For most of this trip to Japan, I’ve been happy to take things easy and make plans as I go. Hours of internet research at home simply can’t compare to asking the locals for recommendations.
However, there is one exception. When a beer geek sees a beer museum, they damn well go to that beer museum.
This isn’t actually the first time I’d come across Yebisu beer, though I hadn’t tasted any before. Fellow weeaboos will remember it appears briefly in a couple of scenes of the anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion: specifically in the hands of Misato, as she demolishes a fridge-full of the stuff.
Fortunately there’s more to Yebisu than just that: it’s one of the oldest beers in Japan, first brewed in 1890 using imported German brewing expertise. It caused quite a stir when it won a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Expo, and they’ve only increased delivery since. There’s now a selection of beers to choose from…or, if you’re like me, you sit down and taste as many as you can.
Premium Yebisu 5.0%
The flagship of the range, this is the beer Yebisu has brewed for over a century.
The Premium is a clear, golden lager with light carbonation. I’m pleasantly surprised by the amount of malt coming through on the nose, with hints of buttered corn.
There’s a very mild bitterness as it hits the tongue. Buttery smooth, with caramel malt and crusty bread, it’s more flavourful than I’d expected from a flagship lager. That malt lingers satisfyingly on the finish, or at least until I take the next sip.
Not my prefered style, but one of the best lagers I’ve had in Japan so far. 2/5
Kohaku Yebisu 5.5%
Amber, with a clear body and slightly livelier bubbles than the Premium. The aroma is richer than the flagship Yebisu but there’s less of it.
The palate is more interesting. It starts softly, with light caramel, but soon evolves into darker, toffee sweetness with the barest hint of smoke at the back end. Again, the mouthfeel is buttery smooth, with a caramel finish.
This is good. Definitely a summer beer, but one I’d come back to. 3/5
Premium Black 5.0%
This one’s a black lager, rather than a stout – that comes later. While black at first glance, it looks more like cola when held to the light, with a clear body.
There’s definitely coffee and charcoal notes on the nose, in addition to those malty aromas found in the Premium. In the mouth its weirdly smooth, and flavoured like 99% cocoa chocolate with charcoal. The chocolate flavours come forward as the beer warms up, with a lighter, sweeter finish.
It’s an interesting idea, but I get the impression the Premium Black is brewed for the colour more than the flavour. It’s not entirely clear what this beer is trying to be. 1/5
Premium Ale 5.5%
The main advantage of moving on from the tasting menu: bigger glasses.
This ale has a clear copper body and a full, cream head. The enormous volume of head is deliberate, it turns out: beer taps in Japan have two nozzles, one that pours beer and one that somehow deposits just froth, so bartenders can add the ideal proportions. I’d argue these proportions are far from ideal, but as we’re in the brewery itself I feel it’s best not to bring it up.
At last, we have some hop aroma! The labels proudly claim they’ve used Cascade here, so we know what to expect: wildflowers and orange. The flavour is a little more complex too. Lemon first, then evolving to orange, then bitterness that hangs around until the malt arrives to sweeten the palate. A little iron on the finish, which is more strange than unpleasant.
This feels like a halfway house between an amber ale and a lager. Sadly, it’s not especially good at being either. 2/5
Creamy Top Stout 5.0%
The top is, indeed, creamy. Well named.
Given this is meant to be a stout, I’m surprised again at how clear this is: like cold-brew coffee. It seems there’s no appetite for unfined beer in Japan?
There’s a lot going on with the aroma here: smoke, coffee, burnt chocolate. The palate is smokey again, but also slightly grainy. If there were such thing as smoked coffee (and I’m sure some hipsters have done it somewhere, probably Austin) I’d say it’s like that. It’s malty sweet, and not dissimilar a light version of Guinness. A pork bun in a glass, rather than a meat pie. 3/5