Hitachino Nest Beer
When discussing Japanese craftsmanship, one word is impossible to avoid: meticulousness. It’s almost a catchphrase at this point. Sure, precision and purpose make for good brandspeak, but what does it all mean in practice?
For beer from this part of the world, it equates to reliable quality and consistency. Any Japanese beer you sip is undoubtedly a brilliant actualization of what is promised on the label. The Japanese haven't tried to reinvent the wheel -- in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to discover a wholly singular style from these islands. As with so many other things (e.g. whisky, automobiles, consumer electronics), Japan has merely deconstructed and reassembled craft beer to arrive at something superior. The world is taking stock, one pint glass at a time.
One Japanese brand that has enjoyed greater global traction than the rest is Hitachino. For many drinkers, Japanese craft beer is largely synonymous with its label -- produced at the Kiuchi Brewery, about 70 miles north of Tokyo. The outsized popularity of Nest White Ale, their crisp and crushable take on Belgian witbier, helped pave the way for its own izakaya in downtown San Francisco. But a visit to this new establishment reveals how much more there is to this brand.
“Japanese craft beer uses local ingredients to make unique tastes,” says Noriyuki Sugie, who works the kitchen at Beer and Wagyu Hitachino and cites yuzu, red rice, and sansho peppers as examples. In addition to Saison du Japon, brewed with koji (malted rice) and Japanese citrus, the Real Ginger Ale is another standout selection -- fragrant and gently spiced on the back end.
These basic flavors and ingredients tend to resonate with the Japanese palate and the culture's fare. Which helps explain why the nearby Working Man Brewing Company in Livermore, California, fashioned its izakaya-inspired collab -- Anzu Bru -- with kaffir lime and fresh ginger. The beer is available exclusively on draft, helping elevate the immediacy of those food-friendly ingredients.
With its cultural landscape so visibly sculpted by Japanese emigration, it’s fitting that the Bay Area was among the first regions to embrace craft beer from the Far East. But they’re hardly the only ones.
In Los Angeles, home to more sushi bars than anywhere else in the country, Japanese beer has enjoyed fertile ground to take root. In the sushi-saturated neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley, Japanese-based craft is on full display in eateries old and new. On the menu at one speakeasy in Encino, you’ll encounter refreshing lager from Echigo Koshihikari, light and fish-friendly; Kujukuri Ocean Beer, a slightly funky take on an American Pale Ale; and Iwatekura Oyster Stout, a balanced dark malt beer with an umami whisper along the edge.
Japantown in downtown Los Angeles has had its fledgling beer scene solidified by the gastropub scene, as well as the proliferation of Japanese-owned package shops that focus on vast beer selections. Within this dense urban sprawl, seek out Coedo Ruri, a German-style pils honoring the style with textbook clarity. You'll discover a mouthwatering illustration of how Japan approaches brewing; a 500 year-old-recipe that somehow differentiates itself from all other lagers you’ve tasted before.
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To enjoy a similar experience at home, head to your local craft bottleshop in search of Ozeno Yukidoke. If it’s a hop-bomb you’re after, this IPA isn’t it -- what you’ll find here is something far more nuanced. American influence shines through in the form of grapefruit and pine flourishes, but caramel malt and fruity ester notes also make themselves known. All around, it’s a far more complex sip than you’ll find from many domestic offerings. The fact that it traveled across the Pacific to retain these characteristics speaks to the technical precision with which it was assembled.
The same can be said for Tama No Megumi, a bottle conditioned ale from Tokyo’s Ishikawa Brewery. Added yeasts ensure that the flavors within the bottle continue to evolve as it makes its long journey to your pint glass. While it might drink a bit thin if opened too early, this one was brewed to be aged for upwards of a year. The patient drinker is rewarded, amply.
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In New York City, the most expansive bottleshops have been fully stocked with a wide range of Japanese labels for several years. But even the local bodegas are beginning to catch on. These low-key, late-night markets -- which once only stocked Sapporo and Kirin -- are now dedicating cooler space to livelier lagers such as Echigo Koshihikari, for example. It’s fermented from a super-premium short grain rice of the same name. Long used in sake brewing, its subtle flavors will resonate with aficionados of traditional Japanese rice wine. For a more robust drinking experience, the same brewery -- Echigo, located along the country’s western coast -- produces a pitch perfect take on an English stout.
As more Japanese craft washes up on American shores, its perception continues to evolve. Breweries like Baird Brewing, featuring smoked malts and barrel aged ales, and Outsider Brewing -- focusing on the funkier, wild stuff -- should soon become readily available not just at bottleshops, but at your favorite sushi stop. And why not? Across the board, these are food-friendly, ingredient-driven liquids, defined far less by any unifying style, and much more by the unwavering approach of their brewers.
Want to know what meticulousness tastes like? Sip on a Japanese beer and see.