If you've ordered a brew at a Japanese steakhouse or sushi joint — say a Sapporo or a Kirin Ichiban — you might think you've tasted all of what the Land of the Rising Sun has to offer beer-wise. But ask about the Japanese craft beer selection at the Charleston Beer Exchange, and Brandon Plyler will fill you in on some surprises: an understated triple-hop ale, a yeasty beer aged in oak sake casks, and a decadent imperial stout brewed at the foot of Mt. Fuji.
Plyler explains that many of Japan's best-known, mass-produced beers work like mineral water, serving as little more than a palate cleanser between bites at a meal. "The Japanese have been innovative with super-dry beers," Plyer says. "The effect is that a lot of the beers are bereft of flavor, body, basically anything. They're bubbly, they're extremely dry, and they don't taste like anything. That is the picture of Japanese beer that most people have."
While the Japanese craft beers available in Charleston tend to borrow from external influences, with Belgian spice blends and wheat-beer sensibilities thrown in the mix, most are still possessed of a certain subtlety that can be lacking in the sometimes-daring world of American craft brewing.
The City Paper didn't get to try all of the Japanese beers in Charleston — even journalists have their limits. In Mt. Pleasant, Bottles stocks a few other Hitachino Nest offerings from Kiuchi: the Ginger Brew, Japanese Classic Ale, and Sweet Stout. The Charleston Beer Exchange also stocks Ise Kadoya Stout and Hitachino Nest Weizen. Here are the brews we sampled.
Hoppy beers aren't for everyone. Every time North Charleston's own COAST Brewing taps into a batch of its Boy King Double IPA, non-hop fans say a quick, "No, thank you," while the hop heads start salivating for the bitter, citrusy drink that's so intense you have to sip it like brandy. But the Triple Hop Ale isn't as in-your-face as other hop beers. Ise Kadoya, a centuries-old company that made its name producing soy sauce and miso, has crafted a gateway IPA of sorts. It's simple, with no noticeable adulterants in the mix, just a relatively mild taste of hops. It goes down easy, and it might just win a convert or two.
If you're only going to try one Japanese beer in Charleston, make it this one. This fizzy, cloudy-orange beer packs a few surprises, including notes of honey and a lemony flavor that comes straight from the hops. It also has the coolest back story of the bunch: The barley used in the brewing is Kaneko Golden, an old Japanese variety that was revived for the purpose of brewing this beer. And those lemony hops? Sorachi Ace, a hop developed in Japan that has since been used by Brooklyn Brewery. Unlike the other Kiuchi offerings, Ancient Nipponia lingers on the tongue for a little while. Savor it and think about the history you're tasting.
To the untrained palate, this Belgian-influenced ale is a light, faintly citrusy, highly drinkable lawnmower beer (except for the price tag). There is very little aftertaste, and it goes down smoother than a typical Belgian ale. But to Plyler, it's an enigma. "There's some kind of peppery earthiness there," he says, hazarding a guess that it might be grains of paradise. Perhaps some cumin, too. The bottle label offers little in the way of hints, with the brewery's super-cute owl mascot staring blankly at the quizzical quaffer. Plyler says the White Ale is the most popular Japanese beer at the Beer Exchange, and it's the easiest to find in Charleston among the Kiuchi brewery's numerous offerings.
Since Kiuchi also makes shochu, a fermented rice drink that's a little stronger than sake, the brewery decided to try aging a beer in its oak casks. The result is a dry, faintly spicy and woody beer that coats the tongue and leaves a little bit of a sake aftertaste. The flavor combination doesn't work for everyone, but it makes for an interesting East-meets-West experiment. How else are you going to taste something like this?
A lot of finesse went into the production of this beer, and the flavors arrive in sequence. There is a gentle surge of hops at first sip, followed by a light bitterness from the vanilla beans used in the brewing process. If you pay close attention, you might catch a third wave of coriander and orange, but the nutmeg and cinnamon mentioned on the label get more or less overpowered by the onslaught of other flavors. A funky selection, and at 8 percent alcohol by volume, it's not a lightweight.
Here's the outlier of the bunch. According to Plyler, it's "a little easier-going" than some of the imperial stouts you'll taste Stateside, which can be as dark and forbidding as fermented crank case oil. Still, if you're not a stout aficionado, this opaque beer will look and taste like distilled evil. The smell is of dark cacao, and the taste is of post-apocalyptic espresso. It might not be as extreme as the typical Rogue offering, but it still doesn't go down easy.