LONDON – Japanese real ales made their debut at this year’s Great British Beer Festival in London.
Toshi Ishii, 38, a brewer from Nagano Prefecture, has been selling two of his most popular brands of real ale and the response from British connoisseurs has been favorable.
Last week was the first time Japanese ales have been featured at the five-day event. With more than 50,000 visitors, it is one of the biggest beer bashes in the world.
As well as British beers, the festival featured ales from around the world, especially from the Czech Republic and Germany.
Ishii said many visitors were surprised to see Japanese ales, coming from a country more associated with lager and sake.
Real ale is a term first coined in Britain in the 1970s. It means beer brewed from traditional ingredients — malted barley, hops water and yeast — and matured by secondary fermentation in the cask from which it is dispensed, often by a hand pump in a pub.
According to the Campaign for Real Ale, the organizer of the festival, the secondary fermentation in the cask allows for a natural and fresh taste. No carbon dioxide needs to be added, as it carbonates naturally.
These days, ale is mostly pasteurized and filtered or just filtered — after primary fermentation — and put into cans or kegs. Carbon dioxide has to be added artificially. Experts say this does not constitute real ale.
Real ale is fermented and stored at temperatures higher than those for lager. Ale-style beers can be broken down into various categories reflecting color and ingredients.
The most common form in Britain is “bitter,” which is generally brown in color.
Ishii first learned his craft in California and returned to Japan to work at Yo-Ho Brewing Co. in Saku, Nagano Prefecture, where he says he made Japan’s first real ale in 2002. He has also helped teach other brewers how to make real ale.
The two beers he tested out on the British audience were Yona Yona, which means “every night” and is a U.S.-style pale ale, and Tokyo Black, a porter, typically dark and bitter.
“I didn’t think that British people would like the pale ale because it has a strong hop character, but they did. Everybody also liked the porter, an ale generally more popular here anyway,” Ishii said.
His brew proved so popular that he exhausted his supplies on the first day of the event.
Ishii said that real ales are growing in popularity in Japan, and Tokyo held its first festival in 2003.
However, he feels that it is his mission to raise the profile of real ales in Japan, a country where lager is still the most popular type of beer.
According to Ishii, there are currently 10 small breweries in Japan making 18 brands of real ale for their local pubs and restaurants. Sales for real ale are modest and it is still seen very much as a drink for beer connoisseurs.
Ishii said real ales tend to be popular with young men willing to try something new, and those who have lived overseas and became accustomed to ale. He added that while a lot of Japanese drink Guinness, they don’t often think of it as an ale but an entirely unique drink.
British beer writer Michael Jackson, who has visited Japan on several occasions, said the country has a flourishing ale-producing scene, much of which is carried out in very small breweries.
“The Japanese have a wide variety of styles and have been innovative, by creating their own distinctive beers using sake yeast, for example. Britain tends to be more conservative,” Jackson said.