May 1, 2009
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on May 2009
As we approach the 15th anniversary of microbrewing in Japan, there are now about 250 small breweries throughout the country. While many are run by local governments in “third-sector” arrangements with businesses as a means of revitalizing stagnant economies, a smaller number are operated by startup enthusiasts who simply believe that what Japan needs is better beer.
Not much argument there, particularly in light of happoshu low-malt beers nearly overtaking sales of real beer because of the lower taxes imposed on them. Recently, even happoshu has been given a run for its money by totally fake brews made with cheap spirits and bean protein, then gussied up with all manner of artificial flavorings, aroma essences and color shadings. These new “Frankenbeers,” for want of a better name, are in a yet lower tax bracket, and sell for even less.
With the exception of the broadening line of Yebisu Beers from Sapporo and Malt’s Super Premium from Suntory, it seems that real top-quality beer has been retreating to hidden pockets in the countryside, to be concocted slowly and carefully by small artisan-style breweries.
Fortunately, a few of these have opened establishments in Tokyo where you can enjoy their deeper flavors and more complex aromas, accompanied by regional cooking. One of the best examples has been created in Ginza by Swan Lake Beer of Agano City, not too far from Niigata. Their shop is named Kura-rin, after the massive yet elegantly traditional Japanese structure on the grounds of the brewery.
While the original establishment is a Meiji-era monument to local food (now nicknamed “Niigata Japanesque”), its Ginza namesake is a far smaller place that retains many of the same design features. You can also be assured that the beer—and food—are every bit as good.
The varieties of beer served at Ginza Kura-rin can vary with the season, though some are always on hand, such as the Golden Ale, Amber Ale and Koshihikari Beer, a special lager brewed partly with the top-grade table rice of the same name. During the colder months, Swan Lake Barley Wine presents an interesting challenge, its tangy, heavy body graced with an 8 percent alcohol content.
If you can get through the rest of the drink menu without ordering some Italian or French wine, or a bottle of Pommery champagne, you’ll be very well positioned to try some of Niigata’s best sake. Most are served chilled, but a few are available warmed. Ask your server for suggestions.
Prix fixe dinners range from ¥6,000 to ¥12,000, in neat ¥2,000 steps, but I recommend slowing down and ordering from the à la carte shokuji menu instead. The beer itself is rich and filling, and would likely prevent you from enjoying a more involved meal anyway. Pick a dish of tofu or yuba, the solidified “skin” of soymilk, perhaps one or two fish dishes prepared in a variety of ways, then some pork or free-range chicken, followed by a salad and a rice dish. Everything here is of impressive quality, with great care taken in preparation.
Kura-rin does a fantastic job of bringing you the best Japanese food from the west coast of the country, while adding the appeal of high-quality microbrewed ales. Most, I’m sure, will find this an ideal combination.
B1, 7-16-21 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-5148-2333. Open weekdays from 5-10:30pm (LO), Sat 5-9pm (LO), closed Sun. See http://tinyurl.com/kura-rin for more info (Japanese).
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