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Tasting Kirin’s beer of many colors

by Melinda Joe

Morbid curiosity had prompted me to order a Two-Tone beer cocktail at the branch of Kirin Ichiban Shibori Garden in Tokyo’s Akasaka district. I had read, with no small measure of disbelief, that Tokyo’s latest summer beer fad was lager mixed with fruit juice or sweet syrup, and I had to see it with my own eyes. My mind struggled to grasp the concept of beer flavored with blueberry syrup, which according to one article in The Wall Street Journal has been a popular choice this year. Perhaps most staggering of all was the combination of beer and Calpis, the yogurt-flavored soda inspired by fermented yak’s milk from Mongolia.

Major beer makers such as Kirin and Asahi started churning out novelty brews a few years ago, in an effort to attract younger drinkers. One of the first products that had caught my attention was the Asahi Super Dry Extra Cold, a limited-edition summer item served at a chilly minus-2 degrees Celsius. I could understand its appeal, although I’ve never tried it. Later, Kirin took the idea to the next level with its Kirin Ichiban Shibori Frozen Draft, which comes capped with frosted foam shaped like a soft-serve ice cream. I sampled one at the beginning of summer and concluded that it was fine but rather gimmicky. The frozen foam, while cute, got in the way, and when the ice crystals melted in my mouth, it made the beer taste watery.

But fruity beer cocktails? That just seemed wrong.

When I arrived at the Kirin beer garden on a recent evening, however, most of the other guests were contentedly kicking back rounds of Two-Tones. Two young men dressed in yukata were having frosty-tops, but I only spotted a handful of people drinking plain draft beer, despite the lower price. Following the server’s suggestion, I ordered beer and a shot of pineapple juice, while my companion opted for beer flavored with acerola (a kind of tart berry from Central and South America).

Our drinks (¥650 each) came served with the fruit syrup in a small plastic cup and the beer in another, along with a yellow plastic sieve — through which we were instructed to pour the beer slowly in order to create the layered effect that forms part of the cocktail’s appeal. It worked for my friend’s drink, which resembled a watercolor painting of a Tequila Sunrise, but my beer with pineapple juice ended up looking like, well, pineapple juice.

That’s also exactly how it tasted. Though inoffensive, the flavor could best be described as “meh.” In both drinks, the beer was entirely undetectable — at first. After a couple of minutes, my drink had developed an acrid, metallic tang that grew in intensity as the temperature of the beer rose. What started out tasting like pineapple juice began to taste like canned pineapple juice, and then ultimately the can itself.

The experience left me with a craving for a real beer. We left our unfinished drinks on the table and headed straight to the new branch of DevilCraft in Hamamatsucho, where I ordered a pint of Kin-Oni Pale Ale Onidensetsu (¥1,000) from Noboribetsu City in Hokkaido. The beer was full-flavored and refreshing, with a touch of hops and fruity notes of apricot, berry and pineapple. We didn’t even have to add juice.

For more information, visit www.kirin.co.jp/brands/IS/frozen_garden and en.devilcraft.jp/about/hamamatsucho. Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.

  • VeryOldB

    Good read, Ms. Joe. Haven’t enjoyed a Tokyo beer garden in more than 25 summers, but involved in the retail trade in the US. Flavored “can’t taste the alcohol” in every category is the rage, first and foremost in vodka, now in whiskies and beers. But on the other side there are a growing number of people who can distinguish flavors of basic grains, degrees of malting, varieties of hops.