The warm-weather season is finally upon us, and what goes better with that than great beer?
The second annual Kyoto Craft Beer Festa was held under sunny skies on May 14. Once again organized by Kyoto’s premier microbrew store -- Yamaoka Sakaten --, the event ran from 11am to 6pm and featured beers from over twenty breweries, representing much of the best that Japan offers.
The venue changed this year, to a small children’s park alongside a covered shopping arcade (shotengai) in the heart of the city. It was fairly noisy, with loud music blaring nonstop, and intermittently smoky from the several food stalls grilling yakitori and pork slices, the atmosphere was nonetheless pleasant. Beer tickets cost ¥400 per glass (¥350 advance), for a fairly generous 80-90 ml serving.
The main group of 12 breweries, each serving 4-5 beers, was packed into a 10 x 5- meter serving area, leading to crowds of thirsty patrons around the more popular beers. Strangely, two other groups of eleven breweries, each serving one beer, were located in stalls along the arcade, one about 30 feet away from the park, and the other at least 150 meters away. Surely, many attendees never made the trek to either of them. Shame, too, because among these eleven breweries were such notables as Swan Lake and Shiga Kogen.
Lefty showed up – and after all, Kyoto is his town, and increasingly Japanese craft beer is his province. He stopped to talk with the brewers, many of whom he knows well, commenting on their new beers and noting changes in familiar ones. Chris Hainge, home-brewer extraordinaire, seemed to be the lead volunteer working the ticket booth. Yamaoka Shigekazu, the main organizer, seemed to be everywhere at once. Ando Kohei, of “Young Beerist Mates,” and formerly of World Beer and Café Qbrick, was loudly hawking the group’s “Sugoi Beeru” T-shirts from a booth near the festival entrance. These shirts are increasingly visible at many craft beer events and bars. Ando told me that the goal of YBM is to expand appreciation of craft beer to young people in Japan, as most current fans are, as he put it bluntly, “old.”
During the course of the afternoon, we agreed on several standout beers:
- Minoh W-IPA (9%): The current version features a blast of bittering hops, quite different from the fruity flavor hopping of previous versions.
- Swan Lake Porter: offers a rich cocoa aroma and a not overly sweet flavor; this award-winning porter has just enough bitterness to make it close to a single stout, yet it is truly drinkable all year around.
- Shiga Kogen Indian Summer Saison: made with wild yeast, which produces a refreshing, slightly acidic aftertaste.
- Daisen G-Beer “Yago”: an interesting experimental beer made with sake rice and exuding a light fruity aroma. Daisen also served their smooth, strong Imperial Stout 2010; unfortunately for latecomers, it vanished within a couple of hours.
- Ise Kadoya Mellow Wheat: a beer with hints of spice and a singularly saison-like aroma.
However, the real hit of the day was Ise Kadoya’s Imperial Red Ale. It is malty and well-hopped (85 IBUs). Several of us agreed that it was the bitterest beer of the day. The owner of Tadg’s, Kyoto’s best craft beer bar, was also impressed and quickly made a keg order for his tap list.
Other unusual beers included Harvest Moon’s Maihama Orange, with an interesting sweet aroma but tasting pretty much like diluted orange juice. Kinshachi Beer brought a Red Miso Beer, with just a hint of the bean paste emerging though a thin brown body. Minoh’s Pilsner was pleasant, fresh & grassy, and approached true pilsner character.
The developing strength of the craft beer scene in Japan is evident at beer festivals and beer bars. Brewers such as Shiga Kogen, Ise Kadoya, and Daisen G-Beer have been sharpening their skills in making traditional beer styles as well as using local ingredients to create innovative Japanese ones. And they are rapidly pulling away from the stodgy pack that still produces only the German-, British-, or American-inspired brews of a few years ago. Get out to one of the upcoming Great Japan Beer Festival events and see for yourself.