Is This The Gold Standard Of Brewery Tours?

I have been on a lot of brewery tours. In Halifax in the early 1980s it was a euphemism for college kids being locked into a room at the brewery and given all the beer they could down in a Friday afternoon hour. More recently, it’s the chance to hear craft brewers explain their processes. At one Japanese brewery, however, it’s now a chance to test out their equipment and your own ideas:

Soon they called our group, and we entered the brewing room. Our brewmaster sat us at a picnic table and brought us more beer. She asked us to taste all of their standard brews and choose one to use as a base for our own beer. We chose an amber ale and increased the alcohol content by adding more sugar, in the form of grain, for fermentation. We also increased the amount of hops added to bring up the bitterness and add more flavor. The whole process took about four hours and we did all the important things ourselves. We measured out the grain, milled it, threw it in a pot and boiled it. There were even tasks — as our brewmaster warned us — that, if done incorrectly, would allow bacteria to contaminate our beer.

I like this concept – even if the cost of $235 for a delivery of 15 litres of beer seems a bit much. But for all I know that might be the cost of a donut and coffee there, too. The brewery in question is no dud – the Kiuchi Brewery in central Ibaraki Prefecture is the maker of the Hitachino Nest line of craft beer imported into North America like this stout and this wit I had a few years back.

Could it happen here? I don’t know. There are likely 15,387 regulations between here and there but what a great way to reach out to your customers and to let them know how your business works.

The Birth of Japan’s Third-Category Beer Explained

Wow. Just imagine the thrill I felt this evening when I came across a summary of the history and taxation based reason for Japan’s dai-san biiru or thirdcategory beer, as you know a minor fascination of mine. Thrill along with me to the genesis of the substance caused – as we see all too often – as a response to taxation regimes which create both hardship and opportunity:

In 1994, Suntory began marketing beer-like happoshu with malt content of 65 per cent, while Sapporo developed happoshu containing less than 25 per cent malt. Each attracted lower tax rates, and hence could be sold much more cheaply than real beer. From 1996, however, the government responded by hiking the tax rates for both types of happoshu. In 2003, it also raised tax on happoshu with 25-50 per cent malt content. However, its tax and that of happoshu with less than 25 per cent malt remained less than that on high-malt happoshu or real beer. In 2004, Sapporo and Suntory responded with a zero-malt dai-san biiru, which incurred an even lower tax, and hence retail price, than any happoshu.

Previously I believe I have called third-category beer happoshu. I have failed you. I have failed the honour of beer blogging. I am but a grasshopper the ways of Japanese beer categorization. We also continue to await a brave reviewer who has documented the way of dai-san biiru. Life is so rich, when you think of it.

More Vital Information On Third-Category Beer

I suppose that if I ever tried it or if it had a name that did not sound like something out of Blade Runner I would have less of a fascination with that fluid in Japan that is called “third category beer.” This article in the The The Daily Yomiuri, however, is full of tidbits that make me wonder what this stuff is really like:

“Faced with gasoline and food price hikes, consumers are looking for better deals on some products. Third-category beer, which is often made from soybeans, corn and peas, is priced cheaper than regular beer and happoshu low-malt beer. Beverage makers are fiercely competing to keep prices low, while trying to produce tastes close to that of regular beer. The key to third-category beer’s success is the low price, and shipments surpassed those of happoshu beer in May. A 350-milliliter can of third-category beer sells for about 140 yen at convenience stores, about 20 yen less than happoshu and 75 yen less than regular beer.”

How excellent: “…close to that of regular beer.” Yum. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had similar clarity in our macro-brewing? How many beers would have to call themselves happoshu that now hold themselves out to be beer from barley?

Nothing Says “Yum!” Like Third-Category Beer

While little translates as badly as regulatory text in another language from another country, there is a special place in my heart for Japan and its “third-category” beer which are described as nonmalt beerlike alcoholic beverages. Not third-rate. Third-category. Mmmmm. But apparently the average Joe in the land of the rising sun is switching to the stuff with a new-found zest:

The recent rise in prices of food products and services is hitting consumers, who are in turn cutting unnecessary spending from their family budgets. One example of the cutbacks can be seen in April beer shipment numbers released last week by the five major breweries. The numbers show sales of popular low-priced “third-category” beer, or nonmalt beerlike alcoholic beverages, rapidly growing, while sales of regular beer plunged significantly.

In the case of beer drinkers shifting to third-category beer, a decisive factor seems to be the price of the product. A 350-milliliter can of third-category beer costs about 140 yen, approximately 75 yen less than a can of regular beer. The April shipment of third-category beer increased by 9.3 percent, while shipments of regular beer dropped by 11.3 percent in the same month.

You can consider one yen a cent. We are, then, talking the difference between $2.15 and $1.40 a can so we are not likely talking about the craft beer fan…except that this could cause a domino effect across the board leaving out the top end of the market or those planning to supply it. And this seems to mirror what Stan noted might be happening in the USA. Beer in Japan has some odd aspects but we’ve been watching this third-category stuff for some time now and have found the description a “beer-tasting alcoholic beverage” the most informative so far though “a product two steps removed from actual beer” is up there. For the unknowing, this is a brief glimpse into the steps that are those two steps away:

A vital technological issue in producing a “third beer” product is achieving the right taste and color. Kirin’s solution, for which patents are pending, is browning, a process in which sugar is added to the fermented soy protein and then the mixture is heated, caramelizing the sugar and giving the beverage the color as well as the taste of beer.

One wonders whether the same machinery and ingredients might also make beer broth or automotive lubricants. Could it be that the there is nothing to gain from comparing craft brew to this sort of product and the budgetary issues which give rise to its production? Or are we all destined one day to be hoping for a bit of the old category three when we leave our underground factory jobs at the end of another thirty day cycle, marching merrily home in unison under the glow of another blazing green sunset? Is it the future?

Japan: Where Faith And Beer Come Together

Jay has been lamenting the divide between Southern Baptists and their beer. You know, it was darn pesky of the Lord to hang around in taverns and make wine when you think of it. In addition to the work, however, of Rev. Taffy Davis in Macclesfield, England, Jay found one US pastor who has followed in the steps of the Big Guy and brought the word back to the tavern. Good stuff.

Interesting, then, it was for me to find out this sort of thing is happening under other faiths as well as this story from last month about Buddhist monks in Japan shows:

This is what you might call “Buddhism-lite” though. It is performance, not preaching. After their first session on the stage, which lasts about 20 minutes, they sit down with the audience for a drink and a chat. One of the monks gets a bag of balloons out of his pocket and starts sculpting balloon flowers for some of the older ladies sitting around the room. “Many Japanese don’t want to come to temple,” Hogen Natori says. He is standing behind the bar where he has lit up a cigarette as he chats with the drinkers. “They think Buddhism is very difficult, and deep and serious, but Buddhism is much more than that – exciting, funny even. I want to spread this kind of teaching.” He feels people are more receptive in a bar, when they are drinking and with friends.

Hmmm…that last bit makes it sound a bit like a pick up line: “Hey good looking – that’s quite the soul you have there.” The BBC has a short video of the monks in action at the Chippie Sound Music Bar in Tokyo. Be warned – having watched it, I am still not clear which beer goes best with “Ohmm”.

Beer In Japan

I saw this short but somewhat jam-packed story on beer culture in Japan today during my sweep of the entire internet¹ for new amazing tales of beer:

After-hours beer binges are a mainstay of corporate communication between salarymen, bosses and business partners. Red-faced executives, their neckties yanked open to one side, are a fixture of late night train stations. Beer girls with “backpack kegs” rush down the aisles at baseball stadiums to refill fans’ cups. And though the official drinking age is 20, nearly anyone with enough spare change can buy a cold brew at beer vending machines.

Sounds like a land gone mad but I wonder how a Japanese paper might sum up Canadian beer culture in a couple of paragraphs – how would a sports bar fill of people sucking on pitchers look, all staring at the same big screen TV? Or the imaginary line at the doors of bars beyond which beer cannot be carried? Or having to buy it only at the government store or other legally authorized monopoly.

¹ OK, I use Google News like everyone else but the effect is entirely the same as it I had swept of the entire internet for new amazing tales of beer.

Japan’s Beer-Like Substances

This is somewhat depressing news given my inclination towards quality real ale:

Kirin to enter market for ‘3rd-category beer’ this springThursday, January 13, 2005 at 07:00 JST
TOKYO — Kirin Brewery Co said Wednesday it will join three other major Japanese breweries this spring in offering a product known as “the third-category beer,” a beer-tasting alcoholic beverage that is in a lower tax bracket because of its ingredients. The beer-like beverage accounted for about 5% of sales of beer and the like in 2004, underlying a growing demand for the new beverage, said Kirin President Koichiro Aramaki. (Kyodo News)

Once can only presume that the 3rd level is below discount. Can any Asian correspondents enlighten us on this? Interesting to note that the Asia Times is reporting a concurrent decline in overall Japanese beer consumption and a move to the third way as an effort to get around taxation. Guinness, one of the great beers of the world in both an economic and quality sense, was created for the very same reason when Britain moved to the taxation of malt included in beer rather than the final alcohol content (if I am recollecting correctly…I did! See here). The result was a beer high in unmalted raw rolled barley and blackened but raw roast barley and a resulting low-carb profile. I suspect the Japanese will not come up with such a happy outcome.