Our columnist explores the world of Japanese beers, thanks to Kirin.
KIRIN: a mythical chimera-like creature in Japanese folklore.
Ichiban: Number one in Japanese.
Put the two words together, and you get - no, not the number one mythical creature in Japan - but Kirin Brewery's number one beer.
In December, I was given the opportunity to visit the Kirin Brewery in Yokohama, Japan, where we witnessed first hand how the company makes its beers.
(The trip, organised by Kirin's Malaysian distributors Guinness Anchor Berhad, was part of a trade visit that also included the winners of a contest that got them a once-in-a-lifetime, all-expenses-paid trip to Tokyo, as well as Yokohama to visit the Kirin brewery.)
Being one of the major players in Japanese brewing history, Kirin has a long and rich history. It began life in 1885 as the Japan Brewery Company, taking over the Spring Valley Brewery in Yokohama that had been founded by Norwegian-American brewer William Copeland in 1869.
The first Kirin Beer ever produced was Kirin Lager in 1888, using malted grains and hops imported from Germany, and subsequently the Japan Brewery became the Kirin Brewery Company in 1907.
Today, the Kirin Brewery produces two of Japan's biggest beers: the original Kirin that was brewed in 1888, and Kirin Ichiban, a premium lager beer and the only one currently available in Malaysia. Besides their two top sellers, Kirin also makes beverages in the happoshu category (a low-alcohol, beer-flavoured malt beverage), of which Kirin Tanrei is the number one in the category; and Kirin Stout, which was launched in December.
Now, most visits to modern commercial breweries can be quite straightforward, but the Kirin Brewery in Yokohama was an eye-opener in more ways than one. I have visited many commercial breweries before, but this turned out to be one of the most pleasant ones I've been to. Maybe it was the friendly guides who walked you through the place, explaining the beer brewing process. Or maybe it was that homey smell of malted barley permeating the corridors. Or maybe it was the beers we got to try at the end of the tour, when we were educated on what makes Kirin beers so unique. There was a certain warmth about the place that made me feel right at home.
Later, we adjourned to the nearby Kirin Beer Village for lunch, along with a tasting of almost all the beers that the Kirin Brewery currently produces.
First up, was the company's flagship brew, Kirin Ichiban. Crisp and clean, with a good malty flavour and slight creaminess on the palate, it is a beer that is both refreshing and satisfying.
During the brewery tour, we learnt that Kirin Ichiban is made using a single-wort brewing process, using the finest two-row barley malt and European noble hops. Wort is the sugar-rich non-alcoholic liquid extracted out of the mash during the brewing process, before it is fermented into alcohol. The single wort brewing process, or "first press", means that the only the first extraction from the mash is used to make Kirin Ichiban.
During the brewery tour, we got to try both a first- and second-pressed wort side by side. While the second-pressed wort was watery with only slight hints of malt, the first-pressed wort sample was rich, sweet and had an almost sugarcane-like nose and flavour to it. As a result of this single wort process, Kirin Ichiban has a richer, maltier and more full-bodied flavour compared to most other 100 per cent malt lagers.
Compared to the Kirin Ichiban, the Kirin Lager, the company's bestselling beer domestically, seemed a little less polished, though it still had a slightly hoppier and more complex flavour compared to some of its rivals' drier styles.
The 5.5 per cent ABV Kirin Brau Meister German-style lager was a different matter, though, with a wonderfully complex rice, malt nose and tastes like a richer, fuller and maltier version of the Kirin Lager and the Ichiban.
With nice hints of chocolate and coffee on the nose and a smooth, balanced malty flavour, Kirin's latest new product is a decent entry into the dark beer category. One of my favourite beers from Kirin so far, it is only available in Japan currently, though here's hoping it makes its way to our shores in the future.
Kirin night out
During one of our nights out in Tokyo, we managed to pop by the Kirin City pub in the Shinjuku district, where we sampled some of the different ways Kirin beers are served in Japan.
Besides the usual Kirin beers on tap, there were also two unique ways in which the beers were served. One was a "Kirin Half And Half", which consists of half Kirin Stout and half Kirin Lager, which made for an interestingly flavourful yet refreshing drink.
Then there was the famous Kirin Ichiban Frozen Beer, which is made with a patented machine that creates a frozen foam head that has the texture of a smoothie. Sitting on top of the ice-cold beer like a lid, the frozen foam can actually maintain the cold temperature of the beer for up to half an hour.
Another interesting beer by Kirin we tried was not exactly made by Kirin, but rather, the Spring Valley Brewery. As mentioned, Kirin Brewery was originally a brewery called Spring Valley. In July 2014, Kirin announced that it was going to revive the Spring Valley Brewery brand, and produce microbrewery-style beers with traditional ingredients and brewing methods.
The Spring Valley Pilsner, in particular, was crisp and refreshing, and with a layer of complexity and maltiness, and sweet fruitiness at the tip of the tongue that set it apart from its more commercial Kirin cousins.
All in all, this was an interesting trip to Japan, as it really opened my eyes to the world of commercial Japanese beers, especially that of Kirin. Here's hoping that we'll be getting more of their other beers in Malaysia soon. Until then, I guess we'll just have to settle for something Ichiban!