September 20, 2007 Written by MartinT
Montreal, CANADA -
I never thought we would find ourselves at the receiving end of such a string of magnanimous acts. I had heard of the legendary serviceability of the Japanese, but I had no idea it could reach such levels. You be the judge: we were walking in a park one day when a thunderstorm erupted. I took my umbrella out and noticed it had a broken spoke. A few minutes later, a man saw me, worriedly pointed at my umbrella, and proceeded to offer me his. In the pouring rain. A few days later, we were typing away at a computer in our minshuku’s living room. The owner brought us free pieces of musk melon, a luxury fruit usually sold for a few hundred yen a slice (!) at the market. Another day, walking home from an onsen in the rain, an elderly couple stopped by in their car and offered us a ride. There was no way for us to communicate with my more-than-rudimentary Japanese, but they insisted on taking us back to our lodge. We got there. One morning, before leaving our minshuku to catch a train, the owner of the place stopped us in the threshold with our backpacks to hand us a lunch bag. She had made sandwiches and given us cans of coffee because she didn’t want to us to be hungry on the road. Later on, stuck due to an approaching typhoon, a man nearly spent an hour with us, insisting on playing interpret with the train and bus attendants in order for us to find a way to get to our final destination. And then we met Satoshi Niwa, master brewer of Hakusekikan Beer.
Contact had been made through my excellent liaison officer Tim Eustace (another paragon of generosity), who was able to retrieve Niwa’s phone number through contacts at Popeye’s. A few phone calls later, I was expected at Hakusekikan for a most memorable afternoon tour, the first ever gaijin to have the chance to visit the brewery with its master brewer; as if this day needed to get more special.
Getting to Hakusekikan Brewery itself is a daunting task though for the non-Japanese speaker. The closest train station is Ena, on the Nagoya line.
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From there (already pretty much in the middle of nowhere), you have to take a bus to Hirukawa village. Then, you must find your way through rural roads to the Stone Iwamoto geological theme park, hidden in the woods.
But of course, Toshi (as Niwa-san likes to be called) had to pick us up at Ena station. He even stopped at vantage points along the way for us to breathe in the scenery, brought slippers for us to wear in the brewery (of course), and glasses for the tasting. Gave us numerous samples of aged and fresh brews, still fermenting and from lagering tanks. Took us to lunch at the brewery restaurant for an absolutely exquisite meal the likes of which we had not even seen so far on our trip. And drove us back to the station completely inebriated by a mix of utter bliss and potent brews. Had we not had to grab a train right then and there, we’d probably still be at Ena station, dazed and grinning. The thing is, Toshi Niwa’s beers are as stunning as his generosity: overwhelming in every way. Here’s what he put us through:
His Golden Ale (5%) was a fine starter in which the floral and citrusy hop perfume of Styrian Goldings leaned towards a wooden character once it hit the tastebuds, a flirty presence balanced by straw-like crisp pale maltiness.
His Pale Ale (5%), with its elegant citrusy, leafy hopping levelled by fruity caramel maltiness, thrived in a luscious mouthfeel. Neither American, nor English, this Pale Ale has a mind of its own which you want to explore further after every sip. Styrian Goldings are used as aroma hops in this one as well, and the Cascade bittering is pleasant and not overdone.
And then came the brews which are going to make Satoshi Niwa a household name on the world craft beer scene (or so I hope). Shizen Bakushu (5%) is a wild wheat ale brewed with a yeast strain collected from the air around the brewery. The doughy yeast, banana bread allusions and flower petals all unite to form a dreamy, warped session ale building visions of flower shops, bakeries, and pastry shops opening up a few doors down from each other. The wild sparks in this one are well-contained in the doughiness, lending plenty of finishing bitterness. One of Toshi’s treasures.
Tennenhachimitsukoubou Shizen Bakushu (5%) is another wild ale, this one fermented with wild honey yeast. The intrinsic floral character of the wild honey yeast works wonders with the various citrusy pale fruit engendered by the hop bite. Lately, a version with “ume” (tart plums) was brought to Popeye’s in Tokyo. Exceedingly drinkable and charmingly unique, this one is also bottled, thank goodness.
Dual Porter (6%) is yet another eccentric number, this time brewed with both wild honey yeast and red wine yeast. The underlying fruitiness of grapes grapples with the caramel maltiness while the roastiness is as light as can be for a Porter. This is the perfect pint to down while you slowly burn your BJCP style book. The lagering tank version at the brewery possessed a creamy natural carbonation which the tap version at Popeye’s did not have. At the brewery, the wild honey yeast came out splendidly, and the body was rounder, every flavor melding into a beautifully unique dessert Porter.
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And now for the big boys. Crystal Ale (12%) is a serious golden ale fermented with French white wine yeast. Its fruitiness is ripe with classy white grape and pear notes, and the apt Fuggles bittering dances off the prickly carbonation in a show of great balance and warming alcohol festivities. And the soul warming continues...
Still in the lagering tanks, we were then offered some of Toshi’s prized Super Vintage Ale. Vintage 2000, mind you. This idiosyncratic mammoth (14.3%) manages to unify port wine, caramel and the sweet soy of sembei crackers into a piece of still sipping art which resembles no Barley Wine known to this man. Fermented with red wine yeast, Toshi tries to brew it every two years or so, but to this day the latest vintage to have been released is this 2000 version. Perhaps his pièce de résistance.
Then, well on the way to reeling, we indulged in Hurricane (15%), a mead-cum-Barley Wine which successfully melds honey flavors to those of a caramelized port wine, finishing into a sweet prune fruitiness. This is another headless, fizzless Hakusekikan sipper when on tap at Popeye’s or Ushitora in Tokyo, yet the generous sample received from the lagering tank was filled with creamy carbonation. Toshi uses a wild yeast he obtains from Kyushu honey for this one as well. A 2005 version is breathing in the brewery’s lagering tanks as we speak, while the 2003 version still entertains Tokyo ji-biru lovers. This one hasn’t been bottled though.
Speaking of Popeye’s, Toshi sends a few more special brews there he doesn’t bottle. You cannot have any Hakusekikan beer on tap at the Bacchus Café in Hirukawa anyway, so unless Toshi is with you, Popeye’s is definitely your best chance at trying these beers from a different vessel than the bottle.
The first one you must try is a veritable masterpiece: an 8-year-old, 8% abv Brown Ale. Within it, the symbiotic relationship of hazelnuts, honey, black grapes and creamy caramel is showcased and knows how to boggle the senses and soothe the soul all at once. The aroma on this one alone could entertain you for hours. A polished diamond, this certainly is.
This summer also saw Niwa Weizen, an off-the-wall wheat beer which does not set its foundations into any known style (surprised?), and aims to conquer you with its sweet apple fruitiness, honeyed maltiness, and enlightening tartness.
For special occasions, Toshi also sends Popeye’s eisbock versions of his Crystal Ale and Super Vintage Ale, which have been known to dally around the 25% to 28% abv mark. A recently passed bill might prohibit him to do so in the future though, as the Japanese government has decided to clamp down on the brewing of any beer over 20%. Toshi might very well be the only brewer affected...
If you know where to look in Tokyo, you might also find bottles of Hakusekikan’s 2001 Vintage Ale (9%), another highly impressive Barley Wine from Toshi. The spectacular offspring of this masterful grain bill should succeed in dazzling the malt lover with its chocolatey plums, caramel raisins and noble vinosity, all in the most comfortably rich mouthfeel. They have long run out of this one at the brewery gift shop in Hirukawa, so let’s hope Toshi’s brewed more recently.
How in the world is Toshi able to brew all of these enormously creative beers and age them for so long in lagering tanks, you ask? The fact he has 18 of those tanks to play with has to help.
Add to that the fact he only needs to brew two or three times a month, and the picture gets clearer. But his expansive playground is surely not the sole reason he can seduce taste buds. His passion for this craft, his studious and meticulous nature, his sense of adventure and his courage to cross brewing boundaries all serve this indubitable talent which stands out like a beaming beacon in the ji-biru scene. And he just happens to be an amazingly humble, generous man. Hopefully, this fridge full of Hakusekikan beers will one day be found outside of Japan so more people can revel in his liquid art.