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Taste-testing a brew for the recession

by Nicholas Coldicott

There’s a good reason that beer-makers use barley as a base ingredient. Fermentation only works on sugars, and grains don’t contain any. But when a grain gets moist, it germinates, and its sprout contains an enzyme that converts starch into sugar. Some grains have tough husks, others sprout too meekly, but barley is the Goldilocks ingredient, just right for malting.

And just right for taxing. The government takes ¥77 from the sale of every 350-ml can of beer, which it defines as a brew fermented from at least 67-percent malted grains. Back in 1994, Suntory pioneered the tax-skirting quasi-beer market with a 65-percent malt brew called Hop’s Draft, categorized as happoshu (sparkling spirits), and Japan’s brewers and taxmen have been toying with each other ever since, hiking levies and lowering malt content.

Since 1996, the beeriest happoshu (50- to 67-percent malt) have been taxed as beer, which is why you won’t find many of them. All the action these days is at the other end of the spectrum, with dai-san (third segment) drinks that contain little or no malt. Last fall, sales of dai-san beer overtook those of happoshu for the first time, and figures released earlier this month showed that while overall sales for Japan’s brewers in February were 9.2 percent down on last year, dai-san shipments jumped 47.3 percent.

Are people turning to pseudo-beers because they cost around half the price of real beer or, as the brewers suggest, because technology and techniques have improved so much that the new drinks are genuinely tasty?

With Sapporo’s latest dai-san, Reisei, launching earlier this week, it seemed like a good time for a tasting party. I gathered a panel of Epicurean pundits and force-fed them a selection of beer approximations. The panel: Bryan Harrell publishes Brews News, an online newsletter about craft beer in Japan. Chris Phillips, maintains www.boozelist.blog spot.com , listing current tap beers at over 70 bars in Tokyo and Yokohama. Ayako Chujo is the alcohol-powered president of Eat Creative, whose official bio gives her motto as “Beer then wine (or vice versa) and you’ll be fine.” Tomoko Kono is a finance director who drinks a lot.

We dispensed with blind tasting as the pundits bore equal prejudice against all quasi-beers. It would be an exaggeration to say that the next 90 minutes transformed their beliefs.

Kono suggested that Suntory’s Kinmugi (dai-san, 5 percent alcohol, ¥139/350 ml) was “not too bad” and had more body than the other drinks; Harrell conceded that it had a thicker flavor. Everyone noted the superior aroma of Sapporo’s Mugi to Hop (dai-san, 5 percent, ¥139). Phillips opined that champagne was like a gassier version of Asahi’s Style Free (dai-san, 4 percent, ¥159), which he meant as a criticism, describing champagne as “unnecessary”.

Phillips also bestowed faint praise on Kirin’s Tanrei, the nation’s favorite happoshu (5.5 percent, ¥159), by declaring it nicer than Asahi Super Dry (beer, ¥215, a drink about which the late, great beer writer Michael Jackson once gushed, “It’s extremely difficult to make a beer [this] flavorless”).

More typical reactions included: “It’s sort of out of focus” (Harrell on Tanrei); “It tastes like regular beer after 40 minutes” (Chujo on Tanrei); “Feels like I’ve just woken up and need to brush my teeth” (Phillips on Reisei, a dai-san brewed from yellow-pea protein, 5 percent, ¥139); “It’s like chewing paper. It’s like they made beer but forgot to put the flavor in. If “Star Trek” made a machine that replicated beer but didn’t quite get it right, it would taste like this” (Phillips on Honnama, happoshu, 5.5 percent, ¥159). “Oooooh, that’s not nice.” (Kono on Style Free).

After a few rounds, the panel stopped commenting and switched to discussing why anyone would buy this crap.

“If you’re going to buy a six-pack of this, why not buy three beers instead?” wondered Harrell.

Chujo, who sends her employees on alcohol runs in office hours, suggested that perhaps people don’t know the difference.

“My staff always come back with a mix of beers and happoshu — they don’t recognize what’s what. I take the beer and leave them the happoshu,” she said.

Kono argued that some people, such as her mother, prefer the quasi-beers because they’re lighter. I should have invited people with more plebeian palates. So the following day, I did. A pair of prototypical Japanese ladies took the same taste test, this time blind and with a real beer added to the mix. The other panel: Mio Sakai, 35, who is currently job hunting, drinks happoshu every day, Asahi Super Dry on occasion and Corona at parties. Saori Kennedy, 35, runs a yoga studio, says “yogi shouldn’t drink, but I do,” and thinks Heineken is the best beer.

Sakai thought Sapporo’s Mugi to Hop might be Chimay. ‘It’s a bit heavy, with the smell of an Irish beer, like Guinness,” she said. Kennedy thought Suntory’s Kinmugi might be Chimay. “It’s fruity and sweet,” she said. Both enjoyed Asahi’s Honnama, with Sakai saying, “It’s my idea of beer,” and downing it in one gulp. Kennedy perceptively described it as “like Asahi but lighter.”

Sadly for Sapporo, the girls agreed that the new Reisei was awful. Kennedy immediately identified it as a fake beer. Sakai called it “boring” and opined that “there are lots of delicious happoshu recently, but not this one.” Joining Reisei at the bottom of the ladies’ list was Thailand’s Singha beer, which they described as heavy, thick and not really their thing. While the connoisseurs grudgingly admitted that Tanrei, Kinmugi and Mugi to Hop were the best of a bad bunch, the ladies enjoyed all but Reisei and Singha (support, perhaps, for Sapporo’s claim that their new brew is beerlike) and chose Asahi’s Style Free and Honnama as the cream of the crop.

One thing on which the brewers, connoisseurs and happoshu-loving ladies agreed is that the near-beers provide nodogoshi, or throat-tickling refreshment. I suggested that nodogoshi might be all people are looking for to clear their pipes after a hard day in the office.

“Nobody cares about that,” said Chujo.

“I still like beer,” said Harrell.

“Yes,” said the ladies.