“He was a wise man who invented beer,” said Plato. It wasn’t his greatest line, but it sets this story up nicely: the tale of a talented man who sort of reinvented beer.
Kimio Nonaga is the third-generation chef at Nihonbashi Yukari, a kappo ryori restaurant (think kaiseki — Japanese haute cuisine — with a bit less formality) in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district.
Nonaga bagged the Iron Chef culinary trophy in 2002, at the age of 29, and was flagged by the New York Times the following year as one of five young Japanese chefs to watch. His menu adheres to Japanese culinary traditions but nudges them in new directions. Your sashimi might be seared rather than raw, and you may be served what Nonaga calls “interactive” dishes, such as a hamaguri clam and rice bowl with the clams and rice pressed to one side of the bowl and ankake sauce poured into the remainder — diners are encouraged to experiment with dipping, mixing or eating the clams and rice plain.
I popped in last week for cake and beer. (I don’t eat clams or sauces I’ve never heard of. And besides, Nonaga is proud of his cake and beer. It was he who dreamed up the recipes, both of which use germinated brown-rice flour instead of wheat.) “Everybody thought brown rice made poor desserts,” says the master chef. “They thought it too coarse, but that’s wrong.”
The trick is to mill the rice far finer than usual. Traditional brown-rice flour is milled to around 80 microns. Nonaga asked local millers Tierra Madre to mill it down to 10 microns. The finer flour turned out to be perfect for desserts, producing high-quality chiffon cake, castellas and choux-cream puffs (with the rice flour used for both cream and puff).
Forget about grainy brown-rice health concessions: Nonaga’s desserts are top-of-the-range treats. They’re also lower in calories than regular desserts — and are packed with nutrition.
“Germinated brown rice has 20 times more GABA than white rice,” says Nonaga, referring to gamma- aminobutyric acid, an amino acid that helps control the central nervous system and regulates the growth of neural stem cells. GABA prevents nerve cells from overfiring and helps release sexual hormones.
In simpler words, GABA chills you out and turns you on.
Which takes us to beer. As you may know, beer is already quite good at boosting relaxation and coital urges. The impetus to create a brown-rice beer was more prosaic.
“I like making things,” explains Nonaga. “I just wanted a challenge. The cake was successful, so I wondered what else might work.”
The first hurdle in making brown-rice beer is that brewing rice usually produces nihonshu (sake). Nonaga wanted a beer, so he searched for a brewer willing to work with his idea. He found Shunya Nakai of the Virgo brewery in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward.
Over the course of six months, Nakai experimented with combinations of nihonshu- and beer-brewing techniques until he produced a successful brew with germinated brown rice. In the end, the color, carbonation and flavor all say beer — or rather happoshu (literally “sparkling spirits”), because less barley means less malt, which means the tax man doesn’t consider it a beer. The drink is light and fruity, with a head like bubble bath. It’s got the whiff of a white Belgian brew, though you can just about detect the rice.
It’s not a macho drink, and nobody is ever going to serve it at Super Bowl parties. Its delicate taste demands to be paired with delicate food. Such as kappo ryori.
“It definitely goes better with Japanese food (than regular beer),” says Nonaga. “Beer usually smells too much of barley; this is light and refreshing.”
It may also be better for the waistline. “It’s made partly from rice, so compared to a 100 percent wheat beer, it probably has fewer calories. But we’ve never measured it, so that’s just a guess,” says brewer Nakai.
Nonaga and Nakai aren’t the first people to produce rice beers. Ibaraki Prefecture’s Kiuchi brewery makes a decent red-rice beer, Niigata has its Koshihikari Echigo, and even (pick an insult) Bud Light contains a dollop of rice in its recipe. But Yukari’s GABA-loaded source ingredient makes this arguably the healthiest option — and the only one designed to be teamed with award-winning Japanese cuisine.
Nihonbashi Yukari’s beer launched in the spring of this year, and the best place to try one is in the restaurant of its creator, alongside the menu for which it was intended, in beer mugs also designed by the chef (as he said, he likes making things). But you can also buy cases directly from Virgo brewery to pair with your pizza and chips at home, because, as Plato also said, “There’s no harm in repeating a good thing.”