Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA

Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA

Sierra Nevada is the brewery that probably gets most craft brewers hooked on the idea of American Pale Ale; there is no end to the pale imitators and delightful, almost flawless copies. Their India Pale Ale, the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA, will with any luck spawn another round of duplication.

Pours amber, the aroma is like releasing a depth charge in a pine forest. The flavour is hoppy to the point of being almost sticky like pine tar with a bitter, astringent finish, hops covering the 7.2% alcohol entirely. This is over-the-top American brewing, pushing as much floral hoppiness into beer as possible.

Kona Fire Rock Pale Ale

Kona Fire Rock Pale Ale

Kona Brewing Company calls this a “Hawaiian-style” pale ale rather than an American pale ale, the only differentiator being that Hawaiian style pale ales must display an active volcano on the label. This lava-filled terroir holds no influence over the beer itself. I don’t imagine that any of the ingredients grow anywhere near the island, but this is hardly an excuse to avoid drinking local. I imagine that hops are dropped in as part of a periodic resupply drop.

Pours copper with good lacing, not the most flowery of pale ales but strikes a fine balance between hops and malt. There’s not much complexity there, but who cares? Beer made on a tropical island is never close to this good.

ABV: 5.9%

Asahi Style Free: Happoshu and Beer of the Third Kind

Asahi Style Free

It is a strange quirk of history and economics that a nation’s taxation regimes change the beer that each country drinks. In the US, beer needs to contain at least 25% malted barley and so mass market brewers push the lower limit using rice, corn or anything else that can contain sugars and is cheaper than malted barley.

In taxation terms, Japan has three kinds of beer. Japanese booze blogger Jim from MoIpai outlines:

Regular beer which must contain at least 67% malt is taxed at the highest rate.

Happoshu (which means “Sparking Spirits” 発泡酒 in Japanese) contains less than 25% malt and is therefore taxed at a lower rate (which obviously means it’s cheaper to the customers).

There is a Third-Category “beer” called 第三のビール (Daisan no Biru) which basically doesn’t have any malt and is made from “other” ingredients (I believe corn, peas, soy, etc), which has an even cheaper tax rate.

Along with attempting to juggle a fickle drinking market, Japan’s brewers do so within a three tiered tax regime. Asahi Style Free is beer of the third kind, which is to say, that it is not beer. It’s tax-dodging beer simulacra for drinkers who primarily choose their brew by price. Asahi make the claim that this beer is zero sugar which they do by some sort of prestidigitation around what counts as “sugar” in this chart. It contains no part of some subset of sugar.

The beer is as expected – yes, it’s thin and watery, headless and virtually clear, with a metallic edge and the thinness that you get from brewing with rice rather than some other grain – you can’t confuse it with an actual beer but it is surprisingly refreshing.

Beer and Chocolate: Sapporo x Royce Chocolat Brewery Bitter

Sapporo x Royce Chocolat  Brewery Bitter

This limited release from Sapporo and apostrophe’d Japanese confectioner Royce’ is a strange Belgian nightmare; multiple vices backsliding into a brown can of depravity. Hops bitterness and cacao bitterness are perfect partners, malty and chocolate-y sublime and congruent combinations. Beer and chocolate works together.

But these two really don’t.

The pour is black with a quick-fading, soapy tan head. The taste is like stirring Nesquik through watered down Guinness. This would be a great place to start if you wanted to wean your kids off cola and straight onto stout. It’s sweet like candy rather than rich – the aroma of milk chocolate is there, but it doesn’t carry into anything more complex when imbibed. For a beer that weighs in at 5% alcohol by volume, the booze flavour seems to be front and centre – maybe the chocolate brings it forward?

I’m not at all against a novelty beer and Japan seems to do a good job of filling every drinking niche with unnecessarily innovative liquids. The wonderful flexibility in brewing is that if you want your beer to taste like juniper or coriander or in this case, chocolate, you can just dump it in and see what happens. The style guide can be prescriptive (if you happen to be a brewer that is driven to win awards) but the reward in any brewing should be in the drinking.

Royce’ other crossover product is chocolate coated potato chips. I’d serve them with this beer as a reminder that both ideas are an injustice to their constituent parts.

ABV: 5%

Price: Y264 from a 7-11.

Eating Japanese food like a complete jackass

Katsu curry don at Narita International Airport
Katsu kari don at Narita International Airport.

I cobbled together the last few yen on my Suica transit card and a fistful of hundred yen coins to buy the above breaded pork cutlet in sweet and acidic curry gravy, washed down with a bland as a mountain stream lager. I could have taken a parting shot at some more serious sushi or a last ball of octopus fritter at the airport lounge takoyaki bar but I didn’t.

I’m a bad food tourist. I eat Japanese food like a complete jackass.

Despite the public display of nothing but food on my photostream, the trip to Japan was more about catching up with close friends rather than having a forced and micromanaged eating experience. The only solid food plan was to visit and eat a sticky pancake in an all-you-can-drink setting.

When I started researching my trip to Japan, it scared the hell out of me. I’m not the best on-the-beaten-path food tourist and am at my happiest when I find food at what approaches pure randomness. I take tips on board and metastasize them into queer tumors of culinary knowledge; a lingering feeling that I should be seeking out a certain food in a certain suburb or town rather than a beeline to the top restaurant.

Chowhound has a wealth of sample itineraries for Tokyo from people who are clavicle deep in the know, but they err towards foodie accord on what constitutes the best experience; a consensual Japanese-American hallucination as to what makes capital-A authentic Tokyo dining. It is all about canonising the perfect slice of toro from Tsukiji followed by a Edo-era duck sukiyaki rather than serendipitous finds and challenging what exactly constitutes modern Japanese food.

Making a giant tray of processed mayonnaise pasta salad at the Takishimaya food hall (depachika).

Deep down, Japanese food isn’t just about respecting the seasons. It’s about eating like a goddamned fool, the liberal application of the deep fryer and barbecue, about seeking out the newest edible novelty that the world has to offer and drinking deeply from the vending machine and convenience store beer fridge. While the department store basements might be packed with regional specialties, they too hold whatever cupcake happens to be trendy and the cheap, starchy deep fried foods that Westerners tend to eat only from an employee of a funfair.

There is a whole beautiful genre of Japanese food prepared for the sole purpose of eating while getting drunk to avoid the peak hour train crush. Omoide Yokochō, an alley that runs alongside Shinjuku station is devoted to it.


The streets around the station are heavy with yakitori barbecue smoke and beer crates. In the few hours after peak hour, it was nigh on impossible to get a seat even close to a grill. Fluorescent signs illuminate the beer special and battered material of the day.


In this case, deep-fried, battered chicken skin served with a wedge of lemon and sweet processed mayonnaise.


Potato, bacon and onion fried in butter.

Asahi Strong Off

Asahi Strong Off

I’ve noticed that one of the first beers that I drink in any country is the one whose advertisement I see first. The ads for Asahi Strong Off on the subway platforms around Tokyo depicts your average businessman with an expression on his face of either drunken jubilation or gaping in a rictus of groin-tearing pain. It’s more than a little bit off.

Strong Off is a beer that promises all of the boredom of a lager combined with all of the alcohol from a stout. According to the can, it has 60% less carbohydrates which accounts for the “off” portion, the “strong” from the 7% booze kick. It’s a beer that says you remain conscious about your waistline while attempting to drink yourself unconscious.

Asahi says (via the bewildering engine of Google Translate): “Alcohol 7%, 60% carbohydrate is achieved ※ off a new genre. Malt-based company ※ “liqueur (Sparkling) ①” ratio” (アルコール分7%、糖質60%オフ※を実現した新ジャンルです。※発泡酒をベースとした当社「リキュール(発泡性)①」比)

I say: My kanji skills only extend to about 5 characters but I would not be in any way surprised if one of them on the can said “malt liquor”. This is not really even close to beer, closer to a thin alcoholic soap.

Maybe people aren’t drinking it because it tastes like shit

There’s a short article over at The Age mapping the decline of the big Australian beers as a failure of their marketing. Their reason for the fall from grace of VB and Carlton:

Image is also one of the reasons why there has been strong growth in mainstream craft beers such as James Squire, Little Creatures and Matilda Bay.

”Boutique beers tend to be more expensive because it reflects the cost of production, and that tends to be associated with people with higher disposable income. So it’s a badge of wealth, status,” says Kirkegaard. ”But like a niche wine, it also shows a higher level of discernment.”

For The Age, how a beer tastes doesn’t seem to come into it. The failure of big beers in Australia may have less to do with them presenting a credible image of themselves than them presenting a product which does not taste good. Substituting in a faux import like Carlsberg or Heineken for a local trash pilsener because the former has a more positive image does not seem like a long term marketing strategy.

Matt Kirkegaard (quoted above) also blogs over at BeerMatt and even the most cursory read of his work will point out that he knows that there is more to beer than image alone.

Epic Armageddon IPA

If you were going to split beer enthusiasts into two broad churches, one would worship the malt and yeast characters in beers made by actual monks; the other would worship hops and flee to the New World, or more specifically, Portland, Oregon.

As for the site of Armageddon, neither party would have picked New Zealand, from whence this beer came. It is certainly the American, hop-filled vision of the end times rather than one imagined by Trappists.

Epic Armageddon IPA

Epic says: “In the beginning, there was nothing. Then an impish brewer piled a ludicrous amount of hops into a batch of beer. This zymurgical big bang is Epic Armageddon, an apocalyptic assault on your preconceptions and taste buds. It may be too huge for this fragile planet so enjoy this beer like it was the last one on Earth”

I say: Pours a orange-copper color. The aroma is hops, the flavour is hoppy to the point of being oily and resinous; pine forest and orange. No maltiness or any other character, just hops, which amply conceals the 6.66% alcohol punch. The finish is bitter. It’s unbalanced just like a good India pale ale should be.

ABV: 6.66%