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The Blossoming Of Japanese Beer

The Blossoming Of Japanese Beer

There’s far more to Japanese beer than Sapporo, Asahi, Suntory and Kirin. The ji-biru scene has bloomed into a full-fledged movement in the Land of the Rising Sun with local ingredients and fascinating brews making headway in a land where macro lagers reign supreme.

The Blossoming Of Japanese Beer

In Ushiku, an hour outside Tokyo via crowded trains where people are stacked up like slices of fresh fish on a sushi counter, a Japanese beer microbrewer is isolating the yeast found on cherry blossom flowers to ferment his yearly Sakura Kobo, or cherry blossom yeast wild ale, part of the country's thriving ji-biru movement.

Ji-biru translates to “local beer,” and for Japanese beer, that means allowing the local terroir to influence a beer’s flavor, aroma, branding and more. In Shibu Onsen, a couple miles into the mountains east of Nagano where snow macaques bathe in natural thermal pools, another brewer is walking through his rice, hop and fruit fields, planning the brewing season ahead, inspired by his crop yield.

In Kofu, where the southern point of view is dominated by the elegant giant that is Mount Fuji, yet another brewer is throwing ume plums into his 14% ABV barleywine in order to give his wine yeast some extra fodder.

On a large scale, the Japanese beer scene may not have found its own identity yet, but a deeper look reveals that microbrewers in the Land of the Rising Sun have been finding fascinating ways to stand out.

A Burgeoning Identity

The surreal white tree canvases during cherry blossom season have been the site of many a hanami, a ritual party for viewing the new flowers. It’s not much of a surprise that Tomoyuki Kakui, a brewer and microbiologist once thought, inspired by his own hanami, of taking one of the flowers under a microscope in order to see what it could hold. Chateau Kamiya, also Japan’s oldest winery, is the brewery in Ushiku where one can taste find this experimental cherry blossom yeast brew every spring. Its delicate floral bouquet leans toward banana esters, herbal hops and light wilderness for a refreshingly different quencher, one far less intense than the Brettanomyces-laden brews popping up around America in the last decade.

A handful of Japanese breweries have also embarked on this wild cherry blossom yeast adventure, which is not surprising considering the high number of cherry blossom-based food products available around springtime in Japan. If they choose to develop this yeast, Japanese breweries hold the perfect ingredient to forge a distinct identity.

In recent years, Japanese yeast has continued its march towards unique flavor variety, and Japan’s impressive range of flora makes for interesting beer ingredients. A quick glance at local beers will allow drinkers to see brews featuring yuzu, kumquats, mangos and more.

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