of Hitachino Nest, and for good reason. Hitachino Nest has been releasing consistently good beers in the States for a few years now. This is supported by the fact that the majority of Hitachino Nest beer is actually marketed and sold outside of Japan, they actively aim to be known on the world stage.
Although I called the spot that Hitachino Nest has near Akihabara earlier a “brewpub,” that doesn’t completely fit the description. If anything, it is more of a cafe with a twist. The setup was simple, a few tables and chairs, a limited menu of small sandwiches and light snacks and a self-serve counter for ordering beer. If you’ve ever been to the great Beermiscuous in Chicago, you would know what I’m talking about. Additionally, given that the name of the cafe is Hitachino Brewing Lab, offers a service beyond its aforementioned cafe setup, it offers people the chance to help design and brew their own custom beer right on the premises. Of course, the price to take part in such a service was high (it is Japan after all), this is a concept that hasn’t made its way to the States, as far as I know. The closest I’ve seen over here is via donation tiers on new breweries’ Kickstarter pages.
So Hitachino Brewing Lab had a cool vibe amid the insanity of Akihabara, and the beer enhanced the experience. The level of quality beer that Hitachino Nest is producing at this point can rival a good portion of the breweries here. I tried their Amarillo Session Ale and was surprised by the delicious blend of citrusy hops and light pale malts. Session ales, usually of the Pale Ale variety are brewed at a lower ABV to allow drinkers to a enjoy a few more brews without the normally associated consequences of doing so. These beers are usually perfect for a day of marathoning anime, watching sports, gaming with friends, or simply having a party. One thing that brewers try to do with Session Ales is to keep the vibrant flavors of higher ABV styles like Double IPAs while keeping the beer from being boozy. This beer in particular was a perfect example of a Session Ale. The “Amarillo” in the name Amarillo Session Ale refers to the hop variety used for this beer. Amarillo hops are generally associated with West Coast United States brewers, but it is no surprise that Hitachino Nest would be able to acquire some. They currently have that kind of leverage in the Japanese craft brewing community.
Unfortunately, we didn’t stay for any more rounds at Hitachino Brewing Lab, because there was no way I was going to miss my chance to hang out at the Gundam Cafe, which doesn’t stay open too late. Still, after the disappointment of Kinshi Masamune, Hitachino Nest revitalized my hope in Japanese craft beer. What would be coming up in the following days was completely unexpected.