Like many a country, Japan is not one that is typically well known for their beer brewing expertise. If you're like most North Americans, I'm willing to guess that your only experience with Japanese brews are those pale "rice lagers" like Asahi and Sapporo that are available at every sushi restaurant to provide that authentic Japanese experience, and I would certainly be in that boat. I'm not averse to a nice dry brew when eating raw fish, but there really isn't a whole lot to distinguish these beers from anything else. For a country so well-known for its cuisine, tea and distilled spirits, surely one can expect better things from Japan. One would be right.
Mercifully, this spring the LCBO has brought in this lovely little witbier from Kiuchi Brewery, giving those of us a mere sampling of the potential for greatness one should expect from a Japanese craft brewing industry, small though it might be. According to Kiuchi's website, the brewery began in the mid-19th century just prior to the Meiji Restoration, when Japan centralized its economy and social structure around the emperor, rather than the loose confederation of shogunates. As one might expect, Kiuchi was originally a sake brewer; a close alliance with the new Meiji emperor and smart business practices at the time of the post-Second World War economic boom allowed the brewery to carve a nice little niche (or "nest"?) for itself. Check out the website; the brewery looks like something out of a Kurosawa film - it really must be beautiful to visit. In 1996, the brewmasters turned their attention to the brewing of ales as well, and not of the pale rice lager variety. Hitachino Nest White Ale was first off the shelves, a wheat ale brewed in the Belgian tradition using coriander and orange peel, and with an adorable little owl character on the label. Other brews in the Hitachino line followed, flavored with American-style hops but staying true style-wise to their Japanese roots, such as their Hitachino Rice Ale and Ginger Ale, the latter having among the most bizarre beer labels I've ever seen (though it's par for the course for general Japanese weirdness...)
The Hitachino Nest White Ale remains their most popular brew, and certainly has been among the more readily-available of Kiuchi's brews outside of Japan since they began distributing to North America in 2000. (Indeed, many beer lovers living in Japan have lamented that it can be easier getting Kiuchi brews in the United States than in Japan...good old distribution logic...)
Thanks to Jay and Lori for picking up a bottle of this for me - I really enjoyed it, though sadly, I was unable to determine what kind of owl they used in the brewing process...
Beer: Hitachino Nest White Ale
Brewery: Kiuchi Brewery (Naga, Japan)
Sorry for the poor pic - it was in the evening and the glass was a bit dirty. Hitachino pours a pale, hazy yellow-golden, almost the colour of white grapefruit juice. The head didn't last too long, unfortunately, but based on others' reviews I've encountered online, this clearly was my fault.
Nose is a lovely citrus blend of orange, grapefruit and lemon, some herbal and floral hops, and a nice yeast/wheat malt backing. One of the better aromas I've encountered in a wit, and that includes brews from Belgium proper.
Very juicy and remarkably flavorful. Truly, this is one of the most satisfying witbiers I've encountered in some time. Ridiculously thirst quenching, and certainly a prime candidate for the ultimate breakfast/brunch brew. Citrus (orange, sweet grapefruit) and malted wheat in the front, some splendid hopping (floral, herbal) to the finish. Great stuff.
Thin bodied, tart, zippy carbonation.
If I ignore all those big-name rice lagers, I can fortunately claim this to be my first real beer from Japan, and what an entry this was. Were the price a touch lower, I'd drink this all summer; as it is, I'll at least try to keep coming back to it. Pound for pound, this is one of the best witbiers I've ever encountered - truly great stuff! (Grade: A)