Japan is known for many things: anime, manga, sushi, sake, samurai, bushido, tamagotchi, onsens, whisky, and yes, beer. Until the last few years though, the Japanese beer scene was as dull, bland, and barren as ours was just a couple decades ago. Archaic laws stunted any desire and ability to craft brew on a small scale similar to here in the states. That is changing, and at a progressively faster pace. Just recently, Japan changed the minimum output a brewery had to produce to be legally recognized as a business. In the wake of and despite of, an outcry for good beer, for craft beer has fueled the growth of many artisanal breweries scattered throughout Japan. As with all things Japanese, imported and native, the rebellious and innovative Japanese craft brewers are drawing their inspiration from Europe and the West, all while retaining a unique Japanese personality when it comes to styles, tastes, and ingredients. This brings me to the Baird Brewery in Shizuoka, Japan and their Shizuoka Natsumikan Ale, aka Baird Summer Ale.
Even more uniquely Japanese is the fact that the Baird Brewery was formed by foreigners who, having fallen in love with Japan, naturally transplanted his love for good, craft beer along with his life. I’ve never had a Natsumikan ever in my whole life so I couldn’t tell you how it tastes; once more, the Japanese make an imported idea uniquely theirs. The Shizuoka Natsumikan Ale is a beer native to Japan which you will not be able to find anywhere else. That alone sends multiple layers of goosepimply excitement up and down my spine.
She poured a hazy, almost dirty straw into my glass. Little head or carbonation to speak of at the moment, but a few playful swirls produces an impressive white head. Still no lace though. Her appearance might be off-putting to some who rely too much on visual stimuli to formulate a pre-conclusive decision, but I am not such. At least, I try not to be. Her nose is tossed with mushrooms, oranges, moss, and damp leather while sour zest and lemon drops tease and tingle in the background. Further interesting players of sliced cucumber, mint leaves, buckwheat noodles, and dank, wet wood. Fascinatingly different, my curiosity has been piqued and my interest intrigued. This is a virgin beer voyage on many levels; multiple native Japanese ingredients that are foreign to one such as myself are evident in her nose which I am sure applies to her palate, also. All of my beer geek senses are tingling. My first quaff is clean, light, and mild. Gentle waves of cucumber and mint leaves leave a tinge of dryness on top of my tongue while spruce and herbs continue to flesh out her developing palate. What I had thought was clean is still true, but simple, not hardly. Her palate is a double challenge also in that I am trying to place my finger on as many aromas and tastes as I can, even despite the fact that a good many of them I have never heard of, touched, smelled, or tasted. A subtle undercurrent of sour esters carries her palate past my tastebuds each time, though she doesn’t have a long, lingering presence at all. Besides being clean, her body is soft and earthy, resembling the buckwheat noodles, mushrooms, and oranges I smelled earlier. Wow. I could spend forever trying to break apart this fabulous beer, and never be able to get everything down. This is as foreign as a foreign beer can get. Placing my pen and pad down, I close my eyes to savor the last of my Baird Shizuoka Natsumikan Ale, and as I open them, for just a moment, I am in Japan.
I seriously cannot rave about this beer enough. It may be very hard to approach for a lot of people because it is just so different, but for me, that draws me ever closer. It’s not often I get to enjoy a beer that so expertly represents its people, its culture, and its passion, and yet, at one time, it was as foreign in Japan as sushi and sake were here in America. Truly, we are an international world, and Baird Brewing is pushing the borders with their Shizuoka Natsumikan Ale and others.