asazuke

Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Belgian happoshu? 22 July, 2016

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 5:47 pm
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Breaking a long cyber silence here to celebrate Nagoya’s early exit from the “Tsuyu” rainy season with a post on one of my favourite topics – beer. “Happoshu” – a sort of imitation beer which uses low quantities of malt to get a lower tax rate – has been with us for some years now, followed by “third type” beers which get the tax bracket even lower. At first they were pretty disgusting with all kinds of weird aftertastes, but the clever brewing companies have been polishing their techniques and now some of these cheap “third beers” are actually sort-of OK. Some people who have been forced to switch from real beer by their falling incomes (even under Abenomics) have started to prefer them to beer! I wouldn’t go that far at all, but get it well chilled in the fridge and some of these “third beers” can be enjoyable enough on a hot summer evening.

crystalbelg

Sapporo beer have been working hard on this, with Suntory and Kirin close behind (I don’t like Asahi), and “Mugi to Hoppu” is still my favourite, but back in 2014 they came out with something called “White Belg”. Someone had obviously twigged that those delicious Belgian beers contain a lot of things other than malt and hops, and might not pass the Japanese malt percentage bar either. White Belg is a copy of the Belgian white beers, like Hoegaarden White, and along with added wheat is flavoured with orange peel and coriander seeds. It really isn’t too bad – a little bit sweet maybe, but quite refreshing. Since then they came out with “Gold Belg” and “Brown Belg” which were pretty good too, each in their own way, but limited issues which disappeared as soon as you found them.

The latest one is called “Crystal Belg”, which I found by chance in a supermarket last week. It’s inspired by the Belgian “saison” style – a summer brew, a little lower in alcohol and with a delicious hoppy aroma. This might be the best of all, and I liked it enough to go back to that supermarket to buy a case of it. No luck. Sold out, and no plans to get in any more, apparently. Hmm.

Anyway, this one’s got a great flowery start, light body and a clean finish that… Just a minute! We’re not talking about some special craft beer here, this is one-hundred-yen-a-can “third beer”. If you see one on a shelf please try it. If like me you have looked everywhere and still can’t find any, you might look on the internet. I was able to order a case via Amazon which came yesterday. Happy ending.

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British Beer 13 July, 2012

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 2:44 pm
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T and I were in Heathrow terminal 4 last year waiting for our flight back to Japan and found a plastic “pub” in a corner of the departure area. On the menu was a beer called “Fuller’s London Pride”, which I’d vaguely heard of, so we had a couple of pints. It turned out to be very nice, amazingly for an airport, Heathrow especially.

So, when, with all the London Olympics thing going on (though I gather they’re taking it all pretty low-key over there), our wine merchant sent us a list of British beers from one of their importers I recognized that Fuller’s London Pride right away. Hmm, so this year instead of cheap lager on Thursdays we decided to do a  British Beer Fair every day to mark the Historic Event. We stocked a dozen varieties for the duration and are selling them at no-profit prices just to turn people on to the wonderful world of British Beer … and maybe entice a few new customers into Raffles …

When they arrived, a look at the cases suggested they might have come via some wholesaler in the USA – a long journey round the world to Exotic Japan, but on opening a bottle I was pleasantly surprised. And the next bottle… Most of these beers are from either Fuller’s in London or Wychwood in Oxfordshire and they’re all delicious. Really. I’ve been a fan of Belgian beer for some time, and didn’t really expect anything from the UK to be able to compete, but most of these top-fermented ales could stand up there.

Maybe after the fair’s over we’ll keep on one or two on our regular menu – at a more regular price though. I’m sure you’ll understand.

Cheers!

 

The Third Beer 31 May, 2012

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 1:49 pm
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Taxes. Unavoidable of course, and liable to change people’s lives. Fewer windows, less lung disease… Land tax in Japanese cities is high, with the result that empty lots are quickly put to some useful economic purpose to pay the tax. On the other hand, beautiful Japanese-style houses are knocked down because their owners could no longer afford to live in them.

Spirits like whisky and shochu are relatively low-taxed, so there’s not much reason to buy anything in the duty-free shops on your way here; beer, however, is hit with something like 45% tax! It used to be luxury item, for the snooty westernized Japanese who didn’t want to drink sake or shochu. Postwar, everyone started drinking beer, but the government, addicted to that nice 45% revenue, aren’t going to lower it any time soon. There are more oddities in the messy Japanese liquor tax system. The level of tax on beer is determined by its malt content. Under 67%, and it has to be called “happoshu“, not beer, but as compensation the tax rate is only 35% or so. Happoshu tastes vaguely like beer, but it’s pretty anaemic stuff, not really worth putting up with for the ¥15 you save over the price of a real can of beer. Even so, in these hard times pseudo-beers have been selling quite well, especially since the beer manufacturers discovered yet another tax category: this is for those “alcopops” that have been popular in the West, just flavoured water with some distilled alcohol added, and much lower taxed even than happoshu.

These so-called “third beers” were flavoured with anything the maker could come up with – soy beans, seaweed, or if you were lucky a very weak happoshu – dosed with some extra hops and a dash of cheap industrial alcohol to bring the strength up to the usual 5% or so. They tasted about as horrible as they sound, but cost about half what real beer did – maybe ¥2400 for a case of 24 350ml cans. Every month or so a new brand came out, each tasting as vile as the last, but the market shifted down from beer to happoshu, and finally the only sector where sales were holding up was that Third Beer stuff.

OK now the (sort of) good news. Over the years, those beer companies’ R&D departments have been hard at work, and the latest varieties of beeroids are very slightly less disgusting than they used to be. A couple of years ago Sapporo had a happoshu called “Sugomi” which wasn’t bad at all; it was soon dropped for some reason, but now they’ve got a Third Beer called “Mugi to Hoppu” (麦とホップ) which I’d have to admit isn’t really too bad. Mugi to Hoppu BlackThe name means “wheat/barley and hops” and somehow they’ve managed to concoct this stuff only from those ingredients without going into a beer tax bracket. It seems as if they brew a low-grade happoshu with a little bit of malt, boost the taste with some unmalted barley or wheat, add more hop flavour and some alcohol which has been distilled from wheat or barley (the two words are the same in Japanese). Put it in the fridge for a while, and amazingly it’s not too bad, especially on a hot summer day. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d rather drink real beer any time, preferably a craft beer from one of the local microbreweries, but at ¥100 a can this will do for a quick one after work. Last winter a “black” version came out which is even harder to distinguish from some kinds of black beer. If you don’t want to work your way through every variety of beer-like beverage in the supermarket, check this one out. (Sapporo haven’t yet paid me anything for writing this, but of course donations are welcome…)

Now the recent sales of beery things have been generally pretty poor in fact. Young people are abandoning beer in favour of sweeter “cocktails” and those alcopops which might have inspired the Third Beers. Actually, young people are abandoning alcohol in general, believe it or not. Instead of going for a quick one with the gang from the office after work, they go straight home and… do whatever it is they do… The single beverage category whose sales are booming is non-alcoholic beer. Seriously.

The country is going to the dogs.

 

Kitemiteya きてみてや 29 April, 2012

Filed under: city,food & drink,places — johnraff @ 1:40 am
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This is the kind of place that Japan excels at. Just a counter with room for 6~7 people, and a bit of tatami at the back with a couple more tables. One guy, Ina-chan, runs the whole place – serving drinks (though beers from the fridge are self-service) and the snacks that are obligatory when drinking in Japan – squid with spinach, noodle salad, mackerel stewed in soy sauce… and because Ina-chan’s from near Osaka you can also get good Kansai style okonomi-yaki (the negi-yaki’s especially good) and yaki-soba which will fill you up if you’re hungry. In Britain you’re lucky to get a couple of crisps or peanuts but here you can easily have your whole evening meal down at the pub if you want. There’s a kind of fuzzy area between eating out and drinking out which I thoroughly enjoy exploring.

Here at Kitemiteya anybody’s welcome, but most of the people at the counter are regulars, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll know somebody. Lately he’s taken to putting the TV on more often, to show off the shiny new wide-screen digital picture, and because he’s a Hanshin Tigers (baseball) fan, but Ina-chan’s got a music background and the sounds he puts on tend to be choice – usually some Japanese artist you’ve never heard of because they’re outside the music industry machine. Prices are really cheap too, especially the food which is generally in the ¥300~¥400 region. Add to all that the fact that it’s just a two-minute walk from where we live and you’ll see why Kitemiteya’s been our regular place for some years.

Musicians tend to drop in quite often, and the other day this guy we know brought in a friend who’d just finished playing a concert. He had this instrument case with him and asked if we’d like to hear a bit – well, sure, we said and he takes out this Mongolian horse-head fiddle thing and starts playing it. It sounds pretty good, and then he gets into this Mongolian “throat singing”. Gosh. I don’t know if you’ve heard any, but it’s very strange, a bit like playing a Jew’s harp with your voice. Till then I’d only heard it on CDs or the radio but at a distance of 1 metre it’s very impressive. I was ready for more, but it was getting late and we had to leave. I don’t know how often you’d get to hear Mongolian Throat Singing down at the local back in the UK.

When I came to Japan 36 years ago you’d be able to call Kitemiteya a typical Japanese bar, but it’s really not easy to make any sort of living doing this these days. People can no longer afford the sort of prices an owner would have to charge to make a proper living from it, and drink instead at chain pubs with food that comes out of factories. These little street-corner drinking places are becoming quite scarce, along with the local sushi-shops. Inachan just seems to get by somehow… anyway, long may he continue!

A few pics:

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An evening in the country 19 April, 2012

Filed under: countryside,food & drink,people — johnraff @ 1:32 am
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We had invited Yamada san over to our place for a drink, but, a couple of days before, he called up to suggest his place instead. It turned out to be a much better evening than the Cold Sake Debacle of last year.

We get there around 6 and he’s invited some friends over and started grilling some iwana one of them had taken from his pond. Yamada san’s got this great lean-to attached to his timber warehouse, with huge beams in the ceiling, traditional tools hanging on the walls and a big wood burning stove in the middle. He’s got plenty of timber offcuts and keeps the stove well stocked up so it’s toasty warm, even in summer… He says you have to keep the stove hot or it’ll rust. There’s nothing fancy about the place at all – we sit on an old saggy sofa while others have battered armchairs. ( The guy right next to the stove will be roasted in a while. ) Anyway, it’s a good place to drink beer, later wine and shochu (but not too much cold sake), while eating the grilled fish.

The food’s pretty good on the whole. We took something over and other people brought contributions, but later on we get the evening’s feature dish, “tori-meshi”. Meshi means rice, and tori means bird, usually chicken, so “yakitori” is grilled chicken on a stick and torimeshi is chicken rice. Anyway our torimeshi today isn’t chicken, it’s small birds that were caught that day (some of those cute little birds that were round our persimmon tree?), burnt to get the feathers off, chopped up, stewed in soy sauce then cooked with rice. The rice has little anonymous black bits and crunchy bone fragments in, but doesn’t taste too bad if you don’t think too much about it. Many years ago I once ordered “yakitori” in a railway station kiosk and, instead of the tasty chicken I was expecting, got some little birds – sparrows maybe – impaled on a skewer. Compared with that, this torimeshi is quite tasty in fact. After that we have the comparatively innocuous wild boar cooked in a pot with miso, leeks and Chinese cabbage. It’s not smelly or greasy at all – really good. I think some hunters nearby had just caught it.

The place warms up as Y pushes more wood into the stove with his foot. The guy in the Hot Seat has moved elsewhere. This isn’t a young crowd at all – I don’t think anyone here is under 50 – but the conversation is lively and interesting, including the 75-year-old in the corner. Yamada san himself is 72 but still working, eating, drinking, joking and generally enjoying life.

We return home around 11, happy after an excellent evening. It Was Real, as they say.

 

Japanese Junk food 31 March, 2012

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 1:31 am
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…is coming to a street corner somewhere near you, at least if you live in Asia. Yoshinoya beef bowl, Mos Burger, conveyor-belt sushi, Coco Ichi Ban curry and who knows what other shiny flourescent-lit plastic-panelled purveyors of inedible monosodium glutamate mixtures are all planning a major invasion of nearby Asian markets to make up for the dwindling enthusiasm among Japanese consumers for their factory-produced “food”. The irony is that while here this is stuff you scarf down quickly in your lunch half-hour, holding your nose, in Shanghai and Bangkok these are stylish places where the pampered daughters of the newly rich go to show off their new Louis Vuitton handbags. Not put off by prices four or five times higher than the much tastier local food, they go for the shiny shiny decor, squeaky cleanliness, obsequious manual-trained service and the exotic taste of the Japanese take on Junk Food.

The Japanese curry apparently came originally from Britain, so I feel some responsibility for the blandness and wheat-flour gloppiness, but when it got here they threw things like soy sauce and “kombu” stock into the mix, reduced the spices and meat content still further, and made it a favourite among elementary school children (they soon move on to grilled Kobe beef and the more expensive sushi). This stuff is now selling like hot cakes in Thailand of all places! If you’ve been there, or even if you haven’t, you’ll know they’ve got great curries in Thailand, redolent with all kinds of herbs and spices and spoon-meltingly hot, but those who can afford the ridiculous prices are now eating this Japanese imitation of English curry… (sigh)

While I’m all for Japanese companies making some money, so our customers can afford to come back, it’s hard to feel happy about all this. Ah well, maybe it’ll turn out to be a fad and an Asian version of the Slow Food movement will throw out the invaders. As the owner of an Asian Food restaurant I’m probably biased, but I think there’s some of the best food in the world in Southeast Asia, and certainly hope it survives.

 

Web Fishing 16 March, 2012

Filed under: food & drink,random — johnraff @ 2:25 pm
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Maybe where you live they’ve been doing this for years, but when I heard it on the radio a couple of days ago it seemed like a neat idea. To help get the Tohoku fishing industry going again, someone thought of taking webcams out on the boats. You can watch the fish actually being caught, put in your order via the internet right then and have them delivered the next day! Talk about instant gratification. Anyway I can imagine some of the more turned-on sushi shops really going for this.

 

 
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