I don't really remember exactly how it came about, but I am pretty sure it was over a few beers. In Singapore everything seemed to happed over a few beers. My Friend Matt was always working on some scheme - this time he wanted to put on a beer festival. Not a completely unrealistic endeavour for him since he knew a fair bit about the business (after all he owned his own bar). And he needed a hand with this festival idea, so I said yes (because when your friend that owns a bar needs a hand - well, you should always say yes - undoubtedly somewhere along the line there will be free drinks to be had - or at least there should be).
This Festival would be the first BeerFest Asia ( http://www.beerfestasia.com/ ). Matt also wanted to put on a beer competition and, having done a few, I agree to help there as well. He got Charlie Guerrier to manage the competition and off we went. I helped them with the beer fest and competition for the next three years and in doing so got to know a bunch of great people, and this lead to an invitation to judge beers in New Zealand and then this year to Japan.
I had always wanted to visit Japan, but there had never been an opportunity. Sure, I had transited through the Narita airport and used their famous (and awesome) beer machine ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYxzHPYdwwI&NR=1&feature=fvwp & http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-axfcEwI5E&NR=1 ), but that doesn't really count as actually having visited Japan. So when Charlie called and said that Ryouji Oda was looking for beer judges and would I be iterested - I said "Yes. Oh, Hell yes !"
I had met several of the Japanese brewers at events over the years but I had not tasted many of their beers (most of their beers are not exported). The few that I had tried had been very good. Most had come from the Kiuchi Brewery, the makers of the Hitachino Nest beer and the delicious Nipponia ale ( http://www.kodawari.cc/ ) - the Kiuchi beers had all been very nice indeed. But one brewery does not represent the skill of the brewers for the whole country and so I did not know what to expect. I had read about the Japanese brewing scene over the years. I knew that their craft brewers (as New Zealand's) had gone through a similar initial boom and then bust as we had in the USA. Having worked in the nascent S.E. Asian craft beer market for the five years I presumed that it might be similar to that (albeit slightly more advanced due to its earlier start).
As is my way, upon arriving at a new locale I wandered about the neighborhood to get a feel for the lay of the land. Even on this early random reconnaissance I was surprised to find several interesting beer bars in area. This boded well for the rest of my stay. If there were several good (and unlisted) beer bars so close by, well there must be more (and hopefully even better one) further afield.
Right from the start I could see that judging beers in Japan was not going to be like judging beers in the USofA. For starters our hosts had our itineraries full - each evening we were being treated to a new (and exciting) beer venue. And each venue had some interesting foods to pair with the beer. And even thought the food might have been outside the range of what some of the judges found .... tasty - the beers we tried were very good.
The bent of the Japanese beers was less of extreme experimental (like one might find in the USA) and more on of the traditional European styles or (interestingly) focused on making a Japan-centric style of beer. A perfect example of this was the Nipponia beer made by Kuichi brewery. It uses Japan cultivated Sorachi Ace hops & locally grown Kaneko Golden Malt, and is aged (for a time I am told) in local Cedar wood. There were other examples of this variety of beer and it was nice to see Japanese brewers doing something unique to their region. (did I mention the beers tasted great too).
And then there was the food. Having spent five years in Singapore and S.E. Asia it is hard to make an impression on me when it comes to food, but the food we tried most definitely did that. There were (of course) some well done international dishes but what really impressed me was those dishes that were either traditional (I mean who doesn't love Octopus on a stick, cone sushi, fermented squid guts, or Wagu beef salad ? - http://www.flickr.com/photos/55592119@N00/6147211205/in/set-72157627546241305 ) or those dishes that were truly inventive combinations, ones that were a bend of Japanese and other cultural styles.
Also impressive was how much the bar staff and the owners were really interested in knowing and leaning more about beer and about what the Japanese beer scene was in comparison to where we were from.
(this blog post currently under construction - sorry for any inconvinience caused)
Points of interst
Ant N Bee:
Club Popeye with 70 beers on tap (at least 4 cask):
http://www.40beersontap.com/ & http://beeradvocate.com/beer/profile/3131
Golden Gai (only for real bar lovers - all others stay away - please):
Harvest Moon Brewery:
Japan Beer Times (both paper & online veresions are interesting):
Kiuchi Brewery and Sake Factory (great sake and fantastic Soba noodle house):
Tip Top Cave (awesome hidden bar in Roppongi):
Tower Beer Bar:
Pictured above: Brewer, Tatsu Aoki (owner of Popeye's) and Youichi Kiuchi (owner of Kiuchi Brewery)
brewer's Japan pictures: