Monday, September 22, 2014

Japanese Autumn Beers

It’s time for pumpkin beer in the US, and aki beers in Japan.

In Japan, several breweries release special seasonal beers in autumn. These generally include the word aki (autumn) in their names, and often feature glowing red and orange leaves on their labels.

In most countries, autumn beers tend to be Oktoberfest/Märzen styles, generally dark or amber red lagers. The maltiness is usually pronounced and alcohol volume is around 5.5 to 6.6%. However, Japanese versions tend to be less flavorful or, to put it politely, more subtle.

Here are a few newly-released fall beers I’ve sampled recently:

Nagahama Roman Aki Alt 
A yeasty aroma, with light roast malt, raisins, and buttered toast. Light copper color. Mild roast flavors with a stinging yeast bite, sourish, and some sinus attacking phenolic jumps. Thin body, a bit metallic, too. Nagahama needs to get a new strain of yeast, or else tame the in-house one. 

Asahi Fukairi no Aki

 Asahi Fukairi no Aki

Fukairi no Aki has aromas of caramel, fish flakes, cardboard, and light alcohol fumes. Deep glowing copper color. It feautures light flavors of caramel, roast, spirits ... and then it fades out quickly. Thin body. Not much here, and it doesn’t really rise to fall (or rather it autumns out very quickly). 

Suntory Aki no Zeitaku

Suntory Aki no Zeitaku

A caramel nose, with a big bucket of rusty nail water. Bright glowing copper, brandy-like color, frog’s eggs bubbles, and a head that dissipates instantly. Lightly malty, with extract sweetness, and spirits. Thin body and a flat mouthfeel from mid palate onwards. Not too bad, and the typical happoshu spirits don’t intrude much.

A few better beers:

Baird has its Big Red Machine Fall Classic, whose name references the great Cincinnati Reds baseball teams of the early-to-mid 1970s as well as the World Series (which the Reds won twice during this period). This one has a fragrant aroma of crushed peaches and even some mint. It's juicy and exceptionally malty with a good balance.

Baird also makes a pumpkin brew, Country Girl Kabocha Ale. Kabocha is actually a sort of winter squash and not a typical US-style pumpkin.


A few other pumpkin beers you may see include Harvestmoon Pumpkin Ale, Ichijoji Kabocha Beer, Zakkoko Kobo Kabocha Ale, and Iwate Kura Belgian Pumpkin Ale.

Among the brews from the four major Japanese breweries, the classic autumn beer is
Kirin’s Aki Aji

 Kirin Aki Aji (Autumn Brew)

Aki Aji's recipe and alcohol content vary slightly from year to year. It has a grassy and malty aroma with just a touch of hops. Clear straw color, with a 1-cm, white head and tiny bubbles streaming skyward. The relatively sweet initial flavor gives way to light cookie dough in mid palate. A balanced finish, which allows a bit of hoppiness to peek out. Thin body, but a little fuller than the regular Kirin lager.

Note: Some breweries may include the iconic autumn leaves on their packaging, even if the beer is not a special autumn brew (for example, the very thin, light Suntory Wazen).

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Creature Comforts Brewing Co. (Athens, GA)

Athens, GA is best known for the University of Georgia and, depending on your cultural preferences, for either college football (Go Dawgs!) or popular music (from R.E.M. to of Montreal, and hundreds of bands in between). And, of course, beer lovers will also know it as the home of Terrapin Beer Company.

In May this year, Creature Comforts Brewing Co. opened for business in the old Snow Tire building.The interior is a single large area, with a high curved ceiling, that resembles an airplane hanger.

Two bars, one small and one large. A few long tables, but it is mostly a wide open space, with small wooden counters around the walls. The brewery area is open and visible in the back. 

Georgia still (yes, even in 2014) has some unusual liquor laws, and they apply differently at various kinds of bars/pubs/restaurants. The way it works at Creature Comforts is this: you are requested to buy a souvenir glass for $12, and you receive a plastic wrist band with six beer tabs. The server will take one tab each time you get a sample, and the samples are generous (maybe 6-8oz. each). 

Five taps were on when I was there. Thus, only a few styles, but the brewers have an interesting take on each one: for example, they used Motueka hops in the pils or conditioned their rye/amber ale on French oak. 

The service is quick and very friendly. I tried all five beers and liked them all (and, shhh… don’t tell anyone, but their rye beer is much better than Terrapin’s flagship Rye Pale Ale). On the way out I had a brief chat with the brewing crew, as they sat at one of the long tables, laptops open, formulating recipes.One of them had been in Japan and reminisced a bit about a long evening at Bakushu Club Popeye in Tokyo.

Creature Comforts is great addition to the Athens beer scene, and I imagine them only getting better.

Here are a couple of standout Creature Comfort brews:

Creature Comforts Bibo
Moderately sharp grassy nose, a bit pungent (Motueka?). Medium straw color, fluffy white head, very good lace. Clean grassy initial, fizzes up into a gentle malty sweetness, soft but distinct bitterness, which lingers a bit. Thin-medium body. A very satisfying pils. Flavors are gentle but firm.

Creature Comforts Tropicália
Big citrus nose, tropical fruit puree, nice mix of aroma hops. Medium straw color. Sweet caramel, light pepper, and big mango. Milder tropical fruit notes save it from becoming a hop bomb. Balances in mid palate and then more strained fruit notes emerge in finish. Medium-heavy body. Wonderful aroma, VERY tasty, and so well balanced. One of the best IPAs I’ve had in a long time.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Land of 10,000 Beers

Next stop on the trip was Minneapolis. I was born there, but we moved to California when I was quite young. I went to see relatives from time to time during my youth. And since my daughter attended university, and now works, there, I have visited several times in the past six or seven years.

My visit this past summer coincided with the Minnesota State Fair. We went out early and saw an amazing number of chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, horses, and even a few guanaco. We also observed the rabbit judging up close, but I had no idea what the judges were looking (or rather, feeling) for.

However, there was one section of the fair that had something that I knew a bit more about.

For the third year, the ‘Land of 10,000 Beers’ Craft Beer Hall exhibit was held in the Agriculture/Horticulture building. It was designed to “showcase the best of Minnesota’s craft beer industry and detail the brewing process all the way from the farm to the pint glass.”
I more or less skipped those details and went straight for the glass.

There were four types of flights available: Hoppy, Dark, Light and Belgian. For $8, one received generous, maybe 4-5oz., pours of four beers. During the fair (Aug. 21 to Sep. 1), more than 130 different local beers from 35 breweries were served

Here are a few of the more interesting ones we had:

Schell Noble Star #3 - North Country Brünette
Sour fruit aroma wafting up, some floral notes, spice, and Brett yeast. The flavor was light and vinegary, with some funk, and a gentle finish. It was thin and lightly astringent. Nice enough. Doesn’t really push the boundaries, but it was well made. Good to see Schell trying out more unusual styles.

Indeed Sweet Yamma Jamma Ale
Indeed is one of my favorite breweries in Minneapolis. This one had a light floral earthy aroma, with some spiciness, including nutmeg and cinnamon. The initial sips brought spice right away, with sweet maltiness, some grain, light bitterness, and an earthy finish. The sweet potato added a special sort of mouthfeel and body. Actually, it tasted more like a Belgian ale than a spice/herb beer.

Flat Earth Bermuda Triangle Tripel
This strong one had a yeasty nose, with light fruit, apples, pears, and some light esters. A very sweet initial flavor, full of concentrated fruit, honey, and sugar. Quite good. Fruity, estery, and rich.

… and, as we were leaving, we had just one more, this one a classic Midwest tipple…

Leinenkugels Original
Tiny grassy aroma, with some light sweetish malt. Flavors of gentle sweet malt, honey, and very little bittering, with a super-mild finish. Thin, clean and crisp. A teeny step up from the macro stuff. I can see how this might be a Midwest college bar favorite.