Streaming mineral water and weighty steam heat lull you into deep relaxation as you lower your bare self into one of the many thermal baths. Eyelids soon get elephantine, and you quickly lose sight. The echoes of wash basins resound all around as they are deposited on the marble-floored room. The only human sounds you hear are the spontaneous groans released by the soothed elderly and the pattering about of baby feet on water puddles. But flowing water inevitably regains its sound dominance and you sink even further. You almost forget you had to walk in naked amidst dozens of Japanese men a few moments ago. You are in one of the Japanese Alps’ many onsens, and taking it easy. You’ve come back from a fine brewery crawl; you certainly deserve it...
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This countryside brewery south of the Japanese Alps offers their beer on tap at two locations in Komagane: at the microbrewery itself, a little out of town, and at the brewery restaurant, right in the middle of town. Once you enter Komagane, you will find the microbrewery on the other side of the river, in a tree-covered industrial area. Although it only says “MARS Whisky” when turning into the parking lot, you will see the brewery sign and name near a side entrance at the far end of this lot. There you can visit the crystal clean Minamishinshu Brewery and sample some of their wares in the tasting room. These guys brew twice a week, using their 4 26hl brew tanks brought in from Oregon to capacity.
At this restaurant, you can have large meals (for Japanese standards) overlooking the mountains from the second floor sunroom or terrace. Minamishinshu beers are all served on tap here, of course. The Golden Ale and Ki No Sato Ale are the only two beers in their line-up which are filtered and pasteurized. This well-crafted, low gravity Golden Ale (4%) offers enough crunchy pale malts to dance with the citrusy and floral hoppiness; an entertaining combination of Saaz and Cascade which is done with skill. For those looking for a more discreet flavour profile, Ki no Sato Ale is a blond ale where shy straw and subtle citrusy, herbal hops definitely point at a watered down version of their regular Golden Ale recipe. This one won’t excite the taste buds too much.
Once you’ve gone through your starters, you are surely ready for headier brews. Their highly competent Amber Ale (4.5%), for example, boasts spicy orange fruitiness and devoted caramel maltiness in a joyous and quenching osmosis which ends in an apt resinous hop bitterness; Willamette and Cascade are judiciously used, but a little more bitterness would go a long way, we thought. Their full-bodied Christmas Ale is a free-spirited strong ale which presents plenty of toasted and caramel maltiness in a smooth integration nearly balanced out by supporting wooden hoppiness. The brewer told us he wanted to start aging this yearly creation for 5 to 10 years, but I’m not sure it can withstand such aging. I hope he proves me wrong.
Moving on, the Porter is a drinkable number where roasted malts and thin caramel brethren laxly meet and never agree on a common goal. Lightly tart and lean, it remains a decent dark ale, but it is overshadowed by its acolytes. Like the Dunkel Weizen for instance; here, plump earthiness and plum fruitiness slide along juicy banana esters. This rich and unique recipe of Minamishinshu’s might be their finest libation.
While in Komagane, why not make a short detour which will take you to a gorgeous old post hamlet on the Nakasendo Road, where samurais used to stop for replenishment and rest. Indeed, you will find a few old-fashioned ryokan in Magome where the smell of smoked ayu hugs the house’s blackened wooden beams and the deafening rush of canal water flowing downhill under the stone street betrays the otherwise silent evening. A quintessential experience of Old Japan:
If you do not have time for this outdoor museum where authentic gasshozukuri houses recall the country of yore in a forest setting, do know that you can still sample this brewery’s products in town in a few easily-found bars. The brewery even has a booth along the river at the Minagawa morning market, so if you wake up with an uncontrollable urge to have a weizen while you are sampling pickled mountain vegetables of all kinds, you will not be disappointed.
This brewery is an unpretentious family operation. Simple meals are offered at the brewpub, and all is served efficiently, with a smile. The beers we had were served frigid, so it took a while to get any aroma and flavour out of them. Eventually, the Alt’s moderate caramel maltiness disappointed in its lacks of certainty and complexity, and its tired grassy hops fell asleep before the sip ended; with this serving temperature and this thin a body, you could quickly tell that this beer was not trying to impress the craft beer lover. Moving on, their Kölsch was a clean and watery example which suggested honeyed cereal flavors and ever so discreet piney, citrusy hops in a frail and forgettable mouthfeel. There were no brewing faults to speak of, but both were too aqueous to really be appreciated. Norikura, the third beer available that day, is advertised as being brewed with 4 kinds of wheat; this frail Weizen’s feeble banana esters and watery, thin body were thankfully pervaded by citrusy wheat flavours, but this cleanly-brewed, soporific recipe was too much like their 2 other beers that day. Just not for us flavor seekers.
On a more positive note, these beers were some of the most inexpensive we had in the country: 700 yen for 3 200ml glasses! A cheap way to quench your thirst when walking up the hill to the Hida Folk Village, that’s for sure. If you haven’t had any of the eclectic Japanese ice cream flavours yet, don’t leave Kori Kori without trying the black bean or green tea varieties. They will be savoury preludes to the wild (and sometimes horrific) flavors you will find on Hokkaido...
Back in the old town, a leisurely stroll will easily take you past Takayama’s 6 sake breweries. Free samplings and bottle shops abound here, so you can easily make an afternoon out of it. You will need sustenance though if you choose to do so, so why not try a few sticks of goheimoshi or mitarashi dango from street stalls:
Or find a restaurant which cooks delicious hoba miso meals on a magnolia leaf; a Takayama specialty:
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Now after going through all these sake breweries and bottle shops, you’ve surely noticed beer bottles and cans which you hadn’t seen before. They are the creations of Hidatakayama Brewery, a microbrewery on the outskirts of town. Try them all; these are the quality craft beers you’d been hoping for at Kori Kori.
Hidatakayama Brewery bottles and cans can be found rather easily throughout the old town, but strangely enough this traveller wasn’t able to find a single tap outlet anywhere near. These bottles might be your only chances to sample Hidatakayama beers (unless you go to Popeye’s in Tokyo, of course), so grab on to them. You should find 500ml bottles for 720 yen each, and 330ml cans for 510 yen each. Kalumina, their house specialty, is 920 yen for 500ml.
You will quickly notice that these beers are often a few notches above those of the average ji-biru brewery. Their citrusy Hefeweizen, for instance, is a fine example of Hidatakayama’s propensity for quality, genuinely delighting with its banana esters, spicy hops and idiosyncratic yeastiness. Their Pilsener, on the other hand, counts on a herbaceous hop nobility to dignify the honeyed hay of its well-malted, balanced and fruity vehicle. Another fine quencher of a pint. In this category of sessionables, their Pale Ale was the only let down. Its frailness and few basic cereal flavors which accompanied the grassy hop presence were shy and lacked cohesion, at least compared to the previous two solid quaffers.
On the strong ale side of things, Hidatakayama offers two stalwarts. Their Stout (7%) is a frothy number which relies on its roasting molasses and black malt bitterness and dryness to pleasure the taste buds, and its effervescence to lighten the mouthfeel. Not an Imperial Stout at all, it should still satisfy your darkest ale desires for the time of a can. Karumina (10%) is the real showstopper. A dark Belgian-style strong ale which appears to be brewed with edible flowers. Once in your tulip, the tantalizing perfume of various flower gardens will wondrously blow atop the spicy, chocolatey Belgian character of this most unique strong ale creation, and submission should soon follow. This work of art can usually be found on tap at Popeye’s in Tokyo. One to remember them by.
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you will find a few old-fashioned ryokan in Magome where the smell of smoked ayu hugs the house’s blackened wooden beams and the deafening rush of canal water flowing downhill under the stone street betrays the otherwise silent evening.