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Beer springs eternal in new Japanese brewpubs

With the sun sinking behind the hills, it was a question of having a bath at the spa before bedtime or staying at the dinner table for dessert and a glass of stout.

I will never know about the spa bath, but the stout tasted like sticky toffee pudding in port wine sauce.

At eight per cent alcohol by volume, it was a powerful sedative. In the morning, the rising sun lit plumes of steam rising from the hot springs to meet white clouds floating between the peaks.

This was not Buxton or Malvern. It was another small town where the railway rattles into the station among souvenir shops, bed-and-breakfasts and hotels: Yufuin, among the mountains of Kyushu, Japan.

On previous visits to the blossoming beer land of Japan (more than 200 brewpubs and micros at the last count), I have explored the big northern island (Hokkaido), and the "mainland" (Honshu), but this was my first visit to Kyushu.

This southerly island is a good couple of hundred miles long, and the same distance wide at its broadest point, but takes days to tour because it is so mountainous.

I started on the east coast, at the port of Qita, and headed inland to Yufuin.

The brewery there is behind windows overlooking the dining (and breakfast) hall of a modern hotel that offers both "Western" and "Japanese-style" rooms.

sleeping on a futon in a room of tatami matting, wandering around in a kimono and slippers, and taking endless communal baths.

Nor did I see a lot of kimono-wearers diving into the stout, but one can only welcome the possibility of such cultural exchanges.

Despite the occasional experience of this, I have yet to develop a taste for it. Nor did I see a lot of kimono-wearers diving into the stout, but one can only welcome the possibility of such cultural exchanges.

Yufuin was settled at least 1,300 years ago, and once had a linen industry. As this declined and the town turned to tourism, a study group visited the borders of Switzerland and Germany, and dreams of a Gasthaus-style brewery were conceived.

The Yufuin brewery pays homage to its Germanic origins with a pleasantly dry Pilsner and a lemony Weizen.

A light, dryish, unfiltered Bitter and a Scottish-tasting ale romantically called "Aroma of Yufuin" complete the range.

"Clear Water, Clean Air" is the similarly poetic name of a dry, fruity Kolsch at the Kuju Kogen brewery and restaurant in the mountains nearby.

"Elegant Peak of Kuju" is a perfumy Weizen. The brewery, at 800 metres, is near Kuju mountain. The word Kogen means a high plateau, which is a fair description of the remote location.

The building, made largely from tree trunks is extraordinary. A medieval military installation? An early mine workings? A giant hide for bird watchers? Inside, the furniture is carved with the faces of raccoons.

From the cabin-like "VIP room" I could see clouds below. Occasionally, a black bird would swoop up from the haze.

These were kites - the feathered, animate kind. For lunch, I had chicken sashimi flavoured with the sharp, juicy, local variety of lime.

The roads themselves wound in and out of the clouds, the brighter moments vivid with purple azaleas, yellow forsythia and green valleys of maples.

In the middle of the island, at Choyo Village, near the active volcanic peak of the Aso range, a gold-painted model of a cow announces the "Farmland Natural Theme Park."

This has its own farm store, cheese dairy and brewery.

I very much liked an American-style Pale Ale, with an excellent Cascade hop character, and a sweetish Honey Ale. "Acacia

honey?" I speculated. "No, Chinese milk vetch - it grows in the rice paddies," I was told. The Aso Farmland brewery also has both a chocolatey Porter and a creamy, toasty Oatmeal Stout.

Dinner was local beef accompanied by melon pickled in beer. Dessert was beer-flavoured jelly. Aso Farmland even makes beer-flavoured cake and chocolate. The cake, called castella, recalls (in its beerless form) the past influence of Portuguese traders in Kyushu.

An odder trace of the West was what appeared to be a European railway station (or was it an air terminal?) 700 metres up in the Aso mountains, at Hakusui, near Takamori. This turned out to be a lavishly-fitted, German-style brewery the size of a British regional.

I later heard that the investment in this brewery was around 30 million.

It is one of three in a chain called Ginga Kogen. The first of the three, in the North of Honshu, has a herd of two-dozen reindeer imported from Finland.

On the terrace restaurant overlooking the mountains at Hakusui, Ginga Kogen's young German head brewer offered me a lemony, custardy-tasting Weizen; an aromatic Pilsner with a good malt background and a late, lingering bitterness; and a fruity, spicy stout.

I found the latter rather odd, with a distinct taste of wheat beer yeast.

The notion that all good beer comes from Germany is very strong in Japan.

The notion that all good beer comes from Germany is very strong in Japan.Hence, for example, the chalet-style Heidelberg Restaurant and Hinokuni ("Fire Country") Brewery, farther West of the volcano and on the outskirts of the old military city of Kumamoto.

This is owned by Suntory, smallest of Japan's four national brewers and biggest of the country's whisky distillers.

I found it especially tricky to eat a knuckle of pork with chopsticks, but greatly enjoyed an unfiltered Pils, a malty Alt and a banana-ish Weizenbock, the latter at 6.5 per cent ABV.

I was sorry to miss the Rauchbier that this brewery has made on occasion.

I also regretted that the famous Kumamoto oysters were not in evidence, though it turns out that they are actually cultivated in the next county, at Amakusa.

Published Online: DEC 17, 1998
Published in Print: JUNE 1, 1998
In: What's Brewing

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