Carrying my beer and chocolate dog and pony show to Tokyo presented quite a challenge. First, there was an entirely different set of brews in Japan and the available chocolates were not necessarily those with which I was familiar. Moreover, the Japanese don’t have quite the depth of interest in either chocolate or the varieties of craft beer found here. I wondered about the audience and their receptiveness.
Popeye's owner, Tatsuo Aoki, told us that in the mid-1990s his bar was doing just so-so until he added ji-beer and Belgian beers to his menu. That's when things turned around for him.
The Tokyo tasting was a small affair managed by my friend, Bryan Harrell, a writer living in that city (www.bento.com/brews.html), with and for the benefit of his beer enthusiast friends. There were two of these groups. The Tokyo Good Beer Club is a consumer group (www.goodbeerclub.org) composed of Japanese beer enthusiasts and homebrewers with just a few foreign residents (all of whom spoke Japanese fairly well). Most of the Japanese present spoke some English. Although Harrell translated for me, I had no trouble communicating with most of them. There was also the Tokyo Beer Research Club (mostly Japanese), a group with a much greater knowledge of beer than the first. There were 30 participants, including 5 women.
Bakushu Club Popeye
This is Japan’s best beer pub. They have 40 beers on tap―23 of them ji-beer (or ji-biiru, Japanese craft beer) of the approximately 250 craft beers in Japan, plus Asahi Stout and two on cask! That’s an impressive selection for such a small place. Prices average Y935 for a standard US pint (about $8.40). There’s also Rogue’s Brutal Bitter, Shakespeare Stout and Old Crustacean Barleywine; Hair of the Dog Fred and Ruth (USA); Erdinger Hefe-Weizen, Jever Pils, Kostrizer Schwartz (Germany); Abbot Ale (United Kingdom); Hoegaarden White (Belgium); and Murphy’s Stout (Ireland). Popeye’s owner, Tatsuo Aoki, told us that in the mid-1990s his bar was doing just so-so until he added ji-beer and Belgian beers to his menu. That’s when things turned around for him.
A couple of months earlier, I had sent Harrell a list of beer styles and chocolate types I would need. To save money, we limited ourselves to seven combinations, still an expensive list by any standard. Harrell had the “Rules of Chocolate” translated into Japanese for the occasion, and they were very well received.
I went to Popeye’s the night before to meet with Harrell and firm out details with Mr. Aoki. The tastings were 150 milliliters, or 5 ounces, in size.
Beer and Chocolate Pairings
1. Swan Lake Amber Ale, tap, from Niigata prefecture. Amber color with a solid malt body; minimal bitterness; good, thick ivory head. 5 percent ABV, and an excellent beer by any standard.
Chocolate: Hershey’s commercial chocolate chip cookie, dry and of poor quality. It’s too bad we couldn’t get homemade.
2. Newly introduced Sapporo Yebisu Black Beer, bottle, a national. This is a wonderful schwartzbier with layers of complexity; an excellent, well-made beer, although not strictly a ji-beer.
Chocolate: Homemade chocolate brownie, a la Betty Crocker, by Bryan Harrell. Another good combination.
3. Baird Red Rose Amber Ale, bottle, Shizuoka-ken. Original Gravity 1054, 5.4 percent ABV. This original amber ale is inspired by the ìsteam,î or California common beer style. Whereas a steam is a lager beer fermented at an elevated, ale-type temperature, Red Rose is an ale fermented at a lower, lager-type temperature. Like a steam, Red Rose combines a crisp lager freshness with a robust ale fruitiness. You can read what Bryan Baird, the brewer, says about it (in English) at http://www.bairdbeer.com/html/year-round-beers.html. Baird’s beers are superb, even by Oregon standards, and are currently the best in Japan. Quality is very consistent.
Chocolate: Belgian Cote d’Or Guandara Hazelnut Chocolate, an excellent combination.
4. Belle-Vue Kriek, tap, Belgium. 5 percent ABV; a tad sweet, but a good match for the chocolate.
Chocolate: Swiss Lindt cherry filled.
5. Hakusekikan Hurricane, tap. This is a huge beer, 15 percent alcohol, lots of body with a fair bit of sourness and a very Belgian character.
Chocolate: Miniature Milky Way Bars (chocolate malt fondant). This beer would have been great with a rich chocolate mousse, or even a Texas Chocolate Sin Cake.
6. Hair of the Dog Fred, tap, Oregon. 10.5 percent ABV.
Chocolate: Pepper fudge made from my recipe by Harrell, with Belgian Cote d’Or dark chocolate and Pasilla chile; very delicate with very mild heat. Charming, an especially delicious combination.
7. Rochefort 10, tap, Belgium. 11.3 percent ABV. This was the chocolate tasting’s grand finale―the ice cream float.
Ice cream: Godiva White Chocolate. We served the beer, a bite of Harrell’s brownie, and a scoop of ice cream, all separate. We let them experiment with the possibilities while I told them the story of the stout float.
We served a total of 900 milliliters of beer. All of the combinations were well received by an enthusiastic group. We spent the rest of the afternoon sampling other ji-beers and Mr. Aoki’s wonderful gourmet izakaya snacks.
The groups were great to work with, and they rewarded me (I was there just for the fun of it) with a modest honorarium and two milk chocolate art works: one, an 8.5 by 11 inch bas-relief of the nearby national sumo stadium, the Ryoogoku Kokugikan, and a smaller one featuring the entrance of that grand edifice. Both were accidentally broken on my trip home but remained delicious for immediate consumption.
Just for the reader’s edification, there is a very good mix of Belgian ales available in Tokyo. In fact, I had participated, two days earlier, in a great Belgian saison tasting at another fine bar, Bois Cereste, where we sampled some six superb saisons, each accompanied by Japanese pub snacks, by themselves worth the price of admission. This under the astute guidance of the proprietor, Masaharu Yamada, an expert in this type of beer.